Letters to the Editors: Pausing for Breath, Personal Reflections on the War

Wilde McCormick, E., 2003. Letters to the Editors: Pausing for Breath, Personal Reflections on the War. Reformulation, Summer, pp.6-8.


Letters to the Editors

Pausing for Breath
Personal Reflections on War

For one month after September 11 2001 it felt as if the world held its breath. Whilst everyday suffering (24,000 children die of starvation worldwide every day) continued, there was in Western industrialised nations, particularly Britain and the US, what felt like a pause. Retaliation was not immediate. In this pause I hoped that the nations forming a community to support a United States under attack would be large and multi-faceted, able to develop a wise forum and begin a conversation about what was going on. I hoped that this group might use their privilege as the most prosperous and educated nations on earth to cast their thinking net much wider than the usual knee jerk reaction to attack. We know, from other peace activities in Ireland and in South Africa that it is possible to establish the ground in which we can ask, debate, contemplate questions such as why are we being attacked? How are we perceived by our attackers? What do our attackers really want to achieve? And why, now, after September 11 has the ‘sleeping giant’ been asked to wake up?

Perhaps the one-month stretched our leaders to their limit, perhaps they were unable, in the time they believed they had, to develop the philosophical ground that would nourish the widest of conversations to develop. Perhaps some of this went on and I do not know about it, or it did not get reported. I know that wise contemplative forums exist throughout the world working quietly behind many of the reported peace negotiations. These groups help to keep the conversations going and bring opposites together through conflict resolution, peace activism, and by developing and supporting groups in countries where individual freedoms have been compromised and people have lost their voice. They are non-governmental and self-funding, thus often lack the power to attract the more glamorous attention of a sensation hungry media. I receive emails every day from organisations devoted to this work, and hear, through them, stories of suffering and of the attempts to relieve suffering throughout the world. At a peace conference I attended last year I heard of how one group flew Hutus and Tutsis in separate planes from Burundi to South Africa for one year. For one year they shouted at each other before they began to listen, and then to talk.

The post September 11 pause was also a stunned silence, for the event was more spectacular than a Hollywood movie. Then it became filled with sounds, and with words based upon fear, anger, rage, hatred, and revenge. Meandering through, like a small river, was the pain of confusion and of inconceivable loss. Learned coping mechanisms came to the fore. Some raged, some hit out, some blamed. Others prayed, lit candles, wailed. Buddhist monks fasted and meditated upon the suffering of all sides involved in the conflict. They prayed for the space available to create wisdom and compassion that might lead to peace and understanding.

But America’s leadership needed to restore its illusion of control and be seen to begin to lead its country to victory over what was now defined as world terrorism. So the next step became allied to one we see frequently in CAT. Victim under attack moved to attacking tyrant, without space in between for reflection, without seeing both roles within one, without consideration for the reasons for the initial attack nor for the consequences of the hardening down of the attacking/attacked reciprocal role.

So how might it be different, these recent events that have opened up so many of the world’s wounds and plunged us all into a war soaked frenzy where fear, rage, and restricted thinking fuel more of the same? What models might leaders be prevailed to draw upon that would give a more spacious structure within which a peaceful solution might be contemplated rather than the sinking down into violent action that involves thousands of people’s lives? What can psychology and psychotherapy offer from their models of understanding human nature?

In writing this now I am drawing upon both my understanding of CAT’s learned reciprocal role procedures and also my interest in Buddhist philosophy and Transpersonal Psychology. In particular I am drawing on the effect and the value of the practice of mindfulness.

In an interpersonal sense most causes of conflict lie in our human attachment to strong views over moral judgement limited into ‘good’ and ‘bad, often evil’; over possessiveness, ‘mine’ and ‘yours’; and in the projection of our own rejected, feared, split off or unreflected shadow feelings. Collectively conflict is created by the misuse of power, through the corruption of omnipotent unchecked leadership, and through the actual fact of one half of the world enjoying wealth whilst the other starves.

