Over the Memorial Day weekend, much of our attention was directed to the plight of returning Veterans who suffer debilitating psychological wounds. Many more servicemen have been lost to suicide than lost in combat. The system is overwhelmed by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One general interviewed on CNN on Sunday said there was a “a critical, urgent need to find the root causes of this illness and the means to treat it successfully.”
For me, and hundreds of my colleagues around the world, the treatment of PTSD is not an insurmountable problem. Awakening others to the hope that there is a cost-effective, sustainable, easily delivered treatment has been a problem. People have adopted the prevailing view that PTSD is a nearly intractable problem that requires years of expensive, complex treatment and still may not be resolved.
PTSD afflicts some people who have been part of, witnessed, or been the object of unspeakable horror and cannot come to peace with it or get it off their minds. The slightest reminder — a sharp sound, an innocent question, a dark hallway, a shadowy figure in the distance, a child’s cry, an image on television, any of thousands of ordinary things — can trigger a cascade of terrifying memories. It begins to seem that the person is trapped in an unrelenting cycle of re-experiencing the horror again and again without warning, until they are paralyzed by fear of the next onslaught. They ricochet between traumatic memories that create psychological and behavioral chaos, and fear of the traumatic memories that creates anxiety and depression. They come to think of themselves as irremediably damaged because they cannot see how to break that pattern.
Most treatments that address PTSD operate on the assumption that there has been some psychological damage to the person that has to be repaired or reinterpreted. Our treatment makes an entirely different assumption, the assumption that at the core of every human being is innate health and resiliency that cannot be lost, cannot be damaged, cannot be altered by external events. That innate health and resiliency can be obscured, just as dark clouds can obscure the sun, and we can lose touch with it. But, like the sun, it is still there, no matter how long the clouds have darkened the sky and hidden it from us.
How do people reconnect with their resiliency and regain their bearings and their peace of mind? In our experience, it happens, simply, through insight that leads people to an understanding of what memory is and how it works, of what thinking is and how thoughts come and go from our minds, of how our consciousness of thoughts at any given moment infuses them with temporary reality that will dissolve as our thinking shifts.
Memory arises from re-thinking the past. The past is over. The only way the past can get into the present moment is through our own ability to re-imagine it. When we re-imagine horrible things, they frighten us, so we have a tendency, without understanding, to hold them in place in order to “fight” them or “interpret” them or “deal with” them, rather than allowing them to pass, and seeing them for what they are. What are they? They are nothing more or less than images from the past carried forward in time through our own ability to think them again. The natural thought process doesn’t “care” what we put into it: happy memories, sad memories, funny memories, horrifying memories. It just does its job. It is like electricity flowing through the wires. It will operate whatever we plug into it — a hair dryer, an electric chair, a light bulb… We form memory-images into present-moment thoughts, and they come into our present-moment experience and we become conscious of them so they appear, momentarily, real again. But thoughts have no more power than the power we give them, and no more life than the time we are thinking them. Understanding that gives us freedom to allow thoughts to pass through our minds without falling prey to them. We are the thinkers of all our thoughts, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the horrifying and the uplifting. And we have the capacity to imagine them and to re-imagine them, to hang onto them and to let them go.
There is nothing we can do to keep life from triggering memories in our minds. Those of us who have met horror face-to-face and whose minds contain those memories will, inevitably, “see” them again in our mind’s eye. But we can be free of suffering from them if we understand them for what they are: thoughts carried forward through time that will come and go if we don’t take them seriously or become frightened by them. We can start to have the relationship to our memories that we have to television shows we come upon, and don’t like. We don’t give them time and attention but notice them and change the channel, turning our attention to something else that comes to the screen. Since thinking is a dynamic activity, new thoughts are always coming to mind — if we don’t hang onto the old ones and keep re-creating them.
In my experience, PTSD sufferers who realize that our experience is created by our own thinking brought to life by our consciousness, who see that we can think anything and take anything we think seriously or not, wake up to their own strength to leave the past alone. There is nothing we can do to change or “fix” the past. We can come back to the present, though, by recognizing the negative, upset feelings we get from past thoughts coming to mind as a warning sign to leave them alone and allow them to pass, quieting our minds. The power is not in the horrifying images, but in our uplifting, spiritual ability to relate to them as images, and to see that the reality we are experiencing comes from our relationship to our thinking, not from the content of our thoughts or the circumstances that trigger them.
I remember a Vietnam Veteran in a group some years ago who had an insight into why he was suffering so much, years after coming home from the war. “Oh, my God,” he said. “I just realized the war has been over for more than 20 years, except in my own head!”
People do not want to suffer. People want to be at peace, and untroubled by their thoughts, regardless of the content of those thoughts. Understanding how thought works shows us the way to peace of mind, and to a healthy relationship with our thoughts that can accommodate any passing thought without fear or distress.
That understanding is natural to us. It arises from the quiet of our own souls, when we are pointed away from the variable content of our thoughts to the constant power to think, the gift that allows us to free our minds and live at peace.