Friday, January 30, 2009


It has been over 60 years since the end of WWII and many of the veterans who fought that war are now in their 80's. It won't be too much longer until this entire generation of Americans has passed away.

To date, WWII still stands as the most destructive event of human history in terms of the incredible amount of bloodshed and human suffering that we as a species have ever visited upon ourselves. And the suffering this war generated will continue to live on for generations even after all of the veterans who fought that war have passed away.

One aftermath of this war is the gradual recognition that the effects of war on an individual have long term life consequences both for the veteran and their families that, until recently, were not well known or understood.

Today, the term PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) has entered the cultural lexicon and denotes the pernicious effects trauma has on those individuals that were exposed to repeated life threatening events over which they had little control; e.g., combat. PTSD is a descriptive term that denotes ongoing unpleasant and debilitating experiences during which a person frequently relives a horrific, life-threatening event via nightmares, repetitive thoughts and images, or even acting as if the event was happening all over again.

In their book, Combat Stress Injury Theory, Research, and Management, Charles Figley and William Nash detail the history of combat-related PTSD,

"Combat-related PTSD may be a condition that existed from the start of humankind. The written history of PTSD dates back to the account of Achilles in The Iliad by Homer (800 BCE). More recently in the US, symptoms of PTSD have been described as “soldier’s heart” during the Civil War, “shell shock” during WWI, “combat fatigue” or “war neurosis” during WWII, and PTSD after the Vietnam War. The third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published in 1980 was the first to publish diagnostic criteria for PTSD."

They go on to further delineate the common symptoms experienced by those who suffer from combat-related PTSD,

"After experiencing a traumatic event, the three core PTSD symptom clusters include: re-experiencing, avoidance/numbing, and hyper arousal. The re-experiencing symptoms include: recurrent and intrusive distressing recollections of the event; recurrent distressing dreams of the event; flashbacks; intense psychological distress when reminded of the event; and physiological reactivity when reminded of the event. The avoidance/numbing symptoms include: efforts to avoid thoughts, feelings, or conversations associated with the event; efforts to avoid activities, places, or people that are reminders of the event; inability to recall important aspects of the event; decreased interest in significant activities; feeling detached from others; decreased range of affect; and sense of foreshortened future. The hyper arousal symptoms include: problems sleeping, increased irritability; difficulty concentrating; hyper vigilance; and exaggerated startle response."

Figley and Nash also outline how memories of combat related experiences continue to haunt combat veterans long after the battle is over:

"When a combat veteran returns from the most intense experience of his life, those intense experiences continue to “play” over and over in his mind. However, the more he attends to those thought intrusions, the more intrusive they become. Learning to shift attention away from those intrusive thoughts and into the moment at hand allows those intrusions to lessen, and daily functioning to increase."

Individuals who suffer these symptoms will often attempt to cope with them by learning ways of behaving that have the short term effect of avoiding and escaping from situations and events which invoke them. As a result, high incidences of drug/alcohol abuse and addiction, interpersonal conflict, domestic violence, divorce, depression and suicide are characteristic outcomes for those who suffer from PTSD.

One promising treatment for combat-related PTSD outlined by these authors is Zen meditation (zazen). These authors assert that, ... "when engaged in Zen meditation, patients significantly reduce their sympathetic arousal, even without controlling their breathing or otherwise consciously manipulating their physiology." This ability to reduce sympathetic arousal helps veterans to tolerate intrusive memories and thoughts and respond more favorably to treatment for PTSD.

In addition to the psychological distress outlined above, veterans who suffer from PTSD may also suffer a "spiritual crisis," as a result of their combat experiences according to Figley and Nash:

"The direct spiritual consequence of participation in war has only recently begun to be studied, as has the potential role spirituality may play as a healing resource for those recovering from the war zone trauma. Researchers and theorists about the effects of trauma have suggested that traumatic events frequently call into question existential and spiritual issues related to the meaning of life, self-worth, the safety of life (Janoff-Bulman, 1992)."

