When I arrived at the VA in April 2011, my survival was in doubt. I had lost about fifty-three pounds and the will to live. PTSD is no less than a traumatic brain injury. There was structured physical therapy for the gazillion sports injuries I sustained as an athlete, and there was psychotherapy that I can only describe as a mental health enema. I attended weekly sessions for both, and after several months in self-imposed isolation from other people, I was finally allowed to participate in a compensated work therapy program designed to re-integrate veterans back into work and social settings. At home, I worked hard to bring forth the natural beauty and harmonics of chanting, even though I was in a constant state of turmoil. Every gongyo, I would feel the words rise and take form. It was hard, but I deprogrammed myself from chanting for personal wishes, and taught myself to disregard thoughts of the past or future. Each time my mind would revert to the past or contemplate the future, my attention learned to ride the rhythmical sounds of gongyo and daimoku like a hawk glides on the wind. In the beginning, I could hold on to the present moment for only a few moments at a time.
It is also important for me to add that there was so much clutter in my thoughts that I had to reach deeply into my spiritual toolbox for additional help. As some of you may know, I had seriously practiced meditation and yoga for more than five years before I became a Buddhist. When I reached into that dusty, grimy part of my toolbox, I could hear the shouting of senior leaders everywhere and even Nichiren, that Zen is the “teaching of devils.” Since I didn’t deny the sutras and I believed in and had faith in the Lotus Sutra, I decided to try the expedient means of Mindfulness Meditation to regain control of my swirling mind. In my SGI experience, chanting had always been a hyper practice that used the thousand million-fold explosions of thought we ordinary human beings have at any given moment to formulate our prayers and intentions. Yes, in my opinion, chanting as taught in the SGI is a highly aggressive form of prayer, and quite dissimilar to meditation. Furthermore, chanting with specific targets in mind is not that efficient. One need only look to the consistent failures of shakubuku campaigns over the years, and the disturbing lack of “actual proof” of sincere members.
Regarding meditation, I was fully schooled in kundalini yoga and meditation way back in the day. I know the elements of vipassana. I knew what to do, even though it had been forty plus years, and I seated myself in a quiet room to still my mind. LMFAO x 100! My neurons burst like fireworks, so I began to count my breaths. 1,2,1,2,1,2. Once the counting quelled the bursts, I stopped and began to breath in my nose and exhale from my mouth until I felt light headed. My thought processes became the calm before the storm, and then all hell would break loose as my ego was given “the sleeper hold.” Thoughts like where are my car keys…my knee hurts..she was hot…I’m hungry…I have an itch on the end of nose and I dare not scratch…etc…” Rookie stuff, huh? According to the Lotus Sutra the Bodhisattvas of the Earth are fully schooled and have conquered the six paramitas, so I wondered where my old mojo had gone.
Every time there was a thought, I continued to count my breaths until my mind stilled again. I repeated this process until my timer went off. I had meditated for ten minutes. Seemed like a half hour. That evening, I increased it to fifteen minutes and in the morning, did it for twenty. It was shocking to me how little control I had over the thought explosions of inane, extraneous, and insipid thoughts that bubbled like champagne. The next morning, I added pranayama deep breathing to start my meditation and for counting breaths. Pranayama uses the abdomen to pull in and exhale air. It took almost two months for twice daily quiet meditation sessions to arrive at the point where I could still my mind almost at will. I found myself feeling very peaceful every time I meditated, and still use it everyday to augment my spiritual practice. In Dhyana and Samadhi, one chooses a fixed point to concentrate on. Hindu wisdom compels it’s holy men to be, to know what lies between two thoughts. I suppose that’s their version of the sound of one hand clapping. For me, I would wait for a pin point of light to appear and then try to visualize my gohonzon in that lights. That was a whopping task of concentration, my friends, and that’s what I still try do to this day. On with the story!
