Should Mindfulness be Taught to the Military?
A few months ago, we wrote a post on whether mindfulness should be used in military (and business) settings? As we mentioned in our earlier post, the issue of using mindfulness in military settings is a reasonably hot topic at the moment because although some people – including ourselves – believe that there is no reason why mindfulness should not be taught to military or business personnel, others are of the view that because mindfulness was originally taught as a means of fostering peace and spiritual awakening, it is inappropriate to teach mindfulness to the armed forces. Since writing the above post, we have received a few emails/comments from people disagreeing with or requesting additional clarification on some of the arguments that we made. Thus, in today’s post, we revisit this topic and provide five reasons why – in our opinion – teaching mindfulness to military personnel is in keeping with Buddhist values and ideals.
- The Dharma is for everybody: The Buddhist teachings (known as the Dharma) – which include teachings on mindfulness – are universal in their application. It does not matter if a person is rich or poor, good or bad, famous or obscure, young or old, male or female, or if they purport not to have an interest in matters of a spiritual nature – the Dharma is available for everybody to benefit from. Indeed, it is not for anybody – not even the Buddha – to decide which people should be denied the spiritual teachings and which people should receive them. Each person must make that choice on an individual basis and, really and truly, the only way they can make an informed decision about whether a particular form of spiritual practice is right for them, is if they have the opportunity to try it first. Therefore, introducing military personnel to the mindfulness teachings brings people working in military settings into contact with the Dharma and gives them the opportunity to make an informed decision as to whether mindfulness is a practice they would like to integrate into their lives. This is a good thing.
- The Dharma is 100% effective for transforming suffering: The Buddhist teachings are 100% effective for uprooting the causes of suffering and for cultivating wisdom. Indeed, ithas been said by Buddhist teachers of the past that if just one word of the Buddha’s wisdom is correctly put into practice, then lasting benefit will ensue. In other words, if the Buddhist teachings – in whatever form they mayappear – are correctly taught and correctly practiced, then there is only one outcome for the practitioner – an increase in wisdom, compassion, and awareness. In the event that such qualities do not begin to manifest in theindividual, this means that either the teachings are not being taught correctly, or they are not being practiced in the right way.Thus, if a person is not being taught correctly or is not practising the Dharma properly, then no meaningful benefit will arise from their practice and they cannot be called authentic Dharma or authentic mindfulness practitioners. Therefore, as we discussed in our original post on mindfulness and the military, we don’t need to be worried about people potentially misusing the insight or abilities they accrue when practicing the Buddhist teachings – it simply can’t happen. Perhaps a better way of understanding this principle is to think of the Buddhist teachings – including the mindfulness teachings – as having a natural protection or defence mechanism. If a person comes into contact with the Dharma who is not ready to receive the teachings or who intends to use them for selfish or negative purposes, their wrong intention will prevent the teachings from taking root within their being. In fact, all that they will receive will be a theoretical and superficial account of the teachings – and even this won’t be properly understood. Of course, one might argue that with this newly-accumulated theoretical knowledge military personnel may play a part in passing on wrong information or a watered-down version of the Buddhist teachings from one person to another. However, given that there are a lot of (so-called) Buddhist and mindfulness teachers already doing this, then we don’t see why the military should be targeted for criticism over and above anybody else.
- Wise and compassionate military leaders are better than mindless ones: In one of the sets of feedback that we received on our original post on this subject, a person commented that “My take is that they [people in the military] should resign and renounce their military affiliations.” Although there is nothing greater we would like than to live in a world where there is no need for countries to have armed forces, unfortunately, this is not the world wecurrently live in. Indeed, if a country decided to disband its armed forces, then because of peoples’ greed and ignorance, thelikelyhood is that the country in question would be subject to invasion from other armed forces, attacks from terrorist groups, and/or a greater amount of civil unrest and rioting. Therefore, if we are going to teach the Dharma, then we have to do so in a way that is realistic, up-to-date, and relevant to the world that we live in. To propose that anybody in the military who wants to live an ethically and morally wholesome life (which in most countries probably includes the overwhelming majority of military personnel) simply resigns their post is not a realistic suggestion and would jeopardise the safety and wellbeing of countless people across the globe.Therefore, a much more pragmatic solution is to have soldiers and military leaders that practice spiritual development and who execute their role with wisdom and loving-kindness for all beings. In fact, if all military personnel who aspire to live a good life and to be good world citizens were to resign from the military, then we think there would be much more conflict and acts of military brutality than there already are. To explain this idea in a different way, we would like to share with you a discussion we had this morning with a young Sri Lankan man who has been assigned by the community we are staying with at the moment to use a sling shot to keep the crows away from washing and feeding in the clean water. We noticed the young man was looking very sad and so we decided to ask him what was upsetting him. He responded by saying that he was upset because the job he had been assigned meant that he could not uphold his Buddhist vows because he was constantly firing stones at the passing crows. We asked the young man how many crows he had actually hit since he took up