Tag Archives: gratitude

Blessed Breathing

Time will come when all that matters is the next breath. In that moment we will comprehend need and, as the breath comes, gratitude. Imagine contemplating each breath as both a desperate need and as a blessing received. Now, imagine living life as a succession of those moments. That is living prayer.

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. February is a meditation on harmony.

The word, harmony, derives from a Greek root meaning joint as in the arm. Harmony is a state of being joined—and acceptance of that reality of being connected to other, to Earth, itself.

We all breathe the same air. What one exhales, another inhales. Twelve to twenty times each minute at rest or minimal exercise.

We take a breath every 5 seconds, more under stress.

Tom Brown, Jr. taught us “need” with an example something like this: Imagine holding your breath under water. Imagine the building urgency for your next breath. Hold it longer—until you must exhale and inhale. Hold it still. Now, slowly surface. Just before you reach the surface, you begin to comprehend need.

You might be wondering what this desperation has to do with meditation. Got you thinking about breathing, didn’t it?

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” (Thích Nhất Hạnh)

The second requirement for meditation (after relative comfort) that Tom taught us was controlled breathing. As we walk, sit, or lie in relative comfort, we breathe deliberately. Some may call it a beginning of mindfulness as we take conscious control of an otherwise autonomic function.

I will leave the theories of mindfulness and deep breathing benefits to others, today, and focus on the benefits toward harmony. Deep, controlled breathing contributes to our meditation in three ways I understand. First, it deepens our physical and mental relaxation. Second, it gives our busy logical minds something to do while our emotional minds are free to express feelings. Third, it becomes a metaphoric contemplation on need and blessing.

Intentional breathing generates an internal harmony of mind, body, and spirit as it accepts external harmony with the rest of Creation.

Is there something more you need from life?

Each breath inhaled is a need satisfied. It is a deep prompt for gratitude, and gratitude is healthy. Gratitude is one of those beneficial qualities that slips away from us as we sink deeper into the vulnerable self. One of the first things we lose when we feel threatened is the ability to breathe. We thrust our tongues to the hard palette roof of our mouths and hold our breath. It is a natural response to fear, real or imagined.

Those with Post Traumatic Stress have twenty (20) seconds to intervene—to breathe—before our endocrine systems begin to dump flight/fright hormones into our blood streams. If we miss that deadline, we have twenty (20) minutes to consciously reduce our anxiety before a full-fledged “dinosaur dump” of noradrenergic dysregulation plunges us into three or four days of painful anguish, days in which we just might do some irreversible, regrettable things.

Breathe.

On the other hand, a few minutes of relative comfort, controlled breathing, and body relaxation each day offers the increase of serotonin levels that promises quality sleep at night. We NEED sleep, too.

Are you aware of your breathing? Happy Tracking!

Chains of Choice

“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” (George Bernard Shaw)

Because choices have consequences and we all know that—deep down where truth cannot be denied.

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. December investigates charity.

My life has been long, rich, rewarding, challenging, interesting, and punctuated by momentous choices from which, singly and in concert, has cascaded consequences for which I am responsible.

In 1963 I chose to participate in a six week Summer Science Training Program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. That led to enrolling there, jobs, degrees, more jobs, more degrees, and a whole lot of experiences that contributed to who I am, today.

In 1964 I chose to ask a classmate to marry me. That led to marriage, children, and grandchildren.

In 1968 I chose to enlist in the Army and almost immediately give up my guaranteed enlistment as a Chemical Staff Specialist to become an Infantry Officer, a Green Beret, and a Vietnam Veteran.

In 1971 I chose to take an early out from the Army and return to UW.

In 1979 I chose to return to school to get certified to teach secondary science.

In 1980 I chose to take a job teaching in Beaver Dam, relocate, and remarry.

In 1988 I chose to go back to school, again, to learn how to be a better teacher.

In 2000 I chose to finish my high school teaching career and retire in 2001.

In 2001 I chose to finish my dissertation and earned my PhD in 2002.