There was a vital reason for me to find sanctuary in the present moment. Even though I was being aggressively medicated and engaged in psychotherapy, PTSD had overwhelmed my mind and emotions with agonizing thoughts of my wife’s dead face staring off into the wild blue yonder. I tried self-medicating with cannabis, which proved to be vastly superior to the pharmaceuticals that I had to take. In fact, cannabis got me to eat again, improved my mood, and worked miracles with my impaired memory. When the dust finally settled, my therapist and I determined that I lost about eighteen months of memory. Little did I know at the time, my adventure in wonderland was identical to what is described as “the Abyss,” in modern occultism. All the great mystics must pass through the abyss or die trying. There, the ego is slowly vaporized of all preference and attachment. An excellent allegory is the Phantom City chapter of the Lotus Sutra, where the traveler must traverse a dangerous terrain that is perilous to mind and body. The Buddha then conjures a Phantom City for the weary to regain their strength. This can be viewed as a false but necessary nirvana. After refreshing their strength, the Buddha guides them to the true nirvana. What emerges, if one survives, is a being that is impervious to the “eight winds.” Let’s explore that transcendental experience some other time, as my cat reminds me that such transitions defy explanation. However, my former (past life) student of magick, and now deceased teacher (12-1-1947), the infamous Aleister Crowley, described precisely what I encountered in the Abyss.
“I could not cross the Abyss till I had torn out my heart….”
“I remember nothing of my return to…There was an animal in the wilderness, but it was not I. All things had become alike; all impressions were indistinguishable. I only remember finding myself on my bed, as if coming out of some catastrophe which had blotted out in utter blackness every trace of memory. As I came to myself, I found myself changed. I knew who I was and all the events of my life; but I no longer made myself the centre of their sphere, or their sphere the standard by which I measured the universe…I did not merely admit that I did not exist, and that all my ideas were illusions, inane and insane. I felt these facts as facts. It was the difference between book knowledge and experience. It seemed incredible that I should ever have fancied that I or anything else had any bearing on each other. All things were alike as shadows across the still surface of a lake – their images had no meaning for the water, no power to stir its silence.”
Each morning, I would awaken before the sunrise, fending off thoughts of suicide. Looking at the Gohonzon, I would tell myself that “today, is a good day to die.” As the day wore on, I had to consciously find the will to live. Little did I know that all the joy was being sucked out of me, but at the same time, all pain was on it’s way to extinction too. I was constantly assailed by gut wrenching memories or paranoid speculations about my future that blew through my mind like so many dust devils in an unforgiving desert.
I tried aversion therapy, where I wore a rubber band around my wrist that I would snap hard on my skin each time I recalled a painful, unproductive memory. In the first forty-eight hours, my wrist was swollen, scarred and bleeding. “Serves me right,” I thought. After all, I believed I was more than partially responsible for my wife’s death, and no amount of therapy was going to reconcile that guilt. She had died of a drug overdose from pills she had taken from me. But there was more surrounding her death that only came to light after her passing. Jennifer was a “Solitary Witch.” A very powerful one at that – I knew this before we were married. While looking for a suicide note, I found her magick grimorie – her book of spells, and there I learned that she had cast a spell on me and her ex-husband. My pain and sense of guilt over her sudden death ran cold through my veins, as I had thought I was under psychic attack by some Buddhists that needed to silence me from my own sect. I knew there were some who sought to silence me. I had used Bodhisattva Fugen’s dharani spell in the Universal Worthy chapter of the Lotus Sutra. I broke it down into syllables and used it as a shaman or magician utters their invocations. “Adanda dandapati dandavarte dandakushale …” And so on. I asked that all spells and curses be returned to the sender, ten fold. Imagine my shock just a week later when she turned up dead in her bathroom. How utterly strange and tragic!
