Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What the Dharma Says About Training in the Military

Thich Nhat Hanh speaks on Prisoner Abuse

Q: What is the Buddhist perspective on the abuse of prisoners of war in Iraq?

A: Recent news about the abuse of prisoners of war provides us with the opportunity to look deeply into the nature of war. It reveals the truth that has been hidden to many of us about what actually goes on during war and conflict. This is an opportunity for us to be more aware. This is not new; everywhere there is war, these kind of things happen.

Soldiers are trained to kill as many people as possible and as quickly as possible. Soldiers are told that if they don't kill, they will be killed by the so-called "enemy." They are taught that killing is good because the people they are trying to kill are dangerous to society, and that they are demons, that our nation would be better off without them. Soldiers are trained to believe they must kill the other group because they are not human beings. If soldiers see their "enemies" as fellow human beings just like them, they would have no courage to kill them. Every one of us should know the way soldiers are trained in order to see the truth about war. It is important not to blame and single out the U.S. in this kind of situation because any country would do the same thing under the same conditions. During the Vietnam war atrocities were committed by both sides also.

The statement President Bush made that the U.S. just sent dedicated, devoted young men, not abusers to Iraq shocked me, because committing acts of torture is just the result of the training that the soldiers have already undergone. The training already makes them lose all their humanity. The young men going to Iraq were already full of fear, wanting to protect themselves at all cost, so they are pushed to act quickly, being ready to kill at any moment.

Q: Why would the soldiers torture the Iraqi prisoners?

A: When you are engaged in the act of killing, aware that fellow soldiers on your side are dying every day and that it is possible for you to be killed at any moment, you are filled with fear, anger and despair. In this state you can become extremely cruel. You may pour all of your hate and anger on prisoners of war by torturing and abusing them. The purpose of your violence is not only to extract information from them, but also to express your hate and fear. The prisoners of war are the victims, but the abusers, the torturers are also the victims. Their actions will continue to disturb them long after the abuse has ended.

Even if the superiors of the individual soldiers have not directly given orders to mistreat, abuse, or torture, they are still responsible for what happened. Preparing for war and fighting a war means allowing our human nature to die and the animal nature in us to take over. We should never be tempted to resort to violence and war to solve conflict. Violence always leads to more violence.

It is possible to achieve peace through peaceful means and there are many examples of this in history.

Thich Nhat Hanh
May 18, 2004
Plum Village, France

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mindfulness in the Military

At the research symposium prior to the annual MBSR science conference, Amishi Jha presented some rather impressive data showing the prophylactic benefits of mindfulness training in reducing stress among recruits heading for the Iraq theatre of war. Following the presentation, Jha faced a question from a woman concerning the ethics of using mindfulness to train soldiers. While not germane to the science of the project per se., the question was one that many participants likely were entertaining in their own minds.

In discussing the topic below, I stated that I judged Jha's answers to be "hollow", perhaps not the best choice of words. I'd like to explain what I meant more clearly.

As a clinician and an educator I laud Jha's intention to reduce suffering in people who are likely to suffer, or who have suffered trauma. I do not in the least doubt her sincerity in this. Those of us, who are clinicians, are charged with the ethic of doing no harm and in using our skill to promote healing.

In other words, the ethics of doing the research are sound and the work stands on its own merit. Hypothesizing, that "mind training" (a term Jha uses to justify the work within the military) might help prevent trauma fits within acceptable clinical and research ethics limits. (Although a group of research subjects that would have allowed Jha to test this hypothesis without questions about her ethics would have been emergency first responders.)

The point at which Jha's answer disturbed me, was when she told an anecdote related to her by someone in the military. In the story, an Iraqi combatant had taken a group of children as a human shield. Apparently, a soldier trained in Jha's program fired a round above the perpetrator's head, whereby the children fell to the ground allowing the soldier to make the kill. While the story may demonstrate good soldiering, it fails as a justification of the ethics of doing this research and it does not address the question about whether a trained sniper can in fact be mindful. (An excellent discourse on this issue was presented by John Dunne in his keynote address entitled "Mindfulness and Buddhist Contemplative Theory" at the 2007 MBSR conference.)

Jha's argument in presenting this anecdote was that by training soldiers in this practice, her work was helping to decrease suffering in the larger context, that of the theatre of war. This line of reasoning fails for two reasons; a) it is an empirical question to which she has collected no data (the collection of anecdotes is not science), and b) questions about the dharma in relation to non-violence are beyond the scope of what she presented.

One final comment. Like many, I do feel that the Iraq war is unjustifiable and has perpetrated much suffering within Iraq and American society. Because of this position, I may have been somewhat sensitive to the way Jha chose to defend her decision to work with the military. All this, however, has little to do with the ethics of the doing the research.


Friday, March 20, 2009

MBSR Conference II

Morning Meditation

Saki Santorelli led about 200 people in a sitting, walking and heart meditation. We were encouraged to make a heart connection with another in the room. My partner was a man who I have met several time at past conferences and as we touched each other's heart, the feeling of vulnerability and compassion was deeply felt.

Long Term Impact of Mindfulness-Based Self-Care

John Christopher and colleagues presented a study on the long-term effects of an graduate course in self care that included the teaching of a variety of mindfulness based practices. The course was described as a 15-week credit course that explored both ancient and contemporary methods of therapy and self-care; including MBSR, Qigong, Vipassana meditation etc. The students were required to a) practice meditation, b) keep an experiential journal and c) give a brief reasearch presentation.

