Marine veteran Akshay Nanavati wants veterans, both those who faced combat or simply the rigors of military life, to reframe their relationship to fear.
Despite the many challenges each veteran might face first in the military service and later in adjusting to a new post-military life, the specter of fear shouldn’t slow them down, least of all make them a victim, he says.
That’s in part why Nanavati, an Iraq War veteran, dragged sleds across frozen landscapes, ran ultramarathons, climbed mountains in the Himalayas and researched his way through answers to combat his own post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.
Nanavati wrote the book “Fearvana: The Revolutionary Science of How to Turn Fear into Health, Wealth and Happiness,” which chronicles his own journey through trauma and tools he now shows others how to use to overcome their own struggles.
The book includes some of his story but also guided exercises and techniques for facing fear and using lessons from stoic philosophy, psychology, mindfulness and other traditions.
While in high school, he knew he wanted to join the military. But he had his troubles. The young man clawed his way through a severe drug and alcohol addiction before cleaning up and joining the Corps.
The speaker, author and adventurer talked recently with Marine Corps Times about his post-military life, writing and what he hopes fellow veterans might learn from his experience.
Editor’s mote: The below Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What should readers know about your background, time in the Marines and what led you to your work now?
A: While in high school I saw the movie “Black Hawk Down” and decided I wanted to join the military.
I admired camaraderie and level of sacrifice shown by Delta operators Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randy Shughart, both awarded the Medal of Honor, and who gave their lives when they demanded to drop in from the helicopter where they were providing sniper cover to assist downed pilot Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant.
Once I finished training and was assigned to 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, I volunteered every time I could for a combat deployment. Nearly three years later, in 2007, I went to Iraq. One job I had was to walk ahead of vehicle convoys looking for improvised explosive devices.
During at least one patrol we drove over an IED that didn’t go off. But a friend and fellow Marine did die from another IED blast. A combination of experiences in theater and my friend’s death sent me spiraling after I came home.
“Ever since coming home from Iraq, I have struggled with the belief that I did not do enough in the war, that I should have died out there,” Nanavati wrote in “Fearvana.”
I created “Fearvana” as a response to our mistaken beliefs about the value of fear and its counterparts stress and anxiety. The concepts of fear and nirvana are like a yin and yang relationship, by brining them together we become the greatest version of ourselves.
Q: What are some tips you would offer to readers about handling fear or stress appropriately?
A: I worked with a veteran from my unit who was dealing with a lot of anger issues.
The therapist told the veteran that anger was a choice. Anger’s not a choice, it is a condition. The brain builds a pattern. You can use a basic mindfulness practice. The next time something happens, pause and label the anger. Don’t try to fight it, make it go away.
When you’re suffering from anger or anything else happens, ask yourself a question, “What can I learn from this? How is this beautiful?” You will start reframing how you relate to suffering. It’s as simple as standing in line to get coffee and getting impatient. Ask, what am I feeling right now?
Q: The military culture is very assertive and aggressive. Have you gotten pushback when speaking to veterans, military members or military audiences?
A: Sometimes Marines think this is soft, woo-woo. Well, you can do what you’ve always done and you’re going to keep getting what you’ve always gotten. You can keep thinking this is bullshit or you can try it for yourself. Try it, if it doesn’t work, what have you lost? Be willing to explore new paths.
I’ve been there, I do this stuff, I haven’t just done it in the past. I’m still doing it. Not to demonize feelings, it’s okay if you feel doubt. But you don’t have to allow doubt to define you. I have post-traumatic stress. That does not mean it’s a disorder. It’s about being okay with what shows up as a result of that stress, that experience, but not being defined by what shows up. I use mantras a lot, little phrases that anchor. For example, “Be with what is but do not be defined by what is.” And, “Be with the pain but do not be defined by the pain.”
Q: You’ve had a lot of experience and done a lot of work. But you’re not a licensed therapist. What would you say to people who might be critical of that?
A: I’m not here to insult education.
I’ve worked with therapists. I’m blessed to have experienced the edges, but there is knowledge from learning and wisdom from experience.
Would you rather learn business from someone who’s studied business or someone who’s run a multimillion dollar business? I’ve read hundreds of books on these topics. I could go to school and choose to get a degree in one of these subjects. But true knowledge comes from the battleground of life, provides a depth of wisdom. Real wisdom comes from experience.
Q: How do you see your post-military life and the work you’re doing now?
A: My belief about the world is that it is a playground and we have this opportunity to live this grand adventure. That is the human experience. And the suffering is a part of the adventure. The darkness is part of the adventure.
But I see myself as an unstoppable beast who will accomplish anything. I set my target, anything I set my mind to and do it to be of service to others and to help share the wisdom I’ve gained in service of others. And if you can learn to find bliss, even in the face of suffering, inevitably you will live a more blissful life.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.