Yoga in yet another treasured American institution, the military, has recently spurred frustration among evangelicals. Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, expresses that “the military seems intent on driving religion out and replacing it with wacky substitutes.” No form of spirituality, Perkins contends, is “as constructive as a personal relationship with God.” These grievances highlight important ideological differences and misapprehensions as to what, exactly, meditation is. Do modern conceptualizations of mindfulness preclude “a personal relationship with God?” Or do they transcend such artificially-rendered binaries?
Often missed by fundamentalists in their haste to condemn is the sheer secularization of modern yoga and mindfulness practices. The program under fire, Mindfulness-Based Mind Fitness Training (M-Fit), may be hard-pressed to demonstrate philosophical affinities to classical Buddhist thought, particularly given Buddhist tenants of non-harm and the intention of M-Fit for use in combat (and other high-stress) settings.
Incorporating mindfulness training and resilience skills to cope with the physiological and psychological effects of extreme, prolonged stress, M-Fit draws on cutting-edge neuroscience, stress, and trauma research. The mindfulness segment trains participants in attention control and concentration using “specific exercises.” The stress resilience portion induces body-based stressful experiences to push participants outside their comfort zones, thereby teaching “body and mind to recover effectively,” and “to tolerate and function effectively amidst more stress than before.”
Thanks to the pioneering efforts of researcher and meditator Jon Kabat-Zinn, the concept and practice of mindfulness is streamlined and clearly defined, a process termed operationalization. Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Thus, while modern mindfulness is generally acknowledged to loosely derive from Buddhism, and shares similarities to other contemplative lineages, by and large it’s considered a secular practice by clinicians, researchers, and proponents. The modern aim of mindfulness practice tends toward stress reduction, relaxation, and self-improvement.
What, then, of meditation’s actual origins? While largely agreed-upon to have originated in East Asia, historically meditation has been linked in various forms to eastern and western Christianity, Judaism, Sufism, and Greek philosophy. Broadly considered, meditation’s capacity for clearing the mind and facilitating insight engender an increased capacity to “be present.” Historically, as today, meditation is a practice that transcends spiritual or religious identification, melding to fit the diverse needs of its practitioners.
For example, a Christian may find that focused attention on the breath or repeated mantras to Jesus Christ bring them closer in communion with their personal savior, while a Buddhist meditator may access “big sky mind.” A yogi may tap into the rapturous bliss of divinity, while a Catholic praying with rosary beads may enter into a deep religious reverie. All simultaneously meditative, yet qualitatively distinct. And different in tone from each other, as from the strictly secular attention training modern mindfulness has grown to comprise.
In sum, whether practiced for spiritual, religious, or secular purposes, mindfulness meditation is likely to be beneficial. In 2012, there was an average of one suicide per day among returning veterans, with service members more likely to die of suicide than on the battlefield. Trauma-sensitive yoga, a form of mindfulness that may be contrasted to the fitness-based forms of yoga taught to special forces prior to deployment, has shown some promise in attenuating the symptoms of PTSD among returning vets. Rather than fearing that the introduction of mindfulness or yoga training may lead troops away from God, conservatives would do well to consider that they may, in fact, prove their saving grace.
What are your thoughts on the use of mindfulness techniques in the military?