So often, it seems that there is too much to do in preparing for and supporting our programs to stop and share what is happening with you. But the truth is, you are on this path with us, and you are creating the ground with us as we go. So this month, we are stopping to take a moment, a breath, and to share a few moments of this journey, through stories and images, with as much depth as the page will allow. So, welcome to Honoring the Path’s first extended newsletter with stories and reflections from our 2014 summer retreats, messages from our cofounders, community news and more. If you feel inspired, please hit “reply” and let us know what you think, or what you’d like to hear more of!
Thích Nhất Hạnh says in Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change, “We who have touched war have a duty to bring the truth about war to those who have not had a direct experience of it. We are the light at the tip of the candle. It is really hot, but it has the power of shining and illuminating. If we practice mindfulness, we will know how to look deeply into the nature of war and, with our insight, wake people up so that together we can avoid repeating the same horrors again and again.”
This quote expresses so beautifully what happens at our summer retreats, where there is time and space to practice, individually and together, and to look deeply into our experiences and to share them with others. In many of our programs, we notice that with each successive event, the participants’ presence and sharing deepens every year. This summer’s retreats were not exceptions. Some vets joined us for the first time, and several had been to two or three or even all of the preceding retreats; regardless, each one looked deeply into his or her own experience while sharing it with profound vulnerability. As Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, we spent time waking ourselves up, so that we can know how to transform ourselves and the world.
2014 Womens Retreat
In June of this year, 18 women veterans attended our 4th Annual Women Veterans retreat at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. One way the group touched the world in a remarkable way was to welcome in New York Times regular columnist Samuel G. Freedman and photographer Jason Henry to spend a day and a half with us. The women spoke openly of their experiences and suffering. Navy OEF veteran Melannie Lovercheck shared with them, “There’s a lot of things I’m afraid of… that I might expose my fears. And that I might have to surrender to something greater than the sense of control I’ve maintained. Now I’m fearfully approaching the light.” Samuel’s beautiful story and Jason’s stunning photos were in the Times on June 30th, 2014, in a story called For Women Who Saw Combat, a Place to Find Inner Peace. It is quite amazing to think of the breadth of the audience that their stories were able to reach.
Each year, this retreat includes time and spaciousness for deep sharing like Melannie’s, but it is also a time for women to connect and bond and acknowledge one another in ways they couldn’t when they were on active duty. There is also nature and solitude – two of the gifts of the beautiful Tassajara valley. But this year, we did something new with the support of the Tassajara staff: we planted a cherry tree as a symbol of growth and transformation. We fertilized the soil with our tear-sodden (environmentally-friendly!) tissues and pressed its roots into the ground with our bare hands. It was an offering from the veterans as they faced and transformed their own pain into new possibilities, fruit that can nurture future generations. First time participant and Army veteran, April Jones, says: “Your donations saved a life! My life! And they offered hope of healthy love and happiness to my beautiful sons and found grandbabies. Thank you for restoring faith back into humanity.”
2014 Whitewater Rafting Trip
In July, 20 men and women veterans participated in our 6th Annual Whitewater Rafting retreat on the Tuolomne River. We were also joined by a new co-facilitator Colin Gipson, who is a Marine Corps veteran and Zen Buddhist Priest who currently lives in San Antonio, Texas. Several veterans came long distances to participate, including Army veteran, Cheryl Wachenheim, who flew in from Cottage Grove, Minnesota. Cheryl said of her experience with HPW, “It is pretty difficult to put into words what this trip and your sponsorship made possible for me… I learned that I can calm myself, that I can accept what I face without fighting it, and that I matter…. Everything I do for myself, my family and all those with whom I interact going forward will be touched by this…”
After five years, we decided to make a significant change to the retreat. Usually, we camp together for a night before getting onto the river, and we usually start our journeys home as soon as the retreat ends. But this year, we camped together for one more night after we left the river. It proved to be an important moment for practice, as we each stayed with our openness and vulnerability in a slow and quiet winding down. We found both some discomfort and a deeper sense of connectedness.
This connectedness is one of the pillars of HPW programs. HPW programs recreate a sense of community and camaraderie that so many veterans miss when they leave the service. For many, HPW is a place of refuge. And, we are finding a way to carry the burdens of war together – however we participated or contributed to it. This is dramatically different than the old ways of holding it in isolation or burying it in darkness. Carrying it together is one way to enable transformation. As Thich Nhat Hanh says in a Shambhala Sun interview, “I think the twentieth century was characterized by individualism, and more than one hundred million people perished because of wars. Too much violence, too much destruction of life and environment. If we want the twenty-first century to be different, if we want healing and transformation, the realization is crucial that we are all one organism, that the well-being of others, the safety of others, is our own safety, our own security.”
Veteran Leadership Program
As you may know from previous letters, HPW offered a new program this year – a Veteran Leadership program. This program started in January of this year. It has consisted of a weekend together to kick it off, regular calls and practices, and opportunities to facilitate at HPW events and receive mentoring and feedback. Each of the nine participants has shown deep commitment to his or her practice and has grown in ways that have moved us all. We asked them to share a little of their experience with you.
