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Meditation at war

posted by Greg Zwahlen

Time magazine, along with a number of other news outlets, ran a profile recently about a program called “Warrior Mind Training” being used by the U.S. Army to “train its 1.1 million soldiers in the art of mental toughness.”


The Defense Department hopes that giving soldiers tools to fend off mental stress will toughen its troops at war and at home. It’s the first time mental combat is being mandated on a large scale, but a few thousand soldiers who have participated in a voluntary program called Warrior Mind Training have already gotten a taste of how strengthening the mind is way different – dare we say harder? – than pounding out the push-ups.


Sounds a bit like Shambhala Training: Heart of Warriorship, except that it features . . actual war.

The article doesn’t mentioned Buddhism; supposedly Warrior Mind Training is “rooted in the ancient Samurai code of self-discipline” and was created by a woman named Sarah Ernst and her two colleagues. It seems to be a mindfulness practice where the object of meditation is the sound of a drum.


Is this laudable or unfortunate? I’m inclined to find it encouraging. Although the training seems to emphasize “mental toughness,” hopefully soldiers who are more mindful will be more skillful and better able to handle their emotions well, both in the combat zone and when they return to civilian life. It will be quite a while, if ever, before humanity achieves “Victory Over War;” in the meantime, the most we can hope for is that it be minimally harmful.


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Jules

posted September 15, 2009 at 5:23 pm


In addition to attending classes offered on the bases, many members of the military who take part in Warrior Mind Training (WMT) regularly attend classes, identical in content, but offered in the community to civilians. I’ve been sitting with this group for 3 yrs, so can tell you that the philosophy behind WMT is actually based in an amalgam of spiritual systems, but deeply rooted in Buddhism. the meditation practice for both military and civilians, includes focusing attention on chakras and music (note by note, beat by beat, depending on whatever instrument you grab onto).
years ago, I had issues with the idea of mindful warriors – after all, doesn’t their job description conflict with the not killing precept? but, if fighting is to be done, it seems WMT has helped many a modern-day American soldier stay clear, focused, and grounded, all of which helps minimize mistakes arising from fear or mindless reactiveness that could be fatal to members of their troop. and helps these kids better reintegrate back to civilian life.



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Jerry Kolber

posted September 15, 2009 at 5:43 pm


Though the article initially claims that this meditation technique is “rooted in the ancient Samurai code of self-discipline” – the author goes on to say and quote Ernst in the next paragraph as:
“The Samurai image was selected after careful deliberation; it was certifiably anti-sissy. “We took a long time to decide how we were going to package this,” says Ernst, who moved to North Carolina in 2006 and teaches classes at Fort Bragg as well as Camp Lejeune, a Marine base near the coast. “There are a lot of ways you could describe the benefits of doing mind training and meditation. Maybe from a civilian approach we would emphasize cultivating happiness or peace. But that’s not generally what a young soldier is interested in. They want to become the best warrior they can be.”
I.e. it is not in fact based on Samurai anything – it’s a technique they’ve developed, then carefully packaged and branded in a way that would get it sold to the army and make it appealing to the audience they were trying to reach. Seems like a pretty smart way to spread the benefits of meditation to soldiers who really need it.



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Michelle

posted September 15, 2009 at 6:22 pm


Evidently, the U.S. military has also begun incorporating other ways of thinking about training that includes knowing when to rest and allowing injuries to heal.



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Stilllman

posted September 15, 2009 at 6:26 pm


Soldiers are no different than kids in school – sometimes you have to trick them in to learning something that, in the end, will be enormously beneficial. I think the Samurai packaging also shows that you can be a Christian or Hindu or whatever and still practice mindfulness.



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Tarik Najeddine

posted September 15, 2009 at 6:45 pm


The Warrior Mind or Battlemind program actually has a powerfully insidious side effect most healers are completely unaware of. Many soldiers internalize the teachings of mental toughness and resilience inappropriately, such that when they return from the battlefield, and due to trauma or simple human emotion reaction, they blame themselves for developing PTSD or having nightmares. They believe that they should’ve been “stronger” than that, and that real soldiers “succeed” at the resilience training and never develop mental health problems.
I work with people who are struggling with this exact concept every day, and I’d love to talk with people who are familiar with it, as soon as possible.



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Jake

posted September 15, 2009 at 7:41 pm


Sounds creepy. Who knows what the results will be, in terms of the program, its effects on soldiers’ minds, other programs…
What’s the intention and what qualifies those people to teach? If the intention is more efficient killing and conquest then that’s a problem in my book. If the teachers aren’t well trained, or if they’re making it up as they go along completely, that’s a problem. Thousands of sanghas are lucky to NOT have that problem, IDP included.
I don’t know what the results of the military program might be, it could create lots of interesting ripples. Overall, however, I don’t like it!



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Michelle

posted September 15, 2009 at 8:56 pm


I think that Lorene Petta makes a salient point in this article – “The Army has always believed if we just train ‘em harder, the mental toughness will come”.
This seemingly bizarre kind of mind awareness training that is being slowly developed and packaged for the Army is likely in response to a real need for introducing alternative ways of thinking about how the body trains, recovers and operates under stress. These are ideas that are a tough sell to such an entrenched system. I think that the more ways that soldiers are able to learn about how their bodies and minds function, the better.
By the way, I am increasingly moved at how very very very young most soldiers that I see are.



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Michelle

posted September 15, 2009 at 8:58 pm


I think that Lorene Petta makes a salient point in this article – “The Army has always believed if we just train ‘em harder, the mental toughness will come”.
This seemingly bizarre kind of mind awareness training that is being slowly developed and packaged for the Army is likely in response to a real need for introducing alternative ways of thinking about how the body trains, recovers and operates under stress. These are ideas that are a tough sell to such an entrenched system. I think that the more ways that soldiers are able to learn about how their bodies and minds function, the better.
By the way, I am increasingly moved at how very very very young most soldiers that I see are.



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Michelle

posted September 15, 2009 at 9:00 pm


I think that Lorene Petta makes a salient point in this article – “The Army has always believed if we just train ‘em harder, the mental toughness will come”.
This seemingly bizarre kind of mind awareness training that is being slowly developed and packaged for the Army is likely in response to a real need for introducing alternative ways of thinking about how the body trains, recovers and operates under stress. These are ideas that are a tough sell to such an entrenched system. I think that the more ways that soldiers are able to learn about how their bodies and minds function, the better.
By the way, I am increasingly moved at how very very very young most soldiers that I see are.



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A. Jesse Jiryu Davis

posted September 16, 2009 at 9:13 am


Some of the more recent, WWII-era complicity of Zen with imperialism is well documented by Brian Victoria’s two books. My review here:
http://villagezendo.org/journal/december_07/precepts_december_07.html
Zen teachers provided mental training to Japanese soldiers to make them better conquerors and killers.



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ellen9

posted September 17, 2009 at 3:47 pm


Any meditation that relieves suffering, that of soldiers included, seems like a good idea.
I agree that a confused intention, or one springing from “wrong view” is troublesome. (think Jedi vs Sith! do not turn it to the Dark Side!)
Ahem. I can envision how even with the intention of creating a more effective soldier, Warrior Mind Training could create more precision and less thoughtless reactivity: less collateral damage, fewer massacre incidents springing from blind panic, less situation misreading, and so on.
We never know what all the effects of any action can be, but meditation training is not evil in itself. We don’t know what might spring from it, even years later. I’m glad to hear about this.



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