by Gordon Nary
Gordon: You have a fascinating story on why you changed careers to help veterans with severe combat trauma and survivors of community violence. Please share your story with our readers.
Tony: It starts with spiritual life. I have been a lifelong seeker of God, and a student of contemplative practice, since about the age of 16 when a Jesuit introduced me to the Christian mystics. Don’t get me wrong: I am full of faults and distractions, as those who know me well will tell you; I just never have been able to stop asking questions about God. For most of my life that was in a purely Catholic context. In 1998, several years into my work life after graduate studies in international relations and medieval history, I found myself experiencing intense stress from work, but also a much deeper discontent. Thomas Merton’s Asia Journal and Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha led to curiosity about Buddhist meditation and its capacity to heal.
I was introduced to several Tibetan Buddhist teachers and undertook intensive meditation practice over several years, including several 10-day intensive retreats. From this practice, I experienced a sense of healing, wholeness, and dedication to compassion that united with my Catholic devotion to move me beyond simply managing a successful career in business. I needed to find a way to make a significant difference in people’s lives, and I felt obligated to share the gifts that I had been given in contemplative teaching and practice.
In 2010, I completed teacher training in a clinical psychoeducation program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, an 8-week, meditation training program that helps individuals learn how to work with qualities of awareness to reduce experiences of stress and suffering, whether they arise from issues with physical health, mental health, or life circumstances. After completing that training at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, I returned to Chicago and sought to gain experience as a teacher.
I was offered the opportunity to teach basic mindful breathing and body scanning to a group of combat veterans once a week for an hour over a period of five weeks. This was my first direct exposure to the profound suffering that can happen to those who have exposed themselves directly to the experience of war. It cannot be fully expressed in words. Veterans taught me what I call the clinical definition of hell: the complete and perfect intolerance of your present moment experience – out in the world, in your body, and in your mind – without any hope of escape. When you see this desperate state in the eyes of another human being, you never forget it.
In my turn, I found it intolerable to do nothing in the face of that suffering. One month later, Adler University announced a new doctorate in clinical psychology with an emphasis on military psychology. I was the first student accepted into the first cohort. I had no idea how hard it is to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology! But I also knew I wasn’t supposed to ask. I was called. That call has since led me into the lives of hundreds of veterans and survivors of community violence in Chicago. I have the privilege of offering the gifts I value most deeply in myself, and am entrusted with the life stories of so many strong and courageous individuals.
Gordon: How does contemplative study and practice relate to the relief of suffering?
Tony: The answer lies in ancient formulations of human consciousness and the nature of suffering. In the contemplative practice lineages of both Christianity and Buddhism, consciousness is seated in the “heart” (most Westerners would call it mind). This heart’s essential quality is simply to know: a pure quality of spacious, luminous awareness that can know itself, others, and the world. Christianity identifies the most proper objects of that knowing first as God, and then each other, but of course this quality of knowing is absorbed into all the richness of human life experience, for better or for worse.
St. Thomas Aquinas taught us that love is simply the desire to know. If we think about how much we want to know everything about our beloved (at least in the first throes of love!), this makes sense. And so emerges a deeper meaning of Christ’s two great commandments - love (desire to know) God with all your heart, mind, and soul; and love (desire to know) your neighbor as yourself. The Buddhists assert that this spacious, luminous, knowing quality of the mind is literally limitless – an infinite quality of human nature that can be a new concept for Westerners. But how does this luminous awareness lead to suffering?
Every day each of us knows experiences that are unwelcome – getting too much of something we don’t want, or not getting enough of something we feel we want or need. Sometimes these feelings are well founded. Who wants a headache? Or feel the deep loss that follows the death of a loved one? These experiences hurt us, sometimes momentarily, sometimes so deeply that they insult our very sense of our own goodness.
Most of us respond to feelings of pain and loss with suffering – a mental grasping at our experiences of pain and an aversion to their continuing presence: “I don’t want this headache”; “I can’t tolerate the loss of my loved one”. It is so important here to recognize that pain and suffering are not the same. Pain is an experience. Suffering is a response of aversion and mental grasping at that aversion. Suffering, of course, is its own experience, and so can become a cause of additional suffering – what I call a “cascade effect” (anger causing disappointment, causing hopelessness, etc.), or what Buddhism straightforwardly calls “the suffering of suffering”.
Christianity and Buddhism both suggest that suffering is just one among numerous possible responses to pain. Other responses can include discernment, compassion, acceptance, or direct action to relieve the causes and conditions of that suffering. When conditions can’t be changed, thoughts and feelings can be explored, accompanied or challenged. When loss or pain inflict a wound on the soul that will be lifelong, acceptance and meaning-making can become most important. The goal is not a life free of pain. It is an experience of being and meaning that make life, even with all its pain, bearable, and perhaps even joyful. The most reliable paths to healing I have known in spiritual and clinical practice are those that skillfully work with this luminous, knowing quality of the heart in this way.
Gordon: You have a strong interest in Thomas Merton. How did this develop and please comment on Thomas Merton’s quest to revive Catholic contemplation.
Tony: My road to encountering the writings of Thomas Merton, and to helping veterans and survivors of community violence, is a single path that goes back to junior year at Marquette University High School, when a Jesuit priest, seeing my earnest questions about the existence of God, introduced me to the Christian mystics, especially St. Augustine, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Thomas Merton, Teilhard de Chardin, Simone Weil, Dag Hammarskjöld, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Merton’s Dialogues with Silence echoed my own deepest longings for God. Merton’s Asia Journal was my first introduction to the Buddhist traditions of fierce dedication to compassion and the relief of suffering.
