Back in high school I'd been good at languages but couldn't afford to go to college, so I joined the navy for the language training. They have a program where if you pass an aptitude test, they'll send you to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, for an intensive course that's worth almost a year of college credit. Plus they have an active-duty education program that offers college courses. I figured after my discharge I could finish my education on the GI Bill, and with my language skills, I could get a job in international business.
The other military branches offer programs like this too, but the navy seemed the best way to stay out of the fighting. I was hoping for a major language like Chinese, Russian, or Spanish, but they assigned me to Pashto, which is spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan. After training, I'd be stationed on a ship in the Arabian Sea monitoring phone calls and radio broadcasts, listening for key words that might give a clue about where the Taliban were, so the planes from the aircraft carriers could bomb them. I didn't think about this last part, though. I was focused on my future.
The study itself was a real grind -- drills, exercises, and vocabulary all day long and a couple of hours at night. But no classes on weekends, so we could take off.
I couldn't afford weekends in San Francisco, but in a bookstore in Monterey I saw a poster for a two-day retreat at a Zen Buddhist center nearby. It sounded weird enough to be a good break from the military, and the price was right, so I signed up for the first of a two-weekend introductory course.
The place was beautiful, deep in the mountains and forest. The course was called Buddha Breath, Buddha Mind and was led by a bald-headed woman. Instead of an orange robe she wore blue jeans and a sweatshirt. She said first we were going to learn how to breathe. I thought, What have I got myself into?
We spent an hour just breathing in and out, and you know, it turned out to be pretty interesting. When thoughts came up, we were supposed to just nod to them, then let them go and return to our breathing. Thoughts and breathing, thoughts and breathing, and then as I kept doing this, I noticed something more, some part of me that I hadn't known before, that was watching all this going on, a quiet, wise old part who was just looking at it all and nodding OK. He'd been doing that all along without my knowing it. I thought of him as an old guy with a white beard. But he was me, that was my Buddha mind.
The next hour we were supposed to keep breathing and watching our thoughts, but at the same time notice everything happening around us right here and now. That turned out to be quite a lot. It's amazing what all is going on that we don't pay attention to because we're shut off in our thoughts -- worrying about what happened in the past and what might happen in the future. Esther, the group leader, called this our monkey mind because it's always jumping from one thing to another. It gets lost in each thing and doesn't have any perspective on itself. But the Buddha mind, that silent witness, can give us a peaceful perspective on ourselves and the world.
From that deeper level I noticed how much beauty shone in simple things: a beaded curtain of eucalyptus buds swaying in the breeze, dust drifting through sunlight, a fly walking on the wall. Watching these while quietly breathing in and out, I could tell the buds, the dust, the fly, and I were all part of the Buddha mind. It wasn't just my mind but something we shared. This was a bit spooky because it meant there was more to me than me, or there was less of me than me, depending on how I looked at it.
Esther said each of us isn't an autonomous monad but an aspect of a larger wholeness. She compared the Buddha mind to the entire light spectrum, which is mostly invisible to us, and individuals to the colors we see. Colors and individuals appear to be different, but they're just sections of the overall spectrum. Continuity is more basic than differences, but we don't see it that way. The same analogy works with the ocean. We are waves that think of ourselves as self-contained units, but we're really just water that has temporarily taken on this form. Our true identity, the water, isn't born and doesn't die. It just is. The wave suffers because of its delusion of individuality, the water doesn't. This principle simultaneously destroys our concept of ourselves and gives us a greater one.
What she was saying was heavy-duty stuff, but it clicked in me because it described how I was feeling just sitting there breathing and paying attention. I signed up for the next weekend.
During the week I practiced mindful breathing and awareness as much as I could, which wasn't very much. It was almost impossible while I was listening to Pashto in the language lab. I could sort of do it during the regular classes between having to give answers. I could do it best when I was alone, but I was hardly ever alone. We did everything as a group. At meals people wanted to talk, and if I would've told them I just wanted to pay attention to my breathing, they would've thought I was crazy. Finally I came up with the trick of putting my MP3 in my ears but with no music. During meals I could eat in silence, and no one bothered me because they thought I was listening to rock songs and that they could understand. Some of the people I usually ate with did think I was being unfriendly, but I didn't know how to explain it.
One night as I was doing mindful breathing trying to go to sleep, all these scenes of war came rushing out at me -- people getting blown up, crippled orphans, survivors filled with a grief that turns into hatred. They took me over like an invading army. My throat tightened, and I started to hyperventilate -- gasping for air, feeling like I was suffocating. Not exactly the desired effect! I kept with the mindful breathing, though, and rode the turbulence through into calmness again. Gradually I stopped trembling, and the thoughts backed off, but I knew the war was still out there waiting for me.
