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Healing Moral Injuries Through Beloved Community

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 bobrow@deepstreams.org

Comments (4)

  • Jeff

    As a full-time healer caring for the physical and psychic wounds our System inflicts, I have a great deal of respect for Joseph Bobrow’s obvious skill and dedication in his work with veterans. I particularly like the “ghosts into ancestors” process he has developed and will try to adapt it to my own practice.

    Outside of my day job, however, I am engaged in a very serious struggle to change the driver of health care policy from profits for insurance and drug companies to public wellness. There is a war being fought on American soil between the rich and the rest of us. The stealing and lying we have been discussing here result in casualties. Providers have to fight constantly on behalf of patients against the capitalists who accumulate vast wealth from a medical care delivery system which all of us have paid for but which they own and control. These are the same imperialists who sent Mr. Bobrow’s clients into hell to keep their Empire strong. I would be surprised if the Coming Home Project has not had to argue against denials of care for deserving vets.

    Mr. Bobrow stated in his recent interview on these pages, “In terms of substantively changing broken systems, ughh, that’s a job for Sisyphus.” Meaning, it’s futile, why bother? I’m glad the Civil Rights movement did not succumb to that type of defeatism. If I’m not mistaken, the Buddha’s quest was viewed as impossible and self-destructive when he started out.

    This is not to criticize Mr. Bobrow’s vital work in any way. The wounded, whether vets or those injured by class war right here in the USA, need compassionate healing. At the same time, I am happy that Buddhists are beginning to challenge the social injustice that causes so much suffering. One Sisyphus may not be able to roll that rock uphill, but many of us can and will.

  • Joseph Bobrow

    In facing the VA and Department of Defense systems of care, one is up against the largest and most dysfunctional bureaucracies in the country. I challenge them in my blog on HuffPo, by establishing alternative models of healing published in peer-reviewed professional journals, and by helping vets and families and caregivers, one by one, all together. Colleagues and comrade organizations do important policy and advocacy work. But I’m under no illusion that these broken and often toxic systems, peopled ironically by many good men and women, can or will change. I don’t consider this defeatism.

  • Jeff

    Defeatism simply means looking at a harmful situation that should be fixed and saying it can’t be fixed. No insult is intended; I do it all the time. Sometimes putting off a mighty challenge may be realistic, but more often than not, we just aren’t thinking creatively and engaging with patience, determination, and most importantly, the support of others.

    For example, many therapists who have become cynical after numerous failed interventions with severely traumatized veterans would despair, “These guys are totally messed up – I’m too busy to do more than give ‘em their meds and schedule a follow up next month.” Fortunately, healers like Joseph Bobrow enter a therapeutic relationship with courage and optimism based on their experience with unconventional modalities.

    I have worked at the Fort Miley VA Hospital and maintain close contact with mental health workers at several others. In some senses a model of rational health delivery (it’s essentially socialized medicine), the Veterans Administration is crippled by gross underfunding and the disease-diagnosis-drug treatment paradigm characteristic of capitalism. As Mr. Bobrow testifies, the caregivers at its hospitals are good people. Most of them do everything they can to support our troops within a regimented, dysfunctional system and are very aware that its deficiencies lead to poor health outcomes for veterans and burnout among overworked staff. Alongside their compassionate work with injured soldiers and families, some are actively organizing with veterans groups to demand change, not only in the way we treat our wounded but in the system that sends them into harm’s way in the first place.

    No one claims this will be a quick fix or that it can happen without addressing the many other faces of injustice in our society. What a daunting task! It seems like all we can do to keep the precepts as we transform ourselves – how much harder it is to contemplate transforming this whole broken but ideologically seductive and savagely defended system. War, racism, poverty, gender inequality, and the climate crisis are too much for any one of us to solve. But perhaps not too much for many of us together on many different fronts.

    The unique importance of Turning Wheel Media is that it recognizes the value of individual spiritual growth and service to others while encouraging Buddhists to perceive and act collectively on the suffering that arises from systemic material oppression. There have been bold experiments in which, even if only for a matter of years or decades, political systems that nearly achieve justice have been created. In most cases these were beaten back by ceaseless attacks from outside or coopted by vested interests within. But if we believe there’s a point to discarding our own delusions and attachments, why not do the same as a community? If we should not give up after the first or tenth or one-hundredth failure as individuals, should we repudiate hope that we can grow wise as a society?

    I cannot imagine utopia will arise in my lifetime, but I believe I can be a part of its historical unfolding by deepening my practice of Buddhism while joining with sisters and brothers to understand, resist, and defeat ignorance and exploitation. At the same time, I cherish those who change things by helping to heal one person at a time.

  • Joseph Bobrow

    I appreciate your inspiring words. You’re fighting the good fight. As are journalists like Aaron Glanz from the Center For Investigative Reporting, Danny Zwerdling from NPR, Mark Benjamin formerly of Salon and many others who’ve done exposes on the gross injustices in VA and DoD. And groups like IAVA who mobilize vets to storm the Hill and help important legislation pass. There’s room for everyone in the big tent. Those who work within toxic systems, and I know many from our Coming Home retreats for depleted and burned out service providers, have my deep respect.

    Actually, Coming Home’s work is all in and about community. The retreat community is the transformative body and the body of transformation. Check out my blog posts, beginning in November, 2011 with Isolation Kills and Community Heals, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-bobrow/isolation-kills-and-commu_b_1101897.html

    Your comments help me see that what came across in my Sisyphus comment was a battle weariness, weary at trying to get support from the powers that be, who gladly send hundreds of their clients to our trusted proven programs, but who refuse to support those programs. I’ll be interested in your and others’ feedback on the third installation of the interview, out this Friday I think.

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