After a lecture by Tibetan Khenpo, Tsultrim Lodro, a question was asked by an upset Buddhist about the appropriation of mindfulness teachings by the military – specifically the use of breathing techniques by snipers. His answer was that soldiers in battle are suffering as much as anyone who’s in need of compassionate skills. The intro to Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper delves into taking of a life as an impossible decision for another mortal to make. Iraq veteran Garett Reppenhagen is a fine example of those who squeeze the trigger and the burden they carry as a result. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is concerned that mindfulness used for a performance advantage has failed to adopt the fundamental truth of ‘drenpa’, or literally – memory. In ‘Beyond Religion’, it’s “the ability to gather oneself mentally and thereby recall one’s core values and motivation”.
The Western cherry-pick of this single-pointed focused practice but neglect of greater understanding requires a deeper examination of mindfulness, presented here as a reflection on July anniversaries of civilian aircraft downed by the military. MH-17 over the Ukraine being a repeat of an event lost from our memories. On July 3rd in 1988 a Ticonderoga class cruiser, still today the most advanced warship in the US fleet, fired missiles at Iranian airbus flight 655 killing all 290 onboard. Identify Friend or Foe civilan aircraft radar squawks were ignored by combat system operators who tracked the takeoff (on a commercial schedule), acquired the target, and the Commanding Officer approved the warfare officer’s request to engage.
Mindful techniques require introspection, using the stillness of a calm mind to examine within. CAPT Rogers, with his degree in Psychology should have been able to reflect upon his feelings of anticipating being celebrated as war heroes on the morrow, American Independence Day. This delusion of being under threat could hardly receive adequate attention in that heated moment (imagine “stand down from Action Stations, Skip’s gone to meditate”!), but rather needs longterm cultivation of self-awareness as a practice. Recognition of unhelpful emotional states whilst observing bodily senses assists in overcoming instinct or temptation. The fight & flight response which results from amygdala hijack of the rational higher brain is an evolutionary necessity which becomes catastrophic when in command of a warship. An agitated sympathetic nervous system is clearly manifest in vital signs of accelerated breathing and pounding heart, however monitoring of self by looking within is an acquired skill. Vidyamala Burch’s coursebook ”Mindfulness for Health’ describes misattribution of arousal as “because thoughts, physical sensations, and emotions are all intimately connected.” Freud misled psychologists by proposing that id and super-ego are discrete entities balancing instinctive and moral behavior, and physicians take the disconnect even further. Responsibilities end with referral for psych treatment. Mind-body interventions are considered to be a type of approach that falls under the umbrella of complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM), which also includes manipulative therapies and herbal products. Repeat, CAM supporters theorise that mind, body and behaviour are all interconnected, and incorporate strategies that are thought to improve psychological and physical well-being, and aims to allow patients to take an active role in etheir treatment. This is considered ‘alternative’?
William James 1884 article in ‘Mind’ laid the groundwork for what’s now groundbreaking discoveries in interoception, or reciprocal bodily & emotive interplay. It’s still early days, while psychiatrists grapple with implications of anxious rats having had irritable bowels. A reprint of med student textbooks will have to wait awhile yet, but Eastern philosophies are ahead of the science here. Mindfulness as defined today relies upon non-judgemental attention to the present moment, which is good. Further teachings * from His Holiness the Dalai Lama introduce an emphasis on remembering, holding in mind an awareness of oneself: “Mindfulness is the ability to gather oneself mentally and thereby recall one’s core values and motivation…. With such recollection we are less likely to indulge our bad habits and more likely to refrain from harmful deeds” . Recalling insights obtained from meditation is the only way to form new memories, otherwise the same old patterns of behavior will result in a life of Groundhog Day replays. The pragmatic psychologist remains value-free but to do so is an ‘ethical dementia’, to quote Buddhist monk Alan Wallace. Selectively deciding which of those among our clutter of feelings are wholesome takes judgement, based on a set of values. Accept the whole, simply being what it is. Recognise the good, and nurture it. In this way self-esteem is protected, and being attentive to emotions will notice those leading to dire consequences. The ancient Pali word sati means recollection, holding in mind. Being mindful.
*Beyond Religion pg 109