We lay on the hardwood floor of a large hall, the crowd yelling, and cheering, eyes closed, I can hear my Commander’s calming words of “focus on your breath, feel expansion on the inhale, and relax into that space on the exhale…now envision the rope, hear the chant, see the pull, the feel of the rope, see us winning this thing”. This was Navy Recruit Olympics final event of the tug-o-war.

We did indeed win, and much of it went just as I had imagined.

Six months later, I am belly into the dirt with a small circular target 300 meters away. The waves of the Pacific are crashing on the other side of the target, as I breathe in, I watch the forward site rise, and as I breathe out, I watch it fall, I place the falling site to land on the center of the target, I pause, and slowly squeeze the trigger. The rifle explodes with surprise as a round leaves the barrel, a perfect hit.

Again, and again I perform this mesmerizing act.

A few years down the road, I am working as a Naval Special Warfare support technician and going through a grueling set of physical and mental challenges in the blazing southern sun with Navy SEAL instructors. Earlier in the week we were briefed on a breathing technique to calm us in stressful situations. I went through the obstacle course, and at the end was given one 9mm round. Put that round into the steel headplate 25 meters down range, and rest. Miss, and go through the entire course again. I recalled the breathing technique and employed it. Breathing in four seconds, hold four seconds, breathe out four seconds, hold four seconds, repeat.

One shot, round on target.

Fast forward some years, I am in a room of veterans. Many from the Vietnam war, a couple from the war in Korea, a few from Iraq, and including myself a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. At front is an old hippy with four decades of mediation experience, with lights dimmed, we practice concentrating on our breathing, and some guided imagery.

I remember leaving the first night, driving home and thinking I had not felt that relaxed for as far back as my childhood.

If you had asked me about meditation and mindfulness in the years leading up to these experiences, my mind would have flashed to a monk sitting in the lotus position on a mountain top somewhere or a grassy field in a park, maybe San Francisco, with long haired, dope smoking hippies sitting and chanting an “ommmmmm” mantra.  Not there this anything wrong with either scenario, but when meditation was presented to me by a nice LCSW, I was seeking healing from trauma, and ultimately the optimization of human performance / human experience. I didn’t know how sitting still and breathing was going to do that for me, but after the night within that room with the veterans of foreign wars, and now an invisible, intrinsic war, I was intrigued.

“a set of techniques that are intended to encourage a heightened state of awareness and focused attention”

Kendra Cherry

Meditation is an intentional act of concentration. As defined by Kendra Cherry, it as “a set of techniques that are intended to encourage a heightened state of awareness and focused attention” It is normally a concentration on breath but could be hearing or body sensation or the process of the mind, and even sight. Yes, you can meditate with eyes open. It differs from mindfulness but can help with the cultivation of that practice as well. Mindfulness is most famously defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “paying attention in a particular way, On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”

“paying attention in a particular way, On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Here I am five years after sitting with veterans, and still meditating every day. The act of meditation has been the single biggest practice that has brought change into my life. I can concentrate as never before, handle stress, feel emotion without reactivity, empathize, have compassion for, and connect with others as never before. It almost sounds hokey to say that by sitting and concentrating on my breath or a mantra for 10 minutes a day I have brought about these changes to my brain, but it is true.

I now lead on demand meditation classes on an Air Force Base in Northern Japan, and I lead a weekly meditation group via Zoom.

A key to gaining benefits from meditation practice is consistency. Just like training the body, you can’t get as much as benefit from working out once a week, as you would from a consistent exercise daily. A ten minute a day practice would be more beneficial, than a once a week forty-five-minute session. Science and research have shown us that real results can be witnessed from meditation after just one session, and positive changes in brain structure can be measured after eight weeks of consistent practice. These changes include a thickening of the pre-frontal cortex (the center of executive functions) and a reduction in size of the amygdala (the brain’s alarm bell).

“I can’t meditate because my mind always wanders” or “I am not good at clearing my mind of thoughts, I can’t just not think”.

One of the most common things I hear from people in these classes is “I can’t meditate because my mind always wanders” or “I am not good at clearing my mind of thoughts, I can’t just not think”. I always reassure the person that I can’t stop my mind from wandering either and I am also not clearing my mind of all thought. Rest assured that when the mind wanders during a mindfulness meditation, and you can recognize that, and gently bring it back to your chosen object of awareness…you are meditating! I’ve never cleared my mind of all thought, and I don’t intend to, but during a mindfulness meditation I will try and hold my thoughts onto a certain object (normally the breath). During a compassion practice or forgiveness practice I may concentrate on certain mantras or sayings, but I am never clearing the mind completely, don’t know if I ever could nor want to.

I think today it is perhaps easier than ever to get into a guided meditation practice with literally hundreds of applications for smart devices that you can download for free or practices all over video websites like YouTube. Lots of books, lots of teachers, and lots of groups. It doesn’t have to be a solitary practice either, there are lots of groups out there, at yoga studios, temples, retreats, and monasteries. Religious belief is not required, as most often the practices are secular, but if that is your thing that can easily found as well.  

I hope you will give meditation a try and find the practice as beneficial as I and millions of others have.