The Power of Courageous Compassion in the Midst of War Trauma

By Didi Ananda Devapriya

The Blackness of War

“War is the black spot of human character. In individual or collective life one can struggle, but war is based on hatred and on divisive tendencies. Is it not black?”, Shrii P.R. Sarkar1

When Language Fails…

Wars are initiated by leaders and elites that wield political and economic power, not by the ordinary citizens of the populations they lead, who would generally prefer peace to conflict. Ukrainians and Russians that I know have family relationships, business partnerships, spiritual communities or friendships that transcend the borders between these two countries. However, governments need the support of their populations not only to create a perception of legitimacy, but also to effectively mobilize the nation’s resources when going to war with a neighbouring people. To gain the cooperation and willingness of its people to undergo the hardships and sacrifices that war brings, propaganda designed to incite hatreds and inflame grievances can create profound divisions even where none would have existed naturally. This consolidates the power of the leadership, uniting a nation or group of allies using glorious or patriotic narratives, while vilifying the “other”. All of these tactics tap into the enormous motivational power of geo- and socio-sentiments, that overrides the more rationalistic stance of relating to common bonds of humanity.

While many focus on the historical, geopolitical roots of the conflict between these two nations, the mediator Kenneth Cloke takes a different perspective in his article, “The War in Ukraine: Lessons for Mediators”:

“Margaret Atwood may have put it best: “War is what happens when language fails.” …. War is what happens when people are demonized and disrespected, when needs remain unaddressed and interests unsatisfied, when pressing problems are ignored, when intense emotions are left unheard and unacknowledged, and when conflicts are allowed to fester, turning small, preventable, easily resolvable differences into immense, unavoidable, intractable crises in which violence seems the only way out.

Every mountain was once a molehill, and there was always some earlier time when opportunities to prevent it from turning violent or becoming overwhelming were readily available, more easily implemented, and completely ignored. The war in Ukraine is thus a failure – not only of language, but of caring, of listening, of imagination, of skill, of determination, and of our own inadequate efforts as mediators to strengthen conflict resolution capacity globally, and to transform the ways we think about, respond to, and prevent conflicts – not just personally, relationally, and organizationally, but socially, economically, politically, culturally, and environmentally. “

The Power to Choose our Response

From a Neohumanist perspective also, war is not an inevitability. Rather, the presence of war challenges us collectively to evolve a deeper practical understanding of the destructive ways that sentiments can operate, and develop a strong “rationalistic mentality” that is capable of countering them. It is also necessary to develop skillful tools such as mediation that overcome the divisiveness that fuels wars. Cultivating “rationalistic mentality” involves learning to identify and question narratives that are designed to fuel hatred and violence, and refusing to participate in feeding and amplifying them. While the forces that propel wars seem overwhelmingly powerful, and our own influence so insignificant, we do have the power to choose our response with compassion and awareness, rather than being swept up in propaganda that exploits our sentiments. We can also do everything in our own power to offer aid to those caught in the cross-fire of a war that they did not create.

War – Bringing Out the Worst…and the Best

Wars brings out both the worst in human beings and the best. On the one hand, there is the sheer wasteful enormity of the destruction of lives and property, and the ecological impact that war unleashes on innocent civilians and ecosystems. Always, in any war, a certain number of soldiers will commit atrocities, pumped up on the power that wielding deadly weapons gives them and inflamed by propaganda that justifies violence against dehumanized enemies.

On the other hand, war, with its intense hardships, can also bring out some of the most noble qualities in human beings, such as courage, self-sacrifice, heroism and solidarity.

Shrii P.R. Sarkar, in “Social Discourses” says:
“It is often heard that a particular country was never so united as during the war. This is due to love of motherland, but more due to all the individuals having a common ideal – a goal to face the peril of war.”

During this war, I have been in contact with some of the most vulnerable and innocent civilian victims of the war, and also witnessed so many inspiring examples of the bravery, dedication and love in those doing their best to alleviate suffering. There are so many examples of Ukrainians involved in offering support and solidarity to each other. There are also many others from around the world, who have left behind their own personal problems and lives to bring relief to those going through loss and trauma.

Melinda and Oscar, Bringing Light into Darkness

Since the outbreak of the war, I have admired the commitment, kind-heartedness, determination and courage of my colleague, Melinda Endrefry, AMURTEL Romania’s Emergency Psychologist. She felt drawn to be right where the needs were greatest, at the Romanian border with Ukraine in Siret, as 9000 refugees per day were streaming across in the first weeks.

