Mindfulness is all the rage right now. Yet, the idea of being mindful — the ability to be fully present — is not a new concept in the warrior culture.

As Togo Shigekata, who was a samurai from the Satsuma domain, noted, “One finds life through conquering the fear of death within one’s mind. Empty the mind of all forms of attachment, make a go-for-broke charge, and conquer the opponent with one decisive slash.”

Here, Shigekata’s reference to emptying the mind to all forms of attachment is the articulation of being mindful in the moment of combat. Mindfulness then can offer operators the ability to tune out that internal noise, to learn not to attach to inner narratives that are less than desirable, and re-steady the mind to the task at hand. I call this Strategic Mindfulness.

It is clear that planning for what lies ahead, or reflecting on past errors to avoid making the same mistakes again is key to any mission’s success. But in that very moment when a decision needs to not only be made but executed, strategically having the ability to turn on “being mindful,” can mean the difference between life or death.

The Fight with Internal Dialogue

Making life or death decisions will invariably bring up all kinds of thoughts, emotions, and sensations. It is this that Shigekata alludes to when he uses the word “attachment.” That is to say, in that very moment of decisive action we are often our very own worst enemy. Any attachment to the frustration, anger, fear, and self-doubt you feel in that moment of high stress, can be the very thing that destroys your success.

If you attach to the way you are thinking or feeling — especially when these are uncomfortable — your focus will naturally shift to those experiences. Not only do you then move away from what is really happening at that moment, but crucially you may end up believing how you are feeling or thinking. As Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD, Stoic philosopher, and all-round badass noted: “Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, or the human spirit is colored by such impressions.”

Deploying Strategic Mindfulness