Since soldiers returned from Vietnam, it has been clear that
some of the deepest wounds of combat are psychological. Coming home
to a land essentially unaffected by war complicates the already
disturbing effects of violent battle. Some one in six Iraq veterans
suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and,
as Joe Piasecki of the LA City Beat
reports , some of them are taking a different path to
healing: meditation. At a recent retreat at the Zen Center of
Los Angeles, Vietnam vet Claude Anshin Thomas taught fellow
veterans to confront their trauma by 'waking up to how we've
been affected' and applying full consciousness to the present
moment. 'What I'm attempting to do,' says Thomas, 'is create a
safe space where that information will start to become
accessible to them.'
There may be more at work here than a spiritual centering. In
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Dr.
Tana A. Grady-Weliky, an associate professor of psychiatry at
the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry,
explains some of the science behind meditative practice.
'Mindfulness meditation practice, in which one focuses on
'staying in the present' during meditation as well as other
activities, appears to play a role in positive mood and
attitude,' Grady-Weliky writes. 'Interestingly, imaging studies
of individuals during meditation show higher activity in the
left prefrontal cortex, which is the brain area associated with
positive mood and attitude.'
For some veterans, Grady-Weliky says, PTSD isn't a problem
because they have naturally high levels of resilience to stress.
Others may have been conditioned to deal with such stressors during
earlier life experiences. Since resilience is partly genetic and
partly environmental, one can enhance natural hardiness through
various methods, one of which is meditation.
It was the only thing that worked for Thomas who, Piasecki
points out, knows the mental fallout veterans face as well as
anyone. When he returned from Vietnam in 1967, Thomas was awarded
the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross, but memories of
horror left him feeling guilty and alienated, drove him to alcohol
and drugs, and eventually disintegrated his relationship with his
wife and son. In the late 1980s, Thomas discovered meditation, and
the practice enabled him to deal with difficult memories and
feelings. He became a Zen monk in 1995.
Despite Thomas' Buddhist ties, Piasecki writes, his retreats are
less about religion than mindful awareness of life, which helps the
vets and others accept and integrate their traumatic pasts. As
participant Jeff Key says, 'I had some reservations that it was
going to be proselytizing for Buddhism, but it's not about that.
It's about meditation and mindful living.' For the 40-year-old
Marine, it was practices as seemingly insignificant as eating 'with
a measure of reverence' that helped him 'deal with feelings of
anger and sadness about this war.'