A new José Stevens Article

Reflections on Healing in Vietnam

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My recent rather short eleven day trip to Vietnam was a much larger event than I could have imagined even though I knew that at some point in my life I was going to have to travel there for some completion. The trip was conceived of as both a family vacation and as a kind of pilgrimage to a land scarred not only by a war of my generation but from many past and present insults. Every once in a while my family likes to take a trip together that is not work related and so we look for interesting places we can go where air fares are bargains and this time it came up for Vietnam. My son Carlos needed a break from a heavy work schedule and the rains of Seattle as did his girlfriend Katie, and Anna, her husband Aaron, Lena and I all needed a break too from a long hard winter. So we arranged to travel together to Vietnam to get some southeast asian culture, some heat, and much desired time together. As a family we had a wonderful bonding experience and I am glad they were with me to support my own rather intense experience there.

Although I came of age in a time when Vietnam was all over the daily news, there were many things I did not know. For example I did not know how often Vietnam had been invaded by other nations over the last thousand years. At one time or another, to name just a few, they had to repel the French, the Portuguese, the Australians, the Cambodians, the Thai, the Americans, and the Chinese several occasions. Most of the last thousand years they have been a conquered people and of course they became rather sick of it. So it was a great surprise to me to discover how friendly the people were to us in both the north and south of Vietnam. For them, the American invasion was just another blip on a long screen that included much more heinous experiences. Nevertheless the ravages of war, while cosmetically covered up, are very present in the land and on its people. Over three million Vietnamese died in the civil war during the sixties and seventies and as a consequence, as I looked around I saw very few men and women of my generation. Instead over sixty percent are under thirty years of age and of those, many are children. People of my age group are thinned out, casualties of war.

I found an eagerness among the young men, our trip guides and drivers, to talk about the war. Many asked me with utmost friendliness if I had fought there and I replied that although I had been drafted in 1970, I did not go to Vietnam. At my medical examination I received a 1Y, a medical rejection, and I was most fortunately set free.

Even so, I have always been haunted by those I knew who did go to the Vietnam war, and either died there or came back maimed and changed forever. The longer I traveled in Vietnam the more people I recalled from my life who had been there and experienced it from one angle or another. One client was a chaplain who never left Saigon but has been plagued by agent orange and suffered deteriorating health, another soldier, a grammar school friend was a door gunner in a helicopter who came back after three tours unscathed. Who knows how many people he may have killed? There was the vet that Lena and I sometimes employed as a handyman, whose arms have always been covered with scabs from agent orange. His job in the war was to photograph dead Viet Cong so the American forces could keep a body count; he has always been hand to mouth and is clearly scarred for life. There another of my clients, a medic, who was the sole surviving member of his team of seventeen trained medics. He is still homeless and adrift. There was the ex boyfriend of a girlfriend who, to my horror, used to brag about how he had bagged three “gooks” before they shot him in the kidney. There were the Figueroa brothers, school toughs, who terrorized me as a schoolboy on more than one occasion. One died in Vietnam and the other lost all his limbs and came back to live out his days in a VA hospital being fed through a tube. There was a high school buddy who was killed in combat and a college friend who came back without any semblance of a face, blinded for life, a young man I went to see in the VA hospital after his wounding. I couldn’t recognize him and he haunted my dreams for a long time. I still remember him as if it were yesterday.

Memories of these young men took me by surprise and I was flooded with a sense of how much I didn’t know about what happened to them, about what they faced there, and about where they are today. I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that this same insanity is going on today for a younger generation and people are still involved in such destruction in Afghanistan and recently in Iraq.

In Hanoi, the northern capital, as part of a tour, we visited the prison famously called the Hanoi Hilton, a French built prison where much torture took place. At one point twenty prisoners a day died there of abuse and eventually it was used to house American pilot POWs including John McCain. I experienced this as one of the darkest places I have ever visited, similar to the Dakow concentration camp. There was no chi, no life energy left. Instead what had been left behind were terror, despair, and a sense of the deepest separation from Spirit I have ever felt. So, I asked Spirit what could be done here. What could I possibly do to help and Spirit immediately responded, “Turn on the lights and the darkness goes away.” It took me a few minutes to figure out what that meant. I wasn’t sure how to apply this message but then it became quite clear. If I were to sink down and match the darkness I would be worse than useless, only adding to the sinkhole of despair there. So I walked from cell to cell and instead of allowing myself to feel the horror instead I focused on brilliant blue white light shining within each cell. At the same time I had a mapacho, a jungle tobacco cigarette in my hand and as I was instructed to quietly sing an icaro, I asked for all the darkness to be sucked up by the powerful spirit of the tobacco plant. I explained to it that it had a big job to do here but I knew this powerful ally was up to the job. Later when I left the building I was able to burn it. Interestingly, while I was doing this, Lena was getting similar messages and had her own tobacco out doing much the same thing.