In 2005 I chose to relocate in Yuma for winters to be nearer grandchildren in San Diego.

In 2008 I chose to build a house in Yuma and become an Arizona Resident.

In 2012 I chose to read the help wanted ads in The Yuma Sun, then apply for and accept a job at NAU-Yuma as an Assistant Clinical Professor.

Choices have consequences. Each choice we make opens some doors and closes others. I don’t know about you, but I have never been clever or wise enough to foresee those consequences with any clarity.

And for every choice I made in freedom, I bore the responsibility for the consequences.

Oh, sure, there are always limitations to liberty (Selective Service comes to mind) but I still had many personal liberties of choice within those constraints.

Our options of choice rise in crescendo and then begin to fade like the years of our lives slipping past. I can never be an airline pilot. That ship sailed forty-some years ago when I chose to not complete my application for flight school. But, who knows? That might have meant getting shot down and killed in Vietnam.

I can never be a police officer, a medical doctor, or President of the United States. I can only be the me that is the result of my choices. All I have to give to the world is the me I am becoming. That is charity.

I believe all these choices came from one very deep personal intention of my adolescence. To this day I do not know if I decided or simply admitted that what I wanted to do with my life was to understand the universe. I do know that the paths I have chosen have taught me more than that high school boy could have imagined.

This is why I write—to find out what I am thinking. This is why I teach, because nothing teaches me as much as trying to figure out what to teach others and to hear what others are thinking. This is why I feel blessed, because I have followed a passion of my youth, with a few missteps and dead ends, to a place of greater understanding, and that gives me liberty to share my experiences with others in ways which might help them choose in harmony with their passions.

Deep down inside you, what is a passion of your youth?

Happy Tracking!

Holy Duty

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. December investigates charity.

We cannot experience charity by sharing ourselves with others unless we can accept ourselves, even our egos. Yes, the goal of many spiritual growth paradigms is to abandon ego; however, in my lay opinion, abandoning ego completely may lead to spiritual enlightenment and physical death. I aim to abandon the ego as the center of my existence.

And, that brings us to duty.

“Holiness is not the luxury of the few. It is a simple duty for you and for me.” (Mother Teresa)

I have made a leap from lay psychology to spirituality of the masses (pun intended). Come on, you knew it was coming. I have given you enough Jungian kind of psychology to expect some commitment to the unconscious.

This has been a challenging week for the entire concept of duty—with the release of the torture report. Last week I had searched for duty quotes and found many that are negative or inappropriate for this blog. I think the explanation is fairly simple: Egocentric duty is damned dangerous.

I recall a story about young Mother Teresa, but I could not find it. It claimed she was so moved by the hunger of the people she cared for that she gave away her own meager lunch. Day after day. And, being of youthful metabolism, she soon began to weaken until a superior noticed her failing stature and inquired. Young Mother Teresa was admonished to eat her lunch.

The point of the story? Unless we keep ourselves alive and reasonably healthy, we will have no strength, even no life, perhaps, to share with others.

I do not know if the story is true about Mother Teresa, but I know it is true about me.

It is the oxygen mask rule. In the case of a sudden loss of cabin pressure in the airplane, your oxygen mask will drop from the overhead panel. Put it on as demonstrated. If you are traveling with a dependent, put your mask on first so that you will be able to help your child or mother traveling with you.

That is why I say we must not abandon our ego—only put it in its proper place.

Proper place?

Yes, in service to others.

I am not Mother Teresa. Neither are you, I’ll bet, or you would not be reading my blog. We are people wounded by life, sure, but more than that, we are people with different duties, different callings.

Duty to whom?

Oh, no. You are not going to trick me into giving you my meager lunch. I have a deep conviction about my calling, my mission in life, and I am trying to live that. My gratitude is that I have been blessed with opportunities to serve others in that calling and that I continue to be so blessed.

For each of you, I pray such a blessing.

But, I am not a missionary to the poor. I am a teacher and occasional minister to the poor in spirit.

Who are you?

