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Welcome to CombatCounselor Chronicle, an E-zine dedicated to giving you the most current, pertinent information on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based CBT available.

Chris Sorrentino, a.k.a CombatCounselor, is a leader and expert in cognitive behavioral therapy. He combines 30 years of experience in psychology with the discipline from having served as a U.S. Air Force officer for 20 years, 4 of those in combat zones, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2005.

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Friday, August 19, 2016

The Stigma Killing American Heroes by C.T. Sorrentino

This article was originally published in De Oppresso Liber Magazine in January 2013 and is being republished here after recent publicized VA shortfalls to highlight the dilemma still facing our military and veterans ...

Abstract 

On average, one military member and 18 Veterans commit suicide each day, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a significant factor in many of those deaths. The negative stigma surrounding PTSD and military mental health treatment exist partly because the brave men and women who make up our military are hesitant to seek mental health treatment from military practitioners. Our young men and women in the military are returning from deployments having experienced horrifying events, either directly or as an observer. PTSD incidence is reported to be as high as 20 to 30 percent of our military returning from recent combat. Until military and civilian leaders understand the connection and impact the negative military mental health stigma has on our force's mental health and morale, these needless deaths will continue. The negative stigmas regarding PTSD and Veterans are perpetuated by the media. As long as these stigmas are perpetuated in the media, young heroes, our military and veteran men and women, will continue to die. We need a positive dialogue started in this country, educating the public, our elected officials, and military leaders, about the problems in military and Veteran mental health treatment and figure out a way to fix them soon! We also need leaders willing to give our men and women in uniform the confidentiality they need when seeking treatment for their problems, be it PTSD, depressions or anxiety. We need leaders who are going to do the right thing and end the negative stigmas against PTSD and seeking mental health treatment in the military … now, today, before one more American hero dies by their own hand!

By C.T. Sorrentino, LtCol, USAF (Ret) 
On average, one military member and 18 Veterans commit suicide each day, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a significant factor in many of those deaths. We as a nation waste billions on political campaigns, needless government spending, and personal luxuries each year, while many of our nation's heroes go jobless, homeless, and with inadequate mental health treatment, while almost 7,000 of them choose to end their lives ... that is correct, nearly 7,000 MILITARY AND VETERANS COMMIT SUICIDE EVERY YEAR!
Being a Veteran of multiple combat operations over my 20-year career in the Air Force and a licensed professional counselor, practicing psychotherapy and treating military, Veterans, and “civilians” (everybody else) with anxiety disorders, including PTSD, and depression for nearly 30 years, I have a unique insight into the military, combat, and the effects both can have on the human psyche. 
PTSD has been around as long as humans have been exposed to trauma, and as long as there has been war, having been called many things over the centuries, including exhaustion, railway spine, stress syndrome,  shell shock, battle fatigue, combat  fatigue, traumatic war neurosis, and, most recently, post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD for short.  
Combat stress reactions appeared as early as the 6th century BC when the Greek historian Herodotus reported one of the first descriptions of a PTSD-like incident:
During the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., an Athenian soldier who had suffered no combat injuries, became permanently blind after witnessing the death of a fellow soldier.  
A more accurate diagnosis of this reaction would be “conversion disorder” rather than PTSD, but it is an indication of the dramatic impact a traumatic event can have on a human being nonetheless. 
  
