Moral Injury

Today, I am in the beautiful redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Ben Lomond, California. The trees are so beautiful. People know about the redwoods in Muir Woods, and these are just as wonderful.

Just a little while ago, I was walking on a path and felt a gentle breeze blowing in the wind. Soon, the redwood trees were shedding their raindrops and the delicate sound of them falling on the path let me know that I am part of this!

I came here to participate in the Veterans Day retreat with the Community of Mindful Living in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (known as Thay by his followers). Thay has been concerned about the well-being of veterans of the war in Vietnam on both sides of the conflict for half a century. He has offered many retreats for veterans at his home in Plum Village, France.

The leaders of the retreat are Maxine Hong-Kingston and Wendy Johnson.

Maxine Hong-Kingston

Maxine Hong-Kingston – Photo David Shankbone – Wikipedia

Maxine is a Chinese-American author and professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley.

Wendy Johnson is a Buddhist meditation teacher and organic gardening mentor who wrote “Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate.”

Both women are lay dharma teachers in Thay’s tradition. I’ve known Wendy for many years.

This afternoon, Maxine spoke about moral injury. In addition to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), many veterans are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with moral injury.

Moral injury results from doing something against our morals, our conscience. We are taught not to kill and these soldiers go to basic training to learn how to kill. There is something wrong with this picture!

The number of suicides of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan averages about 18 per day and the number of attempts  is about 48. These numbers are astonishing.

What can we do to help the veterans deal with their moral injury? How can we deal with our own moral injury? We all have it, you know! Unless you don’t pay taxes!

When I heard these figures, I felt deeply sorry for the veterans. I immediately thought of the Five Mindfulness Trainings of Thich Nhat Hanh. These trainings are derived from the Buddha’s teaching on the five precepts. They occur in every religion.

The five precepts are not to kill, not to steal, not to tell lies, not to engage in harmful sexual relations, and not to use intoxicants. Thay, over the years, has embellished and expanded on these basic ideas.

The mindfulness training that came to mind when Maxine spoke about this was the fifth mindfulness training:

Nourishment and Healing

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth.

This is the mindfulness training that firmed my commitment to practice Buddhism in Thay’s tradition. I remember him saying back in 1985, “If the west stops drinking alcohol by 50%, we could feed the whole world.” As you know, this didn’t happen.

We are still living in a society that thinks that it can use and infinite number of resources on a finite planet. This is the only earth we have. I think that our country has a severe problem with greed and unmindful consumption.

That’s why we fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s why we allow Shell Oil to dig for oil in the Amazon rainforest. That’s why we spend millions of dollars on elections in which the candidates up for election fight like they were in kindergarten. The leaders of our country have no understanding of interbeing – that we are all interconnected.

When I think about these things I used to get really upset. I used to get outraged. So I have taken the mindfulness trainings to heart and have learned to embrace them. Like the tracks of the raven in the sky, they fly out of my mind as I return to my mindfulness.

I’m curious what you think about these writings. What moral injuries are you experiencing? How are you dealing with them? Please share your feelings, thoughts and questions.

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  1. Beverly Alexander says

    The choices at the top of the page: “I love it, I hate it, Interesting, Shocking, I don’t care” – are better than just “Like” as the ONLY choice, but I don’t feel comfortable with any of them. I think I would like the inclusion of “Like” as well.

    Having only choices like “love” and “hate” etc. makes me feel like I have to give an answer that is more polarized than I might feel!



  2. Beverly Alexander says

    By the way, I really did like the article!