Practicing Peace in a Time of War

A mindfulness practitioner from Ukraine shares his experience of living in a war zone. The post Practicing Peace in a Time of War appeared first on Tricycle: The Buddhist Review.

Practicing Peace in a Time of War

Over the past two years, I had the good fortune to mentor Mykhailo Boichenko in the Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program led by Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. Mykhailo comes from Mykolaiv in southeastern Ukraine, where he and his wife ran a mindfulness center called Life In Flow until the Russian invasion forced them to flee. A deeply committed and sincere mindfulness practitioner and teacher, Mykhailo has impressed and humbled me with his steadfastness and equanimity during these terrible days. I asked him if he could write about the experience of being a mindfulness practitioner living in a war zone. This is his story. 

–Kevin Griffin

A rocket explodes a hundred meters away from our house, and once again we rush together to the basement. I sit down in the passageway and begin to meditate. My body shakes involuntarily with the sounds of the explosions. Fear creates thought agitation. It is not easy to collect my attention, but after a few minutes, when I manage to calm down a bit, I feel a soreness that fills my whole body. The pain is not physical, but rather emotional. The vulnerable situation in which we find ourselves causes a deep feeling of despair and helplessness. At some point, various images of warfare that had once been imprinted in my memory from the news and documentaries begin to surface in my mind. I clearly see a weeping father holding his dead child who had just been pulled out from under the rubble in Syria. I see the destruction of Grozny and grieving women at the ruins of their homes. Then there are black-and-white images of Viktor Frankl and exhausted Jewish children in Nazi concentration camps, and images of people affected by natural disasters and cataclysms. The pain and suffering of these people no longer seem distant, no longer experienced as something separate. It is as if I can feel them in my own body.

My wife, Iryna, and I spent 2021 setting up Life In Flow, our new center for mindfulness practices, retreats, and courses. Our dream was beginning to come true. We were creating a space in which we could cultivate a community, learn to live life to the fullest, and work with our problems. We were beginning to establish a great team of teachers. In many ways, the center was our lives: we imagined its development and planned our future around it. But all of those plans came to a screeching halt when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began in early 2022. 

Our hometown, Mykolaiv, is situated between two rivers, the Inhul on the west side and the Southern Bug on the north. If you want to leave the city without crossing any bridges, you can do it only in the direction of Kherson, so when news reached us that the neighboring city Kherson had been captured, we began to panic a bit. The Russians very quickly moved to the right bank of the Dnieper and blocked all land exits from Mykolaiv, as well as the road over the northern bridge (over the Inhul river) that leads to Kyiv. Our mayor stated that they had been given orders from our military to blow up the last remaining bridge—which could be used to leave if the Russians broke through into the city—in order to slow down their movement toward Odessa. Knowing how the Russians acted in the occupied territories and taking into account our pro-Ukrainian stance, we were in serious danger.

For two weeks after that, my wife, daughter, and I remained in the city. Russian troops attacked Mykolaiv almost every day. We could hear the sounds of cannonade, and we had to run to the basement several times a day when the shelling of residential areas began. Each time we went out was a risk, not knowing whether you would be exposed to another shelling or not.

“My family and I would sleep in the basement every night to hide from the nighttime shelling.”

We decided to stay with our extended family for a period of time. My wife’s father didn’t want to leave; he had a household, young children, and an elderly mother. They needed our help, and we couldn’t leave without them. This period of the war was one of the most psychologically difficult times for my family, and for me personally. I realized then that it was not a good time to practice formally; I just didn’t have the time or energy for it.

For every meditation practitioner, sooner or later there comes a time to gather the fruits of their practice, for there is no life devoid of difficulties. In these moments, you appreciate every meditation you’ve done, every minute you’ve devoted to training your mind. The moments of peace I experienced during that period were possible only because I had practiced peace before. My wife and I were able, in a small way, to bring some calm to our domestic situation. The extreme stress our loved ones were under often erupted into elevated tones that increased the panic of children and adults. Yet, each time, we managed to reduce the degree of heat in disputes thanks to the right words, adequate actions, and timely interventions. Behind it all, there was an inner state of a certain degree of balance and clarity, awareness and sensitivity to our own and others’ emotions, as well as the knowledge of what to do with these emotions.

Everything we endured during this period reminded me of the Tibetan Buddhist concept of the bardo, the in-between space our consciousness passes through between the previous life and the next life. It’s too late to practice; it’s time to take advantage of the knowledge and skills you’ve cultivated prior.

The moments of peace I experienced during that period were possible only because I had practiced peace before.

