Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) 2019

SPRING TURNS TO SUMMER

Twelve years ago, when I first started to work with the US Military, a mentor of mine mentioned for me to write about my experience: teaching those who have returned from war… and are not quite the same. I wrote for a year. That was in 2009. Then, I stopped. I became personally invested in the wellbeing of patients. I felt I would betray their trust to blog about them.

In the years that followed, there were numbers of people who contacted me and wanted to get ‘in.’ I felt pestered by many and angry at a few. Photographers wanted to take pictures of US combat veteran amputees in class. Journalists looked for a story about the armed forces practicing meditation. A television director asked to film in the middle of the hospital. There were yoga studio owners who wanted me to bring veterans to them. I turned a lot of them away. The work is what took precedence.

Occasionally, an unassuming yogi, a baby-boomer hippie, a military spouse, or an old vet would contact me. I let them in. I trusted my gut and had a handful people shadow me throughout the years. The reality of being in a military medical center is heavy. No joke. Although, the jokes would roll from time to time during class. Part of the healing process!

I am the son of a warrior. I am the son of an immigrant as well. My parents were both diplomats. I grew up in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. My life was intertwined with the international community, government and military. I have been around service men & women all my life. I went the opposite direction and became an artist. Karma, being what it is, brought me back full circle to the armed forces community.

An active service member who has been down range . . . is not my experience. Although, I can see it in their eyes. Who has been to war. In the lines of their face. How they enter a room. How they position their body. How motionless they can get. Overly alert. They bare a weight. Some a darkness. A coldness. Some know Death.

There is much I cannot say. So, my action mostly, is to just be. To be with the intensity, the damage, the confusion. The uncomfortable moments. The stares. The machines that are part of their bodies. The spouses, partners, children and friends who are affected. In the middle of this, I will call upon the power of stillness. Of kindness. Generosity. Humor. Compassion. Forgiveness. Respect. Acceptance.

One spring, a veteran gave me a seedling of a melon. I planted it in the earth in front of my place, where the morning sun would shine. I watered it regularly. That summer, it bore fruit and one day, I brought a cantaloupe to class. I cut it up with my pocket knife on an occupational therapy table. We stood there among the mechanics of a hospital confine, three patients with their walkers and walking canes, one yogi with his flip flops, and we enjoyed it tremendously. The skin. The seeds. The color. The taste. It was so peaceful. We smiled.

I’ve always said, ‘Nature is the greatest teacher, the greatest healer and does not judge anybody.’ I think this is where we find common ground.


Autumn turns to Winter

‘May we be content and physically hearty… may we be free of inward and outward damage… may we feel secure and serene… may we remove our blockages and live easily…’

I say to the troops, ‘Loving friendliness or loving kindness, ‘metta’ in the Pali language, is part of the gladdening of the mind.’ I continue, ‘This is part of our Bodhicitta, also known as our buddha nature (our awakened self). It includes our ability to choose contentment. It is said in Buddhist psychology, that we can choose to be happy.’ 

In sitting meditation, we make (or rather create) time to pause and be still. The foundational maxim of yoga states ‘find and maintain a steady seat.’ This is asana. This is where we tend our mind. 

We sit in an asana, in a continued stillness, and slow down enough to tame our mind. In doing so, over and over again, we are able to settle in the seat of the observer (vijnanamaya kosha), and witness the great breadth, depth and layers of the mind. 

As yogis, we are intimately able to get to know our thoughts, thinking, ideas, abstractions, opinions, fixations, aversions, avoidances, feelings, moods, emotions, impressions etcetera. We observe the fluctuating ‘self’ (anatman). We see and learn how we relate, how we react or act on, these fluctuations. 

In sitting meditation, in an asana, we remember to press the pause button, and just be. Just be with all that. Just be…

We are able to sense where we might hold these impressions in our flesh. In our bones. In our vision. In our reactivity. In our breath. And just be…

Then, with diligence, and with a sustainable and continuous sitting meditation practice, a yogi can learn to apply the illuminating action of the training of the mind. 

This takes the curiosity of the search! It takes the looking for meaning, being open to learning a new, and remembering to study the dhamma. It takes the understanding that, ultimately it is up to you alone to illuminate your mind, and point the light into the darkness. You will see things as they really are, and not how you want to see it.

The wonderful and assuring thing is we can connect with others, who are there alongside us on the same path, in the beautiful realm of sangha. We can support each other. We can do this in peace, with motivation and momentum, and we can help alleviate suffering. This is the way.

Om.