For military veterans struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, medication and counseling can be a first line of defense. But research by the Veterans Administration and others is finding that relief for PTSD symptoms like depression, anxiety and anger can be found in the ancient practice of meditation. Simply slowing down the mind and carefully breathing can help -- and that's exactly the goal of a program sponsored by the San Francisco Zen Center. It's called Honoring the Path of the Warrior.
For military veterans struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, medication and counseling can be a first line of defense – if they can get an appointment at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. But now research by the VA and others is showing that relief for PTSD symptoms like depression, anxiety and anger can be found in the ancient practice of meditation. Simply slowing down the mind and carefully breathing can help – and that's exactly the goal of a program sponsored by the San Francisco Zen Center. It's called Honoring the Path of the Warrior.
Joe Wheeler grew up in Ukiah, in Mendocino County, and joined the Army just before the 9/11 attacks. “The military can be very chaotic, especially going to war. What you see and experience is profoundly difficult and challenging and life-changing,” he said. During the early years of the Iraq War, Wheeler was part of a surgical team, stabilizing soldiers who were shot or injured by IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. He left the military in 2004, and reflected on the transition: “When you come out, you're looking for tools to deal with the effects of that, the effects of the trauma.” Wheeler is one of a small but growing number of veterans turning to meditation for help in reducing the symptoms of PTSD and to ease their transition to life after military service.
A mallet is used to tap rhythmically on the han, which calls the community to the mediation hall.
Lee Klinger Lesser co-founded the Honoring the Path of the Warrior program in 2007, aiming it at post-9/11 service members. She pulls out a wooden board called a han. “It's the call to meditation. It’s hit [using a mallet] with a certain pattern that invites people to come down to meditation,” she explains.
This weekend, Klinger Lesser and her colleagues will lead some 30 veterans on a daylong retreat at the Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm in the Marin Headlands overlooking the Pacific Ocean. “During the retreats we use a small bell, and we use it when we're hiking. And a different veteran will hit it, and we'll all pause until sound of the bell has completely disappeared,” she says.
At the Zen Center this week, several veterans talked with us about their military service and how meditation helps them cope with issues that arise after they're discharged. It's more than just the quiet though. There's also a camaraderie that comes from sharing stories about their service in a safe place. It’s an alternative to psychotherapy.
Thirty-three-year-old Roosevelt Ulloa joined the Navy when she was just 17, serving until four years ago. By then Rosie, as she's known, had been in charge of 30 sailors. “I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life. I found that in Buddhism,” she said. She says the transition to civilian life was tough. “I needed to relax, you know? And when they told me I was going to sit, I was like ‘That's what I need.’ I need to sit down and just be quiet, you know?”
HPW's co-founder Lee Klinger Lesser explains the han to Scott Shafer.
Like most of these veterans, Ulloa values the experience and training she got in the military – and the education benefits. But now, whether or not they have PTSD, these service members are looking for a different kind of training that in some ways runs counter to their military experience.
In fact, finding a quiet place is hardly the first thing that comes to mind when you think about war. Susan O'Connell is president of the San Francisco Zen Center. “When I first heard about this, it seemed like an unlikely combination – you know, veterans and Zen Buddhism. Well, at first [I] hide the word ‘meditation’ and talk about things like stress reduction, etc.
“Lee [Klinger Lesser] told me at one point early in the process, one of the veterans came to her and said ‘Well, where's the meditation?’ So it's really not as strange as you think,” she said.
One of the people who walked through the Zen Center's door is 30-year-old Ardrina Hoxey. As an African-American who was raised in a Christian home, this Oakland native says at first she was skeptical. “I came across Buddhism, but I didn't feel that I would fit in. I didn't see anyone who would be able to guide me,” she said.
Staffers and participants of the Honoring the Path of the Warrior program. L-R: Lee Klinger Lesser, Co-Founder/Executive Director, Ardrina Hoxey, Roosevelt Ulloa, Dyan Ferguson (Development/Operations Manager), Joe Wheeler and Travis Groft.
Hoxey spent nine years aboard a Navy ship, working first as an electrician, then as a procurement officer. Early in her service Hoxey was assaulted by a shipmate, but never really dealt with it. When she left the Navy, she was diagnosed with PTSD. “I remember one day I ran four red lights,” she said. “And I didn't understand because my mind was like, ‘stop.’” She says Buddhism gave her the tools to deal with her anger so she could communicate in more socially acceptable ways. “The tranquility – it was just, my spirit was so at peace. And I'm like, ‘This is where I want to be. I want to know more.’”
Klinger Lesser, director of Honoring the Path of the Warrior, stresses that they're not teaching Zen Buddhism, but one of its essential components – meditation. Still, it can seem hard to separate the two when talking about it.
Air Force veteran Travis Groft says the focused breathing of meditation slows down his mind, something he desperately needed after serving eight years, including a tour in Afghanistan. “I get lost in my thoughts a lot. So I just felt I wanted to reel myself in and ground myself. And that's what Zen has offered me,” he said.
Buddhism is sometimes described as a kind of medicine – an antidote to anxiety and suffering. For Groft, who has struggled with substance abuse in the past, meditation has helped transform his suffering into a sense of peace. “A universal knowledge we share as human beings is suffering. And from that you can gain a lot of knowledge, about yourself and about life and about how you view yourself in life,” he said.
This weekend Groft and other veterans will spend the day with Klinger Lesser and others from the program. They’ll hike in the hills of Marin County, meditating and hoping to carve out a quiet place inside, where they can nurture acceptance, compassion and maybe even tranquility.