More importantly I was shown that the horror of this place was caused by the perception of separation, the separation felt by the former prisoners there, by their guards, and by all the people who felt their own separation while touring the site. Even more specifically I was shown that this feeling of separation was a reflection of my own imagined separation from Spirit, such a strong part of the ego that I had allowed it to become part of my dream in this life. I saw that the entire war and all past atrocities were just as much my responsibility as all the other players because it became a part of all of our experience in one way or another. After all, we are all one being and this dreamed up nightmare event belongs to all of us. This is all a bit hard to explain in words but it was clear as a bell at the time and it remains so at this moment. I am sure now that there are no outside observers to war and other atrocities. Everyone is a participant, even if all they are doing is reading about it as a historical event. This makes everyone a potential healer of the event as well. It simply requires forgiveness and complete compassion. It demands getting away from the perception of perpetrators and victims. Everyone is both. War is a passion play, just another bizarre and unpleasant dream of separation from Spirit. So this visit to the Hanoi Hilton reminded me to do my Ho’oponopono practice every day, wherever I traveled in Vietnam and the results were remarkable. So remarkable in fact that one day our tour guide took us to a Buddhist monastery where I felt a deep sense of peace and serenity. It was only several days later that I found out it had been the monastery where Thich Naht Hahn had spent his early years of training. From the horrors of war I had gone to a sublime place of peace.

In the early mornings I followed my usual practice of going outside, usually to a roof top garden with a view of the city or country and saying my morning prayers with some mapacho smoke. I always find this very grounding and connecting as a Spiritual practice. Now there is no doubt that Vietnam is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, verdant green mountains and rice patties, gorgeous coastlines and so on. It is extraordinarily feminine with its rivers and ponds and greenery. This is why many tourists go to Vietnam now to experience its extraordinary feminine beauty. Yet, I was struck by my own perception that this land was no longer awake. This beautiful feminine land had been brutalized by the worst of the negative masculine, mechanized war, and so it had gone to sleep.

Land is very similar to ourselves in the respect that we may be awake or asleep and sometimes we can be sleepy, a little of each. Land can go to sleep as well and it is still quite beautiful when asleep just as we are beautiful when we are sleeping. But it is not actualizing its full potential when asleep just as we are at rest during sleep, not actively engaged. It is as if it is waiting, waiting to be woken up, waiting for someone to say, “Awaken, you are beautiful and the horror is past. You are wanted and you have a job to do. We need you fully awake now to help us because we are awakening too. We are all in this together. We love you our earth mother.” So Spirit showed me how to do my little part to wake up the land with the teeny, tiny, little tobacco smoke I had use of, to face each direction with smoke and say, “Wake up because I am representing Spirit and it is time. Awaken now and be happy and be as you were meant to be, a vehicle for the most extraordinary and wondrous dreams of Spirit.” And then to blow some smoke into the winds for all the people, animals, plants, and elementals of that land so that any suffering, any separation, any disconnection would be touched by the tinniest molecule of healing.

This is a good way to start the day and so I started my days there in Vietnam knowing that the awakening Sun Disc in the Titicaca region of Peru is gradually spreading throughout the planet awakening, enlivening, reminding, and elevating all to a new state of consciousness. As I looked around I saw that it was just beginning to penetrate over on this other side of the world and all it needed was just a little added prayer to begin the flood. I felt celebration instead of depression.

Vietnam is now a Communist country but it is not completely at ease with itself yet. Although there is no free speech and one has to be careful what they say, our guides managed to convey a great deal to us in indirect ways. They suggested that there is nostalgia for the American philosophy of freedom of speech and that a great many people both from the north and the south would have preferred that the south had won the war. These are an ancestor worshipping people so they regard Ho Chi Minh with total reverence and see him as their savior and unifier but at the same time they point out that they no longer follow his economic philosophy and other beliefs.

After the Americans pulled out and the north took over the south, terrible times ensued. A family could not acquire so much as a radio without being scrutinized and turned in by their neighbors for somehow having a supply of personal money. After years of terrific poverty they finally dumped strict socialism in the 90’s and began their experiment with capitalism, that is, allowing people to make their own money through personal effort. Quickly much of the horrible poverty was alleviated and the standard of living went way up. Now people are much happier but they would be happier still if they had more freedom and they say as much.

