Strategic Serenity: Mindfulness & the Military
In ancient Chinese philosophy, the concept of yin-yang represented the idea that two opposite characteristics can exist in harmony. Yin symbolizes darkness, passivity, and the earth. Yang represents light, activity, and the heavens. Together, they convey how interconnected opposites can be and how the balance of both creates health and order in each individual, their society, and the universe as a whole. According to these principles, the relationship between yin and yang has created everything we know. These dual forces may seem to be in opposition, but in reality, they are complementary.
Our armed forces breed peacekeepers and fighters, and our country’s freedom depends on this delicate balance. In traditional yin-yang imagery, there is a spot of black in a sea of solid white, and vice versa. This symbolizes how everything contains a seed of its opposite. In a similar fashion, we use combat to instill peace. We must allow ourselves to be vulnerable to demonstrate true courage.
The Second Continental Congress founded the United States Army in 1775. These soldiers sought to protect the freedom of the first 13 colonies. The U.S. armed forces have spread into 6 service branches, and have evolved to become the world’s most powerful military presence. They have fought for freedom and served the American people throughout our darkest times, forging our nation's unity and identity.
George Washington presented a policy of “peace through strength,” a sentiment that was reiterated by many powerful leaders throughout U.S. history, including Ronald Reagan. Reagan advocated for negotiation with the Soviet Union to thwart the global spread of communism. He believed strengthening our military and preparing for a crisis could yield a positive outcome. He believed our prosperity depended on our ability to fight.
Time and time again, we’ve relied on U.S. soldiers to defend our fundamental rights. The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal” and are entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In order to construct a world where this is possible, sacrifices must be made. Soldiers dedicate their lives and livelihoods to the greater good. But, as we all know, you can’t pour from an empty cup. We must replenish our resources in order to serve others.
Leading by Example
Vince Lombardi once said “Leaders are made; they are not born. They are made by hard effort, which is the price which all of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.” The U.S. military relies on the strength of its soldiers, whose health and resilience are critical components of its power. Soldiers go through tactical, technical, physical, and leadership training, fine-tuning their bodies and minds to endure the challenges of service and combat.
While meditation may seem like a far cry from common military training tactics, their interconnectedness is much like the yin-yang theory. To face opposition with bravery and skill, soldiers must be psychologically prepared to face dangerous, high-performance, high-stress situations. They must demonstrate clarity, poise, and cognitive resilience in order to think on their feet. They must be fully present in each moment, free of anxiety, fear, and self-doubt.
Pema Chodron, an American Tibetan Buddhist author, once said “You are the sky. Everything else - it’s just the weather.” If this sentiment is true, it means it is possible to find powerful tranquility within ourselves regardless of circumstance. For those who are subjected to some of the harshest realities, the ability to transcend our fears, emotions, and perceived shortcomings are nothing short of a superpower.
In the military, mindfulness training can enhance impulse control and the ability to function in stressful situations. Meditation can lower blood pressure, encourage relaxation, improve sleep, and make you more alert and focused. The psychological benefits are undeniably relevant for soldiers who are departing all they know and love and to enter potentially hostile circumstances. As George Washington once said, “Discipline is the soul of an army.” We must practice being our strongest, wisest selves day in and day out.
Mindful meditation teaches skills for self-regulation and can help manage moods, memories, emotions, and even physical sensations. Soldiers on active duty often face multiple deployments where they are repeatedly exposed to trauma and violence and are removed from their families and other support systems. Meditation can serve as a critical resource for soldiers, both at home and overseas, providing a daily reprieve from their activities to replenish their resources.
A consistent mindfulness practice can help to decrease activity in the fight-or-flight part of your brain called the amygdala, while increasing the activity in your prefrontal cortex, which controls awareness, concentration, and decision-making. This can help you exhibit greater control so you are less reactive and more intentional. Meditation can actually change your brain, putting you in the driver's seat of your life no matter what your circumstances may be.
Finding tranquility and clarity no matter where you are is an asset any soldier can benefit from. It is neither time-consuming nor rigorous to develop a mindfulness practice and is even safe if you are recovering from an injury. Whether you’re at home or abroad, practicing these skills can help soldiers develop a “mental armor” and what Lieutenant General Xaxier T. Brunson calls "spiritual readiness" that can help them withstand challenges.
Supporting our Veterans
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 7-8% of the general population and 11-20% of soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder each year. PTSD is a mental health issue that people can develop when they are exposed to violence or trauma. While most people exhibit stress symptoms that lessen over time, for some, these strong feelings and reactions continue and can begin to disrupt their daily lives.
Clinical psychologist Autumn Gallegos, an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and licensed clinical psychologist explains that someone with PTSD will continue to experience a traumatic event that has passed as if it is still happening. “The body will react as if it’s in danger,” perpetuating stress symptoms and overshadowing present circumstances.
Experts estimate that between that up to a third of combat veterans suffer from either PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), anxiety, or depression. While meditation by itself isn’t considered a treatment for these mental health disorders, when used along with a clinically advised program, it can be extremely beneficial.
Shaili Jain, MD, a psychiatrist at the VA Palo Alto Health System in California who is affiliated with the National Center for PTSD says “My patients who practice meditation and other kinds of mindfulness practices frequently report less irritability, less anger, and more of a sense of control. They can slow down their reactions and be a bit more present and mindful rather than reactive.” Meditation not only subdues their symptoms; it can alter the content of their thoughts and the course of their lives.
PTSD affects more than 6 million Americans, but has only been labeled and diagnosed since 1980. It is an increasingly common diagnosis within the military community, due to emerging mental health research, resources, and treatment options. While many of these disorders are highly treatable, we are only beginning to overcome the stigma that keeps many veterans from getting the support they need.
Help is out there. Meditation can be a group or solitary practice. Tools like Zenimal help adults find their path to contentment regardless of their pain or their past. With patience and persistence, mindfulness can inspire deep healing. Perhaps, after years of fighting and self-sacrifice, our veterans can find within themselves the freedom they fought for. The freedom to find within themselves a serene and spacious sky, no matter what the weather calls for.
Fighting the Good Fight
In her book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, author Anne Lamott says “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace--only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us. It can be received gladly or grudgingly, in big gulps or in tiny tastes.” In other words, healing takes place in the present. It doesn’t discriminate or alienate. It is available to us all.
Sometimes the quest for peace is a battle, as contradictory as that may sound. Our brave American soldiers know this and fight for this. The truth is always available to us, and it is complete, the black and the white coexisting as one. The individual, their society, and the universe as a whole are irrefutably interconnected. If you can find a morsel of peace in one, you can find it in them all.
How can we best honor and support members of our armed forces? Perhaps we can all do what we can to cultivate our own inner peace. We can fight for what they fight for - freedom. We can honor ourselves and each other by cultivating empathy, gratitude, and positivity. We can give them a world worth fighting for.
To thank our armed forces for their service, we've partnered with GovX to offer a discount on our products. It is eligible for current and former U.S. military and their spouses and dependents. You can learn more here. May we all do our part to inspire and uplift ourselves and each other, one breath at a time.