A Story of Transforming Suffering, In Honor of All Veterans

war memorial, veterans day, thich nhat hanh

This passage is from Savor: Mindful Eating. Mindful Life.

"Some years ago Thay offered a retreat for Vietnam veterans. Many of them carried secrets and tremendous suffering that they had never been able to share with others or find relief from. The following passage is from Savor: Mindful Eating. Mindful Life.

We would sit in a circle, just listening, and allow each veteran to speak out his suffering. With some of them, we just sat silently for a long time  before they were able to open their heart and share with us. One veteran told us that during the war one day his unit attacked guerrilla fighters. They defeated them and brought back the wounded Vietcong to their camp as war prisoners. In his helicopter he transported a woman fighter who was seriously wounded. She was clutching her hammock. Guerrilla fighters living in the jungle slept in hammocks and carried their few possessions with them. She continued to stare at him with great hatred and anger. In her anguished look, he felt she was accusing him:

'Why have you come here to destroy my country?' Before they could reach their base, she died in the helicopter, her eyes still staring at him, cold and hard. He had kept her hammock with him all those years and brought it with him to the retreat.

In the retreat we offered teachings on embracing our suffering and holding tenderly our painful emotions. We all trained in mindful walking and breathing, developing our concentration and calm. The veteran began to see that although he had committed terrible acts during the war, he could do very positive and healing things now to heal the wounds he caused in the past.

On the last day of retreat we organized a bonfire to help the veterans release their suffering from the war. We  practiced walking meditation to the bonfire and encouraged each veteran to throw into the fire objects or symbols that represented his or her pain. The man stood a long time by the fire, clutching his hammock tightly to his chest. He refused to throw it into the fire.

One of the nuns told the man, 'Throw the hammock into the fire.' But he resisted. He was attached to his suffering, to his complex. Thay went to him and very gently encouraged him to release it. Thay told him, 'Now you have become a new person and compassion is born in you. Don’t continue to hold on to your old suffering, to your guilt. Give me the hammock.'

And finally he did. Then the nun and Thay put the hammock into the flames. And there was a big transformation in our friend. He felt so much better: he was light and free from the weight, the complex of  guilt that he had carried with him and had been attached to for so many years.

By just observing and acknowledging our feelings and our thoughts without judgment, blame, or criticism, we have embarked on the path of emancipation from our suffering. If there is pain, sorrow, or anger, we simply acknowledge that we feel the pain, the sorrow, and the anger.

When we acknowledge these feelings with mindfulness, we do not let the feelings of pain, sorrow, or anger take us over and lead us astray. Instead we try to calm them down with tenderness. Practicing like this will cause our knots to loosen up, and repeated practice will eventually help us understand their roots by identifying the sources of nutriments that have brought them into being. With this insight and understanding, we can stop the suffering at its roots."


SAVOR - Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung, HarperOne 2010, p. 89-91

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