A lot of my friends say I’m a walking contradiction: on one hand a spiritual seeker; I’ve studied meditation at a Zen monastery in Japan, am a yoga teacher, and I’ve been learning mind-body medicine from some of the top healers around the world.
On the other hand, I’m a veteran of four combat deployments to Iraq as a corpsman, or medic, with the U.S. Marines. After getting out of the military I was diagnosed with PTSD, and after some time of feeling lost and hopeless, I embarked on a journey of self-discovery and healing, intent on learning the most effective techniques for cooling the fires of mental and physical distress.
In this letter I want to tell you about one of the most effective methods of healing mind and body that I’ve come across, a technique that’s become an indispensable part of my daily routine, and one of my favorite things to share with anyone suffering who wants to feel better now: Dawson Church’s Eco-Meditation, a practice that only takes a few minutes, yet can lead one into an elevated state of wellbeing commonly reserved for only the most advanced spiritual practitioners. It’s an ideal technique for any veteran suffering from PTSD–completely free, yet more effective in my experience than any of the pills or therapeutic techniques currently in use by the Veterans’ Administration
I’d like to tell you a little bit about my story, then describe in more detail the methods and benefits of Eco-Meditation; it’s my hope that anyone reading this will recognize the obvious advantages of Eco-Meditation, and will want to learn it for him- or herself, and to include it in the list of therapies offered to veterans by the V.A.
I graduated from Princeton and enlisted as a corpsman in 2003, the year we invaded Iraq and started a war that has come to define my generation–at least for those of us who served, and for our families. People often ask what inspired me to join the military, because I don’t come across as the typical soldier-type, but it’s a question I can’t completely answer. I’ve always felt called to intense experiences that reveal something about the depth of human nature, and war has been a powerfully meaningful part of the human experience ever since our species first began to walk on two feet in the African savannah.
War is something terribly destructive and also creative that transcends the boundaries of time and culture. Yet wars are also particular to their time and place, and in my case I wanted to serve my country and also have a hand in liberating the people of Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. These are two causes I believed in, for which I pledged to give my life if necessary. And I wanted to become a medic because there must be someone to protect the protectors, a healing bringer of light on the battlefield guided by compassion and medical skill. Combat medics go “where angels fear to tread” and yet are, in my opinion, angels walking the earth, sworn to brave enemy fire to save the lives of any wounded, friend or foe, or civilian.
My first deployment with a U.S. Marine Recon Battalion (the Marines’ version of Special Forces) led me to the Second Battle of Fallujah in November 2004, a massive assault on a city that’s been described as the most intense urban combat U.S. forces have seen since Hue City in Vietnam.
All of us who deployed carry with us images that stay with us for the rest of our lives, images we have to learn how to live with. For me, the first image of that kind came after my first buddy in my unit was killed while digging up an IED, or Improvised Explosive Device–one of the homemade bombs insurgents would bury in fields and roadsides.
After this friend was blown up (several more killed and wounded), his bodyparts were scattered in small chunks over an area the size of a football field. When I came on the scene, other members of his platoon were picking up his bodyparts, while the platoon corpsman treated the wounded. I was surprised when two of his teammates came to my humvee asking for gloves and trashbags; the reason, it became clear, was that there was no “body” for a bodybag, only chunks of flesh, bone and organ that they were putting in black 50-gallon trashbags.
I took the trashbags to the Mortuary Affairs tent at Camp Fallujah, where the Mortuary Affairs NCO asked me to check through my friend’s bodyparts to see if there were any identifiable features, like a face or skin with a tattoo, that could be sent home to his family. So I found myself elbow-deep in these trashbags, lifting out his brain, his liver, his ribs.
Of course I was honored to respectfully sift through my friend’s remains, but images were seared into my brain that night that will stay with me every day for the rest of my life, and I began the process of divorcing myself from my own life and body, as a protective mechanism, because I too expected to end up as a trashbag full of chunks that would be sent home to my family, and yet I still had to function through another two and half years of combat deployments.
My method for preserving my own mental function, in addition to becoming addicted to the painkillers we medics had available, was to accept the fact that I was already dead, and so I would constantly remind myself that nothing that happened to me would matter, because I was already dead.
Also I would encounter, on a sporadic basis, casualties who had their legs blown off by IEDs while riding in humvees; and I began a ritual of saying goodbye to my legs every time I got in a humvee, which was multiple times a day, because I expected to lose my legs.