There were a few other psychologists present, mostly waiting in their offices for cases to show up, whereas Melinda, together with Oscar, her iconic gigantic stuffed monkey, were going from tent to tent looking for signs of people in distress. “Emergency Psychology fills an important gap between Psychological First Aid, which non-professionals can be trained to do, and clinical psychology, which people often only seek when symptoms have become chronic, or extreme, or very disruptive to their lives.” Melinda explains. Specialists trained in Emergency Psychology are able to make quick but effective interventions that defuse a part of the traumatic stress in the moment, without triggering the full release that will need a much more secure space and longer-term contact to process. It helps to stabilize people enough so that they can make better decisions for themselves.

Melinda also trained many of the other NGOs and first responders in psychological first aid, to sensitize them to better meet the needs of refugees. Before her trainings, many well-meaning volunteers were overwhelming newly arrived refugees with too many confusing offers of transportation, food, clothing, or toys all at once. One of our colleagues told me at a conference “When Melinda came, she was like a ray of sunshine, bringing joy and positivity even into such an intense and serious situation. It changed everything.”

Helping the Helpers

Since May, however, the flow at the border settled down significantly, and Melinda shifted her attention towards Ukraine. After a rapid one-day assessment, interviewing many important stakeholders in Chernivsti, a town just across the border, Melinda’s trained eye quickly noticed that the mental health professionals were overloaded and under-equipped in specific skills for dealing with the volume of trauma. She saw that they needed support. Since then, she has been offering art therapy sessions that provide a much-needed space for them to decompress and process some of their own overwhelming feelings. “Helping the helpers” she says cheerfully. She has also secured partnerships with hospitals and the Bukovina State Medical University to offer professional level trainings to psychologists and psychiatrists. The next phase will be to provide such professionals with field trainings, where they can learn to be part of outreach teams going into places like bombed buildings, shelters, etc., and offer aid on the spot.

Yoga for Trauma Relief

Working within a Neohumanist framework, Melinda has been able to bring some deceptively simple but important elements of yoga into the self-care trainings she now always embeds in her trainings. Triggering the body’s relaxation response by consciously but gently engaging the diaphragm and allowing the breathing to become deep and slow helps turn off the stressful state of high alert that traumatic experiences generate. Breath work, simple movements, and positive, calming auto-suggestions that can induce a feeling of safety are all very effective methods for coping with such high-intensity stress.

United and Resilient

Working closely with so many affected people, Melinda has also been impressed by the resiliency that she witnesses in the Ukrainian people. She says they do not like to see themselves as victims, but rather to focus on being strong, united, and determined to achieve a better future. Indeed, in the book Humankind, A Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman, the book begins by describing how in World War II, as England braced itself in anticipation of German bombing, officials were expecting the population to panic, loot, and descend into chaos. Rather, as the “Blitz” began, with more than 80,000 bombs dropped on London alone, did people become hysterical or start acting like animals? Bregman describes the eyewitness account of Canadian psychiatrist, Dr. John MacCurday, visiting a particularly hard hit, poor neighborhood. Just after the piercing sirens of an air raid alarm had sounded, he said “Small boys continued to play all over the pavements, shoppers went on haggling, a policeman directed traffic in majestic boredom and the bicyclists defied death and the traffic laws. No one, so far as I could see, even looked into the sky.” There was even humour present, such as the “pub proprietor who in the midst of devastation advertised “Our windows are gone, but our spirits are excellent. Come in and try them.”

Unexpectedly, alcoholism actually dropped, there were fewer suicides, and after the war ended “many British would yearn for the days of the Blitz, when everybody helped each other out and no one cared about your politics, or whether you were rich or poor.” The British, blinded by their own geo-sentiments however, assumed that this phenomenon was due to the uniquely stoic English character. Despite the evidence that bombing does not break down the morale of a people, they were firmly convinced that the same tactic of bombing civilians would “break the spirit of the German people”. “On one night in Dresden, more men, women and children were killed than in London during the whole war. More than half of Germany’s towns and cities were destroyed.” Again, an eyewitness account from psychiatrist Freidrich Panse did not find any evidence of mass hysteria. On the contrary, “Neighbours were wonderfully helpful,” Panse recorded, “Considering the severity and duration of the mental strain, the general attitude was remarkably steady and restrained”2.