“It is an inspirational and supportive journey. An opportunity to actually do something toward my own and others healing.” – Army veteran, Matt Kruse.
“As a Vet Leader I’ve learned courage and patience to help others, through my own experiences. We might not all have the same experiences but we all have the same emotions.” – Army veteran, Jessie Oliff
“An opportunity to show someone how to get through tough times that are similar to what I’ve been through.” – Army veteran, Matt Huffman.
Messages from our Cofounders
From Lee Klinger Lesser:
When Chris and I began HPW almost seven years ago, we envisioned creating a community of refuge, healing and practice where veterans could feel safe and welcome. Where they could learn tools of mindfulness and meditation to meet and transform the experiences they were carrying into a new path of service, mission and connection. We have come a long way. And we have a long way to go. Healing the wounds of war is a lifetime, inter-generational journey. Antonio Machado, a Spanish poet wrote: “Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar.” “Traveler, there is no path. The path is created with each step we take.” Thank you to everyone walking this path with us, and for making it possible!
And thank you to all of the veterans who have been transforming my life. You inspire me with your fierce and penetrating commitment to service; your courage to show up even in the face of tremendous difficulty; and the love, humor and abiding care you give to each other.
From Chris Fortin:
Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center said, “Just to be alive is enough.”
This statement is so simple and immediate – just to welcome this day, this moment. Just this.
And of course we forget, as we find ourselves lost in the demands of all that life is asking of us.
HPW is dedicated to remembering – that we are alive, and that we are alive together.
Practicing together, sharing our pain and our joy, we remember and stand in our individual strength as we simultaneously remember how much we need each other.
My heart is filled over and over again with alive moments and infinite gratitude for this wonderful community of veterans, donors and supporters. Thank you for your presence and for sharing your lives. Just to be alive, together, is enough.
An Invitation To Practice
In our Veteran Leadership program and during our intensive Practice Periods, we offer concrete activities to explore and integrate into daily life each week. Simple, concrete practices that help us wake up and be present for what life is asking of us. The more attentive we become, the less we become hooked by emotions and habits. So in each of our newsletters we want to offer a practice that you might like to explore. Pema Chodron, a teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist lineage, describes a practice that she finds helpful. So do we.
Here are three statements to say to yourself: “We are all going to die. We don’t know when. What is most important?”
It is so easy to get lost in worry, boredom, or despair, focusing on the future or the past. During your day practice pausing and saying these statements to yourself and feel how they influence you. Return to the moment right where you are and discover what that moment is asking of you. Can you give your full-hearted attention to what is needed? If it were the last moment of your life, what would drop away and what would matter most? Each moment truly is the only one we have, the only one where we can act and make a difference.
Two books that provide insight and understanding about the experiences of many veterans are:
Thank you for your service by David Finkel.
This Pulitzer Prize winning journalist was embedded with an infantry battalion in Iraq. He stayed embedded with them when they came home. The publisher describes the book like this: “He is with them in their most intimate, painful, and hopeful moments as they try to recover, and in doing so, he creates an indelible, essential portrait of what life after war is like—not just for these soldiers, but for their wives, widows, children, and friends, and for the professionals who are truly trying, and to a great degree failing, to undo the damage that has been done.
Thank You for Your Service is an act of understanding, and it offers a more complete picture than we have ever had of these two essential questions: When we ask young men and women to go to war, what are we asking of them? And when they return, what are we thanking them for?”
Once a Warrior–Always a Warrior: Navigating the Transition from Combat to Home–Including Combat Stress, PTSD, and mTBI by Charles Hoge, MD, Colonel, U.S. Army (ret)
This is a very practical book that supports veterans in navigating their way home from combat. It offers concrete suggestions and strategies, including meditation and mindfulness. We have used this book in our Veteran Leadership program.
We have two one-day events left this year. Look for announcements about a month prior.
- Sunday, October 26th at the Berkeley Zen Center
- Saturday, December 13th at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City
We are pleased to announce that the San Francisco Zen Center will be sponsoring a Veterans Day gathering again this year at Greens Restaurant, on Sunday, November 9th from 1-4pm. As in previous years, this will be an opportunity to join our community and hear from veterans about their experiences, their needs, and the impacts of mindfulness and HPW on their lives. Look for our Save-The-Date email coming soon, but please put it on your calendars now, and most importantly, start thinking of and talking to friends you’d like to introduce to HPW! More information and/or RSVP here.
Bows of Gratitude
This month, we would like to thank The Black Mountain Retreat Center in Santa Rosa who found a donor to pay for all lodging and food costs for our upcoming Women’s Practice Period weekend kick-off.
And, with deep bows to each of you for your support and caring, and for joining us on this path.
Lee Klinger Lesser, Executive and Programs Director, Cofounder
Chris Fortin, Lead Facilitator and Cofounder
Dyan Ferguson, Development and Operations Manager, US Army Veteran