Over the last six months, nightmares have played an essential role in my phycological and emotional development. My subconscious mind has been actively punching through the walls that keep it boxed up and demanding that items buried down in it be processed at the very least by the dreaming mind; often demanding through shouts that wake me in the middle of the night that my conscious brain at last deal with this stuff that had been buried for far too long. I am hesitant to pass this process off to a reaction to COVID-19, although catharsis has been a critical piece of my journey through this pandemic. The buried items were buried long before we began to self-isolate, argue about masks, and long for a return to some normal even if very different.
These nightmares are the culmination of a journey into mindfulness begun almost two decades ago reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Being Peace and continued on and off since. The reading has broadened to Western writers who offer a similar experience to the Buddhist’s, like Thomas Merton and Ralph Waldo Emerson, but it has remained firmly in pursuit of a stillness. The word choice in that last sentence-structure deliberate as my journey still has this sense of pursuit rather than being; and while many less noble characteristics have been shed from the rucksack lightening the pack, the enlightening that comes from being and not pursuing remains elusive.
This week, I have turned to a program called Journey Forward: The Military Mindfulness Action Practices (M.M.A.P.) for Success offered on eMLife by Veteran’s Path, recommended to me by a LinkedIn connection, retired Navy SEAL, Jon McCaskil. In two sessions, I have awoken to the concept of being more kind to myself, an idea that sounds not particularly novel to the many friends and family members who seem to constantly remind me, “Steve, you needed to be kind to yourself.” It might be the epitaph on my tombstone if I am not careful; and sooner than I want if I don’t get it!
With profound insight, the first session helped me to see the horror-movie nightmare that woke me the night before as a gift. I had a dream about emergency vehicles lined up in the valley behind my house as rescuers pulled people out from hidden bunkers, some dead, others sick, many walking but weak. I woke once, partially, my partner trying to get me fully conscious, but I couldn’t get there and began to mutter “I knew they were there; I had heard their voices, I had heard their voices…” The nightmare continued until finally awake, I began to tremble with the fear that happens when a dream feels too real. When the first session ended, I was able to see this dream as my subconscious processing the fear I had over beginning to reemerge from an extended period of self-imposed isolation predating COVID-19 by a couple of years. I have only recently re-activated my Facebook account and reconnected with friends from all periods of my life dating back to elementary school. My isolation, however, has meant that some relationships are gone, some need real attention, while most are just happy to see me alive and well. The nightmare turned into a crucial understanding of an honest fear that had been buried that I needed to be mindful off and treat with honor and respect. Not bad work for a half hour of mindfulness.
What else have I learned during the first two sessions? In the military, we learn to live with a normative level of stress that is far from normal. This leads to all sorts of wonderful dysfunctions for the content of the modern realist novel writer. We mock those around us who cracking under the pressures show the slightest signs of failure through accepted destructive behaviors: alcoholism and verbally abusive leadership styles. We see opportunity when those symptoms of failure turn into actual failure through illegal drug use or inappropriate relationships. We savor the inevitable number one rankings or Early Promote characterizations of our performance because we know we managed our stress better than the others.
More often than not, these reactions are simply the function of not having the time or energy to ask one simple question: “you look like you are hurting right now, what can I do to help?” Our stress levels are so high in a hyper-competitive environment that while we may have the time to ask the question, we rarely have enough time to do the work side-by-side our colleagues and friends. So the callous instinctive reaction becomes another element of the norm: “better him than me.” Perhaps, if the work of Veteran’s Path could be incorporated into leadership schools in the military, we could turn our attention to the pressing needs of our peers and offer them mindful empathy, aware that what we accept as normal is truly strange and profoundly unhealthy. We do not have to escape from it, the military does require a unique relationship with stress much like first responders, medical professionals and others in high intensity work, but to simply acknowledge it with patience and a non-judgmental mind might help that person avoid the destructive behaviors and enable continued success on a shared mission of defense of the country and the values we all cherish.
I conclude my week by selecting one of Nine Attitudes of Mindfulness outlined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, another one of the guides who has crossed my path along with Merton and Emerson since first reading Thich Nhat Hanh (thank you to my dear sister, Beth!): non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, letting go, gratitude, and generosity. I am choosing non-judging which is described in our program as “practicing the attitude of ‘non-judging’ involves being an impartial witness to your own experience” which calls the doer to “choose a specific event that usually causes stress and see if you can simply notice the stream of judging or critical mind… good/bad/neutral. Don’t try and stop it; simply be aware of it.”
Don’t isolate, join us on this journey.