My therapist asked me how many times I relived the moments of finding her dead. How many nights did I have disturbing dreams? I didn’t know the magnitude of those thoughts, and told him that I would arrive at an accurate number by the next appointment. After a week of study, I had the answer. The number of times that I relived the death scene was far beyond what I had imagined! The first year after her death, I recalled various elements and emotions every three seconds, sixteen hours a day, seven days a week. At night, I would have recurring nightmares of those moments. In one year, I relived that trauma about 7,008,000 times. Flashbacks only last a few seconds, but they assail one like mosquitoes in a temperate swamp, leaving one battle weary.
My challenge was to overcome the relentless onslaught of disturbing thoughts. For close to two years, I would wake up and begin my day like a tennis match with a pro. PTSD had a serve like Serena Williams, and my return shot was like a ninety-year-old man after his morning meds! My therapist knew the answer all along, but through his four decades of treating PTSD, he compelled me to find the answer myself.
Even with daimoku and quiet meditation, for nearly two years, I fought the emerging terror and pain. My training in the SGI taught me to meet every challenge with abundant daimoku, never retreating, always advancing. Giving in was not part of my training or experience. I used micro-specific prayer to meet my flashbacks head on, with the roar of a lion. Of course, I cannot blame the SGI way of challenge and response through prayer, even though I was failing in my battle! Intellectually, I knew that the SGI way of targeting prayer to a specific, desired result was part and parcel, the way I was trained to overcome obstacles. On the other hand, I was fully up-to-speed in the actual science of prayer, as conducted by the international prayer research society, known as Spindrift. After decades of research into the effect of specific prayer for targeted results, and non-specific prayer for the best result, Spindrift proved that targeted prayer most often fails to produce a desired result, and more often generates undesired and unexpected results. General prayer or intention, with the proviso of “Thy will be done,” hit the mark by a 10-1 ratio! Thus, giving up all attachment to a fixed result works best. I knew this, and now I had to have the cojones to let go of my training and need to obtain a specific result.
I mustered my strength to approach my PTSD in a completely different way. I was in dire straits, friends. Physiological changes gave me cold sweat as if I had to vomit. My hands trembled. I became trance like hundreds of times a day. I became adept at masking symptoms. It was September 5th, 2012, when I had the first in a series of “Grand Awakenings.” It was a samadhi beyond all that I had ever experienced. I sat before the Gohonzon and sobbed. Healing, therapeutic tears rolled down my cheeks like a good old country gulley-washer.
Please excuse my strong language now, I’m not that warm and fuzzy.
I sat before the Gohonzon and said something to the effect of, “I can’t fight this PTSD anymore, Gohonzon.” Then I loudly addressed the universe:
“Is that all you’ve got, bitch?!” “
“You’re not so, bad.”
“Common Mr. Flashback! I don’t care anymore! You can’t hurt me anymore than I’ve been hurt! Suck on this!”
“You’re nothing but a chicken shit ghost. Common, take your best shot, hoser!”
For the record, I never, ever thought the PTSD visions were outside myself, but I addressed those mental phantoms as if they were external – it was easier that way. From that instant on, I invited the flashbacks to haunt me, because I couldn’t fight them any more toe to toe. I mocked the apparitions. “You’ve got no substance! I’ll bet you can’t even get it up!” I sneared. “You couldn’t scare a squirrel, you punky ass little mofo!” “You’re not real and you have no power here, so do your thing and then go fuck yourself.” Ha ha ha!
As soon as I discovered this tool, I knew I would be healthy once again. Every day, the flashbacks diminished to the point where I may have one a month, and when it hits, I laugh at it like seeing a bully get kicked in the balls. I began to live my life again, on my terms. In April, 2013, after two years of treatment I began the second phase of my life as an Angel Wings Volunteer in the Palliative Care unit. I became a hospice volunteer, sitting with the terminally ill during the final stages of their life.
This work with the dying is both difficult and rewarding. I usually come in and sit with the veteran, holding their hand and guiding them to a more peaceful death. My how far we have come, from a shamed exile to hospice volunteer, bringing peace and comfort to those ready to die. I suppose this new role goes back to the dedication in my second book, “Riding the Wheel to Wellness,” where I said, “For the sick, the suffering, and forgotten.”