Healing Moral Injuries Through Beloved Community
by Joseph Bobrow
When people first asked what new methods we were using in The Coming Home Project, I would fumble and use words like unconditional acceptance, welcome and compassion. Eventually I came to call it unconditional love, and used the Judeo-Christian term, often employed by Martin Luther King, “beloved community.” It was unconditionality: non-judgmental, down to earth, responsive and non-sentimental, that created a safe space, sacred but non-denominational, for the work-play of repairing the natural connectedness that cumulative trauma dismantles.
Our first retreat for military families was held at First Congregational Church in Berkeley in January 2007. We all gathered for our opening circle, 33 vets and family members from seven states, with four volunteer facilitators. In the opening moment of silence, as we remembered those unable to be with us, three-year-old Ben, the son of Stephanie and Michael, was playing with another child around the edges of the circle. Amidst the reverent quiet, we all heard Ben say, “My daddy died in Iraq.” We learned later from Stephanie that Michael actually committed suicide six months after returning from Iraq. Out of the mouth of babes, the first words spoken at a retreat conveyed their own truth: something inside Michael did die in Iraq.
After the workshop we were having supper and socializing at our “base camp,” the Marina Doubletree. I looked around and felt a caring and responsiveness among the military families as strong as any I’d felt in any other setting. It was a “no duh” moment: Buddhism certainly had no monopoly on sangha or on compassion. Our retreat had provided the opportunity to unleash the power of compassion, healing and joy, and this was very gratifying.
Meditation Practice is not an All-purpose “Mr. Clean”
Over the six years I have introduced meditation to returning vets, I learn again and again that practice is not like the all purpose solvent, like the old “Mr. Clean”: good for counters, floors, dishes, toilets and laundry. Challenges abound and silence itself can be worrisome. So can letting go of the hyper-vigilance that seems to help us anticipate and forestall a traumatic recurrence. Stephanie, who lost her husband Michael to suicide, wanted to meditate but felt that, although there were no religious trappings to the instruction given, she was somehow being disloyal to her religion of origin. And Rory, who survived an IED blast (improvised explosive device) that killed the others in his unit, left the room early because he experienced anomalous sensory experiences in his head when following his breath and noticing bodily sensations; it was disorienting. And understandable given that parts of his brain destroyed in the blast were replaced by plastic filler and a major part of his skull was formed from a hi-tech composite. Doing walking meditation together helped Rory. Listening to Stephanie unpack her simultaneous desire to practice and fear of being disloyal, and clarifying what we were doing, helped her. And I found myself suggesting to those afraid of closing their eyes or keeping them half closed that they could try keeping their eyes open, which was helpful to some. Qigong, which integrates awareness, breath and movement, was a favorite of many. There is no one way that worked for everyone. What mattered was taking people seriously, listening, staying in touch with what unfolded, and recalibrating where necessary.
Turning Ghosts into Ancestors
I have learned that the wounds that eat away at war veterans cannot be reduced to an anxiety disorder. They involve what are now being called moral injuries. The shame, guilt and self-loathing that come from seeing or doing or countenancing actions that clash deeply with our internal ethical compass can last for decades. Deep, complex unexpressed grief, the helplessness of not being able to act on our ethical imperatives, say saving a buddy, or limiting civilian casualties, can also take a paralyzing toll. Abandonment by those who should lead and protect but who betray their mission for self-centered reasons at great cost to the unit under their command can be as destructive, one soldier said, as a bayonet to the belly.
I developed conviction about a core human process of transforming trauma that I call turning ghosts into ancestors. Most of us do not want our suffering and the suffering of those we love to have been in vain. We want it to mean something. “What have we got to show for it?” service members asked about a campaign they fought in. Driven to find meaning, many veterans endeavor to “make something” of war-related trauma, to “redeem” it. To do so they need to process it in a relational field bigger than themselves, in the presence of other hearts, minds and bodies that are breathing and listening, witnessing and sharing their humanity. Transforming trauma asks that we recreate and author it, rather than experiencing it as lodged within, a kind of foreign invasive element, inflicted on us, inscribed and burned into our neural and relational circuitry by the profound helplessness to change it. Without working it over and making it our own, overwhelming trauma remains a ghost, an “inner demon.”
A ghost gradually becomes an ancestor, and traumatic experiences become memories, by a most human alchemy. The beloved community provides the safe environment, so we can stop holding our breaths in traumatic reaction and anticipation, and finally exhale, trusting that we are supported. As this trust deepens, we allow ourselves to come home to this moment, to body, breath, peers and family, community and our surroundings. When the conditions are right, we feel safe enough to represent our experience. In Coming Home retreats this happens spontaneously among peers and family members, in small support groups, and through expressive arts. The fear of shame, humiliation and other crushing reactions is disconfirmed and replaced by a loving response. Buoyed, we can choose to venture in and share more, according to our own rhythm. The content and pacing of what is revealed is at the direction of the participant, modulated according to his or her degree of felt safety so that rarely, if ever, does it re-traumatize. We are supported, as we become ready, to re-experience our anguish in a new key. Not only is this a huge relief, but repeated instances of this benevolent cycle re-grow our capacity to encounter and integrate our ghosts. The power of the community’s support, and the resilience skills learned and practiced in this optimal relational setting, work in concert to animate and bolster us through this process. Gradually the fear of being re-traumatized abates and the traumatic shards reintegrate and take their place as memories. Our sense of meaning is renewed. Traumatic experiences thus represented and re-experienced, become re-encoded into a transformed, healing narrative and worldview. Although painful, they are now memories rather than haunting ghosts.
They trigger us less because they’ve become more integrated, and when they do rear their heads, the loving community and our resilience practices are available to meet the surging tides of powerful emotion. We accept ourselves and our broken elements more, we breathe into the contraction, lean into, rather than react to, the pain, and tame and regulate it better. Not perfectly — the wounds of war do not disappear — but we go forward with reduced anguish, increased hope, aliveness, emotional stability and connectedness.
Joseph Bobrow is a Zen master, psychoanalyst, and community organizer. For 40 years he has been integrating Buddhist mindfulness and western psychology to create healing environments. In 2006, with therapists, chaplains, vets, and family members, he founded the Coming Home Project, a non-denominational community service of Deep Streams Institute. Since 2007, the Coming Home Project has helped 3,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, service members, their families and their caregivers from 45 states transform the traumas of war, reintegrate, and enjoy genuine wellbeing. A Dharma heir of Robert Aitken Roshi, Joseph joined BPP shortly after its inception, building an interfaith coalition and helping organize the first Hiroshima Day commemoration on Maui. Later, he provided consultation to the BPF Board. Two summers living at Plum Village in the early 1980’s strengthened his conviction in the healing power of community. Joseph’s book, Zen and Psychotherapy: Partners in Liberation, has received acclaim from Buddhist teachers and trauma researchers and therapists alike. He is working on a second book, Waking Up From War: How Our Veterans, Their Families, and Our Nation Heal The Unseen Wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan.
He is transmitting what he has learned over these four decades about trauma, mindfulness, awakening and healing with Turning Ghosts Into Ancestors, a workshop that distills these insights and weaves in pioneering research on post-traumatic growth from Coming Home retreats. To read more, check out Joe’s blog on Huffington Post. For information on new workshops, contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org