Transforming the Wounds of War: A Veterans’ Retreat With Claude AnShin Thomas

2015.5.25.Bica.Lead.MainClaude AnShin Thomas speaking very personally about his experience of post-traumatic stress and the path of healing. (Photo: the Zaltho Foundation via Facebook)

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Not long ago, I received a Facebook “friend” request from Jean, an individual I had known in grammar school. It was nice to hear from her and that she was healthy and doing well. Over the subsequent weeks, we exchanged pleasantries, read each other’s posts and caught up somewhat with how our lives had progressed over the past 50 or so years.

The nostalgia was short-lived, however, as Jean rather quickly became concerned, perhaps annoyed is better, with my “preoccupation” with politics and social issues and the “fact” that my Facebook commentaries and analyses – “rants” she called them – were, in her opinion, “unpatriotic and downright anti-American.” She expressed what I took to be a heartfelt concern for my well-being, that I was such an angry man, unhappy with my life and my country, and “obsessed” with a war some 50 years gone. She knew I had been a Marine in Vietnam, had heard over the years that I had been affected by the experience, but only now realized the “severity of my condition” – a Facebook diagnosis.

I realized that war never goes away, that it is with you for the rest of your life.

“As a friend,” she counseled me that I should stop with the politics, protests and dissent, put the war behind me and go on with my life. None of this, of course, was new to me, or, I would guess, to many others who have participated in war, so I politely thanked her for the advice and continued on with my politics, protests, dissent and “rants” about the war. Not long afterward, she had enough I guess, wished me well and unfriended me as I was “unwilling to make positive change in my life.”

She was right, of course, at least that the war had seriously impacted my life, and still does. She was right as well that I became both sad and angry, about so many things: sad that upon returning to the “world,” I no longer fit in, how I felt so alone, alienated from friends and family members, and how for the longest time, I was unable to maintain a relationship or keep a normal job. Angry that I felt used by my country and abandoned. That I had been lied to about what we were fighting for. That the hopes and dreams I had for my life were destroyed and that we seemed to learn nothing from the experience … and that we were doing it all again.

She was wrong, however, in her assumption that I hadn’t tried to achieve a sense of normalcy in my life amidst the chaos and unrest. Damn, I had tried a whole lot. But unlike some, I guess, I was unable “to put the war behind me and go on with my life” and heal from the experience. Perhaps I was weak, I thought, or just stuck in my misery. Eventually, I realized that war never goes away, that it is with you for the rest of your life. That the best that can be hoped for, I think, is to learn to accommodate the pain and the suffering, the sadness and the anger, and to find a place for it in your being. Easier said than done, of course, and a chore I continue to struggle with each day of my life.

Spiritual practice, to “wake up to war, violence and suffering,” is excruciatingly hard work.

So perhaps you can understand how interested I was, dare I say hopeful, when I was contacted by Claude AnShin Thomas, a fully ordained Zen monk and combat veteran of the Vietnam War. AnShin is the founder of the Zaltho Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting peace and nonviolence and to helping veterans and their families cope with the ravages of war through mindfulness and meditative practice. He had been given my article “The Invisible Wounds of War” by a mutual friend, agreed with much of what I had written, and invited me to participate as an assistant at this year’s veterans’ retreat, The Costs of War, Violence & Denial at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. Though unsure of how I could assist a monk or whether I had anything to offer such a gathering of veterans and their families, since I had heard many good things about AnShin’s work from other veterans, some of whom had attended previous retreats, I decided to accept his offer.

One hundred and twenty-eight veterans and family members – wives, husbands, siblings and children – attended this year’s five-day retreat, up from the 12 veterans that attended AnShin’s first retreat at Omega nine years ago. Word had obviously gotten out and veterans from all wars and interventions from Vietnam to Afghanistan were represented. In what follows, I hope to recount my perception of what transpired and make no claim to speak for AnShin or anyone else in attendance.

Upon my arrival at Omega’s beautiful wooded campus, I learned rather quickly that this was not going to be a spa weekend and that spiritual practice, to “wake up to war, violence and suffering,” as AnShin describes it, is excruciatingly hard work. In his introductory remarks, AnShin made clear what he had to offer. “I have nothing to teach anyone,” he told us. “I have nothing to give that will heal you; there isn’t any magic. All I can do is to show you the map that I have discovered along this path, the direction, provide the tools, and the rest is up to you.” The tools of which he spoke were “disciplined spiritual practice rooted in self-reflection.”

“We can’t think ourselves into a new way of living; we have to live ourselves into a new way of thinking.”

In an atmosphere of silence (staying silent proved most challenging for me, as I am, after all, a philosopher predisposed to dialogue), we practiced various forms of meditation, sitting, walking, eating (chewing our food 50 times before swallowing), all the while paying attention to our breath as a means of dealing with distractions, physical and mental, and refocusing ourselves to the present moment. As an introduction to the practice and to the various sessions, and in a number of question and response presentations, AnShin spoke logically and reasonably about the task at hand. “Healing,” he told us, “does not mean the absence of suffering; it means learning to live in a different relationship with this suffering.” Accomplishing this “transformation” requires a change in how we look at the world and our relationship to it, having less to do with theory and more to do with practice and how we live our lives. “We can’t think ourselves into a new way of living; we have to live ourselves into a new way of thinking.” It is the regimentation of a disciplined spiritual practice rooted in self-reflection, AnShin explained, that will “provide us a container that when this suffering is really exposing itself, when we are most affected by it, we don’t have to deny it as there is a container that supports it.”

