Sunday, 23 May 2010

Mindfulness in the Military

One of the great advantages of mindfulness training is its capacity to help in almost any situation - as Michael Chaskalson puts it: "Is there anything worth doing that wouldn't go better if you practised mindfulness?" Relationships, work, studying, sport, or appreciating beauty - all are enhanced if we can pay genuine attention...

So what about war? A new study is being used to suggest that mindfulness training could help soldiers cope better during the stress of combat. The study found that the training improved US Marines' emotional regulation and working memory, and that mood, problem-solving abilities and emotional control all got better the more they practised mindfulness techniques.

Of course, one interpretation of this is that mindfulness might enable soldiers to manage difficult situations more reflectively - leading to less violence and suffering. Mindfulness has already been shown to be useful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, common among soldiers returning from war zones. But one of the dangers of studying mindfulness in isolation - stripped of ethics - is that its capacity for training attention, improving decision-making and regulating emotion will be used for unethical ends. I'm reminded of a story told by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche about a man who thought he was being especially mindful when paying attention to shooting wildlife for sport. Historically, mindfulness - at least in its buddhist context - has been closely allied to ethics. It is meant to be practised within a framework of compassion and gentleness. Of course, gentleness and compassion are qualities it may be possible to cultivate and practice in a military context too, but there is a clear danger that unscrupulous aggressors could use mindfulness training to pursue selfish, murderous ends.

As the power of mindfulness practice becomes more widely known, we can expect it to be taken up in all kinds of contexts, and the danger will be that its power will be misused. And unless we are also willing to train in kindness and compassion, perhaps that misuse is inevitable?

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