In the last week of our eight-week mindfulness training for military spouses, we had a silent daylong retreat, certainly the first-ever meditation retreat at Fort Drum in upstate New York. It was housed in a beautiful Victorian mansion in the middle of the base. As we sat and walked in silence, we heard helicopters, rumbling tanks and machine-gun fire. It was dramatic to witness these women who, eight weeks before, would never have imagined themselves, in the middle of this active base, walking slowly on the grass in silence.
The idea for the course initially came from soldiers who, after mindfulness training in Amishi Jha’s STRONG Project, kept saying, “Gee, our wives could really use this.” Jha applied and received funding for a program for military spouses whose partners had been or were currently deployed. She asked me to adapt my program, Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance (combining emotion training with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) for this population. We launched STRONG Spouses in spring 2013.
At Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army, soldiers get highly trained to deploy in challenging geographical regions such as Afghanistan. The base itself feels remote; it’s far from any kind of big city. In late winter, early spring, it’s pretty bleak.
The goal of STRONG Spouses was to reduce suffering. We offered practices to reveal places where suffering exists in the mind and to support people in not getting caught in those places. Our intention was to give these women (they were all women) tools to help manage their significant stress. A secondary goal was, by extension, to help their families: the children and the soldiers they were supporting.
The program included evening classes and two daylongs; participants were asked to meditate daily. It was amazing to do forgiveness training in the Hand-to-Hand Combat room, compassion and kindness training in the War Fighter’s room.
We began each class with meditation instructions and practice. Then we’d have a check-in, talking about the meditation and how the women’s practice had gone during the preceding week.
One woman told a moving story. Like many in this class, she had been quite skeptical. Then one day she and her two children were riding bikes on the base with their dog in tow. Someone passed them and made a sarcastic comment. She said that normally she would have gotten off her bike and yelled at the heckler, maybe even come to blows. But because she had taken the class, she smiled and said, “Thanks a lot. Take it easy.” And kept on riding. That was when she realized she’d just acted as the person she wanted to be—and this was the person she wanted her children to see. And it felt really good. Before the class, she’d modeled a different response. She could see how practicing forgiveness, kindness and compassion had benefited her, and how those practices were for her, not simply for the people toward whom they were directed. Mindfulness had given her the space to choose a new response, a real contrast to the reflexive habitual one.
In our trainings, we explored themes like reacting to conflict, responding versus reacting to stress, and the physiological responses that emotions, particularly anger and fear, activate. As people got a sense of their emotions’ universality, they learned to take them less personally and understood how emotions distort perception.
In the progression of classes, we began with body scans and breath awareness, essentially the first foundation of mindfulness. We explored the second foundation of mindfulness, looking at the nature of pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. We explored the third foundation of mindfulness, awareness of thoughts and feelings, from several angles. From the contemplative side, we looked at thoughts and emotions as objects of mindfulness, and also worked with the cultivation of kindness and compassion. From the perspective of Western psychology, we explored the third foundation by looking at emotion theory from an evolutionary perspective. Between classes, the women had guided meditations to practice with at home, as well as informal practices like looking at the nature of pleasant and unpleasant events and the natural tendencies of mind to grasp and push away.
We explored forgiveness as a precursor to the cultivation of kindness and compassion, a way to open the heart. One thing that came up quite a bit was that there had been a lot of infidelity on the part of the soldiers. That was one of the many burdens so many of these spouses were carrying. It came with tremendous pain. After our week on forgiveness, one woman told me how relieved she felt that she could forgive her husband, without forgiving his infidelity: she could forgive the actor without forgiving the behavior. This came as a revelation.
The whole deployment cycle has great impact on these families. In the present-day military, soldiers have multiple deployments and they are in for quite a while. So military families move around a lot. This means they are apart from their extended families and it is hard to maintain and deepen friendships.
Most women in the class had young children. There was a lot of suffering around those children. Since their husbands were gone a lot, the women were virtually single parents, isolated on base in a faraway place. Many had children with disabilities that ranged from autism to muscular dystrophy. They had meager financial resources to tend to themselves or their children. The challenge of caring for special-needs kids was clearly exacerbated by having the dads away.
Of course, the husbands experienced a variety of mental and physical disabilities from having been deployed. The relationships suffered as a result. Many women described their husbands as having gone through personality changes, traumatic brain injury or PTSD. A number of women reported that their husbands were emotionally withdrawn.
One young woman with a lot of self-awareness told an inspiring story about her relationship with her husband that beautifully showed the transformative power of mindfulness, not only for the women but rippling back to the soldiers as well. She described how her husband couldn’t meet her emotionally. She would end up escalating, getting bigger and bigger with whatever she was feeling just to get a rise out of him, which never came. It just shut him down further. One night, her husband became curious about her meditation practice and asked if he could do it with her. So they practiced together, sitting side by side and listening to an MP3. He liked it and asked if he could share it with the guys in his resilience training. One hundred eighty degrees from the emotional displays that had caused him to retreat further and further, the practice became a refuge for him, and for their marriage. I don’t know where it went from there, but I do know that I no longer think of the military in the two-dimensional, stereotypical way I used to. They have become fully alive for me: human beings with needs and aspirations, trying to do their best—just like me.
Margaret Cullen is a certified Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction instructor, a marriage and family therapist and a senior teacher at the Center for Compassion, Altruism, Research and Education at Stanford University. She is currently writing a book on Mindfulness-Based Emotional Balance for New Harbinger Publications.
From the Spring 2014 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 30, No. 2)
© 2014 Margaret Cullen