[Buddha-l] monks, meditation and trauma

Dan Lusthaus vasubandhu at earthlink.net
Tue Apr 7 08:31:11 MDT 2009


The quote for Austin's book offers a bunch of dreamy "maybe-s" for the
future, not science. Genetic predisposition to PTSD by means of hippocampus
deficiencies is speculative at best, and would at best be a partial
explanation for some types of PTSD. The footnote in support of his claim

"Simpler practical measures, including mindfulness-based stress reduction
(MBSR) training, and cognitive retraining have much to recommend them as
parts of a conservative approach to treating less severe forms of PTSD"

is nothing more than the vaguest of facts, viz., that Zen involves
introspective analysis. Note, also, that he is at least being careful enough
to qualify his endorsement as "part" of treatment for "less severe forms of

In fact, that is precisely what remains to be seen or proven. What is the
case is that the seemingly innocuous activity of "sitting" can be
excruciating and impossible for people with PTSD -- they can't do it; it's
NOT innocuous for them, precisely because it brings up all the things they
are unable to handle or that are torturing them.

The very first time I participated in Zen training (actually Son, but that's
besides the point), I was part of a group of nearly fifty neophytes
undergoing several days of training, all getting our first taste of
"sitting." One of the people, a friend and fellow Religious Studies major,
had been in Vietnam, and had served in intelligence; I won't go into detail,
but typical assignments were interrogating suspected Viet Cong by taking
several up in a chopper and throwing them out one by one until one spoke. He
had been brainwashed in his training into unquestioningly obeying orders,
that what he was doing was the right thing, etc. Once back stateside the
true nature of what he had been doing finally hit him, and he was drenched
in guilt about it -- though he could go about his average day with a
cheerful, humorous disposition, and rarely spoke about it. The poor fellow
did not make it through a single day -- in his words, "this is like being
bootcamp again... that guy (the Son master) is trying to read my mind ...
this is like being back in the service..." He couldn't sit, and went home.

Interestingly, another of us neophytes, another undergrad was a Rosicrucian
virgin, meaning she had grown up with Rosicrucian parents as part of a
Rosicrucian community, participating in their rituals, etc. A sweet girl,
she had looked forward to the Zen experience, and had even sowed my zafu for
me that I took to training. Like the ex-soldier, sitting dredged up
god-knows-what for her, freaked her out, and like him, she also left before
the first evening was over, never explaining why except that things were
coming up and one could see on her face that she was greatly distressed and

To imagine "sitting" is the panacea for such problems is cruel, like forcing
cod liver oil down a child's throat -- except the cod liver oil has a more
proven track record of actually being effective.


"I would suspect the aforementioned example [about Cambodia's cultural
traumatic shock] would be the exception rather than the rule. It could be
that trauma avoided might be proportional to meditative expertise. It might
also be an interesting  comment on what aspects of neural circuitry support
healing and which parts are potentially damaged.

I think the more Buddhist take on this might be that given the
reality of neuroplasticity, no one is a prisoner of karma."

is potentially moralistic demonization. One decides beforehand, and for no
reason aside from ideological preference, that trauma responses of one sort
are better than others, and then posit that the less desired response
reflects an (unproven) brain pathology. Only good little boys and girls who
behave like Sunday school ideals have "healthy" brains, or, conversely,
those who are a bit nastier than one approves of must be so due to some
unhealthy brain developments. This is just moral indignation at an imaginary
remove, deflected onto physiology, and certainly not helpful.

PTSD tends toward suicidal behavior -- that means anger is internalized,
turned in, blaming and punishing oneself. Part of the cure is to -- at least
initially -- externalize it, let it vent, let it show itself (part of the
internalization involves denying the anger is there, and thus hiding it, or,
if recognizing the presence of anger, denying its actual object or
instigator; e.g. blaming oneself for being angry). Telling such a person
that any show of anger is warping their brain is cruel and

Dan Lusthaus

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