his post. He said that to his knowledge, he hadn’t actually hit a single crow because he always aims for roof tops or for a branch of a tree so that the birds fly away when they hear the noise. We then asked the man if everybody assigned to do this task does the same thing as him or if some people actually try to hit the birds. The young man responded by explaining that there are some young men in the village who take great pleasure in hitting the crows and who even have competitions with each other to see who can hit or kill the most birds in one day. After hearing this we suggested to the young man that he was actually conducting his role with great compassion and wisdom because on the one hand, he was performing his job effectively by protecting the water from dirt and disease, but at the same time he was preventing other people from causing harm to sentient beings. On hearing this the young man gave the most beautiful smile and happiness returned to his face.In a world where there is lots of greed, negativity and extreme views, it seems that some kind of armed force is essential for acting as a deterrent and for maintaining a relative amount of peace and wellbeing. However, it is definitely possible for military leaders to apply wisdom and compassion in the way in which they conduct their roles and to do their best to find peaceful resolutions to conflicts. For such military leaders, the use of weaponry would be kept to an absolute minimum and weaponry would be used only after all other options had been exhausted. You see, it is all very well saying that under no circumstances must a person take another person’s life, but from time to time situations arise that mean such an approach is not realistic. One obvious example would be eliminating the threat caused by a terrorist who was about to set off a bomb in order to cause harm to hundreds of people. In our opinion, if there was no way to capture and disarm the terrorist without causing them harm, then in the interests of preserving life, it would be acceptable and in keeping with Buddhist values to take defensive action in order to eliminate the threat to many others. The difference is that the mindful or Buddhist practitioner would do so with the greatest amount of love and compassion for the terrorist and would understand that it is ignorance that has led them to such extremist behaviour.
- Military personnel often make good Dharma practitioners: Some of the most sincere mindfulness/Dharma practitioners that we have come across have been people with a military background. We are not 100% sure why some people with a military background take very well to the practice of mindfulness but we believe individuals that have completed military service in hostile areas seem to better understand just how harsh and unpredictable life can be. The process of having first-hand experience of death and suffering can sometimes jolt a person out of selfishness and of taking everything for granted. Indeed, here in the West, most people enjoy a privileged lifestyle and do not have to worry about finding food, shelter, or medicine. Despite this, many people in developed countries take their situation for granted and spend all of their time complaining about things or being bigoted and passing judgement on others. Depending on the person and on where they have completed active service, working in the armed forces can sometimes shake a person out of this selfish attitude and cause them to become disillusioned with the soap opera that a large number of civilians choose to adopt as their way of life.
- Research supports the use of mindfulness for military personnel: The use of mindfulness in military settings is supported by two different areas of mindfulness research (see further reading list below for examples of studies). The first area is research demonstrating that mindfulness actually helps people to become more compassionate (both for themselves and for others) and to grow in spiritual insight. The second area is research that has been specifically conducted with military personnel and demonstrates that mindfulness both prevents and helps individuals recover from psychological distress.
We hope the above helps to clarify why we cautiously advocate the responsible integration of mindfulness into military settings. However, we appreciate that this is quite a sensitive topic and that not everybody will share our view.
Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon
Le, T. N. (2014). Mindfulness-Based Adventure Camp for military youth. Journal of Extension, 52, Article No. 2FEA5.
Rice, V., Boykin, G., Jeter, A., Villarreal, J., Overby, C., & Alfred, P. (2013). The Relationship between mindfulness and resiliency among active duty service members and military veterans. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting, 57, 11387-1391.
Stanley, E.A., Schaldach, J. M., Kiyonaga, A., & Jha, A. P. (2011). Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training: A case study of a high-stress predeployment military cohort. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 18, 566-576.
Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths M. D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for improved psychological wellbeing: A qualitative examination of participant experiences. Journal of Religion and Health, 53, 849-863.
Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Managers’ experiences of Meditation Awareness Training. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-014-0334-y.
Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Loving-kindness and compassion meditation in psychotherapy. Thresholds: Quarterly Journal of the Association for Pastoral and Spiritual Care and Counselling (A Journal of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy), Spring Issue, 9-12.
Trousselard, M., Steiler, D., Claverie, D., & Canini, F. (2012). Relationship between mindfulness and psychological adjustment in soldiers according to their confrontation with repeated deployments and stressors. Psychology, 3, 100-115.
Williams, M. J., McManus, F., Muse, K., & Williams, J. M. (2011). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for severe health anxiety (hypochondriasis): An interpretative phenomenological analysis of patients’ experiences. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 50, 379-97.
Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.
Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.
Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.
Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.
Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107.