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
Strategic Mindfulness is not about ignoring how you feel or think, but rather fully accepting those internal experiences without attachment, without judgment, and without creating a story around them. In those moments when your thoughts are moving at 100 miles/hour, or your emotions seem to be getting the better of you, you want to lean into them, allow them to arise, but while maintaining a steady and present mind.
I am not going to say this will be easy. It takes practice to be able to accept how you are feeling or thinking, without labeling those thoughts as good or bad, and to continue on with the mission. This is why I advocate a progressive stress inoculation process to achieve Strategic Mindfulness for operational success.
In other words, start small, with less stress, possibly in training exercises, and practice in those moments to bring yourself back to the present. The key is no matter how you are feeling or thinking, to accept those thoughts, and continue completing the task at hand. In a way, you have to learn how to put those feelings and thinking on the back burner, while you continue operating as you have trained for.
When I teach this to operators, I ask them to do the following:
Notice: Notice when thoughts, sensations, or emotions arise in action and identify them as not helpful to the task at hand.
Breathe: Move away from whatever is holding you back in your thinking, sensations or emotions, and shift rather to inhaling deeply and exhaling completely (a topic I covered in my first article here on SOFREP). Stay with your breath!
Watch: Each time you feel your mind drift back to those unhelpful thoughts, sensations, or emotions accept them without judgment. They exist, but bring yourself back to your breath.
Repeat: Repeat the sequence as many times as needed throughout the task at hand.
I leave you with the words of the Stoic philosopher Seneca: “The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what is in Fortune’s control and abandoning what lies in yours.”
This article was written by Dr. Rodney King PhD, MA, RSME, M.ISRM. Dr. King has taught personal threat management and peak mental performance to Special Operations units, law enforcement officers, and close protection teams all over the world. You can learn more about his work on his website. You can also follow him on Twitter.