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Bombs, Bullets and The Buddha: 1000 years of Military Mindfulness

Updated: Oct 6, 2023

Solider staring down the scope of his rifle.

A soldier hunches down behind a burnt-out building in a war-torn part of the world and stares down his scope at the enemy. His heart is racing, his breath is quick, and his mind is filled with a thousand thoughts. He focuses on his breath and watches it going in and out, calming his mind and bringing it into a state of focus and stability, just as the Buddha taught two and a half thousand years ago.

The British Army, like its American counterpart, has been using mindfulness meditation as an aid to manage stress, build resilience and combat effectiveness for some time and there are signs that other armies around the world will soon be following them.

In 2017 the British Army commissioned an investigation, led by the Institute of Employment Studies and Cranfield University, to see if mindfulness meditation could be leveraged for strategic benefits. The team studied different types of mindfulness-based interventions for effectiveness in generating improved resilience, cognitive capacity, and teamwork. The approach adopted within the army differs from the generally known therapeutic interventions such as MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) in that there is much more of a focus on social factors and teamwork, shifting from a me-focus to a we-focus, as Dr. Jutta Tobias Mortlock noted. Soldiers are trained to systematically anticipate and respond to stressful situations and create collaborative solutions intellectually as well as emotionally. These studies used biological and cognitive markers of sustained attention with a focus on the human stress response, prior to and following training in the immediate period before active deployment.

Teaching mindfulness to the military has also had to go through rigorous reformatting to bring it into line with the needs of the military with an eye on the long-term impact on soldiers who meditate. Mindfulness teachers need formal mental health training to be in a position to deal with such military personnel who, during the course of meditation practice might find combat-induced trauma surfacing, tearing holes in their mental safety net.

In 2018 a defence mental health network was established by the Ministry of Defence to allow people across the military to connect and raise awareness of mental health initiatives. In addition, the benefits of mindfulness and even practices such as lucid dreaming are routinely discussed at the MOD’s annual mindfulness symposium. Military personnel have been given access to a free eight-week mindfulness course which has now been made available to the public and have also been provided membership of Headspace, the popular mindfulness meditation app. Veterans with difficult-to-treat conditions have also been invited on board with the mindfulness programme in an effort to combat high dropout from mental health services where there is very little patient choice on offer.

The use of mindfulness in a military context might not resonate with those who see the practice as a method to deepen their spirituality or achieve enlightenment, thus developing the wisdom and compassion to help alleviate suffering in the world, essentially, to walk in the Buddha’s footsteps. But the British Army is not the first group of fighters to take up the practice of mindfulness meditation.

The Japanese Samurai who were practitioners of Zen Buddhism used Zazen, a Japanese version of mindfulness from the 12th century onwards. Zazen aimed to instill within this warrior caste the concept of Mushin which required a mind free from thoughts of anger, fear (especially of death), and the ego. Zazen, still widely practiced today, involves concentrating on the breath, allowing thoughts to pass through the mind, and developing clear, open awareness just as is done in contemporary mindfulness practices in the West. This encouraged the practitioner to be present in the moment and to be fully aware of their surroundings and their reactions to them. This type of meditation was the perfect complement to the lethal martial arts training that the Samurai engaged in. A solid Zazen practice can lead to greater spiritual strength, giving rise to greater willpower and resilience in the face of mortal combat. This ability to disregard thought and dwell in a space of intense awareness allowed the Samurai to rid themselves of fear and doubt and focus clearly on what was right in front of them.

For the Zen warrior, as the Samurai are sometimes called, colleagues and enemies were considered equal. Maintenance of the Zen attitude was of utmost importance. Celebrating victory or disrespecting your enemy in defeat were considered shameful and not the conduct of a true warrior.

Samurai holding a sword.

Engaging in a meditation practice does not make problems go away. What it does is allow for a completely different relationship to them, cultivating the warrior’s resilience and fortitude. Meditation is not about discovering God or having a spiritual experience but discovering the true nature of the mind and how it works. In this way we can overcome our ego-orientation and become more compassionate and centred human beings, ready to deal with whatever life throws our way, even if it is an enemy bearing down on us with a sword or a gun in his hand.

The Samurai’s commitment to meditation lives on in modern form almost a thousand years later. Would the Buddha have approved? It’s impossible to tell. Most certainly he would have been aware of these uses that his teachings and practice would be put to down the millennia. Perhaps he would have shed a tear and bowed his head, or perhaps he would have remained inscrutably silent, watching his breath going in and out.

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