Warrior breaks free
After a successful career in the British Army, Andy Power is breaking ranks. He reports on military life, his spiritual yearnings and why he's redeploying his energies in favour of the Dharma
I was 15 when I first became aware of being fully alive. A powerful, energetic urge was pushing me to experience the world; I was seeking an image to become. It was rock music that first stimulated a strong emotional response, and I longed to live my life at that intense pitch. I wanted something to orientate myself by. What did my life mean? It was the start of a long search.
Today, as a Buddhist, I still ask that question. But now I try to see how my inner life has guided outer events, rather than searching for answers in the external world. I want to understand my inner struggle and the myths I've acted out. I want to see how my mind has directed and misdirected this capricious and compulsive human form. I haven't had an unhappy life, but my choices about how to spend my time and energy have changed dramatically.
As a teenager the most significant images to strike me were the beautiful landscape photos in a book of my parents called James Herriot's Yorkshire. They seemed partially to illuminate some fundamental idea of what I was. So, aged 16, I took a rucksack and tent, and set off to explore Yorkshire. My intention was to wander freely and live blissfully, alone amid beautiful countryside. But, by the first evening, I felt extremely lonely: hollow and desolate inside. The landscape, previously rich with significance, now seemed meaningless and empty. In the morning, it was even worse: eventually, I rang my mother, who came and picked me up. I tried again a few weeks later, but on the second morning that feeling returned while walking up a moor. I felt as if I had been stabbed in the stomach; I turned around almost in panic, walked to a phone box and called for help again. I was angry that such strong inspiration had so readily been overwhelmed by fear. Feeling inadequate, I imagined I'd never be happy until I'd overcome this fear.
At university I couldn't sit still. The image of wandering in nature, living out of a pack still beckoned. I needed something to challenge my whole person. I desperately wanted to commit myself to something meaningful, and this yearning seized upon the archetypal image of a warrior. I imagined myself as this warrior figure - independent, fearless, living wild, fighting for a cause, and prepared to give everything for that cause. It was as if dying for something would give my life meaning. But I didn't really think I'd die. Conversely, I imagined if I could endure the trials of combat, I would emerge a wiser man. The prospect of killing someone simply did not trouble me.
I needed an outlet for this energy. Having left university early, I decided to join the army - to become this abstract image. I succeeded in becoming an officer in the Parachute Regiment. Deep down, however, I knew that was only a means to an end: I wanted to experience the wisdom that must surely be gained by subjecting myself to such challenges. I wanted to know what lay beyond, when every challenge had been met. Before leaving home I burnt all my old letters and photographs, and sold my books and records. I was giving up my old, cautious approach to life and embarking on a new one.
I threw myself into army life unconditionally. Yet, it always felt slightly pointless, the challenges seemed mundane. But I pushed these doubts away. Now that I was willingly immersed in this grand world, self-worth demanded that I see it as important and 'right'. Effective self-deception was required. Firstly that meant getting along with those around me and adopting their ways. My precious warrior archetype was gradually shaped into a more egotistical ideal. What I see now as more spiritual aspirations - then unclear and inarticulate impulses - faded into the background, leaving me pursuing only experiences that I thought would impress others.
I never went to war. The closest I came was a gunfight in Northern Ireland at 2am. Tracer rounds erupted around me, and the tyres of the Land Rover I was leaning against were shot out. I took cover, pointed my rifle to where the shots were coming from and fired back ... Actually, I aimed at the wall next to where I thought the gunman was, a wall beside a crowd of rioters. Nobody was hurt. I was congratulated for reacting aggressively and 'correctly' under fire, and I was high with excitement, thinking I had proved myself. Yet, in shooting at the wall, my actions had been tempered by a caution of which I was ashamed, but which was far from unusual. Many soldiers unconsciously wish to avoid killing.
I loved the excitement, and became increasingly reckless. I wanted to live slightly the wrong side of civilised behaviour, while appearing to conform. I felt above the petty rules that everyone seemed slavishly to live by and not to question. I sought out intense experiences: affairs with the wrong women, riding motorbikes too fast, climbing mountains, parachuting, drinking. I was no good at fighting, though. Once I was put in a boxing ring with my best friend, in front of a battalion of 650, for an exhibition bout. The third time I was knocked down, I stayed down, unconscious.
I might have been educated by the humiliation, but I ignored its significance. I also ignored the significance of a friend shot dead in Kenya, and another who died in Bosnia when the tail rotor of his helicopter broke off. These deaths did not disturb me. I saw in them only a self-gratifying proof of my occupation as dangerous and important. Now I see the tragedy of their wasted lives, of friends who will never grow older, and I'm sad at my own insensitivity. My sense of meaning had deteriorated by adopting the tawdry aim of chalking up 'impressive' experience.