Many people think only of combat when they think of PTSD, but there are many causes, traumatic experiences, that can lead to PTSD symptoms, including accidents, physical and sexual assault/abuse, terrorism, as well as many others.  According to Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) estimates, seventy percent of the population will experience a trauma extreme enough to qualify for a PTSD diagnosis over the lifespan.  Oddly enough, also according to the VA, only 6.8% of all Americans will develop PTSD during their lifetimes, or roughly 10% of those experiencing a trauma.  Recent Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, on the other hand, suffer an incidence rate of 13.8%, nearly twice that of the general population.
PTSD is a medical diagnosis as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR, APA, 2000) and the symptoms of PTSD include 1) hyper-arousal (exaggerated startle response, difficulty sleeping or staying asleep); 2) avoidance (avoiding things previously enjoyed or that remind the individual of the trauma); and 3) re-experiencing (flashbacks, nightmares or night terrors, daydreaming about the trauma).  An individual must experience a trauma so severe that the individual experienced extreme fear, helplessness or horror and the threat of death or serious injury in addition to all of the three symptom areas listed above (more than one symptom are required for diagnosis in two of those areas) in order to be officially diagnosed by a licensed clinician with “PTSD”.
Ignorance and bureaucratic processes, having needed changing for decades, if not centuries, are the cause of this stigma killing our young American heroes.  A stigma, because the brave men and women who make up our military are hesitant to seek mental health treatment from military practitioners.  They are hesitant and afraid, and rightly so, because their careers and/or security clearances could be at stake if they seek treatment from a military provider. 
I served in the Air Force for over 20 years, retiring in 2005 as a lieutenant colonel, and experienced the stigma firsthand. I would not and did not seek help for post-deployment anxiety and depression until AFTER I pinned-on my silver oak leaf and knew I would be retiring (meaning "they" could not hurt me). I spent four years in four different combat zones during my career, including "boots on the ground" in the Middle East one month before 9/11 and during the first year of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, and the stresses of combat took their toll, although not enough to receive a PTSD diagnosis, thankfully.
I recently returned from Fort Riley, Kansas, home of the 1st Infantry Division, better known as "The Big Red One", where I provided counseling to soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. Two of the battalions I worked with suffered high numbers of casualties, with several killed in action (KIA) and many more wounded in action (WIA). Dozens of brave young men and women received purple hearts, having lost limbs and suffering other wounds, many invisible to the naked eye.
Not all wounds are visible, with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) making up the majority of injuries to those returning home, many times caused or hastened by experiencing the effects of an improvised explosive device (IED), the current weapon of choice of Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists. When a young man loses his leg, he is considered a hero, and rightly so. But when a man or woman "loses his or her mind", either through physical damage to the brain, as is the case in TBI, or emotional damage, as we see in those who have experienced severe trauma in combat, those coming home with PTSD, they are portrayed as weak or as malingerers by their comrades, or worse, the officers responsible for their health, safety, and well-being.
Looking down on or thinking less of those who seek help for mental health issues has been a problem in the military for centuries, but is also a problem in our modern, technologically advanced, contemporary culture here in the United States and elsewhere.  Ignorance in regard to psychotherapy and counseling is nothing new, and few people are enlightened enough to understand that it is a sign of strength, not weakness, to seek help or treatment from a qualified, licensed clinician, be it a psychologist, psychiatrist, licensed professional counselor, or licensed social worker. 
Unfortunately, there are many unqualified and unscrupulous individuals taking advantage of people weakened by emotional stress and the turmoil of modern life, and they have given psychotherapy a bad name. Therefore, it is no wonder that an uneducated and psychotherapy-ignorant public, so desperately in need of professional treatment, misunderstand and fear the many highly qualified, licensed, certified clinicians, helping and saving lives every day. 
Our young men and women in the military are returning from deployments having experienced horrifying events, either directly or as an observer. There are estimates that as many as 50 percent of those returning from combat come home suffering from a mental health issue of one kind or another. PTSD incidence is reported to be as high as 20 to 30 percent of our military returning from recent combat. Yet many, if not most, do not seek treatment because they are afraid that doing so will damage their careers.
I have seen it firsthand in my own career, in my private practice and non-profit, and with soldiers recently returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Their leaders, who can be squad and platoon leaders (enlisted) or company, battalion, brigade, and division commanders (officers), do not understand the devastation TBI and PTSD can cause in a person's life. Many of these individuals, both the so-called leaders and the individual suffering from a mental health issue, simply refuse to acknowledge the pain and suffering, maintaining the ridiculous macho bravado and reputation of a "real soldier" or "real man" who does not ask for help. These young men and women may even have a caring and compassionate chain-of-command currently, but do not know whether the beliefs and attitudes of their "next" unit's leadership will be as flexible and understanding.  
Because mental (behavioral) health treatment in the military is not confidential and becomes a permanent part of an individual's medical record, any psychological treatment received, becomes a matter of record for future leaders to hold against an individual or a reason to deny a coveted security clearance. It is no wonder young soldiers, airmen, sailors, and Marines are afraid to step forward for treatment, and no wonder that suicide rates among military members has skyrocketed.
Until military and civilian leaders understand the connection and impact the negative military mental health stigma has on our force's mental health and morale, these needless deaths will continue. When you are anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, and suicidal with nowhere to turn, the options are limited, particularly when you are a brave, skilled marksman with easy access to lethal weapons.
There is no reason military members cannot have the same rights and protections as the average citizen when it comes to confidentiality in psychotherapy. What does the military have to gain except complete, 100 percent control over their people, by allowing confidential communications between therapist and client in the military? The same restrictions which apply to confidentiality in the private sector could also apply in the military: danger to self or others; child, spouse, elder abuse; and criminal behavior would still need to be reported. Threats to National security and good order and discipline are two military-specific areas that may need to be added to those limits of confidentiality, and I do not believe anyone would argue against that.  Nevertheless, military members would then know that anything else they say would remain confidential, allowing them to open-up, develop a trusting relationship with their therapist, and get the help they so desperately need and deserve.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), Service Secretaries, Secretary of Defense, and President of the United States are going to have to "do the right thing" and end the negative stigma associated with military mental health care by allowing the limited confidentiality described above to be implemented across the military. It will take several years for our military men and women to trust the system and routinely seek treatment for the problems caused by the rigors and stress of military service, but WE MUST START SOMEWHERE, WE MUST START TODAY! Our American heroes deserve no less!
The negative stigmas regarding PTSD and Veterans are perpetuated by the media. The film, television, and print (hardcopy and online) industries are at least partial contributors to Veteran joblessness, homelessness, and, ultimately, suicide. With unemployment rates for Veterans hovering at least five percent higher than non-Veterans, we must ask ourselves why.
Because non-Veterans, not having had the opportunity to serve in the military, do not understand the our culture, and rightfully so.  What they also do not understand is that the trash the media is spewing about Veterans and Veterans with PTSD or TBI is that we are dangerous!  Veterans, particularly those with PTSD, are regularly portrayed in films, television series, TV news, magazines, newspapers, and blogs as being aggressive and threatening at the very least and homicidal maniacs on the other end of the continuum.  Veterans “are nuts” and about to blow our corks at the drop of a hat and go off on innocent civilians, possibly whipping out an automatic weapon and killing dozens, as was the case in the spring of 2012 when an Army Staff Sergeant killed 17 Afghanis after multiple deployments, TBI, and PTSD, having seen his buddy’s leg blown off just the day before.
Recently having read an article entitled: "IS GETTING HELP A CAREER KILLER?" in a large weekly military magazine, I noticed that in a little more than one page, the author managed to hinder any progress we have made in recent years toward reducing the negative stigma.  The article highlighted why airmen and other military members need to be afraid, very afraid, of seeking mental health treatment, or even worse, talking about it! 
The article’s author wrote about an Air Force NCO (non-commissioned officer) who had sought help for alcohol abuse and depression, and educated other airmen, telling them about his battle with alcohol (which he is currently winning, by the way) and other mental health issues. His supervisor, an obvious Neanderthal, virtually ended this airman's career by making statements about his alcoholism in his enlisted performance report (EPR) and marked his rating down, both career-ending behaviors. The NCO in question, a master sergeant (E-7), appealed his "referral" EPR to his superiors and the Inspector General, but was unsuccessful. Not surprising and not promoted!
Most everyone in the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marines have heard plenty of horror stories like the one described above and now have one more...a page and a half's worth in national weekly military publication.  As long as these stigmas are perpetuated in the media, young heroes, our military and veteran men and women, will continue to die. For the first time in recorded history, more people are dying by suicide in the military than are being killed in combat! 
The space taken up by that particular article could have been better utilized by providing accurate information about the PTSD and the associated stigma(s), identifying what the implications of the stigma(s) are (e.g. suicides), and analyzing realistic proposals regarding what we can do about them. We need a positive dialogue started in this country, educating the public, our elected officials, and military leaders, about the problems in military and Veteran mental health treatment and figure out a way to fix them...soon!
The stigma surrounding Veterans has affected my own life as well. Having had a disappointing experience in the private sector, I returned to a local state university on the Post-9/11 GI Bill to become a school counselor. After 4 semesters and 27 units completed with a 4.0 GPA, being inducted into the Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society in April 2011, I was called into a meeting with my advisor, a woman of color I had only met on three other occasions.  I thought that she was going to congratulate me on my honor, but that could not have been further from the truth.
When I entered the room for the meeting, my advisor was seated with another professor I had never seen before.  The mood in the room and the tone of the conversation quickly enlightened me that I was not there for a “pat on the back”.  My advisor stated that she felt that I was “aggressive and threatening” and that if it “didn’t stop”, my “status in the program would be in jeopardy”.  Having always treated fellow students, professors, and administrators with nothing but dignity and respect, I was flabbergasted!  I asked her for some concrete examples of my “aggressive and threatening behavior”, but all she could come-up with was “it’s a perception, that’s all, a perception”.
After the meeting, I filed a complaint with the university’s Office of Affirmative Action based on the fact that she threatened my status in the program based on a false “perception” of me being “aggressive and threatening”.  All Veterans, anyone who would fight for their country and sometimes have to kill our enemies, must be “aggressive and threatening”, right?  I filed the complaint in May 2011 and the Head of the Office of Affirmative Action only harassed and insulted me, accusing me of being bigoted and racist!  The Deputy Chancellor for Diversity then refused to investigate my complaint.  I filed an appeal with the President of the University of Missouri in August 2011 and was immediately promised a response from “general counsel”, but I still have not received that response.  Because of the aggressive, threatening, and intimidating environment that was created, I have not returned to complete the three courses required to complete my Educational Specialist (EdS) degree and become licensed as a school counselor.
When will all of this insanity stop?  When will the population, our elected officials, government agencies, even our very own Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs and military comrades, end these negative stigmas?  Stigmas against Veterans in general, and those unfortunate enough to return with PTSD and other debilitating mental health conditions, must be addressed now!
The answer to many of our problems, including how we perceive and treat PTSD, is to clarify our core values, then act on them. It sounds extremely simple, and it is. The primary problem with our world, nation, military, and selves is an alienation from our core values or not having defined any in the first place.  It appears as though people, in general, have become extremely self-centered in recent time. It seems to be all about ME...ME...ME…how is this or that going to affect me?  Guess what folks, there are other people in the world and last time I checked, the world did not revolve around any single person or group.  
Values are signposts, directions, not something that can be attained like a goal. Without values, you cannot form goals and if you have neither values nor goals, how can you possibly act in any other way than impulsively...selfishly?  Therein lies the problem.  With no values, no direction, people will react emotionally when confronted with a situation, and because self-preservation is an innate human condition, that reaction will normally be of a selfish nature.
We must clearly define and understand our values if we are going to succeed as a human race. Our men and women in uniform must memorize their service’s Core Values, which, in the Air Force, are: 1) Integrity; 2) Excellence; and 3) Service before self, but do they really understand what they mean as they apply to behavior, to combat? If you clearly understand what your core values are, when confronted with a situation, difficult or otherwise, you can confidently act in accordance with those values, without even thinking...REACTION! Know your values cold, react appropriately and selflessly when required.  Values lie at the core of my therapy for PTSD and other mental health problems, and this is a cursory explanation at best, so I will go on to discuss the processes in-depth in future articles about my proprietary treatment to anxiety, including PTSD, depression, and other problems: Body-Mind-Behavior Therapy (BMBT).
Our world, our society, and our military are in the state they are in because we have no direction, no values, and no real leaders leading us, teaching us, or acting as role models, mentors, for positive core values. Our leaders are perpetuating the negative stigmas I have been discussing here because many continue to reinforce and condone them, doing nothing about them.  It should be rather obvious, but people comfortable seeking and receiving mental health care are far less likely to resort to suicide than those who are chastised and ridiculed for doing so. 
The Army recently threw $1.5 million at a study to determine how to reduce the suicide rate in the military.  We do not need to waste millions on research to know how to stop suicide or end these harmful stigmas, we need leaders who are going to stand-up and say “enough is enough!”  We need leaders who will give our men and women in uniform the confidentiality they need when seeking treatment for their problems.  We need leaders who will not condone the harassment and peer pressure keeping our men and women in uniform from seeking the mental health treatment they so desperately need and deserve.  We need leaders who are going to do the right thing and end the negative stigmas against PTSD and seeking mental health treatment in the military … now, today, before one more American hero dies by his or her own hand! 

