Last week we were so busy teaching three different courses every day that I never got a chance to reflect on our experience teaching the Staff at the Vet’s Hospital… they had their own course in the afternoons and it was completely different than the Vet’s course…

The course was born in a  particular moment. I was making a presentation several months earlier to the hospital staff, mostly doctors and psychologists about the value of the course for Vets. In the middle of my presentation one of the staff raised their hand and asked” What about us?” We experience trauma first hand all day long from being in contact with our patients… its like we get second hand PTSD… what can you do for us…?” and so we decided to teach both staff and vets side by side, each in their own course…

I was brought back in that moment to my own experience working in a hospital as part of my graduate student training, some twenty five years ago. I was a chaplain on a hospital intensive care unit and I learned a lot about trauma in a hurry. What happens when you first start working is that your heart opens to your patients who are usually in a lot of suffering or distress or both,  and you pour yourself out to them and sometimes get either involved or attached to their well being. All this is good, but then there comes behind them another patient in need, and then another and another, each with their own challenges and friends and family who also demand your attention. If you get too attached to one patient, then there’s nothing left for the next patient or the fifth patient and sooner or later not much left for yourself… so there are huge occupational risks in being a caregiver in a clinical setting. You have to find a way to balance your needs with your patients (and colleague’s) needs, and  find a way to keep on giving day after day and year after year while continually restoring yourself  and not succumbing to burnout…

Add to this the current state of operations in most Veteran’s hospitals with overwhelming need from many vets all returning now from the war zone,  and fewer resources managing ever more caseloads and you can begin to feel the level of stress and distress most of these people are living under every day. They care deeply about their patients… that’s why they got into their professions in the first place… but at least some of them over time had gotten really tired and afflicted by either discouragement or resignation.

Denise and I felt in the beginning of both courses that it would take longer for the Vets to begin to open up to the experience of the program, but we discovered that the staff had their own reasons for caution, not the least being that they were taking the course alongside colleagues and in many cases bosses,  and they were afraid of being too open and vulnerable in a way that might seem unprofessional… Many of them held back at first…Like the vets, when they finally began to experience some of the benefits in their bodies and minds, they began to bond more as a group and to really move out… their experience of stress and trauma was no less real than the patients they served… it was just a little less obvious and hidden under the surface of their commitments and busy schedules…

What strikes me now in looking back on those five days that we spent together are two things…

One… that this was a group of people with very strong values, who had gone into nursing and medicine with a high dedication to wanting to help others in need… that dedication was still there but it lay under a lot of fatigue, stress and trauma… once the stress began to dissolve that spark of inspiration began to re-emerge in many of them, and that was a wonderful thing to be present for… As they experienced the course for themselves, they were able to see how it could help their patients and hopefully they will eventually put that experience to good use in supporting their patients in using these techniques in their own recovery…

and Two… This was an exceptionally strong and courageous group of people. Once they began to see the benefits of the breathing and course points, many of them really decided to go for it… they threw themselves into the last several days of the course, showed up in terms of supporting   each other in many ways, and began to ponder  what their work lives might look and feel like with methods of regularly releasing stress and trauma… They were a  dedicated bunch who were willing to try anything that might improve the care that they could offer every day to their patients… and  themselves… “”Care is like breathing” we said…”it has to be taken in  in order to be given out…You can’t give from what you don’t have”… Hopefully this model of teaching Vets and Staff alongside each other can carry over to other courses in the future.

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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…

Of all the courses that the Foundation offers, my favorite one to teach may be Sahaj meditation… Its so fulfilling to watch someone open their eyes after the first time that they’ve been able to dive deep within themselves… they come out with such an expression of wonder and possibility… Last night I finished teaching a course here in Wlmington Delaware… The course was full before I arrived but on my first night here I met an expectant mother who wanted so badly to learn to meditate… and her baby was due in only a few months! How could I refuse? So somehow we found a place for both her and her husband… she came up last night and was so happy ..she feels that her meditation is the greatest gift she can give her child…

I saw a Sri Sri quote  on a friend’s refrigerator recently… it said “you are the one you have been longing for…” When a person finds what they’ve been looking for deep inside themselves, its quite an experience to be present for… and from the very first meditation the stress begins to melt away and the person starts to look younger and more themselves, even from the first days of meditation… If they’re given the right start, and the right knowledge on the course, that experience can carry them through a lifetime of great joy, peace and transformation…

I read a blog entry last night from my  friend Bawa, a teacher in India, about how it felt to be made a Sahaj teacher… it brought back so many memories for me…

I was lucky to be made one early, in 1989… and I didn’t even know beforehand that it was going to happen! But there was such a need for a meditation teacher in the States in those days, and we had no Sahaj teachers, though some of us had taught other forms of meditation…

And now… 20 years later I’ve never lost the thrill of watching someone dive deep inside themselves, maybe for the first time and then come out and see the world and themselves in a brand new way…or the gratitude for the opportunity to still be able to be there in that way for others…

There were a lot of lively questions about meditation and higher states of consciousness, not only from the new students, but from more experienced meditators who were sitting in… Every teacher enjoys the challenge of  a well thought out question!