Letting Go of the Burning Coal

Naturally, many times in Melinda’s work people came to workshops, or individual sessions, venting their intense feelings of hatred, anger or rage towards all Russians. Early in the war, Yuval Noah Harari3 commented on how important it was for this war to stop because with every bomb dropped, seeds of hatred that may last generations were multiplying in dangerous ways. From a Neohumanist point of view, this brings up a dilemma. While the deeper aim of Neohumanism is to foster deep, unshakeable bonds of human unity, at the same time, Neohumanist philosophy recognizes the imperative of self-defense, in which fighting to protect your homeland, livelihood and loved ones is a moral necessity.

Melinda realised that her role is the most effective when she can remain politically neutral and not engage in, or encourage, the hatred. Nor is it the moment to sing sweet songs about loving everybody. She, of course, listens, with deep empathy, which is different than agreement. It creates space for the deep wounds and suffering to surface and be heard. Then, what she manages to do next, quite artfully, is to encourage people to think about how the hatred is affecting them personally when they hold on to it. There is a Buddhist story that holding on to rage, and the desire for revenge, is like holding onto a burning coal in order to throw it at someone. In the meantime, it is your own hand that is getting burned. Most immediately recognize the stressful, harmful effects those intense negative emotions are having on them.

Then she directs their attention to the resources of strength, unity, resiliency and determination that she sees in them. She gives them positive, sincere feedback on what she appreciates. She tells how the energy in the room immediately shifts. It goes from a dark, heaviness to a kind of energized optimism and hopefulness.

Relationships that Bridge Artificial Divides

Another powerful moment was when both Russian and Ukrainian meditators were joining together in several of Melinda’s online Psychological First Aid trainings. This was already a powerful reminder that it is possible for deeper, spiritual bonds between people to resist the intensely divisive forces at work during a war. More than ever, such friendships that transcend boundaries are essential. As mentioned earlier, many Russians and Ukrainians are bound together by generations of friendship and blood ties. The natural relationship between the vast majorities of these people is one of goodwill. Yet, the divisive tactics of propaganda mobilize each side’s sentiments against the dehumanized “other”. Being able to rise above sentiments, analyze, understand and fight against those forces so we can reclaim our human oneness is a skill the world desperately needs, as we edge towards a conflict spiraling increasingly out of control.

“Let our hearts be as one heart”

At the very outset of the war, meditators in Ukraine, Russia, and all over the world took a determination to sing kiirtan, chanting the mantra “Baba Nam Kevalam” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, until peace will be restored. The mantra is one that focuses the mind on the universal presence of one loving consciousness in all beings. It was a powerful, bold and awe-inspiring commitment. To this day, that “Infinite Live Kiirtan for Peace” is ongoing, generating a vibrational wave of unity4.

A Ukrainian woman that I know said that she thinks it is good, as it helps us to connect to our oneness and overcome national sentiments. Another American friend told me how deeply touching and inspiring it felt to be connected to so many minds and hearts moving together as one, saying that it gave him a feeling of cosmic brotherhood to see people from both sides of the conflict and from all corners of the world, joining together in creating a spiritual flow.

Disrupting the Pattern with Friendship

Even on microcosmic levels, when there is enough love and trust in the relationship between two people from the opposite sides of a conflict to maintain open communication, deep listening and humanity, it helps to disrupt the powerful effect of these forces. Moving a world so polarized by conflict towards a Neohumanist future, may seem abstract and far away, but cultivating and maintaining real human relationships that directly challenge those narratives make a difference in our own sphere of influence.

I have been very lucky to have close relationships with colleagues and friends from both Ukraine and Russia. Even when our viewpoints diverge, I deeply appreciate being able to listen and try to understand other perspectives. I have listened to the suffering and stress of my Ukrainian friends and colleagues, constantly worried about relatives left behind. I have also listened to the pain of my Russian friends, facing discrimination and hatred because of their nationality. I was on the computer, late at night, trying to book a plane ticket for a Ukrainian friend whose Russian husband was trying to rejoin her in Romania, right after the partial mobilization had been announced. I felt my heart rate rise as I witnessed the prices skyrocketing in a matter of minutes and struggled to get the website to accept the payment. And after he arrived, I saw how banks refused to open him an account, how house owners were willing to rent to his wife but not to him. I value all of these relationships. They help me to have a more nuanced, balanced, and realistic understanding of the human beings on both sides of the conflict.

