By Supriya Venkatesan
At 19, I enlisted in the U.S. Army and was deployed to Iraq. I spent 15 months there — eight at the U.S. Embassy, where I supported the communications for top generals. I understand that decisions at that level are complex and layered, but for me, as an observer, some of those actions left my conscience uneasy.
To counteract my guilt, I volunteered as a medic on my sole day off at Ibn Sina Hospital, the largest combat hospital in Iraq. There I helped wounded Iraqi civilians heal or transition into the afterlife. But I still felt lost and disconnected. I was nostalgic for a young adulthood I never had. While other 20-somethings had traditional college trajectories, followed by the hallmarks of first job interviews and early career wins, I had spent six emotionally numbing years doing ruck marches, camping out on mountaintops near the demilitarized zone in South Korea and fighting someone else’s battle in Iraq.
During my deployment, a few soldiers and I were awarded a short resort stay in Kuwait. There, I had a brief but powerful experience in a meditation healing session. I wanted more. So when I returned to the United States at the end of my service, I headed to Iowa.
Forty-eight hours after being discharged from the Army, I arrived on campus at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. MUM is a small liberal arts college, smack dab in the middle of the cornfields, founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the guru of transcendental meditation. I joked that I was in a quarter-life crisis, but in truth my conscience was having a crisis. Iraq left me with questions about the world and grappling with my own mortality and morality.
Readjustment was a sucker punch of culture shock. While on a camping trip for incoming students, I watched girls curl their eyelashes upon waking up and burn incense and bundles of sage to ward off negative energy. I was used to being in a similar field environment but with hundreds of guys who spit tobacco, spoke openly of their sexual escapades and played video games incessantly. Is this what it looked like to be civilian woman? Is this what spirituality looked like?
Mediation was mandatory for students on campus, and the rest of the town was composed mainly of former students or longtime followers of the maharishi. Shortly after arriving, I completed an advanced meditator course and began meditating three hours a day — a habit that is still with me five years later. Every morning, I went to a dome where students, teachers and the people of Fairfield gathered to practice meditation. In the evening, we met again for another round of meditation. During my time in Fairfield, even Oprah came to meditate in the dome.
I was incredibly lucky to have supportive mentors in the Army, but Fairfield embraced me in a maternal way. I cried for hours during post-meditation reflection. I released the trauma that is familiar to every soldier who has gone to war but is rarely discussed or even acknowledged. I let go, and I blossomed. I was emancipated of the unhealthy habits of binge-drinking and co-dependency in romantic interludes, as well as a fear that I didn’t know controlled me.
Suicide and other byproducts of post-traumatic stress disorder plague the military. In 2010, a veteran committed suicide every 65 minutes. In 2012, there were more deaths by suicide than by combat. In Iraq, one of my neighbors took his M16, put it in his mouth and shot himself. Overwhelmed with PTSD-related issues from back-to-back deployments and with no clear solution to the problem, in 2012, the Defense Department began researching meditation practices to see whether they would affect PTSD. The first study of meditation and the military population, done with Vietnam veterans in 1985, had shown 70 percent of veterans finding relief, but meditation never gained in popularity nor was it offered through veterans’ services. Even in 2010, when I learned TM, the military was alien to the concept.
But today, the results of the studies showcase immense benefits for veterans. According to the journal Military Medicine, meditation has shown a 40 percent to 55 percent reduction in symptoms of PTSD and depression among veterans. Furthermore, studies show that meditation correlates with a 42 percent reduction in insomnia and a 25 percent reduction in the stress hormone cortisol in the veteran population. To complement meditation, yoga has also been embraced as a tool for treatment by the military. With the growing acceptance of holistic approaches, psychological wounds are beginning to heal.
The four-day training course to learn TM is now available at every Veterans Affairs facility for those who have PTSD or traumatic brain injury. Even medical staff and counselors who help veterans at the VA are offered training in both TM and mindfulness meditation. Additionally, Norwich University, the oldest military college in the country, has done extensive research on TM and incoming cadets, and many military installations have integrated meditation programs into their mental health services. When I had first learned to meditate, many of my active-duty friends found it a bit too crunchy. But with the military’s recent efforts at researching meditation and funding it for all veterans, the stigma is gone, and my battle buddies see meditation as a tool for building resilience.
For me, meditation has created small but significant changes. One day, while going for a walk downtown, I stopped and patted a dog. A few minutes later, I came to a halt. I realized what I had done. While in Iraq, during a month when we were under heavy mortar attack, a bomb-sniffing K-9 had become traumatized and attacked me. This, coupled with a life-long fear of dogs, had left me guarded around the canines. I touched the scar on my elbow from where the K-9 had latched on and could no longer find the fear that had been there. Soon I was shedding all the things that held me back from living my life in an entirely unforeseen way.
For the first time in my life, I found forgiveness for those who had wronged me in the past. I literally stopped to smell the flowers on my way to work every day. And I smiled. All the freaking time. I even felt smarter. Research shows that meditation raises IQ. I’m not surprised. After graduation, I went on to complete my master’s at Columbia University.
Fairfield is also home to generations of Iowans who are born there, brought up there and die there. Many of these blue-collar Midwesterners have had animosity toward the meditators. Locals felt as if their town had been overtaken. They preferred steak to quinoa, beers at the bar to yoga and pickup trucks to carbon-reducing bicycles. And with MUM having a student body from more than 100 countries, the ethnic differences were a challenge. However, things are changing. Meditators and townspeople now fill less stereotypical roles. And with the economic boom that meditating entrepreneurs have provided the town, the differences are easier to ignore.
It was strange for me to live removed from the local Iowans. When I went shopping at the only Walmart the town had, I’d see the “Wall of Heroes” — a wall of photos of veterans from Fairfield. One day, I noticed a familiar face — a soldier from my last assignment. Fairfield and other socioeconomically depressed areas are where most military recruits come from. Here I was living among them, but not moving in step with them. Having that synchronous experience made me come back full circle. When I had first learned to meditate, my teacher had asked me what my goal was. I told her, “I want to be in the world, but not of it.” And that’s exactly what I got.
For me, this little Iowan town provided a place of respite and rejuvenation. It was easy for me to trade one lifestyle of order and discipline for another, and this provided me with nourishment and an understanding of self. Nowhere else in America can you find an entire town living and breathing the principles of Eastern mysticism. It goes way beyond taking a yoga class or going to the Burning Man festival. I continue my meditation practice and am grateful for the gifts it has provided me. But in the end, my time had come, and I had to leave. As residents would say, that was just my karma.