An Ojo Sarco meditation center offers free retreats to women veterans with PTSD

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Active service in the United States military brings unique benefits and challenges. But the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs acknowledges that a major challenge is increasingly evident after service - and that is the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for many veterans.

Post-traumatic stress is insidious. It can result from any shocking and dangerous event. Certainly, serving in combat and witnessing fatalities top the list of PTSD causes. But another trauma is slowly gaining more exposure: being a victim to military sexual assault. For women veterans in particular, the statistics are grim. Nearly 25 percent of women reported sexual assault when in the military, according to the VA.

In the midst of this darkness, however, a small meditation retreat in the tiny village of Ojo Sarco is emerging as a shining light of healing.

Mountain Gate-Sanmonji is a retreat center that offers Regaining Balance, a free program for women veterans diagnosed with PTSD and for women partnered with veterans who suffer from PTSD. Over the course of five days, female veterans learn how to meditate as a means to treat any symptoms of post-traumatic stress that may arise.

All interested people must first download an application from regainingbalance.org. The application requires signatures from authorized health care providers.

Although Mountain Gate is a Zen Buddhist community, its founder, Mitra Bishop Roshi, pointed out, "We are nonsectarian. The meditation room does not have a Buddha in it. This program is about the women who are returning. We are not trying to turn them into little Zen folks."

In the Regaining Balance program, women veterans are taught a breath practice to help them with grounding. Some journaling and nature walks are involved, but Mountain Gate is not a therapy environment.

"We teach them focusing. We start with the out breath. We teach them to tune into the energy they are trying to escape from, but not to get caught in the trauma of that experience. It dissipates," said Bishop.

Veteran U.S. Air Force member Erin Basta agreed. "I really appreciate what they did for me, teaching me the extended breath meditation. You are sitting in a still position, but your eyes are open, so you can use these techniques in your waking life if you're exposed to a situation where you need to calm yourself," she said.

Basta attended the Regaining Balance program in July 2016 with a relatively recent diagnosis of PTSD. When asked about her prior experience with meditation, she said, "None. I'd never done any mediation before."

Basta, who lives with her husband in Santa Fe and works as an independent contractor, found that Mountain Gate's application was "really quite a smooth process. I immediately received an email that they received it. I am qualified and I am scheduled to attend."

The location of Mountain Gate is a big part of the "retreat" factor for this meditation center. Nestled within the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the village of Ojo Sarco has an air of timelessness that draws one's attention to the present moment.

"There's no other program like ours," said Bishop. "We are in a unique environment of real peace. We are teaching these women tools to help de-stress themselves. Most women say to us, 'I came because it's small.'"

Bishop acknowledged the tranquility of the Mountain Gate property. She was ordained a Zen priest in 1986. After intensive meditation practice in Japan, she returned to Northern New Mexico. "This particular piece of land had been calling. When my father's will was probated in 1996, I had enough money for this land. There are approximately 10 acres," she said.

With a background in architecture, Bishop drew up the design, got the permits and built the "zendo" (the meditation room) with adobe walls. Recalling the memory of the initial build period, Bishop says, "We didn't get the roof planking up before the snows came. So we raised the meditation cushions onto a platform. That way, when we were meditating, we could avoid sitting in the snow and mud."

The zendo has long had a good roof, but the meditation cushions remain raised on a platform to this day, likely as a reminder of the zendo's humble beginnings.

Indeed, the overall space is simple, but what Bishop and her colleagues, Shannon Sharkey and Caroline LeBlanc, are doing for female veterans is akin to moving mountains.

"This is a small drop in the bucket of a great need," said Bishop.

Because of Mountain Gate's small size, the Regaining Balance program is presently limited to four participants. Bishop is actively raising money to build an upstairs addition that can welcome more women to the retreat. "We've been at this addition for three years," said Bishop. "It's all based on donations, so it might be a few more years."

To download an application form or make a tax-deductible donation, visit regainingbalance.org.

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