Omega opens doors to lost PTS veterans

I didn’t want to go back to Omega Institute this year. Each time I travelled to this land of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle, I’d get high from the holistic experience. But then I’d change into an Ichabod Crane feeling chased by the Headless Horseman who’d tell true life stories that caused so much pain I couldn’t hold it inside. Two years ago, I picked up a chair and slammed it to the floor after being unable to console an Iraqi veteran – a colonel close to my age –who spoke of losing the one and only love of his life. He was willing to convert and become a Muslim until his wonderful Iraqi translater fiance was killed by the very own people we had been sent to win over for democracy. I wanted to cry out, to sob, but instead, rage in me poured out.

Last year, I stormed out of a small group session when a similar situation grew.  I couldn’t  experience these group sessions where you’re required to listen deeply but offer no compassion or understanding  to someone who has just opened their veins to you. I wanted – I needed – to respond in some way to show that I felt their pain, their suffering. I wanted to take on that pain and suffering, even for just a little while to help reduce it.

And so, I discarded the letter from Omega advising me of the “Real Cost of War” With Claude “Anshin” Thomas, the Vietnam veteran helicopter machine-gunner who later became a Zen Buddhist monk to help others like him with post traumatic stress. I know I caused a ruckus when I lost control and took it out on the metal chair. I don’t know why I did it. I hardly ever slam or break things when a “PTS” episode erupts. Despite my efforts to meditate and develop loving kindness and compassion, I now know I have this thread of PTS that has gotten all jumbled up with other parts that make up the whole of me. You can’t remove it without unraveling everything else. I will have it until the day I die. I want to recognize it and keep it in check, and more importantly, to be able to forgive myself for the crazy things I do when the rage arises unchecked inside of me.

—————————–

Like the time I went shopping at a Pets Mart. While driving in a lot, I noticed that someone in a shiny new white van had taken up two parking spots. “Damn it,” I said, slowly passing the vehicle, looking for another place to park. I stopped immediately on seeing the driver of the van get out of the vehicle and walk toward the store.

“Excuse me” I called out to him. “You took up two spaces there,” I tried to point out the mistake he must have surely overlooked making. He looked in my direction and said something, but continued to walk to the door entrance. “Yo, man, you’re taking up two spaces,” I said, voice rising along with a feeling of a manifest injustice growing. He never looked back, but went in the store. “Hey you,” I shouted by this time, letting venom spew out with a choice follow-up: “You mother f-er.” I gunned the car engine and quickly pulled into an open parking spot further away.

Rushing into the store I tried to find him. All of the men began to look alike and after stopping two fellows who had no idea about some white van parking violation I had quizzed them on, I got my supplies and went to the cashier.

I started to calm down and come to my senses, but ended up telling the cashier about the double parking space scoundrel. It was the worst thing I could have done. She understood my feelings all right, but then told me how much she hated persons without handicap plates parking in a handicap spot, like the one she needed to use at her apartment complex. “I’d call the police, but they wouldn’t show up for the longest time and the guy would be gone by then.” She said. Leaning forward and speaking in a conspiratorial tone, she confided that one time she got so mad she “keyed” a car illegally parked in a handicap spot. “What do you mean by “keying?” I asked. She motioned with her hand as if holding a key between her fingers while sliding the metal device all across the side of the car.

I got shocked hearing this from such a peaceful looking grandmother-type. God, talk about violence, I thought. At that precise moment – just as she was ringing up my order, but before I could pay for it – I saw the white van driver exiting the store. “Hey man” I yelled, telling the cashier that I’d be right back. I rushed toward the guy, trying to get his attention. He wouldn’t look back as I made it to the door and saw him getting into his vehicle.

I screamed louder and went toward the van as he started the engine and began to back up. “M-fers” got mixed in with some “C-suckers” (think rooster strutting here!) as I pushed the envelope of what should have pissed off any reasonable person, and make them stop. He didn’t. So I did what any other Vietnam veteran with PTS would have done – I kicked the door of his new shiny white van.

That did the trick. He halted, opened the door, and stood in the street, looking down from his 6-foot, 3 inch-frame to my 5’6’’ height on my tallest days.

He got in my face, but I didn’t back away. At least one fellow – a bystander who saw the incident – tried to break up what had the makings of a real street brawl.

