[Buddha-l] monks, meditation and trauma

S.A. Feite sfeite at adelphia.net
Tue Apr 7 09:19:33 MDT 2009

On Apr 7, 2009, at 10:31 AM, Dan Lusthaus wrote:

> 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  


> 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.

I believe the DSM-IV calls it "relaxation-induced anxiety".

> 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.

Well obviously, if the person is suffering from relaxation-induced  
anxiety AND they were still interested in learning to sit, they may  
want to address their anxiety with a medical professional first.

> Similarly,
> "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.

Non sequitur. The above quote was NOT responding to your vignette on  
Cambodia, but on the quote directly above my response on Tibetan  

> 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.

Wow, it seems like you really missed my point to try to make this  
implication of "Only good little boys and girls who behave like  
Sunday school ideals have "healthy" brains" as part of what my point  
was. The actual point was that people who were subjected to trauma  
might have more resilience if they possessed certain contemplative  
skills--and those whose brains were adversely affected by the trauma  
they receive aren't necessarily doomed to some hard-wired fate. This  
does not necessarily mean that contemplative psychological approaches  
are appropriate for all patients or for all levels of PTSD. But what  
it may mean is that we may be able to find non-sectarian approaches  
to mental healing which don't involve medication.

Steve Feite

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