The authors go on to state that spiritual practices and activities that are "inward and outward focused," can be incorporated to heal the spiritual consequences associated with combat-related PTSD. Specific recommendations for healing the spiritual wounds of combat involve the following:

"A variety of inward experiential exercises involving meditation, breathing, guided imagery, and silent prayer are appropriate. ... From an outward perspective spiritual practice should include service and work on behalf of others. ... Service for others ... is a way of creating personal meaning and living a life that matters."

Mindfulness-based experiential psychotherapies such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Acceptance and Committment Therapsy (ACT) are a new class of treatment approaches that rely heavily on Buddhist concepts and practices. It turns out that these therapies are deeply rooted in practices that promote prajna wisdom and compassion and have shown promise as evidence-based treatments for PTSD.

As more and more young men and women return from combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, socially engaged Buddhist practices and modern day therapies based on ancient wisdom traditions have much to offer those who have suffered severe trauma in war.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Have you ever noticed how much energy we seem to expend avoiding our own minds? I am not talking about all the good stuff; e.g., pleasant thoughts, positive recollections, fond memories, etc. I am talking about those thoughts, feelings, images, memories, etc., that scare the living hell out of us. Remember those?

There is a movie that came out in 1971 called Jacobs Latter. It starred Tim Robbins who plays a Vietnam veteran who keeps encountering strange and frightening "demonic" beings and "hellish" experiences as he attempts to make sense out of his post-war life. For much of the movie it is hard to understand what is actually happening. It is one of those movies that has so many "flash back" scenes that after awhile you are not sure what the heck is going on. Tim's character becomes increasingly confused and disoriented as the movie progresses and the scenes become scarier and more bizarre by the minute.

Here is a brief synopsis of the movie that you can find on Wikipedia:

"Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins) is a U.S. soldier in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam ... without warning, Jacob's unit comes under fire. The soldiers try to take cover, but begin to exhibit strange behavior for no apparent reason. Jacob tries to escape the unexplained insanity, only to be bayoneted by an unforeseen enemy. ...

The film shifts between Vietnam, to Jacob's memories (and delusions) of his son Gabe (Macaulay Culkin) and former wife Sarah ... to his present relationship with a women named Jezebel ... in New York City. During this time, Jacob faces several threats to his life and has severe hallucinatory experiences. It is revealed that his son Gabe was hit by a car and killed while Jacob was in Vietnam ...

Jacob's friend, chiropractor and guardian angel Louis (Danny Aiello) states the main thematic point of the film: in effect, hell is really purgatory, and those who are ready to let go of their lives do not find the experience 'hellish.' It is at this point that Louis cites the 14th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart ..."

"You know what [Eckhart] said? The only thing that burns in hell is that part of you that won't let go of your life; your memories, your attachments. They burn 'em all away. But they're not punishing you, he said. They're freeing your soul. ... If you're frightened of dying and holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the Earth."

"We finally learn that Jacob never made it out of Vietnam, the entire series of experiences turns out to have been a dying hallucination. Jacob's experiences appear to have been a form of purgation in which he releases himself from his earthly attachments, finally joining his dead son Gabe to ascend a staircase [Jacob's latter] toward a bright light."

This movie is an allegory for the process that is set forth in the Tibetan Book of the Dead detailing the transition from this life, through death and the intermediate state known as the Bardo and rebirth. The movie only depicts this process up and until the moment of Jacob's death.

But one does not have to die to experience the release that comes from letting go of the "demons" that terrorize our minds from one moment to the next; i.e., our negative thoughts, emotions, memories, etc.

If we are willing to bring them out of the dark corners and closets in our minds where we like to keep them locked away and into the light of our conscious awareness, we will find that we can be with them without ever experiencing any real harm. When we can finally befriend those aspects of ourselves that terrify us, our thought "demons" will in turn transform into angels and guide us to freedom.

