The Limits of Buddhism

The Navy Yard shooter was a Buddhist. Here's how meditation could have helped him. Or not"¦

Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, center, with Bishop of London Richard Chartres, right, and St.Paul's Cathedral Canon Pastor Reverend Michael Colclough  as he leaves St. Paul's Cathedral in London after receiving the 2012 Templeton Prize awarded to him for encouraging scientific research and harmony among religions, Monday, May 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Sang Tan) (National Journal)

In the wake of the Navy Yard shooting, Aaron Alexis's Buddhism has been mocked as "ironic" and cited as evidence that there's simply no way to spot a future shooter. "I can't believe he did this," his best friend and fellow Buddhist Nutpisit Suthamtewakul told CNN. "He never showed any sign of violence."

Actually, he did. Let's review: In addition to hearing voices, Alexis was "cited at least eight times for misconduct," "drank alcohol frequently and in large quantities" — often starting as early as "9:30 in the morning" — and frequently exhibited anger and aggression, such as the time that, after complaining about his upstairs neighbor making noise, he fired a bullet through the floor of her apartment. Or that time he shot the tires out of a parked car, after complaining he'd been disrespected by some nearby construction workers. Now we learn via The Washington Post that Alexis "damaged the furniture at a nightclub, was tossed out, and began using profanity on the street," and via The New York Times that before the Navy Yard shooting, he called Rhode Island police three times to complain he was being kept awake by people sending him vibrations through the walls.

This is a man who reportedly suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from his time as a 9/11 responder. He needed psychiatric help, and fast. But it would appear that the best — totally inadequate — care he was getting was the self-care he got from attending a Buddhist temple with friends and exploring the benefits of meditation. He wouldn't be the first to do it and there is reason to believe that such practices can be helpful.

The rate of suicide, crime, domestic violence, and substance abuse among veterans is extremely high, and many military doctors have been incorporating mind-body practices such as yoga and meditation much more in recent years. Numerous scientific studies, some funded by the Pentagon, have demonstrated that trauma-sensitive yoga, with its emphasis on stretching, meditation, and breathing techniques can have a significant calming effect on patients whose brains have become hyperaroused under severe stress.

Robin Carnes, a veteran yoga practitioner and who began working with wounded troops at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in 2006, emphasized an integrated approach to dealing with trauma. People like Alexis, she said, clearly need psychiatric help, but for many the best approach includes a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and the mind-body approach.

Prolonged stress or trauma can cause a disruption of the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the brain that allows the body to relax. This parasympathetic nervous system can become "frozen" in war zones as the body prepares for danger by pumping adrenaline into the bloodstream. That's one of the reasons so many veterans with PTSD turn to drugs and alcohol, according to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a clinician and researcher who has studied PTSD since the 1970s. One of the best ways to calm the body down, he said, is yoga.

Carnes — who recently established an organization called Warriors at Ease, which certifies teachers to use yoga techniques with the military — endorsed an integrated approach. "Yoga and meditation help people self-regulate and feel safe in their bodies again," she explained. "After trauma, people often vacate their bodies, and trauma-sensitive yoga can help people feel safe in their bodies again."

She was less convinced that Buddhist meditation would be helpful for someone like Alexis, explaining that there are many types of meditation practiced in Buddhism and not all of them correspond to good mind-body work. "There are kinds of meditation that encourage you to leave your body," she noted, "which would be terrible for him."

Van der Kolk parsed it a bit differently. Meditation would be helpful for some people with PTSD, he said, because it "has direct connections to the alarm center in the brain." But he cautioned that the most severely traumatized people cannot tolerate the stillness of meditation.

"It's a very well known fact," he said. "The moment you become still, all the images and sensations of the misery of the past are coming back."