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Sitting in the Flames

Vietnam vet helps others find peace

John DeVore, Ph.D., learned meditation to help overcome post traumatic stress.

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Post traumatic stress is nothing new. After World War I ended in 1918, returning British and American soldiers began exhibiting troubling symptoms such as confusion and nightmares. The condition, labeled by the soldiers themselves as shell shock, was "often attributed to cowardice or malingering," according to the American Psychological Association.  The term "Post traumatic stress disorder" wasn't recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - the DSM - until 1980.

Since then, the medical and military communities have examined ways to address PTSD - defined by the APA as "an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events such as combat, crime, an accident or natural disaster." Symptoms include nightmares, severe, often debilitating anxiety, flashbacks, avoiding talking or thinking about the traumatic event, anger and more.   

Medication, therapy, behavior modification, service dogs - there have been several successful ways to learn to live with, and overcome, PTSD.

John DeVore, Ph.D., a West Point graduate and Vietnam vet who was stationed on Fort Lewis in 1967 and 68, says it was contemplation, reflection and meditation that allowed him to finally conquer his PTSD. His 2014 book, Sitting in the Flames: Uncovering Fearlessness to Help Others, discusses this path to healing.

DeVore's journey started, strangely enough, as a way to improve his bowling game.

"My average had peaked, so I was looking to be able to go to the next step," he said.

He happened upon a book by the Dalai Lama that mentioned the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, near DeVore's home.

Not long after, DeVore traveled to the institute to learn to meditate. He studied for three years.

"The key is that we all need to find some way, some tool, to quiet the mind," DeVore explained. "What worked for me was to be able to go to the breath and connect."

But conquering post traumatic stress goes much deeper than learning to connect mind, breath and body.

"Another tool is what I call contemplation," Devore said. "This shows up in three pieces - you have to know some stuff, for example. I needed to know there was such a thing called post traumatic stress syndrome. The second piece is that we need to reflect on that. Once we know something, we need to kick it around. How does this really fit for me? I had this trauma when I heard a baby crying at the bottom of a well. Where does that fit for me?

"The next piece is that you just have to sit with it, and that's where the concept of meditation becomes critical."

It was during a class called "Spiritual Models of Social Action" at Naropa that DeVore started his own process of contemplation and reflection.

Assigned to write a reflective paper, DeVore needed to "go back and visit my experiences, whether I liked it or not," he said. "I had pushed it away. I didn't want to talk about it."

Forced to, he reflected on the difference between the heroics of war and the actual experience. "There's a huge paradox," he said. "There's a rallying point around heroics and ego as opposed to when you actually get in the bombs, and the bullets start to fly. There's a lot of fear there. The ego does not like fear. That, for me, was the most dramatic piece."

This revelation opened the door for DeVore's own healing - and he says it can be a way for others with PTSD to find peace as well.

It's the process of sitting in the flames - allowing yourself to feel pain and reflect on your trauma - that is essential to the healing process, DeVore said. For those with PTSD, this may be thinking about things they have struggled to avoid.

"You are able to go back to your own history," he said. "There's some energy, and some creativity and artistry starts to evolve, and the pain quiets. The creative spirit is unleashed to create the life you really want as opposed to reliving the trauma you've had in the past."

Though the pain never totally goes away, "it just becomes another experience that you've had," DeVore added. "The scars of war tell you about yourself as part of your story, but they don't dictate your life."

For more information or to order Sitting in the Flames, visit The book is also available on Amazon.

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