“Why did you take up two spots?” I yelled up at him, still trying to take the moral high ground in a world my PTS tells me is often lacking such moral  justice. When he didn’t answer, I yelled again, and then threw in the worst epitaph any man living would hate to be called upon his death: “You f-in pussy,” I said.

Now those are fighting words where I come from, and I don’t know why I said them. Furthermore, I couldn’t figure out why he chose the words he did to try to insult me back by calling me a ”fat f’er,” but with out the “er” sound. ”You Fat Fu etc, etc . . . ” was what he actually said.

Again I shouted the “f” and “p” words at him. I didn’t care what he might do, because I felt like an avenging angel riding a wave of righteous indignation. I also knew that I could get him for assault if he laid a finger on me, despite any damage my foot might have caused when I kicked the van. I practiced criminal law for 20 years before PTS finally interrupted my peaceful and loving relationship as a public defender with some of Philly’s worst criminals. I knew from personal knowledge that causing property damage gives no one the right to physically assault another, particularly when the person had ”crossed the line” so to speak of societal parking etiquette and rules. He had to learn people weren’t going to take this anymore – particularly people like us crazed Vietnam vet types who get fueled by a weird sense of moral outrage at something as minor as a parking incident. (Come to think of it, most, if not all, of my PTS episodes involve simple things where I end up making mountains out of mole hills. I go from “zero to 60”  in the flash of a millisecond. It was great to use such technique in combat, but could be deadly used at home.) Luckily, this incident broke up before escalating any further.

——————————-

I have no idea what lesson I was supposed to learn or what action I was supposed to take from this moment of Karma-arising. Worse yet, I had no one I could talk to who might understand the craziness I deal with week to week. I never know when something might trigger an explosion. Why do I even let myself out to mingle with reasonable people, I thought,  when I should be locked up for my safety and the good of others? I’m afraid for myself and more so for others. At times, I feel completely lost.

That’s when I began to re-think the Omega Institute experience, and I remembered how good I felt being around people like myself, that is, veterans who weren’t ashamed – or afraid anymore — of talking about PTS. I included among them the family members of vets who suffer not only from the vet’s actions, but also from what medical folks call secondary PTS.

The yearning to see them again – to hear their stories and to tell them of my homeland battles – kicked in, and I recovered the Omega letter, contacted the Institute, and lucked out with a scholarship. I figured I’d use something called “noble speech” to get around the “maintain-silence-at-all-costs” rule and discuss mutual problems while gaining some insights there.

Everything seemed to be going well until Thursday morning when I saw the black-robed, bald-headed, monk walk in the crowded hall of the Lake Theatre of Omega. (See Omega.org for more.)  I went to greet him, seeing him for the first time with a cane, and I jokingly asked if I should provide him with a full prostration at his feet like I did on a previous occasion, and he said “Just don’t go slamming any more chairs to the floor.”

Despite the words, I felt lots of love and compassion as he smiled, and I knew no chair would come between me and this helicopter crew chief guru, Claude Anshin Thomas.

I felt I was at home again. I felt I was where I belonged, PTS or no PTSD.

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15 comments on “Omega opens doors to lost PTS veterans

  1. Mary M. says:

    Hey, Michael, thanks for this post. We spoke briefly, I believe, at Omega this past April; you told me the police were harrassing your son. Anyway, I appreciate your words and especially your humor (which seemed in short supply during the retreat). As a first-timer to this retreat I find myself wondering about the wisdom of AnShin stirring up all the memories and triggers without there being any support during or especially after the retreat to help deal with the “de-compensation” and re-traumatization. Any thoughts on this? Is silence and meditation the only tool offered?

    • contoveros says:

      Good point, Mary. Wouldn’t it be great to have stayed another day to let things settle down? Or, maybe set up satellite places in a location near two or more veterans’ homes to meet and discuss what we learned and hoped to carry on?

      Maybe we can suggest that to those in charge next time.

      The police are still grilling my son. He’s done no more than what I did when I was younger but never got caught. I view this as karma for me. It’s giving me a chance to “do the right thing” now, whatever that might be.

      I enjoyed the retreat immensely and learned a great deal from people I came into contact with, even though we were not permitted to talk. Please let me know more about your experience and the times we may have used “noble speech” to get around the no-talking policy. I’d love to hear from you. I still have contact with persons I met on my first retreat and view them as family.

