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Making Better Warfighters Through Meditation??

26 Jul

Hello again.

Last week I was in San Antonio, helping out with some resilience training with the Army PRT’s (professional resilience trainers) who are assigned to various Army hospitals, tasked with keeping health care staff from burning out from the stress of dealing with severe injuries and profound emotional distress. Hats off to them, the providers they serve and of course, most of all, to the patients.

I was there to demonstrate the how’s and why’s of guided imagery, and hopefully I made a decent case for its use.  It was a very impressive and mixed group - some had backgrounds in health or mental health; others were more from the warrior mold - former special ops, rangers, snipers, bomb dismantlers - and some were from both worlds.  They came from as far away as Korea and Germany; and from Fort Hood, Ft. Stewart, Ft. Bliss, Ft. Sam Houston, Ft. Bragg… I can’t remember all of them.

I got to pick their brains during breaks, and this was really useful.  One of the objections I’ve heard over the years to introducing guided imagery downrange was that soldiers couldn’t afford to relax.  It was dangerous and not in their best interest, because they’d be more vulnerable to attack. And furthermore, they wouldn’t do it anyway.  That’s the common wisdom, in any case.

Yet, one of the points these former warfighters expressed again and again was about the need for calm focus and relaxation downrange - and not just for the sake of a soldier’s long-term mental health (which is the way I tend to think about it), but to help them be more effective as warriors as well.  

One man told me it was a myth that soldiers had to stay all worked up and ferociously angry at the enemy in order to get the job done.  He’d been, among other things, a sniper in Iraq, and what he’d needed was a kind of calm, detached focus - similar to an athlete’s state of flow - where he was very present, able to spot movement that indicated danger to his cohort, and where he could be so calm and emotionally detached, that his hands were steady as a rock.

I heard the same thing from a former bomb de-fuser - the critical importance of putting himself in an emotionally detached, calm but hyper-alert and high-performance state of mind.  I’d never thought of dismantling a bomb as being a kind of ultimate meditation, but, there you have it - of course it is.  

My Brecksville, Ohio veteran pals from Vietnam used to say the same thing about reconnaissance and walking point, come to think of it.

Another reminded me that the great Chinese martial arts began with meditative stillness.  He’d studied as many ancient traditions as he could find, because he felt they had great relevance and much to teach him.  There’s everything from a Buddhist meditative archery practice out of Japan; to warrior practices from India - many of which evolved into the Chinese traditions; ancient Celtic meditative practices; various African martial art forms; and the meditative training from ancient Greece.  In other words, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, or to think that the cultivation of calm, detached focus as something radically new that we’re introducing in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I guess the key is to put it in the context of these ancient martial traditions. (A volunteer organization called Warrior Mind Training does this already.)

Anyway, it’s something to think about.  Your comments are welcome, as always.

All best,

Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award