Abbot's Journal, Vol 67, February 11/12, 2009

by Norman Fischer | May 05, 2009 at 1:06 PM

February 11/12, 2009
En Route: IAD to SFO

... was in Washington for a Mindfulness "summit meeting" with the U.S. Army and assorted others, sponsored and organized by Mirabai for Contemplative Mind in Society. To explain what mindfulness is, report on mindfulness research, talk about how mindfulness training might be of use to the army. The event is in part a preparation for the retreat for army chaplains and caregivers I am to give (that has been scheduled and postponed twice now). The army people seemed pretty decent open-heated and open-minded people. I was impressed with them.

Met Liz Stanley, a very smart and dynamic woman, soulful and passionate about her work with mindfulness training. She comes from a long line of army people, and was herself in military intelligence for years, served in Bosnia in the 1990's. Her service there somehow (in her presentation she didn't say how, but she cried, or nearly did, when she referred to it) activated an old pre-existing trauma (she didn't say what it was) and this caused her to exhibit symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and she more or less fell apart. Meditation practice saved her life, she said, and she eventually became a committed practitioner, even going to ordain temporarily in Burma. She left the army and is now on the Intelligence Faculty at George Washington University, and trains soldiers in mindfulness to prepare them for deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is one of the people I seem to encounter from time to time, with some frequency - people with whom there's immediate trust, rapport, and affection, as if we had known each other for a long time, and can rely on each other completely. She came up to my room to say good-bye near the end of the conference, and we had a conversation in the hallway, private conversation otherwise being difficult in the hubub of the event. I knew she would be straight with me so I asked her, Is it a good idea to train soldiers in mindfulness? Soldiers who are going into the field and will face the possibility of taking life. Mindfulness is not value free, not merely "performance enhancing." Real mindfulness will make you sensitive to others and reluctant to cause harm. Isn't this a dangerous thing for soldiers? She agreed that mindfulness would make soldiers much more empathetic, and that it would be much more difficult for them to kill, but said that this was in fact her desire. She said that most of the killing that goes on now in the armed forces is unnecessary and counterproductive - the angry or anxious soldier who shoots a civilian in a panic. These are the soldiers who return home tortured by guilt over what they have done. Nor do their actions serve the mission in Iraq, where strategy has shifted from conventional warfare - kill the bad guys - to counter-insurgency, which, she said, turns on protection and trust building, not gratuitous killing. So the personal skills needed now in the army are balance, calmness, empathy, emotional intelligence, discernment, much more than brutality, emotional distancing, obedience to orders, reliance on weapons. (The army is very good with technology and weapons, she said, and has the world's best physical armor, for which they pay handsomely; in comparison, very little is invested in effective training for the softer more subtle and now more necessary psychological skills; this is why she calls her program "mental armor"). I asked her whether the army brass sees it this way too, and she said that among those who've served five to fifteen years (that is, up to the rank of colonel) yes, most do. Beyond this (higher rank, longer service) some do, some don't. General Petraeus does, as does the man who's currently serving as Deputy Commander of the Joint Chiefs. So we can expect a change in army culture coming in the near future. Later when I spoke at a smaller meeting with other army guys about this, they agreed with what Liz had said, and added that some of the more conservative officers worried that if the army mission and culture shifts in these ways, it may be unprepared in the event that things shift again back to conventional warfare. So they are wary of it.

The confusing army bureaucracy so Byzantine you literally can't understand the army people when they talk about it (they use a dazzling array of acronyms and refer to arcane procedures that have no analogue in civilian life), seems daunting and even comical. What's comical is that they all take it so seriously and seem not to see the absurdity of it (as in "Catch-22" which Heller once said was less a comedic exaggeration than a more or less straight-forward reporting of fact).

Long discussion on the "design" of the "studies" that are to come out of the retreats that we will do - as well as reports of the various studies that have already been done on the effects of meditation on the brain and on performance. All in power point slide presentations, coin of the realm (which made my brief talk and low-tech demonstration of mindfulness - "be aware of your feet right now; of your back, of your breath..." - very odd by comparison). Cliff Saron, an old-time India pal of Mirabai's - whom she hadn't seen in 30 years - came to report on his extensive multi-tiered, multi-yeared, ongoing study called the Shamatha Project, a massive, complicated study of many aspects of mindfulness's effects, going on now for several years already, at a cost of millions. All this to prove that meditation is good for you, makes you calmer, more empathetic, more compassionate, more focused, etc. Cliff is very smart and can endlessly discuss the technical and theoretical ins and out of such studies. One evening he and Joel Finkelstein had such a discussion. Joel, who works for the Stanford Compassion Project, had been involved with the work at Google I've been doing before moving to Stanford, and is training to be a cognitive scientist himself. Joel's hyper-smart and was rattling on with great passion about his upcoming paper that will show how the brain literally functions using the medium of light, that consciousness is light. Cliff, critical and skeptical, though not in a cynical or destructive way, - more respecting the immense amount we don't know about the brain, and questioning the validity of much of what we think we know - quietly and carefully took Joel to task for his "messianic" attitude. Joel took it quite well. Turns out Cliff lives in Corte Madera, and works at a research institute at U.C. Davis.

To me all these studies - all this money spent - especially the brain imaging stuff - which seems highly dubious to me (and Cliff seems to feel this too) - is so much beside the point. It's completely clear subjectively that practice changes you, changes your attitude, your responses, probably your brain. Why spend a lifetime and all those millions painstakingly proving this, and are you actually proving it anyway? Better to spend the same money on training programs, give it to monasteries and practice centers. I find it all hard to follow and stay interested in, and had far too strong a dose of it these last few days. But I suppose this is how our society works, science is its universally recognized religious faith. Things can happen when science says it's ok.


Norman Fischer