Buddhism teaches that the root of suffering is in our attachment to duality, where things are either in control or out of control, right or wrong, fair or unfair, rich or poor. Buddhism also teaches that life is suffering and that suffering can be overcome. Out of Buddhism comes the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is simply the energy that reminds us what is there in front of us and allows us through practice to remain present with what is there exactly as it is without trying to change it. When I first started practising mindfulness I realised how much my mind wandered, how many false beliefs occupied the space in my head, how many of my feelings were compromised by mental formations known to us in CAT as traps, dilemmas, and snags. I had ‘known’ of them because of reformulation, but I do not think I had practised remaining present with the feeling states trapped under their reality in the way that mindfulness made available to me. Most importantly, for me, was that the fruit of the daily discipline of practice revealed a depth of feeling I also ‘knew’ of, but which had not benefited from being bathed in contemplative attention. For example, when the space is cleared from repetition of mental formations feelings are more freely available. This can be alarming at first, to feel the full extent of anger, guilt, anxiety, fear. When these feelings become the object of mindfulness they become nourished by the energy of the practice. Because these practices are conducted in a spirit of Maitri – unconditional friendliness to oneself – they are able to arise, often feel overwhelming, can be remained with, even at times penetrated. Sometimes they remain constant or unavailable and at other times dissolved. Over time I think the practice allows us to have an active living relationship with ‘core pain’ where we do not have to repress and project onto others nor act out from this place. Over time, there are more moments of clarity, of peacefulness, of happiness.

There are many objects of mindfulness upon which we may place our attention. It may by the breath, simply paying attention to the rise of the in-breath and the fall of the out-breath; it may be our step as we walk, placing our mindfulness on the base of our feet as each one makes contact with the ground. As therapists we may use mindfulness as a way of being truly present with the person sitting before us and all the many dimensions they bring into the consulting room. With patients suffering from borderline procedures we may use our own mindfulness practice to bring a contemplative attitude into the fragments of space just bearable between state shifts. This may help some moments of stability to be achieved and shared. We may be able to offer a mindfulness-based practice to our patients, for mindfulness is not limited to Buddhism although an authentic personal practice is a requirement if one is to offer it to others. Recently I have been using a mindfulness based CAT approach with a severely depressed patient in a post ECT period. The simplicity of the concentrated practice of breathing in and breathing out relieves her from having to go anywhere or achieve anything, and for short periods, offers calm.

Mindfulness strengthens our concentration and our attention. It means that we are less likely to act ‘mindlessly’ because our full attention is upon our every intention. It might help to stabilise a ‘pause’ during conflict so that paranoia and polarisation lessen.

Between September 11 and the Iraq war I felt as if I was being subjected to the paranoias of Bush and Blair projected into the ‘axis of evil’, ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and to the illusions of control through wiping out these perceived threats. Victim and Tyrants all. We know that this war was entered into illegally and its premise was either a lie or a projection. The Independent on Sunday leading article of May 18 writes: “did Mr Blair really believe that an illegal war against Iraq would alleviate the terrorist attack? If he did not, there are questions to be asked about his relationship with the truth”. Whilst in either Psychology or Buddhism there are no ultimate absolute truths – everything is in constant movement, reflection and revision, I wonder whether some of the theories and practice so familiar to CAT – a collaborative, practical, hopeful psychology, might fertilise the ground in which leadership is created and maintained. Leaders who have a philosophical ground based upon self-awareness and responsibility which is shared by colleagues with whom they are accountable to their countrymen, might make different decisions.

In my own helplessness, fury and desperation at this war the only thing I could do was bear witness to the horror of it all, nourish my own practice and communicate with others who felt the same. I could only write letters and send bags of rice to Bush and Blair in a spirit of ‘bread not bombs’. On March 16, like millions of people throughout Europe, I attended a peace vigil, held in my village in Suffolk. Walking past the 12th century monastery ruin I realised that this village, once the most important port in East Anglia, now lies mainly under the sea. And Iraq, dominated by a tyrant and about to be invaded by foreigners was once a great Sumerian civilisation, the place of the worlds oldest story, Innana, and first language.

Everything changes, nothing is permanent.
It seems now that the terrorist threat the war was seeking to ‘wipe out’ in our name is still alive and well and may even be stronger. I fear that this will make attacking/attacked more absolute and that fear, paranoia and many deaths will narrow down any hope of useful contemplative pause.

Elizabeth Wilde McCormick.
ACAT Founder, supervisor, psychotherapist in private practice. Author of Change For The Better.
Liz-mac@supanet.com

Full Reference

Wilde McCormick, E., 2003. Letters to the Editors: Pausing for Breath, Personal Reflections on the War. Reformulation, Summer, pp.6-8.

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