Key Words: anxiety, depression, disorder, help4vetsptsd, hero, heroes, killing, leaders, media, military, post-traumatic, ptsd, stigma, stigmas, stress, suicide, values, veterans, vets



Copyright 2011-2016 - 3rd Wave Publishing and CombatCounselor - All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

CombatCounselor's Thought of the Day

I saw a beautiful butterfly, then became one, spreading my wings, taking flight. Fear is my friend, not my enemy. The sky is the limit. 


© 2016 - C.T. Sorrentino and 3rd Wave Media Group, LLC - All Rights Reserved

Monday, August 15, 2016

CombatCounselor Describes War-Induced Stress On Kansas City TV Station KMBC






An experienced combat veteran, retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, and expert in working with military and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Chris Sorrentino, a licensed professional counselor, Executive Director of Kansas City Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, and President of Help4VetsPTSD, a non-profit dedicated to military and veterans with PTSD, discusses combat stress with ABC News affiliate:








Sorrentino went on to describe his sorrow for the families of the 16 Afghanis allegedly killed by a US solider and for the soldier's family.  "My heart and prayers go out to the families of the victims, the soldier, and the Afghani people for their unimaginable losses" Sorrentino told Maria Antonia via Skype this afternoon.  LtCol Sorrentino happened to be out of the area at the time, working with re-deploying soldiers at an undisclosed location.




"The military is a microcosm of American society", Sorrentino added, stating: "and the extremely unfortunate events that occurred in Panjwai district, a rural suburb of Kandahar and a traditional Taliban stronghold, are not at all indicative of the behavior of our brave, dedicated, selfless military personnel and should be considered an isolated event". Our deployed military are heroes and this incident should not reflect negatively on them in any way.  It is understandable and warranted for the Afghan people to be horrified and upset about the attack, just as many American are, and justice will be served as the soldier's fate is determined in a court of law.


The facts have yet to be determined, but Sorrentino concluded "the negative stigma attached to mental health treatment in the military has existed for decades and will not, unfortunately, end anytime soon".  "If the attacks were related to combat-related stress or other psychological issues, an environment more conducive to military members seeking treatment, rather than fearing reprisal or loss of a security clearance, could have potentially mitigated this threat ".  LtCol Sorrentino asked President Obama to "end the negative stigma associated with military mental health care" in a question and answer session after January's State of the Union Address.  Unfortunately, Obama ignored Colonel Sorrentino's pleas and failed to respond to his question.

Title: CombatCounselor Describes War-Induced Stress On Kansas City TV Station KMBC

Key Words:  KMBC, TV, Kansas City, MO, MIsouri, combatcounselor, combat, counselor, war, induced, stress, PTSD. PTS, trauma, disorder, television, 

Social Dystrophy™: Are Technology or Values to Blame?


Would "Social Dystrophy" be an appropriate term for the lack of social skills endemic in today's population? I came up with the term “social dystrophy” while exercising at the YMCA last week, having experienced more then the usual number of rude and obnoxious people that day. I cannot take credit for coining it because somebody already created a website, http://nyrixxblog.socialdystrophy.com, having apparently had similar experiences with humans.

According to Dictionary.com, “dystrophy” can be defined as “faulty or inadequate development” faulty or inadequate nutrition or development”. Dystrophy would then imply that there were some social skills in the first place, which may not necessarily be the case and may eliminate the term as an appropriate label for what we are experiencing. I may be generalizing, and I know there are many pitfalls in that and there are many socially adept people out there, young and old, but the problem seems to be getting worse and worse with the advent of new communication technologies (being invented almost daily). Let me elaborate and provide some poignant examples as well as potential solutions.

I was at the market the other day looking for my rewards card before placing my items on the conveyor (there was no line when I arrived and few customers in sight). Before I had a chance to hand my card to the cashier, some middle aged guy rushes up and starts putting his shopping items on the conveyor. As they whizzed past me on their way to the cashier, I looked back and politely asked "would it be OK if I continued to put my items on the conveyor and finish checkout?" while the cashier looked on in dismay. The man, who was accompanied by his teenage son, glared at me defiantly and stated "I didn't turn the conveyor on!" Really? Is that an answer or any kind of excuse for being rude and in such a hurry that you cannot wait until I complete a simple task? Dumbfounded by his ridiculous answer, I politely asked if he would remove his things so I could continue with my shopping, but his reply cannot can be repeated here, cursing and insisting that I was being rude simply because I wanted to continue my shopping without having to move his out of the way. Let me just say that the situation deteriorated from there with the man using profanity and insulting my character…what an excellent role model for his teenage son!

