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Saturday, May 5, 2012

Being mindful in dire situations

It's easier to be mindful in less stressful situations than it is in more stressful situations.  That's a stupid statement, but it's true? If you are going to be mindful what is going to prevent you from being mindful when the "chips are down," like when you are confronted by a madman pointing a gun at you or having to kill someone in combat?

Mindfulness is supposed to be living in the moment, accepting what is, having empathy, compassion and being non-aggressive.  When we are confronted with life threatening situations the primal instinct of fight or flight takes over automatically.  It's as natural as farting.  Our body's central nervous system slips into the sympathetic modus operandi under the most dire of situations. We can be in a state of harmony with body and nature and all of a sudden a snake falls out of a tree and lands on our shoulder.  We go from being at peace with the world to panic in a fraction of a second.  It doesn't take much to press the buttons, sound the alarm and jump three feet straight up yelling and screaming.

Although it has been shown that the practice of mindfulness can actually change the structure of the brain (neuroplasticity), it is virtually impossible to override the instinctive reaction of fight or flight. 
It has taken humans thousands of years to get where we are and we aren't about to change overnight.  We are not going to change overnight but we can practice mindfulness and it can become a feature in our everyday life.
Let's say you have been practicing mindfulness for quite a while and you are pretty good at staying in the moment under adverse situations.  When that person cut you off in traffic, the doctor kept you waiting in the examining room for two hours, your spouse yelled at you for no good reason and the bills piled up, you were able to remain cool, calm, and collected.  You stayed in the moment and let the experience occur without becoming agitated, disturbed or frustrated.  But what would you do if you had to go to war and kill the enemy?
When I was in Vietnam there were guys that had ears of the enemy hanging from their belts.  There was no compassion, love or empathy for the people they killed.  After days and days of close, bloody combat they quickly learned that it was either "me or them."  In fact they learned to hate the enemy so much they didn't see them as real people but as objects - "scum", "gooks", "VC".

They wanted them not only dead but blown up, mangled and shredded.

A soldier could go into war and be mindful but it would take lots of mindful practice.  It would take months of practice and would cost the government billions of dollars.  It would take a mindful, understanding and compassionate government to undertake such a program. Since soldiers are seen as expendable that, most likely, will never happen.  But, it would be possible.

You are facing the enemy and see them as humans fighting for their country just like you are.  They come at you with all they've got.  They are running with their bayonets, yelling and screaming with fire in their eyes.  You point your weapon at them and say to yourself, "I'm sorry friend" and pull the trigger.  He goes down and you have sympathy for him.  You point your weapon at another one and kill him too. After the battle you and your buddies gather the dead and say a prayer for them, put them in body bags to be taken back to their country for a proper burial. 

In the Bhagavad-Gita Lord Krishna says to the warrior Arjuna, "If you fail to wage war of sacred duty, you will abandon your own duty and fame only to gain evil," II-33.  Krishna is telling Arjuna that as an honorable warrior he must kill his enemy, but it must be with compassion ("sacred duty").  If it is not not with compassion then you will be eaten up with hatred, hostility, animosity, and antipathy. This is why so many warriors come home mentally broken. Their lack of compassion for their enemy turns into nightmares that haunt them for the rest of their lives.  Too many combat veterans come home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), hatred, insomnia, chronic fatigue, lack of will to live, inability to function in society and even love their spouses. 

If soldiers could learn how to be mindful they would not come home with evil embedded in their souls.  They would come home with compassion and love and there would be no need to spend billions of dollars on the back-end trying to mend broken soldiers.  Why not teach them mindfulness on the front-end, before they go to war?  Treat the enemy as honorable warriors as they deserve to be treated.

Some people like Edward O Wilson, in his new book - The Social Conquest of Earth, views war as a permanent manifestation of human nature.  Then there is John Horgan, director of the Stevens Institute of Technology who declares in his new book, The End of War, that war is not a biological curse but a cultural innovation, an especially vicious, persistent meme, which culture can help us transcend.  Whatever the case, I contend that war is a limiting factor in populations much like social grievances, political and religious values, competition, territoriality, fecundity, food, water and parasites.  Competition can lead to war and war is competition. 

In the next blog - Can you cultivate permanent mindfulness?

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