Whom do you serve?

There are very old ways of answering those most personal questions, ways that have much in common across indigenous cultures, ways that do not fail when the ego has been relegated to service, for then we become blessed with the joy of charity, of giving of ourselves, of doing our personal duty.

“Is it I, Lord?” (Daniel O’Donnell)

The answers are inside you, deep down beyond your ego, and they are Holy.

Happy Tracking!

Stone Soup

“We are so lucky.” (Nancy Barnes, almost every day)

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. November investigates gratitude.

Grace is a state of exuding joy, an emotional effervescence springing from the heart and overflowing the physical self. I love that feeling. I want some more of it.

Still, much of my life is lived in some kind of vortex between grace and despair.

I know that I am fortunate and I am grateful. I am thankful, but grace often eludes me.

Fate, Fortune, or Facility?

It is my mind. I keep wondering, obsessing, on why I am so blessed.

Is it fate? Have I been granted privilege to live so long, to experience joy and success, to feel functional and relevant into old age, for some reason? If this was predestined for me, I have to ask, “Why?”

Why have I been so blessed? Is there some purpose for my existence that has not yet been accomplished? What do I owe (and whom?) for these gifts?

Maybe grace is the ability and practice of accepting gifts with simple gratitude. Okay, “Thank you.”

Or, is it all just luck…fortune? Is life just a big numbers game? I cannot help but believe that my choices have had something to do with my luck, but how (and why) did I make those choices?

I have won in casinos and it felt good. I have won in life and questioned why. I question my worthiness for the good fortune.

Maybe grace is the ability and practice of accepting gifts without justification of worthiness. Okay, “Thank you.”

On the other hand, maybe all that I have is a result of my hard work. Maybe I have earned everything I have found enjoyable. Ah, but there is a rub.

Maybe I survived combat because of my prowess. The corollary is that those who did not survive, failed. The conclusion is that I won and others lost.

By my junior year in college, I had lost my drive to win in wrestling—because it always meant that somebody else had to lose. Winning was not that much fun, anymore (even though it was rare enough), but losing was no fun at all. Winning meant creating losers, a philosophically unsatisfactory reality for a young idealist (or for an old one).

The proposition that I won the combat contest while others lost their lives or limbs is deeply troubling to me. The proposition that my Vietnam experiences were relatively mild compared to others’ because of the choices I made is deeply troubling. It makes it hard to say, “Thank you.”

Stone Soup?

There is an old folk tale from sixteenth century Europe about a village running short of food when a traveler came through town looking for a meal. Yesterday morning, in the dark shadow of Monday nights events in Ferguson, MO, my spirits were lifted by serendipity as I watched preschool children act out a version of the story read by a teacher. The experience changed my whole day.

Was this encounter fate, fortune, or facility of my decision to schedule my co-teaching date in a beginning education class on that particular day?

The answer does not matter. I am grateful for the experience.

Sometimes there is evidence in my past and present of forces beyond my understanding. If the product of these forces leaves pleasant tracks in my heart, I have reason to smile and be grateful. Thanksgiving is about finding that evidence and celebrating it without regard to causes or worthiness, but accepting it with grace.

Happy Tracking.

Generosity of Spirit

“The love we give away is the only love we keep.” (Elbert Hubbard)

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. November investigates gratitude.

An old man I call friend has survived multiple wives afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease. He told us of his gratitude through the process as his wife and friend of over thirty years slipped away, gratitude for the years shared and for his opportunity to care for her through their ordeal. When I grow up, I want to be so grateful.

Grateful people are happy. At least, that is my observation. Unhappy people are ungrateful.

Generosity seems to be the key to happiness through gratitude.

“Minds, nevertheless, are not conquered by arms, but by love and generosity.” (Baruch Spinoza)

Sometimes, the mind to be conquered is my own. When I feel I need a little love, may I remember the power of generosity to give love away. There lies the way of happiness.

And, happiness, according to some, is the meaning of life. (I will leave it to you to find such quotes. Quests are good for the soul.)

