By Carole Melkonian In January, thirteen men and seven women met with Maxine Hong Kingston in a wood-heated yurt surrounded by eucalyptus trees at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in northern California. This group of veterans and their families included Vietnam War medics and combat veterans, a Gulf War veteran Gulf, a World War II veteran, and a veteran of the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic.
Maxine began the day by talking about the obstacles in our lives that take us away from being in the present moment. "As writers, we have two jobs. One is to support ourselves by making money. The other is to write, to put into art our inner feelings. We have to find time to write. After a full day's work, we may spend an evening or some time over the weekend writing. It is fragmented to live this way, and we often miss being in the present moment. We say, 'Let's get our work done so we can write,' or 'Let's get our writing done so we can go out' Today we practice living in the present moment in order not to miss our lives."
Following a period of sitting meditation, Maxine continued, "Sitting meditation is a way of bringing the soul home, of bringing the self back to the present moment. Many veterans have said that when they experienced an explosion, they actually jumped out of their bodies. Some believe that when an explosion goes off, your soul jumps out of your body and in some cases it never comes back.
"Writing in a peaceful, quiet place gives you the room to look back at a traumatic and chaotic time. This is peace, right here in this yurt, this forest. It's a safe place to go back and live that moment as fully as possible. Some of the feelings may come back, like an explosion. Paper, pen, and writing the words can contain the experience, make sense of it, and keep it safe. The rational mind can look at the experience and put it into words. Taking a primitive scene and putting it through this process brings it forward to the present moment and changes it. Today we write a scene in life that made an impact. Use all your senses to visualize the place, your feet on the Earth, the lighting, the temperature, colors, smells, sounds, other people present, the dialogues, how the voices sounded, what they said. Don't skip anything. Examine the moment fully, even if it was very illusive. While writing be aware of the present moment. This is a paradox—to be aware of a past traumatic experience and be aware of the present moment.
"When writing alone you can get a lot done. But there comes a time when support from other writers and veterans is needed. Inspiration is a means to take in the world and life through all our senses. In the introductions we just had, we let others into our lives and that's how our characters develop in our writing. Talk, live, and be with others with all your senses. Breathe in their words. Doing this brings the person into your heart and all of this goes into your writing. "We don't need to be so attached to our first draft.
Although the first writing of a scene may bring up emotions, it may be superficial. We need to come back for a second, third, or fourth time to take another look. Entering a moment that is so traumatic, we have to flee it. We need to return ten to twelve times to have a true understanding of the event."
For lunch, we sat together on the sun-filled patio to enjoy a silent, mindful lunch. We sat together appreciating our breath, the presence of each other, and the food. In the afternoon, we returned to the yurt to listen to each other's writing. Maxine emphasized that, as each person read, he or she should watch for honest responses from the listeners— interest, displeasure, boredom—as such responses are good for the editing process. "Also, you will be able to hear if the choice of words and the rhythm are right." After a time of sharing and critiquing our writings, we practiced walking meditation through the gardens.
At an April workshop, Maxine talked about the horrifying stories people had told her on a recent trip to Eastern Europe about acts of genocide against the Armenians by the Turks. "I did walking meditation in the airport after hearing these stories and asked myself, 'Where is the strength going to come from to deal with this suffering?' I saw that it comes from gathering a community. By just being together, breathing and meditating, we can gather the strength to express what is in us. In fact, the more we gather, the more we breathe, the more we write, the stronger we become. We can infuse the energy of our breathing into our writing. We witness suffering, and then we can write to heal and process the suffering.
"I realized values are. The commandments, the precepts, even the Bill of Rights are important guides for a practice community that can make us strong so that we can walk upright, witness, speak out, and act.
The readings at this gathering were particularly strong. By the end of the day, it was obvious, as Maxine said, that everyone had done "something miraculous to come to grips with the big themes of their lives. The writings today were anchored by the focus on people and images, and the owning of them by using first person also gave them strength."
The mindfulness gatherings of veterans continue each month as do readings at local bookstores in the Bay Area. If you are a veteran, or know someone who was directly involved with war and might like to join us, please let us know. Full scholarships are available. Contact the Community of Mindful Living, P.O. Box 7355, Berkeley, California 94707; (510) 527-3751.
Carole Melkonian, True Grace, is a nurse at a hospital in Fort Bragg, California.