Rafting on the Veterans’ Retreat

I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, doing a rafting retreat this June on the American River. This was no ordinary rafting trip as the participants were 18 combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who had served since Desert Storm and into post-9/11. Seventeen men and one woman.

For some time I’ve wanted to do something to respond to the tragedy of all the warfare that’s been happening in this last decade in the Middle East. I was aware of the vast amount of trauma endured by returning vets and how challenging it was to return to civilian life after such an intense period of service. I was also aware of how many vets are not supported by their friends and community on their return, and how inadequate medical and social services for them are. So many experience isolation and struggle as they reintegrate back into mainstream society.

I wanted to put my meditation training to use, and to offer my experience and skills in nature-based, contemplative practice to wider groups of people. I wanted to weave the benefits and blessings of meditation with nature-based practice in general. When my friend, Lee Lesser, a Zen practitioner and teacher of sensory awareness, invited me to come and co-facilitate the rafting retreat with post-9/11 vets, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

What followed was an amazing inner and outer adventure. We spent three days rafting down the middle fork of the American River, which has a mix of class three and four rapids and passes through some exquisite deep-wooded valleys. We camped in shady groves by the river and took hikes up cascading streams.
For the retreat process I shared some practices that I teach on my nature retreats which focus the attention on the senses and connecting with the environment. What’s so great about doing those practices outdoors is the joy and well-being that comes as it connects people with the beauty and diversity of birds, trees, stars, sounds, and other sensory delights.

Given the level of trauma that some folks were carrying, the stillness of meditation is not necessarily easy. I wanted to share how powerful a resource nature is in its ability to ground us in the present moment and make that space accessible. I taught sensing, looking, and listening meditations, as well as using the refuge of body and breath. The practice that felt most effective was a night time sky gazing practice where we all lay on the earth after a talking circle and felt both the support and relaxation of the earth as well as the vast open space above us.

We also took some silent walks up to beautiful waterfalls. I was happy to see how much people appreciated the power of silence and how it deepens the capacity for presence and connection with nature. I was also happy to see how useful the concept and practice of mindfulness became. One person in particular talked about how focusing on the breath helped calm and center the mind and allowed them to make wise choices while going down some of the bigger rapids, it became a resource and a refuge.
Aside from what I offered, the retreat was held with a talking circle both mornings and evenings. These were powerful places to meditate and talk about issues related to the theme of the retreat: what do you need to turn towards, and what makes you turn away from that which needs your attention. Potent themes for all of us.

What struck me about these circles, and throughout the time on the river, was the depth of sincerity and integrity of every one of the participants. There was such a strong yearning to heal, and to show up as a kind human being to their kids, partners, friends. I learned so much from the vets about the power of friendship, loyalty, and the need for each of us to stick by those we love. They had all known deep camaraderie while serving and it was this quality that was both being sought and cultivated.
And what unfolded was an amazing community of trust, friendship, and support. The whole was way greater than the sum of its parts. And it became a safe space for people to unwind, let go, connect, have fun, goof off, throw each other playfully in the water, and relax in the company of friends.

Our closing ceremony asked people to reflect on what they wanted to bring into their lives and what they needed to leave/release on the river. So many beautiful intentions were shared and I trust that the power of that time will support those intentions for connection, friendship, and goodness will flower for some time.

For myself it felt like the beginning of a long, exciting relationship, one in which I can offer what I know but also receive and learn so much from these extraordinary men and women.


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