July 21, 2011

4 Tips: How to Find your Center in a Combat Zone.

Finding Your Center When the World Turns Upside Down!

The bad news is you’ re falling from the sky, nothing to hang onto, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground. ~Chogyum Trungpa

A few weeks ago, I went to the Marin County Fair to watch the fireworks. Upon entering, I was drawn to the lineup of flashy amusement park rides. I’ve always loved roller coasters and it had been a while since I had ridden one. So, before long I was in line to ride the Wheel of Fire.

While hanging upside down, I saw my friends’ worried faces on the ground. Then, I realized that my forty-two year old body was not handling this too well. Suddenly, we began spinning in a series of loop-de-loops and to avoid having a panic attack or vomiting while upside down, I brought my attention to the internal space just below my belly button and forced myself to breath in and out slowly until the ride was over.

I immediately laid down in the sweet green grass, grateful to be back on “solid ground.” My mind flashed back to one year ago when I had packed up my life in San Francisco to move to Seattle. There were important reasons to go at that time: a close relative in need, my dharma center, and what seemed like a solid work opportunity. It was the right thing to do even though it was hard to leave the Bay Area.

The moment I arrived in Seattle, my world turned upside down. Nothing went according to plan. The job opportunity fell through, my relationship ended, and there were interpersonal issues in my sangha that were making people confused and unhappy. My resources dwindling, I randomly got a call to do some short term work at a military base in the area. They were bringing in licensed therapists to help debrief soldiers returning from deployment in Afghanistan and Iraq. For the first five weeks, I was assigned to a platoon who had just returned home from Afghanistan. I was escorted to my “office,” which was formerly the gas mask storage room. They cleared out the masks and dragged in a large metallic desk and two chairs so I could meet with clients.

No fireplace and fluffy pillows like I had in San Francisco. Now my office walls were covered in nails where the masks used to hang. I met with ten to fourteen soldiers per day to assess their mental health and hear their stories. The lights in my metallic cave were so bright that many guys asked if I was here to interrogate them.

I heard horrifying stories, mostly due to death and injury from IED blasts. The war in Afghanistan was a hell realm. Most of the soldiers I talked to were eighteen to twenty years old; fresh out of high school, and from all over the United States. They were too young to buy alcohol, but old enough to carry a gun. Most of them joined the military because they couldn’t find a job and the military promised financial security. They believed that their only options were to serve in the military or end up stuck in poverty, joining a gang, and/or hooked on drugs. Most of them were now suffering from P.T.S.D. and struggling to readjust to civilian life.

The Pacific Northwest gets very dark in the winter and the rain was unrelenting. I tried to find happiness at my dharma center, but my sangha was struggling, as any group does, with change and conflict. My fantasy of a Buddhist utopia quickly dissolved. Everywhere I looked it seemed like the darkness was coming out. The wars that we started and the reality that we are now ushering in a whole new generation of veterans without the resources to take care of them only exacerbated an already grim picture.

I couldn’t find any safe ground beneath me and became very depressed. In Seattle, it rains so hard it’s like being in a carwash; you can’t even see out of your windows. I had to wake up at 5am to follow a blurry stream of headlights in order to make it to work on time. The soldiers would just be coming in from PT, which meant running in the freezing rain with all their gear.

I had to rely on resources I didn’t know I had. I called in Tara—the Buddhist goddess of love and compassion—by singing her prayers as I passed through the security gates. Throughout the day, I kept my focus deep in my belly while connecting with my heart’s desire to love. The soldiers were in need of care, loving-kindness, warmth, and everything feminine. The best I could do was to stay present, see my patients, hear their stories, and love them. Over the next few weeks, the love itself had an unbelievable effect. Meeting the darkness with love rekindled the fire in my belly and opened my heart center through my collapsed posture. It was the bliss of offering everything you’ve got and being fully received.

After completing all the individual interviews, I was assigned to be available for follow up sessions. I spent the next five weeks with a platoon who had just returned from Iraq. When not in individual meetings, many of my days were spent just hanging out with them. These guys had bonded from their experiences in Iraq and expressed a sense of brotherhood and solidarity that I have not seen elsewhere. I heard from more than one soldier that the sense of having “someone at your back” all the time and never being alone was so meaningful that they were re-enlisting for another four years. “Besides,” they would say, “what else am I going to do? There are no jobs.”

Driving back and forth between my dharma center and the military base offered me the extraordinary opportunity to turn my world-view upside down. The soldiers and my sangha were two groups of human beings trying to work it out. I realized the futility of trying to find solid ground anywhere outside of me. The only safe place was the fire in my belly and the love in my heart. When I was finally able to settle in that space, there was no difference between the military base and the shrine room. There is only this moment, and this moment, and this moment…

Instructions for finding your center when the world turns upside down.

Over time, when meditation is practiced regularly your mind begins to settle into the present moment; rather than remembering the past or imagining the future. This settling is what allows you to be fully present in your life. You need to be able to calm the mind to remain steady when outer circumstances are anything but calm and steady.

  1. Find a comfortable seat on either a meditation cushion or a chair. If you are seated on a cushion, gently cross your legs. If you are in a chair, place your feet on the floor in front of you. Rest your hands in your lap or on your thighs.  Keep your eyes open with a soft gaze that is directed downwards towards a point in space about four fingers widths from your nose. Keep your posture upright, straight, and relaxed.
  2. Watch your breath, especially the out-breath. Your breathing should be natural and relaxed.  Feel the breath as your exhale.  At the end of the breath let your mind dissolve with it in the space in front of you.  Breathe in naturally, taking a new breath when your body is ready. Focusing on your breath allows you to stay present wherever you are.
  3. When you realize that you’ve been thinking, say to yourself, “Thinking.” You acknowledge that you’ve been thinking and then you let the thoughts go. You will have a lot of thoughts, and many of them will turn into feelings. You simply acknowledge your thoughts with a sense of equality—no thought being more important than another—and then let them go. Many people think that meditation is about having no thoughts; rather it is learning to be with the experience of thoughts and not holding onto them. As your mind grows calmer, you experience what is happening in each moment more directly. You begin to see the difference between your actual life and what you think about it. You are able to bring a sense of presence and relaxation into all of your experiences.
  4. Try to practice every day even if just for a little while. Get to know your mind and develop your ability to calm and settle your awareness. When you need to find your center, you can more easily settle your awareness in your body. You will begin to sense your belly center (3 fingers widths below your navel), your heart center (middle of your chest), and your crown center (top/rear of your head). In especially turbulent times, keep your focus within your belly center and direct your attention downward.

My teacher says that life is the illusion of the continuity of moments. The beauty of reflecting on impermanence is to remind us that everything is changing all the time. Bad things become good things. Endings become beginnings. Darkness turns into light. We can trust the power of our deeper wisdom to flow through life like a mountain stream. Therefore, when things are spinning out of control, the world turns upside down, and everything falls apart, don’t freak out. Take a breath, relax, and find your center.



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