This is just my opinion, of course, but I believe there are two basic views of human existence: #1) our world is dangerous and stuff is scarce; #2) our world is gracious and stuff is abundant. How we live our lives depends upon which view we choose.

Traumatic events tend to nudge or shove us toward view #1, a theme of danger and scarcity. We expect bad things to happen, people to be dangerous, things we need and want to be hard to get. Naturally, we are unhappy and our unhappiness perpetuates our belief.

Funny thing about belief and this self-perpetuating phenomenon. When we approach view #2, a theme of grace and abundance, we notice it in our lives. When we feel fortunate, we believe in abundance. When we accept the grace of generosity, we feel blessed. When we feel loved, we love others.

My old friend has a favorite saying when asked how he is. “Never had it so good.”

That always gives me pause, and I admit (often reluctantly) that the same is true for me. I am blessed. Feeling so, I become a little nicer, more inclined to share love, to give it away freely. It always comes back to me.

Is that all there is to life? If we are generous, we become happy?

Well, there is this little problem of waking with a feeling of dread, and feigning happiness just does not work. So, which comes first, feeling loved or giving love?

That’s your problem. Do a little work to discover your answer. Look to others for advice, if you wish, but look inside yourself, also. Look deep inside. What evidence can you find in your heart?

War and other trauma may scar our brains and hearts, but love leaves tracks there, too.

Happy tracking.

Gratitude Untied

Mornings bring the blues and Veterans Day is no exception. I sit here writing about gratitude and feeling sad at the same time. How is this possible?

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. November investigates gratitude.

“I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” (Helen Keller)

Strange thing, gratitude, when we feel it at the grace of less fortunate.

When I see my grandchildren born to a daughter conceived after I came home from Vietnam, I am grateful beyond measure for my survival.

Then I remember more than 58,000 names engraved in black granite and over 150,000 wounded comrades. I think of the hurting souls in my combat PTSD group, my friend’s hot flashes from hormone treatment for Agent Orange induced cancer, my brother-in-law and the husband of a friend both also lost to Agent Orange. I remember my Khmer friends and wonder if they survived “The Killing Fields”, and I think of a former student killed in Iraq.

My gratitude slips away like a poorly tied knot…from pulling it too tight, I suppose, from trying to own this gratitude thing.

There are those who belittle gratitude: “Gratitude is a sickness suffered by dogs.” (Joseph Stalin)

Well, I like dogs. I trust them more than I trust people, and I would rather emulate most any dog than a lot of people—people like Edward Gibbon who said, “Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive.” He also said, “The courage of a soldier is found to be the cheapest and most common quality of human nature.” Yup, I like dogs better.

Would you believe that scientists actually research gratitude? “Social scientists have found that the fastest way to feel happiness is to practice gratitude.” (Chip Conley)

Practice? So, gratitude is not a thing loved by all, especially arrogant despots. Gratitude is not a thing that can be owned—or a thing at all—but a process I can practice.

Yes, I will have this thing called happiness, and if gratitude is the way, I choose to practice gratitude.

Oh. How do I do that? How does one practice gratitude so that one might become happy?

I am a mess. When I go inside to look at myself, I see messy tracks for which I am not grateful. Still, I must look inside, honestly, to track my feelings. Such a dilemma.

One key is service to others. Yesterday I began writing this blog on Veterans Day, a day when I had no obligations before 6 pm. Today, on the other hand, I must go to work. Service. Today I have the opportunity to be useful, to be relevant.

Not only do I have the opportunity to develop programs to help teachers teach our young people in Yuma, but today I get to serve others in very specific and personal ways. A young Marine veteran is coming to get advice on her academic future, on her major, on her career. I don’t give the advice, but I serve as the connection for her to get to the advisor. That allows me to think about her needs instead of the mess that is me.

Later, today, I get to help a student teacher struggling with academic language in his second tongue so that he may finish his major writing assignment standing between him and his certification. I have the privilege of helping someone, and that is something that not every old veteran has.

