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Meditation as a tool for healing war trauma

In Meditation and Mindfulness, Mind and Movement by Living Now0 Comments

You can access inner strength and confidence by harnessing the power of meditation, where it matters – in your daily life.

It was September 1999, and Bosnia had been torn apart by years of bloody civil war, resulting in its three cultures suffering extreme losses. Exacerbating the trauma of losing family and friends, witnessing atrocities and the fear of living in a war zone, many survivors had also become refugees as a result of the ethnic partitioning created in Bosnia’s 1996 peace accords.

My colleague, Savitri, and I had been invited by the UN to facilitate a stress-management week for 30 community leaders from the three Bosnian ethnic groups. It was to be a continuation of our efforts to apply yoga and meditation for healing emotional trauma in war zones around Europe.

All 30 women participating in the workshop were deeply traumatised and most were incapable of talking about the other ethnic groups without sounding disparaging. We soon realised there was no point talking about anything substantial until we’d done extensive preparatory work.

So we spent the next three and a half days teaching the group breathing, relaxation and movement work. And eventually, these powerful, ancient techniques had worked their magic and brought the participants into a state of deep and genuine inner happiness. They had cleared away the surface effects of their traumas, and although much work would be required for full healing, they were temporarily free of the heaviness of trauma. They were feeling a rich, joyful inner warmth and connectedness.

However, we knew we would need to take them deeper if they were to experience lasting change.

Below the surface, a single conflict was causing the women untold misery. As refugees, they desperately wanted to go back to their homes. Yet with the ethnic partitioning most of them couldn’t, because their cities were now occupied by people from the other ethnic groups.

How could we help them resolve this deep source of pain? We tried to take the group deeper using a listening exercise, but it didn’t completely work. So instead, I found myself naming the conflict.

“Each of you wants to go home,” I said, “but you can’t because the other ethnic groups represented here are now occupying them.”

I have never seen a room change so fast.

Their emotional reactions were vast, total and instant. About 30 pairs of eyes were looking at me, and every one on fire. Some of them were simmering with rage; some of them in panic; some were crying because of the depth of their yearning to go home; the more mature were expectant and hopeful that maybe this conflict could be resolved.

There was no way forward through language. We turned to meditation, eyes closed. I asked them to try to re-experience the warm inner joy they had been experiencing just a few moments before. And as a consequence of the previous three days of preparatory work, they could go back to it; they could re-experience their inner warmth.

And from this safe inner haven, the women were able to lightly re-encounter the pain they had just been experiencing, still remaining connected to their joy.

Then I found myself saying, “Be aware that the people sitting next to you are also mothers and daughters, wives and sisters; and a minute ago they were also experiencing the same joy, the same inner warmth that you were experiencing. Try to let your awareness experience the same joy they were experiencing.”

They could do it.

And now the crunch.

“From your inner joy just let the outside of your awareness, just a little bit of it, entertain the knowledge that these women next to you have themselves just been experiencing a pain perhaps similar to yours… And then go back to your own joy.” And they could do this too.

“Now, without allowing your mind to leave your connectedness, allow yourself to experience just a little bit of the pain the others in the room were suffering. But stay connected to your inner joy.” And they could do that.

“Embrace in your own awareness, the other women in the room. Using your own joy, recognise the joy they are capable of. Recognising your pain, recognise their pain. Recognise that you are all human beings in a predicament that none of you chose and all of you want to resolve. Rest with this awareness.”

 By now every pair of eyes, including mine, were crying.

“And now, open your eyes and look around at a group of people who’ve also been through what you’ve been through.”

That was it. Within a moment, everyone was crying, slapping and holding each other. It was the end of enmity and the beginning of friendship.

The whole meditation took less than twenty minutes.

What was it that enabled these women to engage in such deep healing, not only of their own traumas, but of deep ethnic conflict? What enabled 30 inexperienced meditators to engage in such deep and powerful meditation?

The practice attains this power by deeply preparing people for meditation. It aims to teach you to prepare your body-mind system. So that when you meditate your unconscious and conscious minds will be largely free of turbulent thoughts and emotions.

The women in Bosnia had experienced deep traumas—an extreme situation—so it took three days of careful preparation before it was possible for them to meditate effectively, with safety.

Most of us can achieve this in a much shorter time.

How? The key principles used by many meditation disciplines to prepare for meditation are movement, posture and relaxation.

Few in the West are aware that yoga was originally designed to enable people to meditate. It’s incredible how conscious movement can remove the ‘fizz’ from your mind-body energy system, leaving the mind much smoother and more easily able to focus and concentrate.

Posture enables you to balance the activation and relaxation responses in the body, and prevent the niggles of being uncomfortable. It helps you stay awake while being relaxed and comfortable.

Another important principle of preparation is to thoroughly relax the mind and body so the mind isn’t troubled by physical tension in the body or emotional stresses of the day. It is so much easier to concentrate when the mind isn’t being distracted by random firings of the unconscious.

So can concentration be effortless? Well, have you noticed that your mind easily concentrates on something that draws its interest? So, along with good preparation, one of the keys to successful meditation is to create a powerful reason for wanting to meditate.

This brings us back to the Bosnians. The women in Bosnia were able to safely explore the causes of each other’s pain because they had connected to their self-esteem—they were concentrating on joy.

Imagine if you could do this in your own life. Who wouldn’t want to concentrate on joy and self-esteem?

Extensive research conducted by the Institute of HeartMath in California shows that maintaining a warm sense of self-esteem produces a massive peak in performance. It has the effect of balancing our heart rate variability and maximizing a whole gamut of peak performance indicators like creativity, emotional stability, enthusiasm, immunity and physical energy.

Therefore, regularly practising heart-based meditations, such as those found in Dru and other traditions not only feels good, but is actually good for you.

Positive self-esteem allows us to enter into any situation in our lives with an open and clear mind. We are less reactive, and our ability to find creative solutions is increased. A natural emotional intelligence emerges which enables creative conflict resolution, leading to more productive relationships in our workplace and personal lives.

When we are regularly connecting with our inner self-esteem, we can identify our true goals more clearly. Not only can we identify our goals, we can visualise them; the path becomes clearer, enabling us to better achieve our goals.

The final key to the success of the women in Bosnia was that they did it. They actually sat down and practised meditation. When you meditate regularly, you can more easily access your natural self-esteem, even amidst the ups and downs of a busy day. Often, it only takes minutes – and what a huge advantage this is. Meditation makes you enormously skilled in living your life.

Our friends in Bosnia were able to cross generations of ethnic conflict and unimaginable personal traumas by finding an inner strength and self-esteem in their own hearts and in the hearts of their ‘enemies’, through the power of meditation.

You can access that same potential by harnessing the power of meditation, where it matters – in your daily life.

International Dru Yoga and Dru Meditation teacher-trainer Andrew Wells has taught thousands of people in more than 30 countries. Andrew has pioneered yoga and meditation for healing trauma in war zones in Europe and Africa.

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