Then there are the people at the gym who turn the fans around the cardiovascular equipment on without bothering to ask the people who have been there for some time, and do not like the fan blowing on us, if we would mind if they “turned the fan on”. How difficult would it be to say, “excuse me, can I turn this on? Too difficult, obviously, for a social misfit who does not care about anybody but him or herself or does not have the social skills or training to communicate with other humans.

Still at the gym, there are the people, usually young, who barge past us in the locker room on their way to a locker they just cannot live without. Many times there are areas of the locker room totally empty and available, but they NEED THAT locker, cannot wait a few minutes until we are done, or do not have the skills or inclination to say "excuse me". Is that really so difficult?

Then there is the guy in his BMW that lays on his horn when I have the nerve to continue in the lane that I was traveling in after leaving a stop light. If he had not been too busy talking on his cellphone, he would have been cognizant of which lane was his and where he should have been driving. Instead, he thinks I am the moron when in fact he should have been ticketed for an illegal lane change, aggressive driving, and disturbing the peace.

I could go on and on and experience numerous instances like those above DAILY! Really? Daily? Yes, DAILY! Well, why is this happening daily and why does it seem to be getting worse as time goes on? In this reporter’s opinion, technology and a lack of clear core values are at the root of the problem.

Technology has grown so quickly and become so engrained in our culture, our lives, that we “think” we cannot live without it. How many times have you seen a car swerving all over the road, only to catch up to the driver and find them chatting or texting on their cellphone? If you live in any metropolitan area, or anywhere else for that matter, you see it all the time. Everywhere you go people young and old are talking on the phone or texting their friends about some inane subject, completely oblivious to what is happening around them or considering what affect their behavior may have on others. They simply do not care! It has gotten to such an extreme that people are texting the person standing next to them or in the same room! C’mon folks, is it really that demanding or difficult to look someone in the eye, open your mouth, and emit the words it takes so long to “thumb” on your smartphone (a misnomer).

The ability of humans to communicate is slowly deteriorating because of technology. Whether it is cellphones or computers, the internet or email, laptops or iPads – you name it – technology has made us (yes, I am not immune) not only more productive, but lazy! Before cellphones, computers, and the internet became commonplace, which was not all that long ago, people waited until they returned home to call a friend or even write a letter which may have taken several days to arrive once posted, and everybody seemed to be a lot happier, a lot less stressed than we are today. If technology and human behavior continue at this pace, the ability to communicate verbally, face to face, making eye contact and the whole shebang, is going to become a thing of the past. It is quickly becoming clear, particularly in the younger generations who have grown up with these technologies, that human communication is deteriorating rapidly and we should all be very concerned about that dilemma.

Finally, I believe it is a loss of focus on or undefined core values that can account for much of the self-centered behavior we see daily. The world in general and our country specifically, politically, corporately and personally, has lost touch with what is important to us – our values. I see it day in and day out in my practice, when I ask a client to tell me what they value, they look at me like I have a penis growing out of my forehead. “My values? What do you mean exactly?” When I explain what values are, they routinely come up with “my family” or “my job”, still not quite grasping the concept.

Values, according to Encarta Dictionary, are “the accepted principles or standards of a person or group”. They define what we are about and, if clear and well defined, help us act in a moral, ethical, or legal way when presented with novel or familiar situations. That sounds pretty important! But few people can tell me what their values are and that is pretty scary. It is no wonder that people are running around thinking of little but themselves when they have no moral, ethical, or legal map to help get where they are going. That is why the world and our nation are in crisis, financial and otherwise, at this moment and it is also why people do not care about anybody but themselves.

Put down the phone, clarify your values (what is important to you), look people in the eye when you speak to them, treat people with dignity and respect, and act on your values...even if you are having a bad day, or are anxious or depressed...be selfless, not selfish and the world will be a better place to live.


More on values in a future post…



Key Words: social, dystrophy, values, value, core, inept, incompetent, CombatCounselor, combat, counselor, psychology, therapy, CBT, ignorant, ignorance, SocialDystrophy, technology, phone, text

Friday, February 26, 2016

LETTER TO MISSOURI GOVERNOR JAY NIXON



                                                                         December 27, 2012
Dear Governor Nixon,


How could you ignore my pleas for help after the University of Missouri-Kansas City REFUSED to investigate my legitimate complaints of attack, harassment, discrimination, and retaliation?  How can a state institution disobey the law and not be held accountable? President Owens promised me an answer to my appeal in August of last year and I have only heard from the representative of the new president recently after filing an appeal with the US Department of Education.
I am a disabled Vet and refuse to return to the hostile and intimidating environment, and the program in which I have a 4.0 GPA, nominated by UMKC and inducted into the Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society for excellence in education and outstanding citizenship.

I am a retired military officer and cannot believe that UMKC and MU ARE NOT HELD ACCOUNTABLE for their immoral, unethical, illegal behavior! You, Senators McCaskill and Blunt, the Missouri Department of Higher Education, Missouri Attorney General, the media, and dozens of lawyers, including the ACLU have ignored me...why? How can a public institution refuse to investigate legitimate complaints, ruining a Veteran's career in school counseling and wasting 2 years of my life and GI Bill eligibility...2 years, over $39,000 in VA and personal funds, and a salary of $48,000 a year!
If I did not have a case, the university would have told me to shut-up and get lost long ago, so instead they do not say a word, hoping that I will go away.

Initiation of the statute of limitations (180 days) has not begun because I was promised an answer from President Owens and still have not received it...which is further retaliation!

Do the right thing Jay ... GROW A PAIR and stand-up for and protect a constituent. Being white and male, nobody gives a crap about me, including lawyers who told me "sorry, there is not enough in it for me", turning me away even though they admit I have an excellent case and only because they are greedy bastards.

There must be one person in this state, this nation, with the integrity to DO THE RIGHT THING and help me get justice...holding THE UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI ACCOUNTABLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS! Is that too much to ask Jay? Have some integrity and hold my attackers and the University of Missouri accountable for their actions AND lack thereof.

Respectfully,

Chris Sorrentino, LtCol, USAF (Ret)

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Checklist for Hiring a Clinician Specializing In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

I receive many calls from people looking specifically for a therapist specializing in CBT. Because I rarely have any openings, I make a lot of referrals. Unfortunately, there ARE FEW TRUE COGNITIVE BEHAVIORAL THERAPISTS, at least in my area.

When I say "TRUE COGNITIVE BEHAVIORAL THERAPIST", I mean somebody who is an expert in CBT (which requires advanced knowledge of learning theory; e.g. classical and operant conditioning, relational frame theory, etc.) and practices using "primarily" cognitive and/or behavioral techniques. Easier said than done!

Many therapists call themselves "COGNITIVE BEHAVIORAL" even though they may know little, if anything, about CBT. Why? Because most therapists (licensed professional counselors, clinical social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists) depend on health insurance as reimbursement for their services AND insurance companies ONLY reimburse for empirically supported treatments (EST), with CBT being the primary (sometimes only) EST for the vast majority of anxiety and mood disorders (which make up the vast majority of disorders being treated).

