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By Dan New
The ordained Buddhist monk is a former crew chief of a helicopter gunship in Vietnam. He enters to the singing of the bell. Barefoot and robe-clad with shaved head and an austere embodiment, he walks the center aisle that leads to a raised platform. Lining his entrance path are the chairs and cushions of the one hundred and thirty who are gathered in this sacred setting. Respectfully, the monk climbs the stage and turning to us.
He begins in a soft measured voice.
"A veteran commits suicide every sixty two minutes in our country. Seventy percent of them are over the age of fifty. We sit here and meditate to honor them and to save ourselves, for this is the cost of war and violence in this country. You sitting before me are the light at the tip of the candle. For the next five days, we will practice meditation in all that we do to combat the moral and spiritual wounds of war. Please respect the silence and dedicate yourself to this practice."
We introduce ourselves by name, branch of the service, where and when we served. The room resonates with the pronouncements of those gathered from the last six wars stretching from Korea to Afghanistan; old and young, black and white, men and women, a few have brought their families and loved ones, most are alone. Some bear the visible wounds of war, limbs missing, scarred flesh while others bear their wounds with vacant stares. This is Lourdes for the combatant and it holds the possibility of a new "Memorial Day" paradigm without the parades and celebration.
And so we begin, prompted by the singing of the bells and the instruction of our mentor in the ways of sitting. The first sitting seems interminable, breathing in and breathing out. It is followed by a walking meditation leading us closer to awakening. Breathing in on one step and out on the next, this walking is unnervingly slow.
The pace of the retreat slows my racing metabolism. The speed of my thoughts diminishes through the meditation. I strive to accept each moment as the only moment; ratcheting down from the normal pace of life; committing to being present to the real moments of my day. Continually prompted by the singing of the bell, I slide downward and inward with all the others into a steady rhythm of breath and awareness as silence becomes sacred.
We write in meditation with stark purpose; sharing our words with others. The fears of each of us are shared in these chances of vulnerability and in the safety of blessed space that we have created. With the practice, there is an opening; an accessibility to words and images that have been hidden below the movements of our daily lives allowing that which rises up from our beings to live. The thunder of a piercing explosion and the cry of a sexual assault increase in volume and pitch as they return with the flow of our pens.
Each day takes one deeper into the silence that allows feeling. Our writing reveals its depth. Five days pass without some measure of normal time as in a liminal space. We gather by the lake on Sunday morning for the closing and the monk leads us in a Norse ritual when we light afire the raged paper scrolls containing the work of our practice and time together. Smoke billows to the clear sky as the bier floats to the lake's center and slowly sinks to rejoin the elements of nature.
Dan New is one of 2.6 million military veterans who served in Vietnam. He is the son of a WWII veteran. He is a member of the Albany Veterans Writing Group that began in September of 2013.