When I learned to meditate I never saw my teacher again after I learned and I had no one to ask questions to for another four years! So I like to leave plenty of room for questions:) When I look back on the day I learned to meditate in my first year in college, , my life has changed and grown in ways that I couldn’t have imagined back then… and to be able to give that gift back to others… why it doesn’t get much better than that!

Day Two of this course is always a challenge… since this course contains more breathing and fewer processes than the normal Art of Living Course, it can tend to get boring for the vets, especially when they don’t know yet where it will be leading them… Denise and I did our best to mix it up with different kinds of breathing and challenging yoga but I could still sense that they were tired and a bit bored… after the guided meditation they were more peaceful and silent, and sat awaiting their next instruction…

We (The Vet’s Course Committee) recently decided that, in the future, we will divide the course up into two parts… Vets can opt out after the introductory breathing practices taught in  Part one to go home and practice their breathing for a while before the more intensive part of the course (now Part Two) which begins tomorrow… 

I took a deep breath, stood up and told our students that they could leave the course at the end of today without any judgement on our part and practice at home if they thought that it was the best choice for them, or they could continue on… and I told them all the things that they might experience if they did go on (possible flashbacks, physical unstressing, overpowering emotions etc.)

I also told them how they might be able to feel if they finished Part Two of the course ( more alive, fewer nightmares, rages and sleepless nights, more connection to others in the present moment,  more joy, energy and interest in life…) I then asked for  the hands of those who wanted to go on and finish Part Two of the course… and I held my breath… would we even have enough volunteers to have a Part Two? Who of the many who were struggling at that moment would opt out? To my amazement every single soldier in the room immediately raised their hand… not one person chose to leave… Either they were willing to undergo some short term pain for the chance to get big chunks of their lives back again, or they were not willing to let down  the other guys in their”unit” on the way to succesful completion of the mission… I was so proud of those guys that  I was rendered speechless for a moment, and had to blink away a  few tears … tomorrow starts part two…stay tuned…

Day one of the course has gone really well… Typical attrition numbers…i.e. twenty signed up and twelve showed up but by now we’re used ot that… Interesting spectrum of students, from recently returned Afghan Vets with high levels of trauma to grandad viet nam vets still struggling with their nightmares and addictions…One guy still has nightmares every night of the face of the twelve year old Vietnamese girl he killed forty years ago…. Some on as many as 10-20 different medications… most having serious problems with anger, anxiety and emotional numbness… some still having regular flashbacks…all of them committed to being here for the whole course… all of them committed to supporting eachother in the process… Such a bond between these soldiers, even among those who are meeting eachother for the first time…
Teaching in an ideal venue, a big Catholic church hall away from the noise and commotion of the VA… the priest stopped by today and is thrilled to have his facilities used for this purpose…today we learned extended alternate nostril breathing and ujayi and ended up with a guided meditation… Lots of anxiety beginning to be released, and also a lot of fatigue… it takes a lot of energy to hold those emotions inside…
We explained the rules of the course clearly and wrote them down so they could all read and commit to them… Also wrote down tomorrow’s homework. Most will stick it out for the whole course even when the going begins to get rougher… they have formed a unit, are on a mission and are determined to get to the other side without losing anyone…
Denise is teaching with me and is doing really well… catching on right away… I continue to find that a team with a man and a woman is the best way to teach these courses… We’re getting great support from the volunteer base here… with transport, food facilities and supplies… we have a team of about ten supporting the course…
We start teaching the V.A. staff (24 signed up…who knows how many will show up) in 30 minutes… I am so grateful to be here… more later as time allows
Love
J

Hi

Thanks for visiting my site. This is a place where I can share whats happening in my world, my experiences in teaching and business, the people I meet in my travels, some of my music, and anything else that crosses my mind. I hope that this will be a shared site, that others will contribute comments and their own thoughts, and it will feel more like an online conversation.

Tonight I’m thinking about a favorite uncle who passed away earlier this week… I had a chance to visit him in the hospital only a few days ago and I was moved by the conversation that we had that day. Although he had recently suffered a massive heart attack he seemed at peace…”I’m ready to move on to the next world ” he told me with a smile… “I”m curious to see what it will all be like…” And what of his wife of sixty-some years whom he would be leaving behind? “I’ve taken care of  all the details”, he said,”she’ll be well looked after…” I told him I loved him and how much he had meant to me in my life and then gave him a big hug and sent him  a blessing on my way out… 93 years old and he had no regrets, no fears and no unfulfilled desires… may we all leave as gracefully when its our time to go… We shared a love of music and I’ll be able to offer him some of mine at his memorial service later this month… The older I get the more I treasure the relationships in my life… especially the ones that have endured the test of time… Its easy to take these relationships for granted, thinking they’ll always be there… not as easy sometimes to let go of them when the time comes… his passing was a reminder for me that our time here is limited, an opportunity to grow and share that ought not to be squandered…When I think tonight of my uncle I think of what Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself… “Not Fare thee well but Fare thee forward…” See you a little later on , Uncle Don…

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