Many of my clinical colleagues will probably not be happy with what I'm telling you and to them, as the character Gilly on Saturday Night Live would say: "uh huh"..."sorry!". We ALL owe it to our clients to be honest and provide the MOST EFFECTIVE TREATMENT available for our client's particular condition, which in many cases means CBT (the most researched and scientifically proven treatments available for many, not all, conditions).

When looking for a cognitive behavioral therapist, I suggest doing an advanced search on Psychology Today's Therapist Finder, screening for therapists in your zip code specializing in CBT for YOUR CONDITION. Once you have narrowed the list, start calling them and ask the following questions:

1. Are you a cognitive behavioral therapist and, if so, what technique(s) do you use for people with my kind of problem?
Answer: Yes. Answers could include exposure, exposure and response prevention (OCD), prolonged exposure (PTSD), activity scheduling (depression), cognitive restructuring, behavioral activation or rehearsal, and contingency management among others. Exposure, in vivo, imaginal, and prolonged, just to name a few is the treatment of choice for most anxiety-based disorders (e.g. generalized anxiety disorder, OCD, PTSD, agoraphobia, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, simple phobias) 
2. Which CBT therapy do you adhere to and who is the person (theorist) influencing your practice the most? 
Answers: Cognitive Therapy (Primary Theorists: Beck, Ellis); Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Stress Inoculation Training (Primary Theorists: Meichenbaum); Acceptance and Commitment Therapy - ACT (Primary Theorists: Hayes, Strosahl, Blackledge); Dialectical Behavior Therapy - DBT (Primary Theorists: Linehan); Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy - MBCT (Primary Theorists: Williams, Teasdale, and Segal); Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction - MBSR (Kabat-Zinn)
3. Estimate the percentage of techniques you use in therapy that are STRICTLY cognitive behavioral. 
Answer: AT LEAST 60 - 70% is acceptable, preferably more. 
4. Can you tell me the difference between positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and punishment?
Answer: Positive reinforcement involves increasing the likelihood of a behavior occurring in the future by rewarding the organism immediately following the desired behavior. Negative reinforcement involves increasing the likelihood of a behavior occurring in the future by removing an aversive stimulus immediately following the desired behavior. Punishment involves introducing an aversive stimulus immediately following a behavior you are trying to eliminate and may work for a short time, but research indicates that it is ineffective in the long-term for changing behavior. 
If they cannot answer this question, they know little if anything about the most important aspects of CBT and should probably be eliminated).
5. Do you offer FREE initial consultations (preferably in person, over the phone by exception)?
Answer: Yes. In-office consultations are preferred. If a therapist wants to charge you, keep looking unless they are obviously VERY SKILLED in CBT and you have no alternatives.
6. Are you licensed in your state (LPC, LCSW, licensed psychologist/psychiatrist, etc) AND certified (by whom)? What is your license/certification number?
Answer: Yes. Not all licensed therapists are also certified by a recognized national certifying body (requires passing a national exam and paying annual dues), but those who are indicates additional credibility and professionalism. Ask for the certifying body and certification number, then look up the licensing and certifying organizations on the internet and check to see if they actually exist, are current, and free of complaints or violations.
Unfortunately, there are many unqualified, unlicensed people out there calling themselves therapists, life/executive coaches, spiritual healers, etc. and probably do not have the necessary education, experience, licensing, and certification required to help you solve problems of the mind. Read my post "Client Beware" for more details about therapist credentials and picking a therapist.


In conclusion, CBT is one of the most researched, proven, effective, time-limited and cost effective (many problems can be treated effectively in 3 months or less - one one-hour session per week)  therapies available today and the treatment of choice for many psychological problems. So if you are looking specifically for a therapist specializing in CBT, as many educated consumers are, the preceding information should be helpful.

With that said, there are many reasons why CBT may not be appropriate for you or your particular problems. There are many good therapies and therapists available, so I recommend you do some research and know what you are looking for when selecting a therapist. In any event, to reinforce the importance of my earlier point, MAKE SURE THEY ARE LICENSED (PSYCHOTHERAPIST) IN YOUR STATE if nothing else.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or need additional assistance finding the right therapist for you.  You can also watch my video series on YouTube: BMBT Basic Training with CombatCounselor 


GOOD LUCK!

Friday, July 24, 2015

His Holiness And I


By C.T. Sorrentino

“His Holiness”. I first saw him on TV, a documentary, 60 Minutes, I forget exactly where or when, but he impressed me with his infectious laugh, immeasurable joy, and extremely profound yet simple message: interdependence and compassion; love and non-violence; selflessness and integrity; dignity and respect … I was hooked. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama had my ear and my admiration from that point forward.

I started listening to His talks, I began reading His books, I visited, His website. I use a capital “H” because this man is the real deal, as close to a God as there is on Earth, plus “His Holiness” is always capitalized, so I capitalize the H here out of respect, but will not do so from this point forward because he is such a humble man that he would likely be embarrassed by it, he would not like it. After all, he often refers to himself as a “simple monk”.

His message made sense to me, enticing me to further explore Buddhism, a religion I was unfamiliar with, having been raised Catholic, only later finding out that it is not really considered a “religion” because there is no “God”, no creator, in Buddhism. Buddha was a man, a prince no less, who lived around 2,600 years ago in India, becoming “enlightened” after 49 days of meditation under the Bodhi tree at the age of 35 in a place now called Bodhgaya. So, back to his message, actually Buddha’s message, referred to as the “dharma” in Buddhism and one of the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings), and the Sangha (the devout followers: monks, nuns, bodhisattvas).

First, “suffering” (or “samsara” in Sanskrit), the subject of the Four Noble Truths, is at the root of human existence in Buddhist philosophy. We all want to be happy, but our ignorance: Our thoughts, our emotions, our desires and our inability to manage them get in the way of attaining happiness.
Second, we should observe our body (equated metaphorically to the Sangha), mind (the Buddha), and speech (the Dharma), inhibiting our propensity to lie, cheat, steal, kill, covet, idle gossip, talk badly about others and so on, by enhancing our ability to focus on the present moment and making positive choices while minimizing or eliminating negative ones.

Third, we should be compassionate, empathic, and care about others more than we care about ourselves, letting go of “me”, “I”, our “self” and in the process doing what we can to eliminate suffering in others and ourselves. This is also referred to as “bodhicitta” and those who dedicate their lives to ultimate compassion with a focus on eliminating suffering in all sentient beings (people, animals, insects, etc.) and attaining Buddhahood are referred to as “bodhisattvas”.

So I started reading books on Buddhism, basic books like Buddhism for Dummies, A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism, and other introductory texts, in order to learn more about what seemed to be a very complex subject. Then, not wanting to spend another winter in the Midwest, I had an epiphany - why not go to India and learn about Tibetan Buddhism at its source, Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj to be specific, from His Holiness himself?