Merton’s writings across his lifetime trace the arc of the life of a contemplative, which first turns inward, with profound and courageous curiosity, to encounter the God deeper in us than we are ourselves, and then turns outward again in love and compassion that cannot tolerate human suffering. Merton’s passion for social justice arose directly from the insights and openness he experienced in his dedicated life of prayer as a monastic. I believe Merton offered his writing and prayer in such a public way to awaken and inspire others to find that congruity between the presence of God indwelling in each of us, and our vocation as Christians to move the world toward greater justice, mercy, and joy.
Gordon: Please describe Christian-Buddhist contemplation and its psychological value.
Tony: I have touched on this question in some of the above discussion. I’d like to note that I have used traditional techniques in meditation and contemplation, closely related to the evidence base, and under close supervision, to measurably and significantly reduce symptoms of PTSD. There is much work to be done to extend the current literature in psychology from its current understanding of the “emergence of the observing self” (Kerr, Josyula, & Littenberg, 2011) to the realization of the luminous, spacious nature of mind that gives rise to the appearance of this self to luminous awareness. This is a classic Buddhist formulation, but it might also apply to the practice of contemplative introspection in our own tradition. The Christian idea of kenosis, the emptying of the self, allows the same experience of realizing the “self” as just an empty, yet living vessel without a self-sustaining life of its own, that somehow is perfectly fulfilled when God’s presence is fully realized in that empty interior space.
Why is this interior realization important psychologically? Combat veterans and survivors of community violence often suffer from severely negative cognitive dissonance related to past experience. Combat veterans often struggle profoundly to live with memories of things they’ve done, and live with a deeply felt sense that “I was supposed to be a hero; now I’m a monster”. Psychology calls this moral injury. In my clinical experience, this issue is the best predictor of suicidality in veterans. The emergence of the observing self-gained in meditation helps center the sense of self as the observer, not the owner, of these difficult thoughts and emotions.
This might not sound like much, but this simple and powerful shift in perspective, gained with courageous and committed practice, can mean the difference between a successful suicide attempt and a veteran who can actually recover enjoyment of life, family, and work. This shift can help a survivor of community violence, sexual trauma, or childhood neglect and abuse recover a sense of innate human goodness and renewed engagement with life. I have seen the unbelievable courage of this kind in therapy over and over.
It is important to note that there is no such thing as “Christian-Buddhist” contemplation. They are separate, living lineages that both aim at the full realization of the good qualities of a human being either as an image of God, or a Buddha on the path to awakening. One lineage seeks the joy of union with God; the other seeks the joy of fully realized union with being. As a Christian, I like to say that Christians seek out a relationship with God, while Buddhists earnestly seek out God’s qualities. The traditions each seek the same sacred ground, but they cannot be mixed, or they lose their authenticity and power to transform. Yet these living lineages can be set right alongside each other in the life of one individual, eliciting at least in my life great spiritual treasures that are “pearls of great price”.
I remain Christian and Catholic; I cannot deny the moments of innermost search that I have experienced as relational: an undeniable, yet a wordless conversation with the Source of being. Our Lady’s humble fiat released the Holy Spirit into human history in the Incarnation. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ is the Logos that constantly renews and orders the world. The sacrifice of the Mass is the central and ongoing union of the Spirit of God in and among us. The Church is the seat of faith and the spiritual works of mercy, the university is (or at least should be) the center of ongoing synthesis of faith and reason, and the hospital is the living sign of the corporal works of mercy. These are the unique foundations of Christian and Catholic civilization that have transformed the world.
Gordon: What is mindfulness training?
Tony: The most basic definition of mindfulness is simply paying attention to your attention. What do you pay attention to? How do you react to it? What attracts you? What averts you? What do you grasp at - either to indulge it or suppress it? Are there patterns to your choices of attention, moment by moment? What makes the pattern meaningful? What narrative are you weaving from your choices of attention, moment by moment?
Mindfulness training is a phrase encompassing many lineages, teachings, and techniques in both traditional and clinical practice that go back at least 3,000 years and probably much further. One path might be described in three stages: 1) learning to focus and keep the attention on a specific object in the field of perception; 2) expanding this strengthened facility with attention to openly hold whatever rises in the field of perception with stability and non-reactivity; and 3) using these strengthened qualities of attention and openness finally to turn awareness on itself, recognizing its own luminous, spacious, clarity. The consequences of this recognition to healing, self-realization, and beneficial (even sacred) interdependence with the world cannot be overestimated or even fully expressed in language. It definitely is an adventure worth undertaking!
The ancient desert fathers described a path that is based on nepsis, the “guarding” of the heart’s luminous awareness from being scattered into unhealthy objects, in forms traditionally identified as the seven deadly sins. This practice can be seen today in Orthodox monasteries, where practitioners chant the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”) endlessly until it is literally recited with every breath, no matter what else the practitioner might be doing. This practice is understood to keep the heart’s illumination from being scattered into unhealthy objects and dispose it to the workings of grace and blessing. The Russian Orthodox St. Silouan of Athos, in the writings he left behind, described how this courageous path, which can lead to hell and back, finally leads to the realization of the self and all other people as living embodiments of the Holy Spirit. Wisdom, love, and compassion for others are natural consequences of this realization. What a joyful and transformative vision!
Gordon: Thank you for a great interview.
Tony: Thank you for the chance to speak to your readers, Gordon. I hope it’s been interesting and useful.