      With kindness and compassion,

      michael j

      • Mary M. says:

        I absolutely think it would be a good idea for an extra day to “process” what comes up during this retreat, perhaps with the assistance of counselors on hand for that purpose. My husband and I are still processing all the anxiety and re-traumatization that arose at Omega, most of which has yet to be resolved. I believe it’s therapeutic to acknowledge trauma and to exorcise demons, and I don’t expect it to be pleasant – but I was totally unprepared for the intensity of the retreat, the lack of forewarning thereof and also the lack of supportive resources to help cope. We are dealing with a very fragile population – persons who are suicidal, homicidal and otherwise unbalanced. I would be concerned about liability if nothing else. Thanks, Michael, for giving me a chance to vent this.

        • contoveros says:

          If you can’t vent with a fellow PTS-carrier, who can you vent with? Secondary post traumatic stress is what family members usually get living with someone with full-blown PTS. It’s contageious! Next time you hear about someone with it, run and hide.

          Just kidding. I believe that help would have been available had anyone needed support for an emergency situation the last day of the five-day retreat. I’ve heard of no critical need for it, however. But for those who could afford it, perhaps we could pay a reduced rate for another night’s stay to make our return to the world a little easier.

          Heck, I’ll even do another day’s worth or “working meditation” if it would help!

          • Mary M. says:

            Hi Michael,

            If true that “help would have been available had anyone needed support for an emergency situation the last day of the five-day retreat” I’m afraid I saw no evidence (or mention) of this. And there is a certain type of person who doesn’t recognize they need help and wouldn’t ask for it if they did.

            What happens once vets get home? I read your stories about chair-slamming and the parking lot incident (which I can totally relate to) and think about those who might go further and injure other things/creatures/people/self. Just saying the zen approach of opening up a can of worms and sitting back to see how it all sorts out can create some highly volatile situations, not something to take lightly.

            My husband has primary, I have both primary and secondary PTS. We thought we were fine leaving Omega. A few days later I realized we were both very reactive, angry, stressed and distraught, realized what a psychic “hit” we’d both taken – not just from examining and revealing our own stuff, but being exposed to some horrific war stories, booby-trapped exploding babies and all.

            Although we have many resources at hand and I’m not worried about us personally, I am concerned about those without therapists or resources and/or are new to the process of uncovering old wounds and the symptoms it might present. Since the retreat is in its 7th (?) year and apparently nobody has indicated a problem, I assume nothing will change. I guess the proper zen attitude would be “Oh well, not my problem…”

            So Michael, do you understand if Anshin believes all that is necessary to change from violence to peace is to meditate, live mindfully and adopt Zen Buddhist practices? Is there no other path? Was there another message that I didn’t hear?

            (Sorry I have more questions than answers. During a Q&A session Anshin chastised me lightly for asking a question about why it was important to “speak” our stories; before answering the question he talked about five-year olds always asking “why”. No doubt I’ll go to my grave asking why?)

            I appreciate your blog and thank you for this forum, Michael, hope you don’t find my questions too annoying! I’m very happy if people have found Anshin’s retreats to be helpful. Whatever works…

            Cheers to you, hope your son resolves his problem and that your Karmic wheel gives you a break! Mary

            • contoveros says:

              I understand your feelings, Mary. Long ago, I cemented over some hellish experiences I wanted never to disturb in hopes they would wither away and die. Unfortunately, they “imprinted” themselves, causing a gradual fraying of my impulse control and a hyper alertness, awareness and an increased sensitivity to new persons, places and things.

              AnShin’s methods within the retreats broke through my cover like a jack-hammer, re-opening veins of junk I need to, but never could, process. It didn’t happen overnight. Despite misgivings, I came back to Omega Institute. Eventually, I was able to not only look at the worst day of my life outside a counselor’s office, but share the shame, guilt and remorse in public.

              At a subequent retreat, I wrote about it — that single worst day — scribbling voluminously in steno notepads exposing all I kept hidden to the light the paper seemed to provide. I’d make them public some day, I thought, if for no one else, at least my loved ones and my progeny.

