In the beginning of 2013, a French journalist was captured in Syria and held for ninety days before being rescued by an opposition group opposed to an opposition group that was opposed to another opposition group in an ideological hall of mirrors. Most of the time shackled and threatened with death, but for the last stretch allowed to wander in a secured yard, the now freed journalist was asked how he maintained his sanity -- or if he maintained his sanity for that matter.
While more American soldiers commit suicide than those killed in battle in Iraq or Afghanistan, this European did not endure the horrors of post-traumatic stress, although he would have been perfectly entitled to it. Instead, he appeared quite normal, although he did admit that he would decline an offer for the same assignment again simply because he might be recognized as that guy who got away. Prudent fellow. But what was the key to his sanctuary of sanity?
Speaking in a matter of fact tone, he revealed his sleight of mind trick. Directing his thoughts to completely forget his past life, which included a wife and three young children, he told himself that this life of captivity was the only one he had or might ever have stretching down the path of uncertainty. With this radical acceptance of the "what is," his reward was a stable mind that escaped the mental torture such an ordeal might hold.
This chap didn't boast decades of Zen meditation or an unshakeable faith in Jesus, or a knowing that the Almighty was with him all the way. While he might have been coy in not revealing a private stash of spiritual tools, his survival strategy revealed a truth about basic awareness and how it functions: be in the moment unabashedly, at one with the experiential reality. Resistance to the "what is" by dwelling in the past with all its concomitant guilt, shame, blame, joy, regrets or what ifs -- or imagining a fearsome future replete with unimaginable horrors -- is a recipe for mental torment that can get one into deep shit. Shoveling oneself out of that stinking pit could be so unpleasant that a nice snort of heroine, an endlessly renewable script for Oxycontin, or a fifth of Johnnie Walker might seem a more pleasant alternative. Truth be told, those strategies more resemble quicksand than the perceived quick fix.
The Sufi saying, "Trust in God but tie your camel first" could be applied to one's own thoughts as well as a camel, goat, horse, or human prisoner. Ephemeral as they may be, thoughts are the ties that bind us, and freedom from extraneous mental baggage is a key to sanity -- if not a deep knowing that crowns consciousness.