The first place I visited was the Dalai Lama’s website, where I checked his teaching schedule and, lo and behold, he was going to perform a teaching for a group of Koreans at his temple in McLeod Ganj from the 11th through the 13th of November 2014. Then I started checking airfares. I found a fare for $1,100 on United, which seemed like a very fair price considering that tickets to Europe nearly always exceed that, usually by a lot, so I decided to run the idea by my wife. I would leave in late October, go to Dharamsala for two months to study Buddhist philosophy, then meet her in New Delhi during her winter break (she is on the faculty at a large Midwestern university) for three weeks of touring, then south to Kerala for some much needed R&R by the sea.

Arriving in Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj actually, on a bright late-autumn day, the skies were a deep Dodger blue, the snow-topped Himalayas steep and jagged, the surrounding foothills raining pieces of shale and boulders the size of garbage trucks, and the trees surrounding the town a deep forest green, literally. His Holiness’s temple is actually in the hill station town known as McLeod Ganj, several kilometers and a 15 to 30 minute ride by bus, taxi, or car from Dharamsala depending on which road you take, the pot-holed “shortcut” or the longer, but much more comfortable “bus road”.  So if you want to be around his temple, attend his teachings, or volunteer with the Tibetan refugees as I did, you must stay in McLeod Ganj, not Dharamsala.

I felt totally at home as I entered McLeod Ganj on the first of November, as if I had somehow been there before, maybe in a past life, and my karma, which had been dismal for the past several years (that is another story, maybe an upcoming book), suddenly took a turn for the better as you shall soon find out.

Forty-five minutes after arriving, having quickly unpacked my backpack in my room at the Pink House Hotel, I decided to go for a stroll around town.  No sooner had I reached the long, treacherous staircase leading from the hotel to Jogiwara Road a few hundred feet above did I meet Thupten Pema Lama. Thupten is a small, slender man who always wears a hat of one kind or another.  His English is excellent and I soon found out that he is the now retired director of the Tse Cho Ling Monastery in McLeod Ganj and a former Buddhist monk.  We walked and talked for a while as he was on his way to get his cell phone repaired at a shop up on Temple Road, one of the two main thoroughfares running the length of the “market” area of McLeod Ganj and the road that takes you to the Dalai Lama’s Temple complex about a kilometer downhill. He pointed out his monastery in the valley below, where he still works part-time, from the second floor balcony of the small shopping center we were visiting. The secluded monastery, a three hundred step trek below the main square, is a peaceful respite where monks pray, meditate, and chant and where tourists can stay in a modest room with en suite bath for just 600 rupees (less than $10) per night. Thupten then invited me for tea at his home the next morning “around 10:00 am” and I enthusiastically accepted this kind invitation from a relative stranger.

Thupten’s small, simple apartment sits on the second floor of a building nearly adjacent to the hotel where I was staying, overlooking the river valley below with a view of the front range as well as the peaks of the Himalayas off in the distance. We had Tibetan bread, which quickly became one of my favorites and a staple throughout my stay, and milk tea, a Tibetan tea mixed with hot milk and a little sugar. As we talked, his sister sat with us, a sweet woman who speaks little English and is struggling with health problems as I later found out. Thupten then invited me for lunch. Unable to turn down such a warm and hospitable invitation, we retired to his living room while he bounced back and forth between there and his small kitchen where he busily chopped fresh vegetables and whipped up a tasty soup which I later found out was a Tibetan dish called “thupka” (pronounced “too-pa”). We watched BBC, his favorite, while chatting and eating our thupka with his sister.

There just happened to be an International Film Festival taking place in town that day, so we jumped in his car, picking up a stray tourist, a doctor from Australia, along the way, heading up the hill to TIPA (Tibetan Institute for the Performing Arts) to watch a couple movies. We also had another complimentary lunch with the director of the film we had just seen, a very well known monk and Rinpoche (reincarnation), on the stage in the TIPA courtyard. From tea to lunch(es) to film festival, we had a splendid day and I had made a new friend for life. I later found out that Thupten is very prominent in town and a leader in the local Tibetan community. My karma was definitely heading in a positive direction and all this on just my first day in McLeod Ganj.

Oddly enough, that very same night, I met another very influential and equally well-known Tibetan monk by the name of Bargdo (pronounced “pack-toe”) while having my first restaurant meal at Nick’s Italian Kitchen.  Sitting at a table for two, I saw a monk walk in and ask a woman sitting by the door if he could join her as all the tables in the restaurant were occupied.  I am not sure why she turned him away, but I quickly caught his eye and beckoned him to join me as I was sitting alone and happy to have some company.  Bargdo has written 14 books and given countless public talks around the world about his experiences while being held in a Chinese prison and tortured by his captors, all for publicly pleading for a “Free Tibet” and announcing his devotion to His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the Chinese.  For someone who was held captive and tortured for years in a Chinese prison, Bargdo was extremely jovial, even joyful, laughing uncontrollably at his own puns and as friendly as anybody I have ever met, including the Dalai Lama himself.  We ended up talking for a couple of hours and I bought one of his books, which he happily agreed to autograph for me before we went our separate ways. Fortunately, his company was much better than my meal, but the evening was an overall success in my eyes. Still day one and more positive karma!

I wanted to attend the Dalai Lama’s teachings, study Buddhist philosophy, volunteer with the Tibetan refugees, and study yoga during my two months in McLeod Ganj, so on the following Monday I made the two kilometer trek down Jogiwara Road to the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, also known as the “Tibetan Library” for short.  As it turned out, they had two Buddhist philosophy courses scheduled each day, Monday through Saturday, one at 9am and another at 11am, taught by two different geshes (a geshe is a Buddhist monk with the equivalent of a PhD in Buddhist philosophy), each with his own English translator as the geshes taught only in Tibetan. I registered for both courses for the two months I would be in town, paying a grand total of 800 rupees ($13) for both courses and the texts.

I was too late for the 9am class that day, but the 11am class had just started, so the registrar insisted that I attend.  Entering in the middle of the opening prayer was a bit disconcerting, but none of the fifty or so people seemed to take notice and I quickly found a seat. The geshe was enthusiastic in his speech as he described the day’s verses of Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland in his native Tibetan, so I could not understand a word.  His translator, an American by the name of Julia whom I later came to know quite well, and Geshe obviously had a strong connection, a bond that allowed her to alternate between Tibetan and English all the while bantering back and forth while clarifying key points in the simple yet complex prose being taught. I was hooked … great stuff and positive karma once again!

As I was leaving the class, I overheard a group of people speaking Italian.  Having lived in Italy, being married to an Italian, and of Italian ancestry myself, I speak a reasonable amount of Italian and understand quite a bit more.  One of the group was an older woman with shaved head and dressed in the traditional Buddhist nun’s robes, so I asked her in Italian where she was from.  She told me that she lived in McLeod Ganj, but the rest of the group was from various places in Italy. They were obviously in a hurry to go somewhere, but before they left, the nun invited me to another, more private teaching at a café across from the Dalai Lama’s temple that day at 2pm.  I decided to go and am I glad I did – I was definitely on the karma train!