They are also hugely aware of the Chinese giant at their back door and since China has invaded them in the past on a number of occasions they are very concerned about this aggressive neighbor. A huge amount of counterfeit money comes into the country from China with what they believe is a direct effort to destroy their economy. According to the Vietnamese, up to one third of their money supply may be counterfeit and given China’s powerful technological skills it is not too far fetched to see the potential for the same regarding American dollars. This may be partially a reason why the USA is considering yet again changing the money to a 3D format.

The Vietnamese continue to see America as their hedge against the influence of China. Thus even though they are currently Communist like China, they continue to lean west to the United States to preserve their sense of independence. So the American dance with Vietnam is not over and who knows what lies ahead. Somehow our destinies are entwined together because there is much to learn from our exchange. Theirs is a feminine country, ours a masculine one. These aspects attract and always will.

Interspersed with the themes of war were extraordinary magical moments visiting the immense caves on the islands in Halong Bay, riding the train to the hill country in Sapa, riding through the foothills of the Himalayas on motor scooters, and visiting the hill tribe peoples villages on foot. Early morning in Hanoi we watched as thousands of people practiced chi gong, tai chi, meditation, exercises, and other spiritual practices without a hint of self-consciousness. Markets bustled, temples emitted fragrant clouds of incense, and festivities of all kinds lit up a city filled with flowers and huge trees. Massive Buddha statues still lurk in huge subterranean caves and endless stretches of beaches sparkle with sunlight, food stalls, and boats of all sizes and shapes. There is much beauty and life to enjoy there.

Today Vietnam is populated by a majority of early level young souls with the entrepreneurial spirit and with early level mature souls longing for a return of their deeply spiritual roots, almost lost under the tough communist iron fist. The pervasive Buddhism found in Laos is no longer prevalent in Vietnam but it is returning as is the deep underlying understanding of feng shui and Taoism. There is much hope in this wounded land because the human spirit cannot be suppressed for long.

All in all I am glad I went to Vietnam and I feel in a way that I cannot articulate, a mission accomplished. When I was a young man I used to deeply resent our involvement in Vietnam and I couldn’t understand why anyone in their right mind would join the military to go and kill people there. I still don’t condone the war and I am glad I did not go. It was a brutish waste of resources and life. War is horrific and never a good solution. It is a vehicle of the ego. There is always another way if we are creative enough and willing to listen and understand one another. Even those wars that seem justified are actually not. They never have been. There have always been hidden agendas and commercial interests promoting them. There is always another way if we are interested enough.

In the near future we will be sorely tempted to engage in more mayhem, more conflict, more wars over resources and boundaries. We don’t have to. Certainly we are smart enough, resourceful enough, and inventive enough to find alternatives. Let us no longer go the way of war. It is clearly time to dream a new dream.

In order for this to happen, the warrior part of us will have to find other things to do. We will have to get busy organizing ourselves in new ways to promote well-being, more sustainability, and more cooperation. We will have to put our armor down, then our shields, and finally our weapons. This will not happen so easily as long as we are distrustful and give such credibility to the younger souls who still create mayhem. Obviously disarming is risky but staying armed is even more so.

Today I understand more about karma, agreements, and bigger themes that impact humanity and I am not judgmental any more about the people who find themselves caught up in fighting, especially when I see the personal price paid by those drawn into it. I now see that projected parts of myself (called other people) go to war for many reasons: ignorance, pride, false valor, fearfulness, lust for violence, vengeance, ambition, devotion, loyalty to friends, karma, and so on. Some go to kill and die, some go to save and help, and some go for adventure, learning, and a need for drama. These parts of myself suffer immensely for such choices.

Going to Vietnam was a powerful teaching for me. I realized I must take responsibility for dreaming up war. Bad dream. Time to wake up to a better one. Goodnight war. Good morning Vietnam, America, and humanity.

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José Stevens

José Luis Stevens, PhD is the president and co-founder (with wife Lena) of Power Path Seminars, an international school and consulting firm dedicated to the study and application of shamanism and indigenous wisdom to business and everyday life. José completed a ten-year apprenticeship with a Huichol (Wixarika) Maracame (Huichol shaman) in the Sierras of Central Mexico. In addition, he is studying with Shipibo shamans in the Peruvian Amazon and with Paqos (shamans) in the Andes in Peru. In 1983 he completed his doctoral dissertation at the California Institute of Integral Studies focusing on the interface between shamanism and western psychological counseling. Since then, he has studied cross-cultural shamanism around the world to distill the core elements of shamanic healing and practice. He is the author of twenty books and numerous articles including Encounters With Power, Awaken The Inner Shaman, The Power Path, Secrets of Shamanism, Transforming Your Dragons and How To Pray The Shaman's Way.