The second weekend was called Buddha Heart, Buddha Hands. We did walking meditations where we integrated our breath with our steps, walking slowly and noticing everything happening in and around us from the deep inner peace of mindfulness. Now we did more than observe it. We tuned in to the feeling level of what was going on. Esther told us first to feel our own emotions as we were walking, to open up to them, accept them, and embrace them with compassion. When we can accept our pain without resentment, we're ready to love our whole self, warts and all.
Sad feelings came up in me, as if they'd been waiting for this invitation. Rather than just nod to them, I asked them what the trouble was. They started complaining about all sorts of things from long ago, or they were afraid of things that maybe might happen. I felt like a parent listening to a child tell its problems, but my parents had never listened to me like that, and I'd never listened to myself either. I was in a lot more pain than I'd wanted to admit, and I just walked along feeling sorry for myself for a while. But the more I listened to the pain, the quieter it got until it sort of talked itself out, and in the silence I could feel compassion without really feeling sorry for myself. I just accepted what was there without judging it. This was the way it was. This was me.
We expanded this technique to the people around us. In sitting meditation we held the image of each of us in our minds and tried to feel what the other was feeling and to embrace that with love. Then we did this with all of humanity, practiced being aware of their pain, accepting them and loving them.
In walking meditation we applied this to all creatures and the environment they exist in. We felt the suffering of the spider starving because no one comes to its web. We felt the suffering of the fly caught in the web of another spider. None of us is separate, Esther reminded us, we are all held together in a web of suffering and love. The differences between us are a surface illusion.
As I was walking, I gazed out at the Ventana Mountains -- they reminded me of home in West Virginia. Then they looked like Afghanistan. I realized West Virginia was the same as Afghanistan. Lots of suffering in both places -- people caught in hardscrabble poverty, intolerant religion, rigid family roles, creating more suffering because they don't know any other way. My family and the Taliban -- the same. I started to cry because I was training to help bomb my kinfolks.
In the Buddha Hands sessions Esther talked about acting on these principles to change the world and reduce suffering. She described Buddhist projects to help battered women defend themselves and forgive their attackers, to help prisoners find inner freedom, to help former child soldiers rediscover their childhood and heal their trauma. She played a video about Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who opposed the violence of both the communists and the anti-communists and was therefore persecuted by both sides. Suffering is caused by ignorance of our true nature, he explained, and violence is acting out that suffering onto others. We need to both overcome the ignorance with mindfulness and to end the violence with social action.
During the week I had a hard time back in the navy. I could see I'd been deluding myself by thinking I'd be away from the fighting if I was sitting on a boat out in the ocean. I'd be an assistant killer, an accomplice to murder. I thought about the bombs being dropped right now, people blown apart, families destroyed. And for what? Because our government didn't like their government. It was obvious to me now that the whole thing was insane, and I couldn't do it. No way could I spy on people's phone and radio conversations and send a jet to kill them and anyone else who happened to be around. It wasn't just that I didn't want to, it wasn't possible. They were all me. I couldn't even be in the navy anymore because killing was the purpose of the whole show. But the certainty of this decision scared me. The military is kind of like the Mafia -- you can't just quit. They come after you.
Needing time and a clear head to figure out what to do, I cut classes (a crime in itself) and did a walking meditation on the beach. I took off my shoes to connect to the earth and water. Thoughts are like shoes: they're useful in certain situations but cut us off from contact with the deeper dimension, so I tried to get rid of them too. Our senses isolate us in our egos, so I closed my eyes and walked blind. As long as I walked from my Buddha mind, I knew where to step. I just had to trust that. It was a good exercise in living in the moment. I got my pant legs soaked and stumbled over some driftwood, but I belonged to it all. I wasn't afraid and alone anymore. Selfless, I had the strength of the universe and was filled with a calm determination to refuse to obey military orders. I knew that would mean prison, but I would treat that as a stay in a monastery and would practice mindfulness through it all. With this decision came a rush of freedom.
That evening I told some of my classmates what I was planning, in hopes a few of them might join me. If several of us refused to obey orders, that would have a lot more effect than just one person. One they can just shove away in prison and write off as a fluke. But a group would get press coverage, and we'd have a chance to explain why we were doing this. It would encourage other people, and the discontent would spread. I'd read about the Presidio 27 mutiny during the Vietnam War, how that helped turn the country against the war. When they refused to obey orders, the army threatened to execute them all, but because of public pressure it released them after a year and a half in prison, and they came out as anti-war heroes.
But instead of solidarity, I ran into solid hostility. The group turned against me. Some of them said I was on the side of Osama bin Laden, others that I was making all of them look bad.
