MagazineMay 2011Fight Stress Like a Marine. Meditate

Fight Stress Like a Marine. Meditate

Think meditation is only for gurus looking to reach a higher level of consciousness? The Department of Defense is undergoing a series of studies to discover the practical benefits of mindful meditation, a secular practice that helps develop concentration, on combat Marines and Army Infantry.

“Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to the moment,” says John Schaldach, curriculum coordinator for the Mind Fitness Training Institute, the non-profit that’s directing the studies for the D.O.D. “Mindful practices [meditation] help a person develop the capacity to put their attention somewhere and have it stay there.”

The mindful exercises that Schalbach has soldiers practice sound simple (focus on a contact point between your body and the ground) but the initial D.O.D. studies have garnered compelling results. The Marines in the pilot study who practiced mindful meditation showed an increase in “working memory capacity” (the ability to focus amid distractions), as well as an increased ability to maintain even moods during periods of great chaos.

“The studies show mindful practices create a buffer against stress,” Schalbach says.

Susan Grant is the founder of the Mindfulness Center of Asheville, where she guides hospital workers and chronic pain victims in mindful meditation. She’s not surprised the D.O.D. is interested in this alternative practice.

“Concentration is key,” Grant says. “Practicing mindful exercises helps you develop the ability to pull yourself back into the moment and focus. When you’re starting to get anxious or discouraged or scared, you can bring your focus back to some other aspect of the present. Mindfulness changes our relationship with discomfort and stress.”

Mindfulness is sometimes lumped into the same category of other meditative practices, where transcendence is the goal, but there are no candles or mantras or floating gurus in mindfulness. The exercises simply allow practitioners to push scattered thoughts out of the mind and regain focus. The end game for most mindful practitioners is the ability to be “in the moment” more.

“Every experience is made up of six things: your five senses and how your mind interprets those five senses,” Schalbach says. “Life is difficult. It’s full of stress and pain. But what makes these situations more difficult is our mind’s resistance to that stress.”

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