I am grateful, again. For this guy, the process of gratitude is finding ways to be helpful to others. Practicing gratitude is searching for ways to serve, tracking opportunities rather than my own mess. May you find your own ways of getting outside yourself so that you may unleash the power of gratitude to lead you to your happiness.

Happy Tracking.

Desperate Dates

Note: This blog series investigates twelve attributes I see as conducive to recovery from PTSD (and other past stress) which has become part of our ethos or basic belief system. November investigates gratitude.

One of the happiest anniversary dates of my life is DEROS, my Date Eligible to Return from Over Seas. I left Vietnam on 1 November 1970. It has been on my mind, especially since I planned this blog series and I have been helping organize Military and Veteran Appreciation Week on campus. This should be a joyous time, right?

“Some of the reactions those affected may experience as the anniversary date nears include difficulty concentrating, loss of appetite, irritable outbursts, nightmares, difficulty falling or staying asleep, and feeling detachment from others.” (APA)

Except for the loss of appetite, I have had all of those symptoms the past couple of weeks, including this morning. First, I looked for physical causes such as a virus, heart problems, or worse. Then, I blamed it on work.

I had been confused.

Time generates anxiety. All I had to do in Vietnam was stay alive for 362 days and I could go home. The closer I came to that date, the more I worried about getting shot down as I visited A-Team camps by helicopter, or a rocket attack on our compound (one hit my building about three weeks after I left). I was holding my breath. Maybe that was what I was feeling on my DEROS anniversary.

Sunday, November 2nd, after I expressed gratitude for getting home forty four years earlier, I had an epiphany. Since my deployment had been for one calendar year, this was also the anniversary of the day I patted my baby in her crib, hugged my wife, said goodbye to my parents, and went to war. The dual nature of this anniversary date had eluded me all these years.

I am grateful that my baby did not have to grow up without her dad. I am grateful that my second daughter was conceived almost a year after I got home. After decades of guilt, remorse, and anger, I am grateful to be alive.

“The highest tribute to the dead is not grief but gratitude.” (Thornton Wilder)

Perhaps there is no more compelling feeling among survivors than a need to make something of the life spared, a life of gratitude, as expressed at the end of the movie, Saving Private Ryan.

My first visit to “The Wall” was an unplanned escape from pain. I came away knowing that it was okay that my name was not there. Knowing it deep down, inside. I had been told.

When my friend went to Vietnam to be an airborne brigade recon patrol team member, he was still a teenager. He has never been to the Vietnam War Memorial. I suggested, once, that he should go, but he told me that he couldn’t until he had made something of his life.

It can be difficult to feel grateful for something we do not believe we deserve, something we have not earned.

The bad news is that like other PTSD symptoms, date reactions will never go away. The good news is that as long as we are still alive, we have opportunities to turn from habits of grief to practice of gratitude.

May you find the embers of gratitude in your heart, and may humility fan them into flames. Gratitude is in you—you just have to find it.

Happy Tracking.

Graceful Heart

“The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated.” (William James)

“Gracias”

“De nada.”

I find it rather sad that in several languages, we often respond to a thank you by claiming that it is nothing. It is definitely not nothing. A gift is surely something, and gratitude is much more.

Gratitude is a condition of mind and heart I know by feel—particularly in contrast to other feelings such as anger and grief. For some of us with symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress, gratitude, and the serenity of wholeness it brings, can be elusive. It is not something we can create or capture. It seems to arrive with the stealth of dawn and slip away with the busy day.

Reminder: This blog series is dedicated to love, the various kinds of love beyond the romantic and erotic that support personal growth and healing, especially the healing of invisible wounds from Combat PTSD.

Our Yuma psychologist, Dr. Hart, frequently reminds us that only good people feel guilty, and feeling guilty is often a dominant symptom of combat PTSD. There are a lot of Vietnam Veterans who have serious difficulties each February—the anniversary of the 1968 Tet Offensive battles.

