Coming to Peace after Going to War
Let me define what I mean by “coming to peace” and by “going to war.” I do not refer to time and place, or to actual events. I refer to the different mindsets, and the states of mind, that support the experience of peace and the readiness for war.
All veterans, around the world, whether they have ever seen conflict or faced an enemy directly, come home ultimately after spending a lot of time in the mindset of uncertainty, risk, readiness, intent to follow orders/training without reflection or question, and awareness of “them” and “us.” When they come home, we expect they will click a switch and adopt the mindset of confidence, safety, ease, responsiveness and comfort with family and friends and all of “us”. We do not prepare those who serve us in the military to understand their own minds to manage this adjustment if they have difficulty with it. Not all do have difficulty, and it is not necessarily predictable who will and who won’t.
The approach taken to mental health and well-being with veterans suffering distress, while there are various methodologies, normally starts with the assumption that something is broken and the person has to “deal with” the “problem.”
So let me redefine the “problem.” Most of the veterans I have worked with arrived believing their mind or their spirit is broken. They believe the “problem” is something that happened to them or to someone else that they can’t set aside; or to things they did or saw in the military that conflict with their religious values, family values, or sense of humanity; or situations they faced that terrified them, or subjected them to abuse, or caused them to question the meaning of what they were doing. The “problem” seems insoluble because they know it can’t be erased; they can’t “unsee” or “unface” or “undo” what is vivid to them in memories and nightmares. It is a shock to them when I tell them what they are experiencing is the symptom of the problem, not the problem itself, and that what I would call the problem is much simpler. I tell them the actual problem is that they do not truly understand the difference between memories from the past and thinking in the present moment, and how the mind works to bring memories alive for us, creating the illusion that something from the past is present.
Deeper than that, we all can benefit from seeing more and more clearly that peace of mind is natural to us the more we come to recognize that thoughts are neutral information until we make something of them. If I don’t swim and am terrified of drowning and I go to a movie with a dramatic scene of a person whose boat springs a leak and starts to sink in a dark, deep river, I will have a very different reaction from someone sitting nearby who is a confident swimmer and has no fear of water. We may be seeing the same movie, experiencing the same external reality, but we are experiencing it differently, through our own filters. Nonetheless, we both know we are watching a movie, not actually struggling to survive in a sinking boat. Whatever our reaction is in the moment, it passes when the scene shifts.
Memories are personal movies. The script is set in the past; the movie is long-since made; it doesn’t change. But as we start to see for ourselves that memories are replays of life experiences that are over, cannot be erased or altered, but have no relationship to the present moment, we can allow them to play themselves out when they come to mind, or better yet, just turn away from them. We decide whether to wait it out, or look away if we don’t like the movie.
And even deeper than that, we experience all our thinking more lightly when we realize that our humanity is unbreakable; the human spirit — the spiritual energy of life that generates our ability to remember, to dream, to think, to think again, to know life — is formless and cannot be broken. We are that spirit, the creative power to be and to think. We are not driven by our thoughts; we are the drivers of our thoughts, what we make of them, how long we keep them in mind, how seriously we take them, how well we understand whether they are helpful or not.
As little children, we know that. Everyone who has been around small children observes how easily they let go of upsetting thoughts, how little they care whether they are talking fantasy or talking about what’s in front of them, and how readily they move into and out of their imaginations. Thinking is the playground of childhood; somehow, some of us learn to make it the prison of adulthood. But we never lose the key. We are always free to release ourselves.
Perhaps this sounds abstract, or confusing. It’s simple. We come into the world ‘knowing’, without considering what or how we know, that tears can turn to laughter, joy can turn to sadness, anger can turn to compassion, fear can turn to relief moment-to-moment. Children don’t make anything of it. A crying baby distracted by a butterfly giggles, but doesn’t feel embarrassed that she gave up her tears. A trembling child awakened from a nightmare by a parent’s hugs and reassurance rolls over and goes back to sleep, and doesn’t feel compelled to keep talking about the nightmare. The starter kit we get includes natural ups and downs, with peace of mind as the default setting, the place we settle into when upsetting or exciting thoughts pass. Peace of mind is the space between the notes of life.
It becomes more complex as we grow and learn because we can think about our thinking, and are encouraged to do so. It becomes more complex because we are taught to depend on our intellect to figure things out, to separate fantasy from “reality”, to monitor our self-expression, and so on and so on. Sometimes people take that more seriously than others; sometimes people sustain the underlying certainty that thoughts will come and go, that everything passes if we calm down and quiet down and wait for new ideas.
It is not really a mystery why sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t, why sometimes people get caught up in maelstroms of thought, or get very frightened by certain thinking and can’t let go of it because they are consumed with the intensity of trying to fight it off. Our response to our thinking is a byproduct of the thoughts that have become habitual to us and our state of mind when they come to mind. A trivial example: I am allergic to bee stings. For years, I was terrified of bees, avoided bees, and went into a frantic dance of jumps and swats if bees approached me, desperate to get them away from me. Sometimes, I got stung. Then, I moved to LaConner, Washington, where bees were plentiful, commonplace, and too numerous to fight. Sitting with a friend in an outdoor restaurant one day as a little swarm of bees approached our table, I started to get up to run inside. “Just sit still,” my friend said. “The bees aren’t here to get you. They’re interested in the sugar. Leave them alone; they may land on you, but you’re not sugar.” From that day forward, faced with bees, I have gotten still and quiet, and waited for them to pass. I have never been stung. It was a life lesson, not just a bee lesson.
Preparation for war is by definition management of our life from insecurity. It assumes that there are enemies out to get us if we don’t get them first. The ideas of readiness, weaponry, the battlefield, victory and defeat, are grounded in insecurity. Insecurity incorporates feelings of anxiety, worry, self-preservation, alertness, focus on me and those close to me, distrust of others, pressure to win, survival — and so on. A person who spends most of their time at some level of insecurity is not at peace. The less familiar peace is, the more unattainable it seems.
Coming to peace is by definition management of our life from a state of security. It assumes that peace is our natural state and life is an unthreatening opportunity. The ideas of home and family, engagement in the community, having no fear of others, appreciating the moment, being at ease are grounded in security. Security incorporates feelings of love, compassion, curiosity, enjoyment, openness, feeling connected to others and all life in the moment, comfort with ups and downs, and so on. A person who spends most of their time in various degrees of security is not at war. The less familiar war is, the more unappealing it seems.
It is part of human experience to drift in an out of varying levels of security and insecurity. With understanding of how we work as human beings, we are comfortable navigating moments of insecurity, and moments of peace. With understanding of the gifts of Mind, Thought and Consciousness, we are the creators of our own experience of life, not the victims of it.
NOTE: If you are interested in exploring this further, I have an on-line program, Peace for Veterans: Thriving vs. Surviving, designed for veterans and their families, but available to anyone, that is absolutely free of charge. This program was created with love and assistance from several colleagues, and financial support from the Center for Sustainable Change, a now-defunct non-profit that supported Principles work for many years. We wanted the program to be free of charge because, over time, I and many of my colleagues have encountered so many veterans seeking help, but unable to travel to counselors or groups due to injury or financial limitations, or unwilling to publicly identify their pain in various settings due to shame or fear of being stigmatized, or unable to stick with traditional treatment modalities due to discouragement or lack of progress. It is entirely self-directed, designed to be easy to move in and out of, with short segments, easily digested or rewatched, in which viewers can use the pause button to stop a screen to take time to consider it. Please visit peaceforveterans.org to visit it.