The Power of Unconditional Loving Presence

It was during one of Melinda’s online psychological first aid sessions that questions came up from Russians, who really wanted to support their Ukrainian friends but got hurt and triggered when they brought up the politics of the war. Bringing in Neohumanist spirituality was an important key we discussed. I described how they could use a meditative practice to stay in a space of offering a divine, unconditional regard to their friends, that can listen and accept their pain, without taking it in personally. That kind of love heals, and bridges gaps. The person undergoing such an intense feeling of threat to the security of their home and loved ones is unable to have those feelings heard by the abstract big forces, but in a relationship with a specific representative of that group, all of those feelings can surface and find a target. If those emotions, instead of being defensively rejected, can be embraced, can be listened to and understood, already a great service has happened. Empathic, active listening, doesn’t mean agreement with the content, but rather giving space and acceptance to the emotions, so that they can discharge and then dissipate.

Is empathy enough?

As mentioned earlier, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to develop and maintain a rich diversity of authentic, warm human relationships that have revealed to me the “human faces” of both sides of this war. I think that this makes me somewhat less vulnerable to being drawn into the black and white, “us” vs. “them” narratives that fuel conflict. But as much as I feel certain of the importance of developing a spiritual and compassionate outlook, I question myself, whether it is enough?

Developing the courage to stand up

P.R. Sarkar, in his seminal work on Neohumanism “The Liberation of Intellect”, encouraged Neohumanists to be vocal against all sorts of injustice. In that same book, he outlined a very clear framework for identifying and understanding how our sentiments can be harnessed to pit us against each other, or can elevate and unite us. Most importantly, after such analysis, he described the steps needed for developing a strong “rationalistic mentality”, rooted in the firm conviction of the underlying unity of all beings. When that realisation leads to a determination to prioritize collective welfare over all kinds of limiting sentiments, it then gives the strength, inspiration and moral courage needed to stand up to sentimentalizing strategies. Neohumanism is not meant to remain confined to the realm of intellectual debate and discussion, but rather to provide a clear direction and the inner strength to act, whether big or small to become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Melinda expresses how tempting and easy it would be to get caught up in sharing the memes and posts full of hatred that colleagues send. But in our roles as humanitarian workers, Melinda and I have a professional and ethical obligation to respect the principle of neutrality, and as such, are not engaging in politics in Ukraine. However, by listening to pain in a way that does not amplify hatred but redirects attention to resources of strength and resiliency, is our way to be a very small part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

It is not enough, however. The right kind of political action and pressure to end war, as soon as possible and in a lasting way, is also needed. I do not have clarity on how this can happen, but there must be a way to stop the enormously wasteful destruction of lives, property and environment, and to find a more humane way to solve the underlying issues, through negotiation between leaders rather than sacrificing so many countless other people dragged into it willingly or unwillingly.

Essential Skills for a Neohumanist Future

Wars begin in the minds of human beings, with unresolved conflicts and needs that are not listened to or understood. As mentioned earlier, they represent one of the most significant manifestations of a breakdown of communication, resulting in a zero-sum conflict, that nobody can truly win.

No matter which side claims victory, the winners must face the resentments of the humiliated losers, sparking a continuing cycle of violence. The costs in human lives, ecological habitat destruction, and property are enormous and such an inefficient way to face political problems.

Yet, Melinda’s gentle loving and listening presence with her ever silent but supportive Oscar by her side testifies to the healing power of accompanying people through such dark moments. In the Neohumanist mission of creating an inclusive, just, united world, moral courage and skills in listening, psychological first aid, restorative justice, and conflict resolution are fundamental. It takes courage to step out of the comfort zone to take meaningful action. But that is what transforms us from passive witnesses to tragedy and injustice, to finding our empowered voices, our gifts and our power to move towards a Neohumanist future, that step by step, we can each participate in building.

1 Published in: The Thoughts of P.R. Sarkar [a compilation], Release: Electronic edition version 9.0.18

2 Rutger Bregman, “Humankind, A Hopeful History” Bloomsbury Publishing 2020

3 Yuval Noah Harari, The War in Ukraine Could Change Everything

4 Infinite Kiirtan