The small room above the One Two Café seats 12 people comfortably, many of whom sit cross-legged on cushions on the floor with tiny desks in front of them for taking notes. The more “senior” in attendance, those with bad knees like the Italian nun and I, sat in one of the few plastic chairs lining the wall. Our teacher, Geshe Lobsang Choegyal Rinpoche of the Institute for Buddhist Dialectics (IBD), is not only a geshe, but also a “Rinpoche”, the reincarnation of a very high Tibetan lama who reportedly meditated in a cave in the Himalayas for 50 years.  I was later told that Rinpoche is also mentored by His Holiness and was reportedly handpicked by the Dalai Lama to study at the IBD, the monastery inside the grounds of the Dalai Lama’s temple in McLeod Ganj.

As Rinpoche entered the room, that day and every Monday through Friday following, all in attendance would bow, with the Buddhists, and even some non-Buddhists who did not know any better, prostrating themselves three times at Rinpoche’s feet (a prostration is a sign of respect or reverence for a high lama and/or Rinpoche where the individual bows down to the ground in four distinct movements, sliding their hands in front of them as their forehead touches the ground before returning to a standing position only to repeat the movement for a total of three times). He would always start with warm greetings and a small amount of banter, normally light and jovial, before his opening prayer.  He would then begin his teaching for the day. His translator, Ben, from Jerusalem is a soft-spoken and very kind man. His relationship with Rinpoche is also obviously very special and they work extremely well together. Ben is also familiar enough with both Tibetan and Buddhist philosophy that his translations flow effortlessly and were quite easy to understand.


What a tremendously compassionate and wise man Rinpoche turned out to be as I experienced over the next 6 weeks or so in his presence. Incredibly positive karma was generated and much Buddhist philosophy was assimilated over the 45 hours we spent together in that small room simply adorned only with seven Tsongas, wall hangings with paintings of the Buddhas surrounded by crimson and gold silk fabric, one behind Rinpoche’s low throne-like seat and three adorning each of the two side walls. Rinpoche was scheduled to leave with His Holiness for several days of teachings in Karnataka, India in late December and I was very sad to have to part ways on the last day of his teachings. He had become my teacher, my geshe, my guru, my Rinpoche.

I had started teaching English conversation shortly after my arrival to Tibetan refugees at LHA Charitable Trust, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), a non-profit in other words, one of several in McLeod Ganj providing free education and services to the many Tibetans who have escaped from their homeland and the oppression of the Chinese government. I taught an hour-long class Monday through Friday at 4:00 pm and had one student that I tutored, a 28-year old Tibetan Buddhist monk named Sonam that I met each night.

Sonam Wangdu is a Buddhist monk, at least six feet, five inches tall, a giant by Tibetan standards, and one of the kindest, gentlest, sweetest people I have had the honor of meeting in my lifetime. He was arrested in New Delhi, shortly after escaping from Tibet in 2012 at the age of 26, for protesting in front of the Chinese embassy over their immoral occupation of his homeland, Tibet. Sonam was only held for a couple days, short by Chinese standards, and the New Delhi Police told him he was “six feet, seven inches”. He is tall, but I think their measurement was over by an inch or two. That was Sonam’s second incarceration, the first being in Lhasa (Tibet or China depending on who you talk to) where he was arrested by the Chinese for protesting in favor of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is persona non grata as far as the Chinese government is concerned. Sonam was lucky, he was only imprisoned and tortured for a week while several of his fellow protestors were shot, some killed, by police for speaking out in favor of the Dalai Lama.

Sonam escaped from Tibet shortly thereafter, trekking across the Himalayas in the middle of winter with three other monks. Crossing near peaks in excess of an altitude of 20,000 feet in temperatures of minus forty degrees Fahrenheit and below, it took Sonam and his companions 30 days to cross into Nepal and reach the Tibetan Welcome Center in the capitol city of Katmandu. They were some of the lucky ones because many of their countrymen and women die of starvation, dehydration, frostbite, freeze to death, or are fallen by Chinese snipers who routinely wait perched atop a ridge for escaping Tibetans to wander by.

Sonam and I met two days after my arrival, barely able to communicate because of my non-existent Tibetan and the little bit of English he had learned up until then. We continued to meet every night of the week, many times for two to four hours while drinking milk tea, Tibetan herbal tea, or simply hot water, one of Sonam’s favorites along with hot milk. We would also meet one day on the weekend and go for a long walk in the woods or up to the village of Dharamkot, a few kilometers above McLeod Ganj, to talk and spend time together. The other weekend day, normally Saturday, Sonam had reserved for, as he liked to say, “washing my body” where he would hike down to the Bhagsu River, which was very cold in November and December, to wash himself and the few clothes he owned.

Sonam and I became very close and remain close to this day, talking on Skype when possible and texting on WeChat, a favorite among Tibetans in India. He has become like a third son to me and I hope we can meet again very soon, possibly in the United States where he would like to visit one day. Sonam gave me a Tsonga of the Shakyamuni Buddha, the “original” Buddha, formally known Siddhartha Gautama, a prince from Northern India who was enlightened under the Bodhi tree some 2,600 years ago. And he calls me “respected teacher”, a term of endearment that warms my heart every time I hear it.

As I mentioned earlier, the Dalai Lama was scheduled to give three days of teaching from the 11th through the 13th of November upon request from a group of Koreans. Anybody could attend the teachings as His Holiness’s temple can accommodate two to three thousand people comfortably, so three days prior I took my two passport photos and paid my ten rupees (16 cents US) at the Dalai Lama’s Security Office on Bhagsu Road not far from the town square, receiving my security badge in less than ten minutes. I then walked to the temple to reserve my seat using a piece of paper with my name written on it, affixing it to the cement floor with some borrowed tape at a location where I was told His Holiness would walk past following the teaching each day.

When I arrived on the morning of the first teaching, lo and behold someone was sitting on my reserved spot! Normally, it would not have been a problem and I would have simply sat somewhere else, but there was a full-house and not a square inch of available space anywhere. When I informed the intruder of his error, he stood up and showed me his name on a large mat where he had been sitting, but when I picked-up his mat to reveal my name on the concrete below where his mat had been placed, he had no choice but to move elsewhere. Those are the rules, I did not make them up, I only enforce them!

The Dalai Lama arrived shortly after the appointed hour of 8:00am, causing much excitement as he circumambulated, clockwise of course, the temple before entering. As he did, he stopped and talked to several people, touching others and giving blessings all along the way. Upon entering the temple, he made jokes with the Koreans seated inside along with some of the monks from his temple before being seated and getting down to business. As he started talking in Tibetan (translations were available in several languages via FM radio – you have to bring your own), dozens of young monks started circulating through the crowd with large baskets of Tibetan bread and huge steel pots filled with steaming milk tea (you have to bring your own cup), handing out the bread and pouring the tea to everyone in attendance. This is a ritual at every teaching in his temple, followed by a short prayer from His Holiness over the bread and tea before everyone begins consuming them. The teaching then begins in earnest and continues for four hours except for a 15-minute “toilet” break about halfway through. These three days of teaching focused on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, the same text we were studying in my 11:00 am class at the Tibetan Library, so much of what was said sounded familiar. I will not elaborate on the details of the teachings because it would take up too much time and is too detailed to include in this short story, but it was enlightening, pun intended.