Friday, January 23, 2009


Roshi Bernie Glassman, founder of the Zen Peacemakers; a Zen Buddhist Group whose primary mission is the alleviation of human suffering through socially engaged Zen practice, defines bearing witness as being present with our moment-to-moment experience just as it is without needing to avoid it, amplify it, attach to it, or judge it. It is the practice of simple awareness of whatever is arising in each moment. The practice of bearing witness was first defined by the Sixth Zen Patriarch, Daikan Eno, who spoke of it as the state of mind where there is no separation between subject and object, no space between I and thou, you and me, up and down, right or wrong. Roshi Glassman further defines bearing witness as, "anything we do without separation or denial, - driving a car, cooking breakfast, taking out the garbage - is practice, or bearing witness." It turns out that new research in the field of neuroscience regarding brain function may have uncovered a biological basis for the practice of bearing witness.

In his recent book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, author Daniel Goleman (he is the guy who put the term "emotional intelligence" on the map) presents evidence that our brain is wired for intimate brain-to-brain link-ups that are the basis of empathy and compassion. It turns out that the brain is chock full of "mirror neurons" which provide us with the ability to intuitively feel what others are feeling. A kind of "neural WiFi" of the brain. It appears from this research that when we are closely attending to another person, listening closely to what they are saying, watching their facial expressions carefully without judgment, etc., we actually feel what they feel. And here is the kicker, when we are closely attuned to another person in this way, we intuitively take action regarding those feelings. But here is the trick ... this innate ability for empathy and compassion, that we all possess, is not activated unless we are closely attending to the other person in an open way. In other words, unless we are bearing witness to them with a mind uncluttered with our own ideas, feelings, worries, images, etc., we will not "see" them.

Author Goleman describes an experiment in his book that demonstrates how our lack of awareness of someone else inhibits our natural ability to be empathic and compassionate. In this experiment, a number of seminary students were told to read the biblical passage regarding the Good Samaritan and informed that at some point they would be asked to walk to another building and give a sermon on this passage. The experimenters had a confederate lay down on the ground between the two buildings where the seminary students would have to pass on their way to giving their sermon on the Good Samaritan. The confederate's role in the experiment was to act like a homeless person who was injured and to call out to the seminary students for help as they passed him buy on their way to giving the sermon. The researchers wanted to see whether or not the seminary students would stop and offer the "homeless" man assistance.

Guess what? Only one in six of the seminary students stopped to help the "homeless" man. Why? It turns out that when we are caught up in our thinking about something, what psychologist Steve Hayes calls "cognitive fusion," the brain's ability to bear witness is bypassed. It's as if your thoughts create a barrier to the brain's natural ability to be present for and help others. It turns out that the seminary students were so caught up in their thinking about the sermon they were about to give that they didn't even notice the "homeless" man: a sermon on being a Good Samaritan!!

Another way of saying this is to acknowledge that to the extent that we are self absorbed, we are not likely to engage our "neural WiFi" and be of assistance to our fellow beings on the planet.

It s no accident, that Zen practice will in-time enhance our natural ability to empathize with others and be of service to them. Zazen (Zen meditation), the core practice of Zen, enhances our ability to be present in each moment with awareness and defuses the power of words, images, concepts, etc., to keep our minds locked-up in thoughts while distracting us from the life that is unfolding right in front us.

Daniel Goleman shares an anecdote regarding an experience he had while studying homelessness in New York City. He was walking through a subway station in New York and noticed a homeless person crying out for help. Literally thousands of people simply walked by this man without stopping to ask him what was wrong. Not being lost in the usual mind dream of self absorption, Goleman stopped to ask what the man needed. As he did this, others suddenly joined in with him. It turned out the man could only speak Spanish and simply needed assistance to help him find his way to his family. Within a few minutes, the man was able to get the assistance he needed.