Retreat assistants were charged with facilitating breakout groups of approximately 10 retreatants to practice what was termed “deep listening and mindful speech.” These groups were not meant as therapy in the conventional sense, and assistants had little responsibility other than to ensure anyone who desired to “mindfully” speak had the opportunity to do so and for a reasonable period of time. AnShin suggested a couple of topics to think about and consider, one was war and the other, joy. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the latter proved to be more of a challenge. During the sessions, there was to be no discussion of the presentations, and no offering of advice or consolation, only “deep” listening and paying close attention to what the speaker was presenting. Time was also allocated for writing meditation, for retreatants to write about some issue or experience that concerned them and later to present what they had written to the group. Here is what I was motivated to write:

Earlier in the retreat, Fred (another assistant, former Marine Corps officer and Vietnam veteran) had mentioned to me how he had once written about the death of a kitten, probably not a monumental event in the greater scheme of things, especially in the midst of war, but an incident that had obviously made a lasting impression on Fred – and on some with whom he shared the story. It made an impression on me as well, as it brought to mind an incident that occurred during an earlier incarnation – I say incarnation as my life has been a series of segments seemingly separated by gaps as significant as death and rebirth (if death and rebirth are significant). But that’s a different story, perhaps for next year’s retreat.

At the time of the incident, several years after having returned from Vietnam, I was living in Canarsie, an Italian ghetto in Brooklyn, where I was born and raised. First generation Italians seldom move away from their familial roots (at least right away), but instead build an extension on the house where the tomato garden had been. It was like living in the country, at least early on, but “progress” brought paved streets and three-story homes in the vacant lot where my baseball field had been.

Now I was happy living there, despite the progress and the fact that whenever there was construction going on nearby, rats would inevitably find their way into my home – big ones, so big in fact, that on one occasion, a rat dragged away an entire sleeve of Oreo cookies from the box I left lying on the kitchen table. Now I have nothing against any life form; we all have a right to live. But a rat, a big rat in my home and one that had the audacity to steal my Oreos, was intolerable and required some action.

Incensed at having to share my cherished snack with rodents, I set a rattrap, the kill kind. Not long afterwards, in the middle of the night, I heard the trap snap. Unfortunately for me (and I am sure more so for the rat) it did not die immediately. So, for the remainder of the night as I laid in bed listening to it scream in pain, humanlike, until it finally succumbed hours later, I was transported to another place and time, a time of killing to survive and of listening helplessly as comrades suffered and died. Rats, I learned that night, not unlike human beings, do not die quickly, quietly, peacefully, like Sergeant Stryker charging gallantly up Mount Suribachi. As I covered my ears hoping to muffle the pitiful cries, I wondered, perhaps irrationally, if they too screamed for their mothers, whether they also implored God to let them live, soon to plead for death to end their suffering. I wondered whether the rat would be missed by others, family members, offspring perhaps, who were anxiously awaiting its return.

“I am become death,” I thought, “the destroyer of worlds.”

After that torturous night, I disposed of the kill traps, and acquired the capture variety instead. Those rats I subsequently caught I would release in the cemetery down the street. Though I had not made the connection before, as I look back now, I think it was at that point when I lost my desire for Oreo cookies. A lot to do penance for I guess.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

***

I have been in many groups throughout my adult life, and I cannot think of one that became as close and as trusting as this group had in only a few days and with a minimum of verbal interaction. Or one that had been as valuable despite the fact that it was not intended as “therapeutic.” Close bonds were developed and friendships made that will continue long after the retreat had concluded.

As the end of the retreat grew near, I felt a sadness at leaving my new friends and losing the structure that living the practice even for just a few days had provided. Ritual and regimen was important in AnShin’s view and the key to transformation. To close the retreat, we were asked to write on a piece of paper what we would like to let go of, to leave behind. We placed each of our notes into a basket and then mindfully walked as a group to the lake where AnShin opened each of the notes and placed them into the fire. He then asked each of us to say our final goodbyes and any observations we may want to share. Most expressed their appreciation for the “lessons” they had learned and for the relationships they made. As we acknowledged the formal end of the retreat, many hugged, some cried, and most promised to keep in touch.

I can’t say that the experience at the retreat has made me whole again, that I can now put the war behind me and go on with my life as Jean advised. To be perfectly honest, I can’t even imagine what that would mean. I truly believe that I have benefitted from the retreat, however, and been strengthened psychologically, emotionally and morally by my meeting with AnShin and all the others I came to know and respect. Though healing from war may not be possible, at least in the conventional sense, I have realized that its effects may be transformed, that the “roots of war are within me,” and through self-reflection and willed introspection, I can decide to “stop doing the things that keep the cycle of war, violence and struggle alive.”

I am certain that despite promising myself otherwise, I will most probably become lazy with my practice, chew my food less, skip a meditation, talk too much and listen too little. And I know, despite the aggravation and frustration, that I will continue to concern myself with social issues and politics, still get out on the streets to dissent and protest for rights and justice. But that’s OK, I think, as it is my karma, if I may use the language of Buddhism, my penance for the sacrilege of war. But as I do so, amidst the chaos and insanity, I am encouraged by AnShin’s admonishment that we are not alone and isolated beings, and as such we have the ability not only to bring an end to war, violence and suffering in ourselves, but in the world as a whole as we are all linked together, what Thich Nhat Hahn called “Interbeing.” Most of all, as I remember AnShin’s smile, I will be a bit less angry and a bit more happy. And as I hear the singing of the bell in my mind, I will be reminded to pause for a moment … and breathe.