PTSD has been described as an actual, physical injury to the brain, and I realize now that although we medics had the best first-aid training in world history, we had no “psychological first aid” to treat these mental wounds. And though we wore heavy body armor to protect us from snipers and enemy sharpshooters as we patrolled dusty, trash-strewn Iraqi streets, we had no “life armor” to protect us from the psychological toll of constant fear of death. No knowledge of the mind-body techniques to cool our nerves and access our inner healing resources when we needed them most.
When I received my honorable discharge from the U.S. military in 2008, I was surprised to have survived the war. I expected a huge flood of relief when I was released from any possibility of future deployments, but that relief never came. I walked and drove around US cities with the same tense fear I’d experienced in Iraq.
And I think that all that time I’d spent accepting the fact that I was already dead, made me sort of a walking zombie among the living back home. Every person I looked at I would see as horribly disfigured, shot, maimed, bleeding, and needing my help. In some ways it was worse than being in Iraq, because the feelings were not appropriate to the situation, and because I no longer had my buddies around to emotionally support me.
I spent a good deal of time heavily dependent on alcohol and drugs, including drugs such as clonazepam prescribed by well-meaning psychiatrists at the VA, drugs which were extremely addictive and led to a lot of risky behavior.
However, I still had a dream of learning how to meditate and entering the spiritual path, a dream which began in college when I began to be exposed to teachings of Buddhism and Yoga, and realized these were more stable paths to wellbeing and elevated mood than the short-term effects of drugs.
I had in fact attempted to begin meditating in Iraq, but every time I sat down, crossed my legs, and focused on my breath, I’d be interrupted by a mortar attack or pestered by a Marine NCO asking why I wasn’t filling sandbags, so I put the spiritual project on hold during the time I was at war. But after getting out and realizing I needed to start helping myself, I decided that I wanted to learn meditation from an authentic Asian master, so I went to Japan to train at a traditional Zen monastery, called Sogen-ji, in the city of Okayama, Japan.
Many people think that being at a Zen monastery must be a peaceful, blissful experience. Yet though I did have many beautiful experiences, the training was somewhat brutal. We meditated for long hours in freezing cold rooms open to the snowy air of the Japanese winter, and were not allowed to wear hats, scarves, socks or gloves. A senior monk would constantly patrol the meditation hall with a stick, called the keisaku, or “compassion stick,” which was struck over the shoulders of anyone caught slouching or closing their eyes.
Spending hours in the half-lotus position reminded me of the “stress positions” we used during enhanced interrogations after waterboarding became forbidden. Zen training would definitely violate the Geneva Conventions. And these were not guided meditations of the sort one finds in the west; I was simply told to sit and watch my breath and those were the only meditation instructions I ever received.
I remember on the third day at the monastery, I really thought my mind was about to snap due to the pain in my legs and the voice in my head that grew incredibly loud and distracting as I tried to meditate. I went to the senior monk and said “please, tell me what to do with my mind so I don’t go insane,” and he simply looked at me and said “no talking” and shuffled off.
Left to my own devices I was somehow able to find the will to carry on, and after days, weeks, and months of meditation, I indeed had an experience of such profound happiness and expanded awareness that gave me the faith that meditation was, as a path to enlightenment, everything I had hoped for, everything I had been promised by the books and scriptures.
I am profoundly grateful to Shodo Harada-Roshi, a true modern Zen master, for facilitating that experience. However, after leaving the monastery I realized that I would not be able to maintain that level of meditation on my own, that I would need faster and easier ways, and a better understanding of mind and body, to make meditative practices a useful part of my life.
I’m very grateful to the Veterans’ Administration for the financial compensation I’ve received for PTSD, because it allowed me to travel to workshops and seminars around the country, where I trained under some of the top experts in the science of meditation and mind-body healing.
As you may know, we are at a unique time in history when the ancient practices of the East are being verified, and in my opinion improved, by the scientific approach of the west. We can put meditators in fMRI machines and see just what is happening in the brain as meditative states are induced. I learned about the physiological stress response–adrenaline and cortisol being released into the bloodstream, causing our hearts to beat faster, our breathing to become ragged, our vision to narrow into “tunnel vision.”