I was disappointed but said, "If that's the way you feel, forget I mentioned it." But they didn't forget it. That night they gave me a blanket party.
I woke up to a towel being crammed into my mouth. I tried to scream, but I was gagged. Someone punched me in the stomach. I tried to get away, but I was held tight by a blanket pulled around me. They pounded me with all their might, working from the chest to the knees with particular preference for the groin. They didn't say anything so I couldn't tell who it was. They just hit. Hard.
Finally they stopped. I was crying and shaking; I hurt all over, not just from the beating but from who it was that did it. These were my mates. We'd been through a lot together. I'd thought we were friends.
I tried to come back to my breathing. Although each breath hurt, I managed to calm myself. The pain was still there, but now I had some distance from it.
I could see that the guys probably thought I'd betrayed our friendship too -- one of their mates turned traitor on them, made them feel immoral for being in the military. Seeing it from the point of view of their pain helped me get back to mindfulness. This was just another example, like war, of people acting out their suffering by inflicting it on others. I could feel these guys' pain at being working-class dorks, Bush's pain at being a rich loser, the Taliban's pain at their helplessness to stop the world from changing.
Through my own pain I could feel the huge mass of collective pain that explodes into wars which then generate more pain, infecting more people with hatred. I could see that violence reproduces itself like a virus, and the way to stop it is to relieve suffering wherever we find it so it doesn't build up.
I thought about military prison and the suffering that awaited me there. I wouldn't be locked up with pacifists but with regular criminals who could be a lot meaner than the guys tonight. I might get beat up, humiliated, raped.
A few hours ago during walking meditation, going to prison to uphold my principles seemed noble. Now lying here trembling in pain it seemed nutty. I didn't need any more suffering. Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt.
I was going to do more than just refuse to obey orders; I was refusing to go to prison too. I was deserting. Right now.
Aching all over, I tossed my few civilian things into my bag, hobbled out of the barracks, drove off the base, and spent the night in a motel outside Monterey. In the morning my body was bruised, swollen, stiff and sore, and my piss was pink, but my mind was clear and free. As soon as I thought about the future, though, I got scared. Now I was a fugitive.
I soaked in a hot bath, then meditated to bring the mind back to right now, where all the problems seemed manageable. For the first time since joining the military, I felt like a warrior, but a different kind -- for peace.
I drove to the Zen center and told them what happened. They said they'd help, but we agreed I shouldn't stay there because I'd mentioned the place to a couple of the guys. Esther called around to other centers and found one where I could stay. Their roof needed mending, and I could earn my room and board that way.
I bowed to Esther in thanks, and she bowed back to me. She'd taught me an amazing amount in two weeks, really changed my life.
I sold my car so it couldn't be traced and took a long bus ride with lots of other poor people. Looking around at them, I knew that some of the younger ones were probably thinking of joining the military. They'd still be poor, but at least they'd have something. In exchange for a bit of security, they'd help their government kill people. That was their best chance in life. What does that say about our society?
Working on the roof at my new Buddhist center was a great way to experience the interconnectedness of all life. Up there in silence, I could feel how the sun was becoming part of me. It was also giving life to the plants in the garden that would then give life to us, and later our bodies when buried would give life to other plants. I thought about how the atoms of my body had been formed in the core of other suns. The people downstairs were cooking food for me while I was keeping them dry. I thought about my family and the people who would come after me, and I knew we were all more closely tied together than I'd ever imagined. At the most basic level we weren't separate, we were all just cells in this great body of God called the universe. That body was held together by the laws of physics but also by laws of love and compassion, the need to treat each other kindly and not generate more suffering. Once we see the interconnections, killing anything becomes suicide.
That made me think about how our economic system is based on ignoring these connections. People are deluded that they are separate, and that makes them so insecure and frightened that they have to grab everything they can to defend themselves, build walls of property they can hide behind, then armies to guard the walls.
I could see all that from up on the roof as I was nailing shingles mindfully, breathing mindfully, and occasionally screaming mindfully when I banged my thumb with the hammer. After finishing the roof, I worked in the garden, where it became even clearer that the plants and bugs and dirt and I are just the same divine energy temporarily expressing itself in different forms, all of it sacred and fragile and worthy of care.
I've been here a year now. Eight of us are working on staff, and many more come for courses. We do sitting and walking meditations together and try to live in each moment because that's all anyone has, but that's enough since each moment is eternity. At night we read and discuss the scriptures with our two monks, chant the Pali suttas, and go to bed early.
One of the monks is from Japan, and he's teaching me Japanese. It's a beautiful language.
"Healing the Virus of Violence" is a chapter from my book RADICAL PEACE, recently released by Trine Day. Other chapters are posted on a page of the publisher's website at http://media.trineday.com/radicalpeace.