What is the lesson here? In a world of iPhones, iPods, texting, pagers, etc., etc., we seem to be moving more and more away from our basic connection with the world as it is in favor of an insular cocoon of self absorption where we don't have to be present for the pain of others. In our attempts to "improve the moment" by listening to music through our earphones or constantly chatting/texting with whomever, we are actually contributing to the construction of a world where we don't have to feel for others. A world where we don't have to be present for the suffering that is all around us.

Bearing witness practice can bring us back to this moment. Bring us back to our natural condition of engaged awareness. You may find that by bearing witness, you may end up actually saving someones life someday. And that someone may be none other than yourself.

So let's not just walk on by anymore. Let's look, feel, and help.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Last night the country witnessed the first ever neighborhood inaugural ball. Held in the nation's capital, it was the first time in the history of our country that anyone of us, as Americans, could attend an inaugural ball without an invitation.

Our new President, Barack Obama, and First Lady, Michelle Obama, wanted to invite the American people to join them as the entire country celebrates this historic election. It was the first of nine inaugural balls the Obamas would attend on inauguration day.

Upon the arrival of the President and First Lady, Beyonce serenaded them with the famous Etta James hit, At Last, as the First Couple enjoyed their first dance of the evening. It was truly a remarkable moment. One of the classiest moments that I can recall of any political celebration I have ever witnessed.

What made this ball so incredibly meaningful was that our new President and First Lady were using this event to express a deeply held value that propelled Barack Obama's campaign to victory: we are all interconnected.

By casting this event as a national "neighborhood" celebration, President Obama marked it as an opportunity to communicate the importance of diversity, inclusion, and community. Even though I sat in my family room hundreds of miles from this event, I felt like I was participating along with everyone who was there.

It is said that the heart has reasons that the mind can never know ...

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I witnessed the heartfelt expressions of respect and admiration for our new President and the First Lady ... for the values they embody and for the pride I felt to be a citizen of this country ... something I have not felt for many, many years.

Thank you Mr. President ... it's good to be back home.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


The alleyway depicted in this picture to the left is in New York City where it is believed that our new President, Barack Obama, slept just over 25 years ago.

It seems he had arrived in New York too late to hook up with a friend with whom he had planned to stay with overnight. He had very little money and no other friends in the city, so he had to find an alternative place to sleep. After considering a number of options, he had to settle for sleeping in an alley that night. The next morning, he washed up at a nearby fire hydrant along with a homeless man he met there.

One of the practices of modern day Bodhisattvas is called "bearing witness." What is bearing witness? It is our ability to function completely in the here and now ... to be totally present with whatever is appearing in this moment without entangling our consciousness with thoughts "about it."

As a Zen Peacemaker, I have attended several "bearing witness" street retreats in large metropolitan areas of this country; e.g., Manhattan, Boston, Springfield, etc. The practice involves begging the fee for the retreat from friends, relatives, and other kindred souls; not washing your hair or shaving for a week prior to the retreat, and taking to the streets with only the clothes on your back. You are instructed to leave your money, watch, cell phone, pager, ipod, etc., at home. From a material perspective, you go naked onto the streets.

Street retreats can last anywhere from one day to upwards of a week. During our excursions to the underbelly of urban life, we encounter the homeless along with many other inhabitants of the street life, sleeping where they sleep, eating what they eat, and hanging out where they hang out.

Almost everyone who is brave enough to give this form of bearing witness practice a shot, comes away from the experience transformed. Why? Because when you actually put yourself in the place of a homeless person, for that time you are in that situation, you experience what it is like to be on the outside of society looking in. It comes up on you real quick. All it takes is for one of your former peers from the land of plenty to reject you and your request for spare change. Suddenly, you feel the cold indifference and disdain embodied within the conventional wisdom that the "best" thing you can do for the homeless is to ignore them and not encourage them.

Suddenly it dawns on you that you are being related to as if you were human garbage. Your "sense of self" is assaulted by the conditioned responses evoked in others by your apparent social circumstance. Paradoxically, the people who treat you with the greatest kindness and compassion are the actual homeless people you meet on the street: like the man Barack Obama washed up with by that fire hydrant one morning many years ago.