The next two days proceeded much the same as the first, except that on the last day there was a large lunch provided by His Holiness for the Korean’s and anybody else who wanted to partake, including Tibetan bread, rice, a vegetarian curry, and boiled vegetables, standard fare for a large
gathering and completely free of charge of course. Another thing that stood out to me was that on the second day there were several young monks navigating their way through the large crowd with stacks of 1000 rupee notes (1000 rupees equals about $16 US), seeking out the Buddhist monks and nuns, giving each of them a 1000 rupee note, not to anyone else, just the monks and nuns. Having vowed to a life of poverty, existing on the simple meals at their monasteries and wearing only the crimson and gold robes of Tibetan Buddhist monk or nun and a simple pair of shoes or sandals, these men and women live on very little, so $16 is a lot of money. A small gesture of compassion by His Holiness to the Sangha, his devoted followers, the Buddhist monks and nuns, but with an enormous impact on those who subsist on less than one dollar a day. Just another example of the compassion of the Dalai Lama

Another teaching, this time for four days in early December, was scheduled short notice after my arrival for a group of Mongolians, so I had the opportunity to attend a total of seven days, nearly 25 hours of teachings with the Dalai Lama during my time in McLeod Ganj. What a blessing and what tremendously positive karma had come my way during my stay!

But wait, that is not the best part of the story! Shortly after I arrived in McLeod Ganj, knowing that the Dalai Lama would be at his residence much of the time, an unusual occurrence with his hectic travel schedule, I decided to request an audience. Why not? The bad news: I received word from Tenzin Taklha, the Dalai Lama’s nephew and personal Secretary, three days after my request telling me that an audience would be impossible due to the Dalai Lama’s strenuous schedule and concerns for his health. The good news: I was invited to a group receiving line on December 8, 2014 where I would have the opportunity to greet His Holiness, receive a blessing, and have a photo taken with him. I was elated!

Thupten Pema Lama told me that these receiving lines were group events where nationalities are grouped together for the greeting, blessing, and photo. Well, that was good enough and just to have the opportunity to be so close to him was blessing enough for me, so I waited for the appointed hour – 8:00am on December 8th.

I arrived early at the temple’s security office that morning where I was checked-in, went through a metal detector, was patted-down (frisked), and had my possessions thoroughly checked. I had brought six mala (Buddhist rosaries) and two khata (ceremonial scarves for blessings) with me to have them blessed by His Holiness. Because nothing can be carried on your person when meeting the Dalai Lama, except a mala or khata, they were aggregated with all of the other’s and my remaining possessions were taken and sealed, all to be returned to me at the end of the visit. I was then told to go to a waiting room at the base of the hill leading to his reception center and living quarters.

There were probably 75 or so people there that brisk December morning and from what I heard, there were people from Mongolia, Korea, Japan, Tibet, China, and America of course. Nearing the 9:00am hour, we were grouped together in a line by nation and led up the hill toward the reception center. The line wrapped around the semi-circular driveway in front of the reception center with the head of the line under the canopy in front of the building. I was about one-third of the way back, number 25 or so. The Dalai Lama arrived shortly thereafter with his entourage, waving to his guests and smiling and laughing as is his way.

Just as Thupten had told me, the groups from individual nations were instructed to approach him one at a time. I could not tell you where the first groups were from, but there were from 5 to 12 or so people in each group. He would greet them, chat briefly, give them a blessing, and his staff would then take a group photo. The encounters lasted from one to three or four minutes. The group in front of me was from Japan and there were seven of them. I overheard the Dalai Lama telling them in English how wonderful it is that the Japanese are so forgiving toward Americans for having dropped the two atomic bombs on Japan at the end of World War II and that forgiveness is a critical part of compassion and Buddhism. Little did His Holiness know that the next person in line was an American and a military veteran at that.

Oh, I forgot to mention, I was the only American in line that day, so when it was time, I was escorted to meet the Dalai Lama alone - I was the only nationality with just one member present! When I approached him, one of his staff said, “This is Lieutenant Colonel Sorrentino of the United States Air Force”. I then presented the white silk khata to the Dalai Lama between my two outstretched palms, as is the tradition, taking it from me he placed it around my shoulders as I bowed. He then took my hands and we bowed together in greetings. Not letting go of my hands, he asked me, “How long were you in the military?” to which I replied “20 years Your Holiness”. “ Did you serve in combat?” he asked. “Yes Your Holiness, I served in the Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan operations”. “Oh, very good”, he replied. At that point his staff were looking as if it were time to move on, so I took the opportunity to tell him something rather than asking a customary question.

I said, “Your Holiness, I have been fortunate enough to volunteer teaching English conversation to and befriending many Tibetans while here in McLeod Ganj and I have gotten to know your people very well”. I went on, “I have to tell you that I have never met such kind, compassionate, joyful, and wonderful people in my life and if there is ever anything I can do for you or the Tibetan people, please do not hesitate to ask me”. As I was finishing my comment, my eyes began to fill with tears of joy, both for the opportunity to meet this great and very kind man as well as because of the joy that working with my Tibetan students at LHA and my monk Sonam had given me. I have to say that was a bit of sadness as well, knowing what hardships and suffering the Dalai Lama and all Tibetan refugees had experienced while escaping from Tibet in very harsh conditions, leaving friends and family behind to do so.

His Holiness saw the tears in my eyes and still holding my hands he told me, and I am paraphrasing, about tolerance, interdependence, compassion, and forgiveness.  He said that it is helpful to empathize with and feel compassion toward those who we feel harm us or wish us ill will and that anger and resentment only cause our own suffering. The Dalai Lama added that the ignorant are oblivious to the feelings of others, requiring even more compassion from those with the wisdom to understand their suffering and that those are the reasons Tibetan Buddhists are such compassionate, joyful, and caring people. A few more photos were then taken, I later found out that the photographer had been snapping away the entire five minutes for a total of nine photos, and then it was time for me to let the next group approach. It then dawned on me that the Dalai Lama had not let go of my hands the entire time we were together.

His Holiness says that our enemies give us the best opportunities to practice compassion and forgiveness.  He has every reason to hate the Chinese for what they have done to him and his people, yet he loves them as much as anyone else, if not more, and holds no animosity.  He believes, like all Tibetan Buddhists, that every creature on earth, insects, animals and humans alike, could have been our mother or father in a previous life, so we must treat every living being with the same love, compassion, dignity, and respect we would afford to our parents. In this way, it is much easier to feel compassion toward our enemies. 

I have only a few hundred hours of exposure to Buddhism, having only scratched the surface with much yet to learn and practice. I still find it difficult not to become angry with and intolerant of ignorant people (the Dalai Lama likes to call them "stupid"), but his teachings have allowed me to reexamine my gut reactions and, eventually, soften those reactions with patience, acceptance, understanding, and compassion for all sentient beings, both the good and the bad. That is what I learned in the group and individual encounters between "His Holiness and I".

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Title: His Holiness And I

Key Words: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, his, holiness, Dalai, Lama, Dalai Lama, Tenzin, Dharamsala, McLeod Ganj, McLeod, Ganj, India, Tibet, China, Chinese, LHA, Tibetan, refugees, combat, counselor, CombatCounselor