I felt the full weight of the circumstances we found ourselves under only once we settled in a new place in western Ukraine, about three weeks into the war. When my wife, daughter, and I left our hometown, we left our whole life behind. We were overwhelmed by the sheer number of problems and worries associated with the move; we simply had no time to think about it. In addition to the concrete material hardships we encountered related to the change of residence—the disappearance of a job and income—we found ourselves in a grave emotional atmosphere created by the war in Ukraine. It felt like our country was drowning in an ocean of tears, hopelessness, powerlessness, and grief. Every day, news feeds overflowed with reports of new deaths and attacks by Russian troops. Entire cities were destroyed, and many settlements simply ceased to exist. 

War is like a strong headwind. The resistance you feel is quite palpable; every step requires effort.

The emotional maelstrom that pulled me in during the first months of the war possessed great power. During the period of being under constant shelling, I found myself losing focus on those around me. They were there, but it was as if I could not sense or even notice them. The overpowering terror that overwhelmed me in the moments of the explosions, the shaking of the ground beneath my feet, narrowed my attention to the parts of my body that tensed the most. When things subsided for a while, my attention would slightly expand, as if it were free of tension. There was space for thought, but it was so small that I could think only about myself. I felt hatred for the enemy, who literally destroyed and continues to destroy my life. Inside me, I lacked the space and attention to notice others and their feelings in those moments.

This was a period of tectonic shifts in my inner world; it was very difficult to resist the total depression to which my consciousness was drawn. Meditation literally saved me. I was able to pull myself out of a state of confusion, weakness, and despondency for a while with the help of my practice. Every time I did a meditation practice, I managed to create a small, temporary island of light and peace amid the ocean of tears. I began to panic less, to feel less angry and less depressed. I could feel how my state was affecting those around me, particularly my wife and daughter: as I gained confidence and peace, so did they. 

My wish is that everyone treasures the time devoted to practice and goes through all the difficulties of life with an open heart and a clear mind.

Since the war began, we seem to have found ourselves in a special dimension. Things began to happen to us that we had previously seen only on the news. I remember the war for independence in Chechnya, the streams of refugees into Ukraine, the ruined cities, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Then the wars in Iraq, Georgia, Syria. Images of blown-up houses in Chechnya and Aleppo, of dead children, of people being pulled out from under the rubble are still in my memory. Before the war, it was just the news that you sometimes watched at lunch or before going to bed. It was all happening somewhere far away.

I remember a Chechen family that lived next door to us when I was a child. A little boy, Sergei, from this family used to play in the same yard with us. He did not speak our language well, and it was very hard for him to study at school. They were refugees from Chechnya, and only now am I getting closer to understanding what they went through at that time.

Now, however, this is the reality in which my family and I live.

“There was a blown-up Russian tank in the street just a kilometer away from our house.”

These highly unusual circumstances have caused me to think seriously about questions that, under normal circumstances, might not seem so serious, or even secondary. Why was I so detached from all these horrific events that were taking place in the world? All of them were happening in front of my eyes, but my attitude was most often no more than that of a spectator to the tragic fate of a movie character. You worry about it for a while, but you soon realize that it’s not your life and you’re doing just fine, so you forget everything and go on living your life as if nothing had happened.

We all live in the same house called Earth, and when there is a fire in the next room and we do nothing, it is only a matter of time before the fire in our room starts.

The reality is that we live in an era of stories and novels, movies and TV shows, and we hardly distinguish reality from fantasy. I clearly remember the feeling when we were sitting in the basement, thousand-kilogram rockets exploding all around us, and I simply could not believe that this was happening to us for real. But the primal fear arising reminded me every time that this was not a dream, this was reality.

This experience made me look anew at my own and other people’s problems. We all live in the same house called Earth, and when there is a fire in the next room and we do nothing, it is only a matter of time before the fire in our room starts. The pain of Burmese suffering under a dictatorship, or Tibetans under the cultural genocide of the Chinese government, is seen much closer now than before. I see great benefit in this understanding because it encourages me to treat any suffering as my own and motivates me to alleviate it in any way I can.

When I began to come into contact with the problems of other people during the war, my natural desire to help others greatly expanded my focus, and it gave me strength and energy in my work. My wife and I gradually became involved with a project called Compassion and Wisdom in Ukraine that sought to provide psychological help and support to Ukrainians in group and individual sessions. Together with some friends, we created a meditation course titled “Self-help and Mutual Assistance as a Way out of Critical States,” and, to this day, we work with Ukrainians facing difficulties. When I am able to help someone, I feel a healing sense of gratitude that this opportunity has opened up to me. I have become even more convinced that the world as a whole is a much better place than it was 100, 200, 500, or 1,000 years ago. Despite the war in our country, I see that there are very few countries like Russia left, countries that want to destroy their neighbors, to take over their territories.

My impression is that the help and support that the whole world gives us shows that humanity in general is becoming wiser and more humanistic. So I join those people who make the world a better and wiser place, and I commit myself to making sure that the knowledge I gain will benefit me and the people around me.

“Me and my family a month before the war.”