I am so proud to have a President who has borne witness to life on the streets if only for one night. The length of his time on the streets is not important ... what is important is that he has some sense of the experience of being homeless. He knows, experientially, that the homeless are fundamentally no different than himself.

I hope someday people will visit that alley way where President Obama slept. Perhaps they will even place one of those "President .... such and such ... slept here", plaques to signify this instance of presidential bearing witness.

Better yet, I wish that all of the public officials in this country who have the elected responsibility of caring for the homeless would spend just one night on the streets like our new president did so many years ago. Perhaps then, their ideas about the homeless would be transformed by the experience of bearing witness to the reality of their lives ...

Monday, January 19, 2009


Deeply seeing into and experiencing the interconnectedness of all of existence is a precondition for genuine compassion. Even if one has a philosophical or conceptual understanding of the interconnectedness of life, it is not enough to generate true compassion. Why is this?

Without the direct and deeply profound experience of oneness, we can never actually feel for others. It is the actual feeling of oneness that is the basis of feelings for others. It is a felt experience, not an idea, image, or concept.

Ordinarily, deep seated awareness and natural feeling for others is obfuscated; i.e, clouded over, by our entanglement with fixed notions of "how the world functions." Part of the problem is due to our use of language; the medium of intellect and communication which is structured by the core assumption of separateness and the existence of fixed entities. The Dalai Lama described this rather succinctly when he said:

"The view of the world as made up of solid objects with inherent properties is reinforced further by our language of subjects and predicates which is structured with substantive nouns and adjectives on the one hand and active verbs on the other."

Without ongoing meditative practice (zazen) it is difficult, if not impossible, to defuse the effects of language and its power to continuously reinforce the notion of fixed entities, events, structures, etc.

It is only when all our fixed ideas and concepts about the "nature of reality" are completely let go of that the experience of the interconnectedness of all of life can be directly realized along with the emergence of true love and compassion for all beings, including ourselves.

Zazen is a razor sharp sword for cutting away the stranglehold that language has on our ability to let go of fixed ideas. The more that we practice zazen, the easier it becomes to see the provisional "reality" that is built into the very structure of language itself. The reality that we "think of" and in turn, construct, becomes less important than the direct experience of reality that is beyond the ability of language to describe.

"Regard all dharmas as dreams," is a gentle reminder for us to not get caught up or hung up by verbal descriptions of reality. They are by their very nature limited and incomplete so it's OK for us to let go of them, over and over and over again. Just hold them lightly and then release them, like a freshly caught trout, and keep to "not knowing" as often as possible. Our very own inherent love and compassion, which is none other than the basis of the interconnectedness of all of creation, will manifest.

It is then that we can truly be of service to others empowered by the love we feel for ourselves. To the degree that we clearly see that "self love" equals "universal love" are we able to be of service to others.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


This is the initial post of Howling Dragon: Reflections on Socially Engaged Buddhism. My intention is to reflect on the many ways that Zen can inform the work of all those who are laboring to alleviate human suffering in this world.

Zen has a reputation for being somewhat enigmatic and at times paradoxical for folks who are new to this ancient wisdom tradition. An yet, more and more, the word "zen" is popping up throughout the culture in all kinds of ways. I have seen it associated with everything from electronic MP3 players to backpacking stoves.

So what exactly is Zen? Zen Master Roshi Bernie Glassman defines it very simply: Zen is your life. Because Zen is your life, my life and everyone and everything's life, the essence of Zen, which is the very essence of our essential being is compassionate action in service to others.

This blog will explore the many ways that Zen teachings illuminate our essential nature and provide a gateway into our true hearts where compassion for others is our original intention. It is my hope that what appears on these pages will shed some additional light on the many ways each and every one of us can work to make our lives and the lives of others less burdensome.

Stay tuned ....