Living the real life | Daily News

Living the real life

Buddhist Chaplain to Her Majesty’s Armed Forces Dr Sunil Kariyakarawana Pictures by Saman Sri Wedage
Buddhist Chaplain to Her Majesty’s Armed Forces Dr Sunil Kariyakarawana Pictures by Saman Sri Wedage

Wars demolished and established nations. The established nations toasted the victory. But the eternal problem was left unattended: who is the most affected and how can they be led in the path to recovery?

The most affected party in any war is the soldiers themselves before anyone else.

Pre-war, post-war as well as the mid-war, they experience various traumatic stress disorders. Not only that they remain unsung heroes, but their emotional prerequisites go unnoticed. The governments obligingly compensate for any physical deformity caused by the war. Sad enough, mental deformities remain invisible.

Her Majesty’s ArmedForces decided to pay attention to this phenomenon. Then followed the appointment of chaplains representing the mainstream non-Christian faiths: Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim. The appointment of the Buddhist Chaplain to the British Armed Forces was chosen from 18 candidates.

The Daily News meets with the chosen candidate who goes by the name of Dr Sunil Kariyakarawana. Based at Wellington Barracks, Dr Kariyakarawana is working with people of all faiths, including caring for detainees at the immigration removal centre at Harmondsworth.

“The Buddhist Chaplain is supposed to have a well-grounded knowledge in Buddhism while being able to provide spiritual care to the soldier. It is beyond the task of a counsellor and advisor. The chaplaincy provides advice and operational guidance on a colonel rank,” Dr Kariyakarawana explains.

Dr Sunil Kariyakarawana initiated his career as an assistant lecturer attached to the University of Kelaniya way back in 1980, teaching linguistics. He won the Commonwealth Scholarship to read for his Master’s at the University of Ottawa. Then he moved to Cornell University where he spent six to seven years to read for his PhD on cognitive and neuroscience theoretical linguistics.

He returned to Kelaniya in 1992 only to globetrot shortly on a postdoctoral research fellowship – this time to Tokyo. Dr Kariyakarawana was chosen for Buddhist chaplaincy while attached to the City University of London researching on chemical linguistics. While his mother country had no idea about the seven per cent of the population suffering neurological cognitive disability, this Sri Lankan was engaged in research related to the subject.

“If you have a physical disability, you are noticed right away. But neurological disorder, dyslexia and other related symptoms exist without a clue. During my tenure at Kelaniya, we had students who could not pass the exams because of undiagnosed neurological conditions. The soldiers are the worst-suffering group. Suppose someone places a gun at point-blank range, and you tend to easily lose cognitive capabilities. It includes the syntax, semantics and word formations.”

The Buddhist presence in the British chaplaincy caused public debates. Later on, the requirement of such a position came to be understood.

The post-traumatic disorder is very much prevalent among the soldiers. Stress, depression and anxiety surface as symptoms of mental ill health.

Dr Kariyakarawana introduced a Mindfulness structure as the Buddhist Chaplain of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces.

“Mindfulness is a big buzzword in the western world. There are professors, researchers. There are about 8000 peer reviews, research articles published on mindfulness. Ironically, Sri Lanka, the best Theravada Centre in the world does not have a clue as to what happens in the world. The mindfulness package can restore not only the function of the brain but even the structure of the brain,” Dr Kariyakarawana explains.

The number of applicants to the Buddhist Chaplain’s position was limited to 18 owing to its strict requirements. The minimum academic qualification was a Master’s degree in addition to the range of skills. Dr Sunil Kariyakarawana was asked to apply as he had already incorporated meditation into his research. Other candidates were from Thailand, Myanmar and the UK.

“The entire military has really recognised this need. Sri Lanka also needs mental health guidance as it underwent a civil war for 30 years. We need to focus on mental, psychological and cognitive levels as there may be areas that we are yet to be fully aware of.”

The position was not without its fair share of challenges. The military in a predominantly Christian country is, of course, a no-go area for a Buddhist. That was Dr Kariyakarawana’s first challenge. On the other hand, his plate was getting fuller on a daily basis. What was some 230 individuals in need of assistance at first has now turned out to be 5000. Dr Kariyakarawana tours across the globe attending to the requirements. He responds to at least 20 emails on a daily basis.

“My on-call kind of life has saved a lot of lives over the years. The soldiers are quite vulnerable and prone to trauma as they suffer from unwelcome flashback back home. Suicide is becoming a huge issue. Last year alone, 40 soldiers committed suicide. As a result, a lot of them seek my guidance and support on a daily basis. It also exists in Sri Lanka, though we don’t pay much attention.”

The suicide phenomenon has led to the formation of a ministerial portfolio for suicides. Dr Kariyakarawana also cites the latest research to note how dementia has taken over heart disease as the number one killer.

“What does that actually mean? We lose our mind before we lose our heart. Does living in the richest continent guarantee that they are the happiest people? Mental health subject is taken up every other week in the British Parliament. All this is caused by stress. Cumulative stress over time leads to other complications such as essential hyperactive disorder and bipolar disorder.”

The remedy? It is out in the open: rewrite the brain.

“We have been taught that we are using only 10 per cent of the brain capacity. But now is proven to be wrong. We are overloaded with information.”

In Mindfulness practice, the brain devises an attention system. The attention system is the boss of the breath. Resources of the brain are connected to the attention system.

Think of a military commander who receives a five-minute brief just before a crucial operation. Mindfulness is essentially paying attention on purpose to this moment non-judgementally.

“And the Buddha was even smarter. He added a strategy. He asked us to develop wholesome thoughts. Our minds produce 100,000 thoughts a day. Have you realised that 80 or 90 per cent of them, repeated daily, are negative? What do you expect from a person producing negative thoughts? That’s why we need to rewrite the brain.”

Mindfulness is the scientific method of rewriting the brain. Paying attention is the opposite of mind-wandering. Opposite to mindfulness is mind-wandering. The more our mind wanders, our more the brain enters the limbic state. When something goes wrong, when you are upset, sad what happens? It produces amygdala. The amygdala is the brain structure that actually detects stress.

“You may need several techniques to engage in mindfulness. The Buddha, in fact, used 40 techniques. By that training, we rewrite the brain every moment. It is fascinating. You can draw a line in the water. The next moment, it disappears. The line drawn in sand lasts a bit longer. The line drawn in the rock lasts. When we do things mindfully, the rewriting the brain is like the writing on the rock. There is a large impact. Memory capacity develops. This is how we reverse the mental ill health that affects physical health. It is good to look after our body. But if you do not look after the mind, the body can decay faster.”

But knowledge alone will not suffice. Practice is essential. Dr Kariyakarawana suggests sitting down in the morning for five to ten minutes in order to connect with the mind and body. Breathe in! Around 100 companies practised getting up from the seat every one hour and spend 30 seconds (not minutes) to connect with oneself. Result? The productivity was increased by 52 per cent.

“The Buddha was a master who actually developed a technology. Isn’t it technology? The east has known it for so long. It is not multitasking, which is a misnomer. The mind is not designed to multitask. It can only do one thing at a time. We may see six bulbs burn at the same time, but it actually happens one after another. The Buddha instructed to cultivate the mind in such a way, that it does not let in negativity.”

Mindfulness and meditation were used to be spoken of in a cosmetic fashion. The concepts have now evolved into a remedy for real life issues. The British Parliament recommends mindfulness in healthcare, education, the criminal justice system and workplaces. The British government is channelling funds to promote mindfulness.

The number of people killed on the road is getting much higher than that of war casualties. One of the most sensible situations that make us reflect on ourselves and shift us from the mindless to a mindful state. 



Add new comment