Meditation on War

The Zen path to healing veterans' trauma

| August 31, 2006

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 the 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.'

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