I also learned about the corresponding relaxation response–activation of the body’s parasympathetic “rest and digest” healing process, which slows our heartbeat, calms our breathing, and dissipates tension from the body. I learned about relaxing alpha brainwaves, which appear during Zen meditation and are also part of the early stages of the sleep cycle–that sweet spot between sleep and wakefulness in which we’re very rested and relaxed, and feel absorbed into our sensory surroundings.
I learned about heart-brain coherence–the synchronization of the electromagnetic fields of our body’s two greatest electrical generators, the heart and the brain, a synchronization that co-arises with positive feelings of compassion and warm caring in the area of the chest. I learned about Chinese acupuncture meridians and the Taoist idea of the body as a field of energy and composed of many energetic circuits–an idea thousands of years old that is only now being “re-discovered” by Western medicine, and supported by numerous medical studies.
As I learned all these things and many more, I realized that there is no single best technique of medicine or holistic therapy, and that instead a wide range of healing modalities can be brought to bear on the human organism. There is a general sequence of practices, drawing on all the physiological processes I mentioned above, which can unlock the door to very deep inner healing resources of the mind and body. I came up with a plan to put together all of the best, most effective methods I’d learned into one system, which would be an easy, turn-key method of accessing deep healing states of positivity and wellbeing.
I was really amazed, then, to come across one day while researching on the internet, a man, Dawson Church, who had already put together such a program, a “meditation of meditations” he calls “Eco-Meditation.” Like me, Dawson had investigated many different modalities of self-healing, and had put together a brief yet incredibly effective sequence of “best practices”; only Dawson has been at it much longer than I have; he’s a true scientist-scholar, a professional who’s dedicating his life to advancing the art and science of holistic healing and integrative therapy, and sharing these techniques with as wide an audience as possible.
When I first came across his Eco-Meditation, I simply read from the webpage and followed the steps, and within two minutes found myself activating all these healing resources and entering a state of profound relaxation and wellbeing that I’d previously achieved only after hours, if not days and weeks, of meditation.
I immediately signed up for a workshop with Dawson (which, to my incredible good fortune, was co-taught by his colleague Dr. Joe Dispenza, author of “You Are The Placebo,” who is a pioneer of activating the body’s own healing placebo response). I was so excited for Dawson to lead us in the Eco-Meditation, and when he did, I was not disappointed; instead I was convinced that his method was something the world, and veterans in particular, could use to experience profound inner healing and wellness without spending months at a monastery, which most of us do not have the freedom to do.
To conclude, I’d like to point out that although the media keeps us well-informed of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, fewer are aware of the phenomenon of Post-Traumatic Growth: the idea, and fact, that by making a conscious choice of not being a victim and of embarking on a path of healing, anyone who has experienced a trauma can come to find it as a meaningful event that leads them into a greater fullness of life. It’s been said that suffering is the greatest grace, because it leads us to the pursuit of healing, which can take us to places beyond what we’d experience in our normal states of being.
But we need to know the tools of healing; those in distress need specific techniques and methods. The V.A. and the U.S. government have spent hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars researching the best ways to treat the psychological wounds of our wounded warriors. Yet many of these techniques are themselves expensive, involving sophisticated technology and advanced drugs, and can be administered only by those with an M.D. or Ph.D. after their name.
Dawson Church’s Eco-Meditation, and the associated Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) he teaches (based on Chinese energy medicine), are part of a growing movement away from drug regimens and toward “patient-administered, self-directed” therapy, techniques that can be taught to a veteran in half an hour at essentially no cost, techniques which that veteran can then draw on for the rest of his or her life, as a practice of daily mind-body hygiene, and something that offers rapid relief in periods of acute distress.
I believe that for this technique not to be included in the range of options offered to our veterans would actually be doing harm to our nation, and so I heartily recommend it’s immediate inclusion in the V.A. therapeutic armamentarium.
Finally, although you the reader may not have experienced the intense horror of close urban combat, in another sense we all do experience a milder form of combat exposure every day, as we are all bombarded by stressors in our modern society that activate our fight-or-flight response, evolved to save our lives in the event of grievous bodily injury, yet totally inappropriate when triggered by the many chronic minor stressors we face, from running late in traffic, to a hectic family life, to just reading the newspaper every day and being exposed to countless tragedies in third-person.
So, besides giving another tool to our veterans, I hope you will take a few minutes to try Dawson’s Eco-Meditation for yourself, and discover whether it may be a valuable tool in your own life.