Near the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and close to that nonviolent apostle Thoreau’s Walden Pond, the U.S. Army runs a military fort. For six months in the mid-l980s, Richard Strozzi-Heckler was part of a three-man team which taught meditation, the martial art of aikido, biofeedback and other holistic skills and “inner technologies” to the soldiers at Fort Davis.
In Search of the Warrior Spirit is psychologist and All-American athlete Heckler’s insider’s view on working and living with the Army’s elite Green Berets. His team is hired to enhance the mental, physical and technical abilities of the soldiers. “But we knew the whole person would change,” Heckler reflects. This is a book on transformation—on changing identity.
I approached the book with the profound doubts of a former officer in the U.S. Army raised in the military family which gave its name to Ft. Bliss, Texas. I resigned my commission during the Vietnam War after a spiritual conversion initiated by Martin Luther King, Jr., spent a short time in jail and have been active in the peace movement for a quarter of a century now. So I approached Warrior Spirit with feeling, from my heart, rather than from a distant head.
I called Heckler at his home in Northern California to inquire if he considered himself and his work part of the peace movement. His response was immediately and clearly affirmative. “My chosen arts—aikido and meditation—have compassion and reverence for life at their core. They are about alternatives to violence and aggression.” Heckler noted, “We need the military to reposition itself to strength without enemies.” He added, “I am concerned to reposition what it means to be a warrior in our time and age.”
The warrior spirit is ancient within spiritual traditions, as Heckler notes: “It includes the Indian warrior Krishna, and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita . . . the American Indian who lived in harmony with the land; the Shambhala Warrior of ancient Tibet.” Heckler adds, “These historical and mythical warriors found their strength and integrity by defeating their own inner demons, living in harmony with nature, and serving their fellow men.”
Noted author and martial artist George Leonard introduces Warrior Spirit by describing aikido as based on “power through harmonizing with, perhaps even loving, the attacker.” Aikido, Heckler’s “chosen art,” teaches one to blend with, neutralize, or get out of the way of an opponent, rather than trying to meet him head on with greater force.
When Leonard joins the soldiers for a few days and asks them to define the ideal warrior, the soldiers speak of “loyalty, intensity, compassion, service, calmness under fire, patience, strength of will.” Heckler writes that these men have joined the military “because of the fellowship they share with their teammates. It’s the same feeling I had with the men I played sports with . . . those who sing and dance with me . . . It’s the hunt, the silent trance by the fire, trembling together under the night sky, dreaming greatness for our children. . . . Before our jealousy and competitiveness we shared the love of poetry, healing and the urge to protect.”
But, as I see it, in this century of total war, and with our recent history of the U.S. military oppressing the peoples of Asia and Latin America, the military does not seem to be an ideal environment for spiritual practice. Warriorship has gotten undue positive press recently in psychology, business and the movies, dating back to Carlos Castaneda’s probably fictional Don Juan. To socially engaged Buddhists, Heckler’s work with the Green Berets might seem like a contradiction.
Warrior Spirit is full of contradictions. Imagine this scene: “I follow him into the meditation hall. Others are already there, arranging themselves on cushions or sitting benches, their M16s next to them.” After “twenty minutes of sitting the atmosphere in the room becomes charged with a quiet intensity.” Heckler sees a man “sitting very straight, motionless, alive with presence and concentration.” His black 82nd Airborne Division T-shirt shows a skull and reads “Death From Above.” Heckler feels, “Something is wrong. People don’t wear T-shirts like this at meditation retreats. Killing and meditation simply do not go together.” Heckler reflects, “I want to be free of the contradictions and paradoxes of this program . . . I have no answer.”
Constant criticism from friends and colleagues have met Heckler before, during and after his work with the Green Berets. Yet he has persisted. As his work with the Army progresses, he experiences some touching surprises in the soldiers’ responses. Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, emerges as the soldiers’ most popular guest teacher. “Unassuming in appearance, Brother David radiates a powerful and contagious inner calm,” Heckler notes. Brother David closes his presentation to the soldiers by observing that “the lifestyle that these men had chosen was ultimately their way to relate to something greater than themselves.” Brother David comments that “this urge to go beyond oneself [is] always a spiritual urge.”
Heckler remembers being unsure about how the soldiers would relate to the gentle Brother David. With other guests the men have sometimes shouted “Bullshit,” humorously mimicked their style or hummed the theme from The Twilight Zone. Yet, Heckler recalls, as Brother David begins to leave “the men stood in a spontaneous gesture of respect.” Months later, on their evaluations, the soldiers explain: “He had an internal strength.” “You could depend on him.” “He was true to himself.”
Heckler reflected on another monk, an American in Tibetan robes, who had come to teach the soldiers after “months of icy solitude meditating in a Himalayan cave.” Heckler notes, “At first glance the soldiers and this monk appear to be opposites. Yet I am struck by something very much the same about them. Despite the differences in uniform and posturing both are on the fringe of society, both are outlaws in their own ways; and in this there’s a common pride and tenacity.”
When Heckler visits Joseph Goldstein at the nearby Insight Meditation Society, he notes that despite some philosophical differences, both he and Goldstein view “the archetype of the warrior as being essential for probing the deepest elements of mind and body.” Goldstein’s book The Experience of Insight: A Natural Unfolding was required reading for the soldiers. Though Goldstein and Brother David “are worlds apart from the Special Forces soldiers . . . they possess many of the same qualities—courage, discipline, service, an urge for transcendence, and a quirkiness that puts them on the outskirts of the culture.” Heckler describes Goldstein as “a warrior of the mind, Brother David a warrior of the heart, and the Special Forces soldier a warrior of the hara, or action.”
From my own work for over a decade now in the growing men’s movement I was interested in what Leonard describes as “one man’s search for his own manhood.” Heckler was born on a military base (as I was), served in the Marines and during the book is still coming to grips with his father’s legacy of twenty-seven years in the military and combat in three wars. Heckler’s father, like most of ours, was distant: “I was nine years old and wanted him to hold me and have him tell me that he loved me. But he didn’t, then or ever.” Heckler comes to realize that he has “unfinished business with my own father.”
Somewhat to his surprise Heckler connects deeply with some of the men. As the New England winter approaches, Heckler gets the flu. “Janowski slips unannounced into the room, his medic’s bag next to him as he gently sits on the bed . . . His eyes are melancholic, filled with compassion and love.” Then his co-teacher Jack “arrives with hot tea and the mercy of cold towels.” Aware of “Jack’s steady presence, I recall the women who have nursed me through my sicknesses . . . and I sadly realize that until this moment I’ve never had, or allowed, a man to care for me.”
As Jack cares for Heckler, Jack begins to tell “story after story of his two years of combat duty in Vietnam. The room fills with the ghosts of the dead . . . .Faces, bodies, and limbs float across my vision as Jack’s voice mingles with the roar of the storm. In my helplessness I can only listen, without judgment or blame, and thus become the healer to his wound.”