The army is not full of raging egomaniacs intent on adrenaline rushes, however. Despite its hierarchy, the army depends on friendship. When the chips are down, that's why soldiers fight: not for Queen or country, but for their mates. They learn to subordinate themselves to the team's task, and sacrifice themselves if necessary. Great emphasis is placed on loyalty, dishonesty is dealt with harshly, while conceit is punctured by ridicule. The sense of belonging is intense, and the friendships are often lifelong. Once trained and in your unit, if you toe the line the army is anything but brutal. It is incredibly supportive. Many positive qualities are cultivated, yet they are used towards ends - the application of violence - where different rules are invoked: when called upon, you do what you're told, even if it means killing or dying. This is why risky activities are encouraged: to accustom you to see your life as worth less than achieving the goal. For a young man, that is highly exciting.
Eventually I realised visceral thrills brought only limited satisfaction. I wanted to try conforming properly, have a successful career and raise my income and status. I got married to an attractive, intelligent girl but, estranged from my feelings and poor at communicating them, the marriage was doomed. So adept at committing my energies to pursuing an aim, I could not listen to my feelings to adjust or even abandon my goals. I thought that more effort, ignoring doubts and problems, would eventually bring us happiness. But no.
Then, three years ago, I read a novel by Iris Murdoch called The Sea, The Sea. In it there was a character, a British Army officer stationed in Nepal, who was a Buddhist. He seized my imagination. The introduction referred to a book called Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chogyam Trungpa. I read that, and was entranced. I saw there was more to the world than I had so far imagined. I was excited by a sense of magic and an account of reality that echoed what I had always thought and felt. Finding the Dharma brought the greatest relief imaginable.
I was surprised, when I first visited the London Buddhist Centre, to feel comfortable sitting quietly during tea breaks, with no pressure to socialise. There was a very accepting, calm atmosphere. Gradually, as I practised meditation regularly, my own calm increased and my frustration lessened. I chose more often not to be angry, in the gap that began to grow between stimuli and anger. My life slowed down; I started to appreciate the world around me. I began to recognise I had difficult feelings, that they were conditioned by the life I'd chosen, and saw that I could change them.
Shortly before I learnt to meditate, preparations had begun for the 2nd Gulf War. I was not required to deploy on it; my job was in the Ministry of Defence. My marginal role in the tragedy of that war, routine dealings with unethical defence companies and my growing interest in Buddhism, until then separate aspects my life, suddenly felt irreconcilable. After a meditation retreat I realised I was unhappy with my work, and that I'd always fought that feeling. Finally, I decided to leave the Army. The warrior ideal had long since been corrupted, but in my imagination it remained dominant. I had finally found something bigger, to recapture my imagination and inspire me to change: the Buddha. The urge to commit myself to an ideal was reinvigorated at last.
However, I am also learning to appreciate Buddhism as a way to live more fully in the moment, not something else to achieve. My relationships have improved, and my ability to communicate honestly has been tranformed by the openness of the Sangha. While I don't wish to shun my military friendships, I find I too readily resume bad habits of speech with old friends. I don't like using military slang or humour that demeans or hurts people; yet critical and offensive words come out before I realise what I'm saying.
The army has not been all bad. On a Buddhist retreat recently I saw clearly the effects of 16 years of military conditioning: I was able to work effectively in a team, cooperate, mobilise my energies easily and complete tasks efficiently. It has been a useful process to reflect on the pros and cons - to try and see it objectively, rather than dismiss a large chunk of my life as unethical. I have thoroughly explored some spiritual cul-de-sacs, and that has its benefits.
Last year I asked for ordination into the Western Buddhist Order. This represents my aspiration to devote my energies to a spiritual life. Once I've left the army, I plan to work in a team at the London Buddhist Centre - a big drop in income but a bigger gain in terms of meaningful work. My desire to practise so hard is partly about purging unhelpful acquired behaviours, and making up for lost time. Getting up at 4am to meditate for two hours, with a further hour before bed, is as good as declaring yourself insane in the army. But something is driving me to commit ever more time and energy to developing awareness.
Ironically, this urge feels similar to that which led me into the army 16 years ago. Misunderstanding it, I fixed it in my imagination and projected onto it the picture of a warrior. I'm sure many others make such an error and then unhappily follow the object of their teenage imagination until death. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to change direction, and to continue to change.