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Healing Takes Place Here

Trauma and Healing

Healing Takes Place Here
Monday, May 3, 2021

Claude AnShin Thomas suffered for years from the trauma of war as a Vietnam combat veteran. A retreat with Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh set him on the path of mindfulness and healing. He is now a Zen Buddhist monk. He recounts his story:

I suffer from a disturbed sleep pattern that has been a part of my life since a nighttime attack in Vietnam in 1967. Since that time, I haven’t slept for more than two consecutive hours in any one night. . . . My sleeplessness became the central symbol of my not-all-rightness, of my deepest fears that I would never be all right. . . .

Part of the reason I had difficulty sleeping was because of my night terrors: the sounds of artillery (that isn’t there) firing in the distance, of helicopters on assault, that special look of everything illuminated by artificial light, the sounds of small arms fire, of the wounded screaming for a medic. For me, this is what rises up out of the silence that is special to night. I hated the sun going down. I fought and struggled with my inability to sleep, and the more I fought, the more difficult the nights became. So I turned to alcohol and drugs (legal and illegal) for relief, but my suffering just got worse. . . .

Some years after getting sober, I was standing at the kitchen sink in my cottage in Concord, washing dishes. Above the sink was a window through which I could see a row of fifty-foot-tall pine trees that lined the driveway. That day as I did the dishes, I was watching a squirrel busy doing whatever it is that squirrels do, when I had a powerful experience. A voice inside me, the voice of awareness, said to me, “You can’t sleep, so now what?” I began to laugh. It was a moment of complete acceptance. I finally understood that I just was how I was. To resist, to fight, to attempt to alter the essential nature of my life, was in fact making matters worse, and now I understood that I simply needed to learn how to live with the reality of who I was. In this moment I discovered that it was here, in the midst of suffering and confusion, that healing and transformation can take place, if I can stop trying to escape.

But I’m not special, you know. You can do this, too. You can face your own sorrow, your own wounds. You can stop wanting some other life, some other past, some other reality. You can stop fighting against the truth of yourself and, breathing in and breathing out, open to your own experience. You can just feel whatever is there, exploring it, until you also discover the liberation that comes with stopping the struggle and becoming fully present in your own life. This is the real path to peace and freedom. You could do this for yourself; you could do this for your family. Our whole world will benefit.

Reference:
Claude AnShin Thomas, At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace (Shambhala: 2004), 152–153, 154.

Story from Our Community:
Since a life-threatening accident two years ago, much of my “transformation” was in light of this trauma. For so long I couldn’t take care of myself and had to come face to face with WHO AM I when I can DO NOTHING. I am grateful to breathe, to live each day, to find the life and beauty in everything. I savor my days. The daily CAC meditations and online classes have both nurtured and challenged me. —Beth M.

Image credit: Belinda Rain, Water Drops On Grass (detail), 1972, photograph, California, National Archives.
Image inspiration: Even in and around our sharpest edges the water of life gathers. Soothing, nourishing, healing.
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