Guest Post by Angela Caruso-Yahne
Angela tells us how mindfulness has been a guiding light, through a circuitous and seemingly paradoxical life path, toward greater interconnection, meaning-making, and compassion. If you would like to learn more about Angela’s (and other Veterans’) journey, please join us for a screening and discussion of the documentary “On Black Mountain” on Nov 12th, 2023.
There’s always been a draw to introspection, contemplation, and a kind of curiosity and seeking-nature in the person that I am. I can recall being very young and creating small rituals threading together my love for the natural world and my felt sense of being part of something much larger than myself. Also, I often asked about what something meant rather than what it was or what it did. Finding meaning, it seems, was also a part of my core.
Although the connection might be difficult to clearly define, entering military service was another step on this path of meaning and contemplation. Does that sound paradoxical? I can understand if it does, because it certainly felt that way at times. I already had a mindfulness practice, and mostly through the journey of reading Thich Nhat Hahn’s writing, had identified with Zen Buddhism. I knew that a profession in combat was not aligned with my values, yet something about the military called to me. Was it service? Commitment? Community? Perhaps all of that played a role. Having already trained as an EMT, the natural fit was the role of medic, officially designated as a non-combatant but closely integrated with the front lines.
The options of full-time active military service or part-time as a reservist presented to me as being similar to monks and householders in the Zen tradition. The monks serve fully in the life of the temple, supporting the community and activity there while householders serve in the broader world in various vocations holding the principles and teaching at heart there. Each has its value, and circumstances tend to make a person well-suited to one or the other.
After researching my options, I arrived at the Air National Guard. This reserve component was very active in humanitarian response, disaster recovery, and community support. This unit offered the best of both worlds – readiness as an asset in the military medical system and agency in where and how I lived. It seemed like a good way to receive exceptional training, and to be connected to a larger organization. Training with the same standards and right alongside the active-duty counterparts, I would be supported to continue my education as a paramedic and be able to maintain my homelife. Being partnered with a woman was a major risk under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” no matter, but less so in the reserves than active duty.
Soon, I was off to basic training. Slightly older than most of my recruit peers, I was fortunate to have the confidence of some “life experience” under my belt, and less home-sickness than most. I quickly settled into the rhythm of early waking, cleaning, marching, education, and physical training. This, I felt, resonated with something in me that also shows up in my mindfulness practice. In this environment, there is a need for pure attention even in the mundane. There is no place for the ego or selfishness in the work. Preference is non sequitur. The embodiment of movement in unison to the cadence of left-right-left seemed to make visible our singularity. The slow, methodical rubbing of polish into leather made a mirror-like surface on the toe of a boot, and also was a mirror of my mind’s activity. Just polishing, just breathing, just being.
Basic training led to medic training, then to the flight schools and survival training required of all flight medics. I came back to my unit ready for duty, and hopeful that I would be of use. The experience of living in Oklahoma City had proven to me that this was a “when” not an “if”. Before enlisting I had responded as a search and rescue technician at the site of the Murrah Building bombing and to communities splintered by tornados. Now I knew that my service would encompass a wider geographical area and range of events. When I saw news of hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes and floods around the globe, the urge I felt to help would be coupled with the capability and the duty to respond. The well of helplessness that I sometimes felt when in the face of disasters seemed to be replaced by a sense of hopefulness about it.
One day after I had completed all of my requirements and earned my wings, I had just fallen asleep after a night shift at my civilian job. The phone rang and a friend’s voice said in a solemn tone, “You need to turn on the news”. This was the morning of September 11th and our global consciousness turned toward events of terrorism while I packed bags not knowing when or where I would go, but that what would be the first of many deployments was pending. The 18 years that followed were spent on and off active duty, in and out of Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and other neighboring lands. Finding meaning in the work was becoming much more challenging. Purpose and meaning came easily in the aftermath of an accident or a devastating storm. In these times people came together, community and caring for one another was palpable. But in war, the questions were more difficult. Instead of wondering how this could happen to an “us” without a “them”, there were “allies” and “enemies”. Suffering was cloaked in rage, not sadness.
Seeing suffering and being immersed in the landscape of war led to training as a Chaplain. Those childhood longings for meaning and ritual had not faded, and chaplaincy framed them well. While away I would tend to these difficult questions and the suffering as best I could, providing care in combat zones and en route to safer places. Along the way I was lauded with commendations and progressed through the ranks. At home, I had completed paramedic training and worked in a variety of EMS roles finally settling in the Fire Department. There, too, I was “successful” by all the measures of professional achievement. Technically sound, it seemed I had found my way.
Despite all the external indicators otherwise, I felt adrift. The mindfulness practice that had been an anchor began to lose its stability as well. Anxiety filled my conscious thinking and became the persistent undercurrent of my subconscious mind and sleeplessness. Sitting on the cushion, breathing in and breathing out, I was aware of the tension in my body and the “what ifs” in my head. Being with patients in the skies above Afghanistan, I began to view these people as puzzles to be solved more than hearts to be met. I wanted to fix them, remedy their situations, not connect with them and their suffering.
The seeds that had been planted long ago in years and years of practice were still germinating and moving through the surface toward the light. With a growing understanding of our common humanity, I could begin to see that there was no difference in meeting my or someone else’s suffering. It was all intertwined, connected, and in many ways the same. As long as my intention for others was to fix them and not see them, I denied suffering. As long as I denied compassion for my own suffering, I would lack compassion for others, no matter the desire to embody nothing but care for them.
I held this new intention during my final deployment to Afghanistan, to approach the circumstances and the beings in that time and space with a ‘soft front and a strong back’ as taught by Roshi Joan Halifax. It was new and vulnerable ground, yet I felt so incredibly renewed by it. Practicing in this way I began to build capacity to meet others and their suffering without feeling that I might be swept away by it or absorb it as my own. And in this capacity was the capacity to be with the depth of my own suffering in a kind and befriending way.
Part of being with the suffering and tending to it was the endeavor of the Veteran’s PATH Anchor program. This program included several months of learning and practicing mindfulness in community with a group of Veterans and facilitators. I found that another key aspect of cultivating compassion is the art of seeing and being seen. I believe that all too often we do not see each other and we do not allow our authentic selves to be seen. While it can be a protective mechanism to exist in systems that don’t support meeting our communal and individual suffering, it also separates us. It separates us from one another and from our own true nature.
Through Veteran’s PATH, I began to let myself be seen, and began to open to seeing others in a fuller way. And, interestingly enough, as it happens, practice opportunities tend to show up in the places they are sought. While I was a participant, a documentary was filmed about the program. It presents an opportunity for me to continue to practice with being seen, and offers others the opportunity to, perhaps, practice seeing military Veterans in a new way. It can be a complicated practice, but one that I believe is worthwhile.
My hope is that all of this, military service, personal growth, training and study, and continuous practice serves to meet suffering in a way that cultivates compassion and healing in myself and others until all of the causes of separation and warring are eliminated.