Survivor guilt robs us of gratitude for the gift of life. Sometimes we feel that we are not worthy of that gift and are reluctant to accept it. Subconsciously, or even consciously, we reject gifts and good fortune that come our way. We remain stuck in the past and in our old ways of thinking. How dare we feel joy, today, when so many of our brothers cannot?

We cling to scarcity in an abundant world. We box with shadows rather than dance in the light. And, we turn our backs on love because we feel unlovable.

Our reality is scarcity, shadows, and loneliness. It is a reality we create in our wounded minds. We are, indeed, living in a shadow—our shadow. That is what we see when we turn our backs to the light.

Then, miracle of miracles, someone comes to offer us love. We say no because it doesn’t feel right. We reject the miracle.

What is wrong with these happy people? Can’t they see the shadows? Why are they so joyous? Don’t they recognize their poverty? How can she love me? Only a sick or crazy person could love a wretch like me.

It isn’t being loved that cures us. It is accepting abundance, light, and love—for it is in the acceptance that gratitude grows.

The next step in our recovery is only a thank you away.

To each of you who have read this, “Thank you.”

Miracle of Gratitude

Late in the year of 2008, I accepted two related ideas: 1) I was not as happy as I wanted to be; and, 2) I was not as grateful as I needed to be. With the counsel of happier and more grateful friends, I began 2009 with the commitment to write one small gratitude statement in a daily meditation book—a different gratitude each day. Perhaps I missed three days that year, but I made up all my late work.

2009 was a very good year. Something wonderful happened along the way. I found humility (I hadn’t even noticed it was lost). And, there, behind humility, gratitude was waiting for me.

For those of you familiar with the works of one Nazarene, I have a word: Beatitudes.

Misery is a blessing. Power is in paradox, although I do not believe it is at all paradoxical except at a superficial level. Misery is a condition from which we learn. It is humbling. What we learn from such experiences is the blessing. We learn gratitude—if, and only if, we are willing.

Gratitude feels good. It is practically impossible to do evil when grateful. In gratitude, we act from love—and love comes back to us. That is not a paradox. It is the way our universe works.

Okay. I am going way out on a limb here. We have the experiences we request. Prayers are answered. I’ll try to explain.

I watch a movie, To Hell and Back, and wonder, “Would I be brave?” I really want to know. It occupies my mind for years. Then, I get the answer.

Nobody tells me, “Erv, you are brave.” I’m a skeptic. I wouldn’t believe a statement like that. The answer comes in an opportunity to be brave. The opportunity is peril of war.

In 1968, under imminent threat of military draft, I signed a guaranteed enlistment contract with the U.S. Army to train and employ as a Chemical Staff Specialist. It was my attempt to control my own destiny. Within a few days of swearing in, however, I surrendered that guarantee for the opportunity to attend Infantry Officer Candidate School with only one guarantee: I would go to Vietnam.

To this day, November 21st, 2011, I have been confused about why I did that. Why did this peacenik agriculture student volunteer to do such a thing? My friend used my words this morning to answer my question: Go before show.

Permit me an aside. I have disliked yellow ribbons on cars because I felt it was all show and no go. I never wore one. Now that I have an opportunity to advocate for Veterans with combat PTSD through Beyond the Blood Chit (www.ErvBarnes.com) and related personal appearances, I feel entitled to wear a yellow ribbon because I am, indeed, supporting our troops through my actions.

I never had to prove my courage in the way of Audey Murphy, but I did do my duty under fire. Today, I am grateful to know that about myself. Even though many comrades came home dead and wounded while I was unscratched, I have become grateful for my safe return and for the experience which now allows me to reach out to support our troops. Survivor’s guilt has evaporated. Anger over perceived injustices has dissipated. Gratitude remains.

Many days I still find myself wallowing in the muck and mire of self pity. I stare at the fears of the future and regrets of the past rather than the blessings of my present moment. Certainly, I need to focus on these blessings more than once a year or even once a day, but Thanksgiving is a season of gratitude. I celebrate it. Happy Thanksgiving to you all.