Our Vet’s course in Delaware ended yesterday … The experience was so powerful for me that I’m still both recovering from it,   and trying to find the words to describe it…Several strong impressions remain and will remain with me for a long time to come…One is of the character, courage  and integrity of the soldiers that we taught. They committed on the first day,  to come to all the sessions on time, to give it their 100% and to be their for each other and they certainly fulfilled all that and more… One of the participants worried that he didn’t have the right clothes to take the course … the next day a bag of new clothes magically and anonymously appeared at our front door… Another man’s car broke down and he missed a session… he got up at 4:30 the next morning to drive in for a make up… This commitment reflected n0t only the character of the individual students, but also on how seriously they needed what the course was giving them… progress sometimes came in very small steps… One man was able to sleep only an hour or so a night… During the course he began sleeping three hours at a time… Another stopped having nightmares filled with the faces of those he had killed, civilians and soldiers alike in combat… another was able to refrain from acting out an overwhelming experience of road rage…

One day their homework consisted of reading and reflecting on a poem written by Derek Wallcott called Love After Love… I include the text of the poem here:

                                      Love After Love

The time will come

when, with elation

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror

and each will smile at the other’s welcome

and say sit here. Eat

You will love again the stranger who was yourself

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you.

 

all your life, whom you ignored

for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

 

the photographs, the desperate notes

peel your own image from the mirror.

Sit. Feast on your life

They were asked to contemplate the parts of themselves that they had lost contact with in the process of going to war and what parts of themselves they most wanted to recover…

They came in with their answers the next morning… The most common concerned innocence… what we lost in the war was our innocence, (“we were so young when we went over… so naive..what did we know…?”) our peace of mind, our confidence in ourselves, the ability to trust and connect to others, and our faith in God… 

What do they most want to get back? A life without guilt, a sense of inner peace… the ability to relax, to rest, to reconnect to themselves and others on a deep level… an end to deep feelings of loneliness, and of shame.. a reason, any reason to get up in the morning and keep on living…a sense of the presence of God in their lives… the ability to feel again…the ability to sleep through the night… the ability to open up and to feel close to at least one other person…

Day after day in the midst of fear, sometimes terror, rage and huge resistance, they would keep on breathing…breathing with amazing courage..breathing through old and painful memories that they would do anything not to have to experience again … memories of things they’d seen which no person should ever have to see, memories of friends who were like brothers, alive and then suddenly dead only inches away from them, of actions taken and mistakes made which cost human life, sometimes innocent human life… breathing with clenched fists and tense, sometimes numb bodies, with shooting pain from old injuries and pieces of shrapnel still throbbing in arms and legs, with tears streaming down their cheeks, and fists shooting out in imaginary combat with old enemies now long gone…in silent grief for friends lost, for the loss of the  themselves of who they had been before and might never be again..replaying over and over in their heads the movies of those days, those times, those moments which they thought  and feared would haunt  them  for the rest of their lives..

We refer,  in our intro talks, to the power of the breath… after twenty years of giving these talks that phrase sometimes comes out of my mouth without really thinking about it… On this course the reality of those words came back to me in a huge way…

After two days of our most intensive breathing,  these guys were hardly recognizable… the greyness began to leave the faces, as did the numbness from their bodies… smiles made brief appearances on faces which hadn’t smiled for a long time… peace came to those, for a few moments at least, who hadn’t experienced even a moment of peace for years at a time… recurrent and overwhelming thoughts and memories began to recede… bodies began to relax…small and scattered   possibilities  of lives that could again be lived, and not just endured, started to light up the awareness of at least a few of our students… all through the power and grace that came to them through their breath…

I leave today for other commitments with an overwhelming sense of awe from the power that I have seen and felt on this course, a power that can  transform and heal even the most broken of lives andspirits…and of gratitude to be fortunate enough to be present in the midst of that transformation… I’m leaving a part of myself here in Delaware in the midst of those guys whom I came to know for five days… and I’m taking with me some things to ponder…   thoughts of what I’ve learned from my students, and of how we can connect to and reach more of these men and women…more later as time allows…