Interviewing graduates of the program the researchers found that ex-students had brought many of the practices into their work with their clients along a number of important dimensions including greate attention, emotional regulation and self-care. Some of the practices used in the course can be found at www.montana.edu/wwwcc/docs/selfhelp.html

Keynote Address I

Margaret Chesney presented a compelling argument for prevention versus treatment in health care. The central thesis of her presentation was that the sole focus on pathology has meant that the medicine has spent considerable resources on trying to erradicate disease, rather than indentify and promote means to enhance the health of citizens.

Chesney offered a graphic example of this myopic vision. When faced with data that suggested that children in North America were increasingly becoming obese, her medical policy colleagues tried to hammer out a solution the problem. There solution was to turn to drugs that lowered lipids in the blood, which were deemed to be the culprit in the health-related problems that ensued from obesity. Chesney was shocked that none of her colleagues mentioned a national campaign of fitness, diet education and other preventitive measures that would have addessed the root causes of obesity.

Chesney demonstrated that positive psychology - the search for ways of enhancing health were likley to prevent about 70% of the premature deaths that now occur. One of the main mechanisms of positive health identified was positive affect. Postive affect leads to increase likelihood of engaging in healthy behaviour and and better physiological/immune responses.

Chesney recruited us all as advocates in the fight to include positive and preventitive measures in public health policy.

Keynote II

Richie Davidson presented his data on contemplative neuroscience. This requires a much more comprehensive review than I can provide here and now. Instead here are some pictures of the people wh havebeen influential in showing how we can actively shape our own brains through contemplative practice.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

MBSR Conference

The Body Scan and Alpha Waves

Research at Harvard by Catherine Kerr suggests that students enrolled in an 8-week MBSR course had different brain-waves patterns than those who did not meditate after 3 weeks when they had been using a technique called the body scan. The participants showed a greater degree of separation between brain waves indicating attend versus don't attend. These results indicate that meditation practitioners get better at attending to and shifting there attention away from differaent parts of the body. This may be mportat because it show the degree to which we are able to excercise active management of our perception of events, a stated goal of the MBSR curriculum.

Mindfulness Training and Working Memory Capacity

Amishi Jha, from the University of Pennsylvania has been conducting research that demonstrates gains in working memory capacity by those who have particpated in mindfuless training. Working memory is important for execution of both "cold" cognitive tasks, those that are accomplished without emotional content, such as attention orienting and "hot" cognitive tasks such as the down-regulation of emotions. What this means is that mindlfulness training appears to be helpful in coping with stressful events by increasing the capacity of the working memory which is important in allowing trainees greater cognitive and affective control.

Some of Jha's research is quite controversial because her subjects have been soldiers heading to the Iraq war. There was concern that mindfulness was being used to train better soldiers and some questioned the ethics of this practice since it runs contrary to much of the Buddhist teachings that is dedicated to the reduction of suffering. Jha tried to justify her decision to work with this group on the basis that it may reduce the suffering of the soldiers returning and help them make better decisions when in the field. In light of the amount of suffering that this war has inflicted on the citizenry in Iraq, this argument seems a bit hollow.

Mindfulness Taining and Symptom Reduction in Social Anxiety Disorder

Phillipe Goldin has completed a study in which MBSR and CBT were compared with wellness training and a wait list control to determine what the mechanism of action for symptom reduction in people with social anxiey. Using fMRI technology the study indicated that MBSR resulted in greater activation in two brain areas; the amygdila involved with decreased emotional reactivity, and the cortical regions involved with cognitive regulation. CBT involved these two areas and additionally the language centres. While MBSR was successful in reducing symptoms, CBT emerged as the most effective treatmen strategy, likley because of the activation of the language centeres (self-talk).

Evening Keynote: Saki Santorelli

Saki gave a moving tribute to Jon in is tour through the history of the Center for Mindfulness. He concluded his address with a benediction that implored all of us to help him keep his vow to promote mindful practices in medicine, education, social work and leadership in our communities and in the world.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

MBSR: An evening with Jon Kabat-Zinn

By simply bringing our attention to the breath we arrived to this moment in our experience, in our lives. And with the skill of a maestro, Jon asked people to stand if first. they had taken MBSR training at the centre. Second, if they were researchers or clinicians who had been trained in MBSR. And finally, if they were from other countries. As each group was recognized in turn there grew a profound sense of inteconnection in the room.

There was a deep sense of hope that through our cultivation of the bloom of the present we could change how we respond to the many challenges. We could limit the negative effects of the three causes of unwise action, greed, hate and ignorance. All that is required is to live more fully in the analogue world.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

30th Annual MBSR Science Conference

  • In the next few days Worcester MA will be the nexus of current research in mindfulness for the treatment of human medical and psychological afflictions. Give that this year represents the 30th anniversary of the Center for Mindfulness at UMass started by Jon Kabat-Zinn, it promises to be memorable. I started attending this conference about 5 years ago and it represents the highlight of my academic year.

What makes the conference unique? There are a few things that stand out for me over the years:
  • Early morning meditation led by either Jon or Saki
  • The quiet dignified respect that permeates the place
  • The presence of so many respected researchers in the field
  • Science blended artfully with practice
  • And most of all the recognition that what we are learning offers one major source of hope for the planet

Stay tuned for updates from the conference in future blogs!