              This past retreat, I typed those handwritten articles — 10 in all –into a laptop computer, discovering I could “desensitize” the traumatic events by removing emotions and prior conceptions about them. I saw them from a different viewing lens, sans the worst feelings this young soldier had kept all those years.

              It was liberating!</strong>


              But, it couldn’t have ocurred until that very moment, a wise man said “when conditions are sufficient,things [will] reveal themselves.”

              That’s the hope I’d like you and your husband to take from your exposure to this process.

              In addition, I’d like to see you in action. I want to be in your company at another retreat as you continue to ask “why.” I believe students of Socrates and followers of the Buddha helped all within earshot gain much insight when hearing the wise ones patiently speak to fearless searchers posing questions many of the others were too afraid to ask.

              michael j,
              another searcher

              (Thank you again for your kind thoughts about my son.)

              • mrymc says:

                “When conditions are sufficient,things [will] reveal themselves.” Like “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”? It is a miraculous process that you describe, Michael. There is more apparent benefit to the retreat than I experienced. Not sure we’ll make the journey from Minnesota for another retreat, but won’t rule it out. Wish there were more of a community locally to connect and share with. We were hoping to get an email or two from those we met at Omega, hasn’t happened yet. Do you know of any email networks/lists available?

                Thanks, Michael, for your thoughtful and heartfelt responses. I am so pleased that you seem to have truly found a healing path. I wish you continued peace, serenity and joy. Mary

  2. Kim Nagle says:

    Thanks for sharing! Call if you need a friend to listen! Warm Regards, Kim

    • contoveros says:

      Kim,

      Gracias, my Omega buddy. You and your partner helped me to share and become a little better at listening to your wonderful stories.

      I hope to stay in touch should the powers around us and “in our gardens” conspire with the universe to bring it all about . . .

      michael j

  3. ahimsamaven says:

    Thank you. For a number of reasons I needed to read this exactly – instantaneously – now.

  4. I kind of have the same problem. I am a peaceful nonviolent Buddhist at heart but when I perceive an injustice, watch out ! I feel that the Gods have a sense of humor in this exercise. They send me the same problem at different times to se if I will conquer it. Three times it happened to me last week. Just mofos and stuff. But I feel so beaten afterwards. Guilt. This time I am, again, ready, as I have decided that these tests are for me. When it happens again I will say to myself and whoever is involved: “I do not talk to demons”. We’ll see what happens. I feel that the same problem will be presented to me under different guises until I figure out how to deal with it. Yep, I know it involves the ego and belief systems. But knowing and doing are two different things.
    Peace to you and good luck.
    Lou

    • contoveros says:

      Please, please, please let me know if your system works. I know lots of veterans and non-veteran Buddhists that could use your helpful advice toward a life filled more with loving kindness.than the need to react to every injustice we perceive around us.

      Your friend in Guilt,
      michael j

  5. I stayed out of Vietnam, I wanted no part of the destruction, I turned 19 in 1971 so I was the last draft lottery, and when my number came in above what they wanted I left college and went to work.
    Anyway, I read Claude Anshin Thomas’ book ‘At Hell’s Gate’ and was just so taken back by it. I heard a lot of stories about the war from people I met in the enduring years, and knew that truly everyone has their Vietnam.
    I read a lot about the war, during the time it was going on, of course it was glamorized in the magazines, and I was young and impressionable, but it all washed out eventually, till I ultimately wrote the poems Survivor’s Guilt
    http://grandfathersky.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/survivors-guilt-khe-sahn/
    I was always puzzled at why, then one day I just understood it, it’s not our choice, it’s the universe unfolding as it should.
    As far as your ‘moments’ like in the parking lot, there is a words for it called ‘decompensating’, where the past stops being the past. I think I heard it used by Jim Finley, I will try to find the podcast and send you the link. He is a remarkable person, and the interview is very telling.
    Should you see Claude Anshin thomas, please tell him for me that he has and is doing a great work. The consciousness his book raised in me has never left, and I have recommended it and given it to others more than anything I have ever read … We truly must end this culture of violence.
    Namaste – gs

    • contoveros says:

      I just read Survivor’s Guilt, Khe Sahn, and it moved me so much I plan to direct others Vietnam veterans to the site to take in its powerful impact.

      Thank you, my friend, for being able to see more clearly than some of us still too sore to behold the truth so boldly.

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