Meditation Gaining Wider Role in U.S. Military

It is no secret that being in the military can be a stressful undertaking, particularly during deployments in combat zones. It requires mental discipline and composure in the face of danger. But even aside from that, the physical and mental demands of a military lifestyle can take its toll. So when more and more scientific studies are reporting the many psychological benefits of meditation, it was just a matter of time before the applications become evident. The following video presents meditation being practiced in a military school.

The above video mentions Transcendental Meditation as the method of choice, but another common type of meditation, mindfulness practice, is gaining wide use as well, as the following report explains.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA–The moments just before deployment can be highly stressful for those in the military, but a study published in the journal Emotion finds that meditation improved mood and bolstered working memory during this period. Working memory is the short-term memory system we tap into for managing information, controlling emotions, problem solving, and complex thought–sometimes in crisis situations. You can gain the same benefits when faced with stressful situations, whether planning your wedding, having your first child, preparing to undergo surgery, or getting ready to change jobs, according to lead study author Amishi P. Jha, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

THE DETAILS: Jha and fellow researchers divided 48 male Marines into two groups before they deployed to war. Thirty-one participated in an eight-week mindfulness meditation course, while the other 17 Marines did not practice mindfulness and were used as a control group. The soldiers’ average age was 25 years old. The concept of mindfulness involves focusing on the present, such as the physical sensations you experience while eathing, without judging them or allowing your thoughts to wander. The study used the mindfulness program developed by the Mind Fitness Training Institute. During the study period, Marines spent an average of 12 minutes a day engaged in mindfulness meditation. Researchers discovered a dose response to the meditation: Those Marines who meditated more scored better on mood and working memory evaluations.

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One program being used is the Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT)®, which is a course taught over eight weeks, specifically designed for individuals operating in extreme stress environments.  It provides skills training in two key areas: mindfulness skills and stress resilience skills.

While preparing for overseas deployment with the U.S. Marines late last year, Staff Sgt. Nathan Hampton participated in a series of training exercises held at Camp Pendleton, Calif., designed to make him a more effective serviceman.

There were weapons qualifications. Grueling physical workouts. High-stress squad counterinsurgency drills, held in an elaborate ersatz village designed to mirror the sights, sounds and smells of a remote mountain settlement in Afghanistan.

There also were weekly meditation classes — including one in which Sgt. Hampton and his squad mates were asked to sit motionless in a chair and focus on the point of contact between their feet and the floor.

“A lot of people thought it would be a waste of time,” he said. “Why are we sitting around a classroom doing their weird meditative stuff?

“But over time, I felt more relaxed. I slept better. Physically, I noticed that I wasn’t tense all the time. It helps you think more clearly and decisively in stressful situations. There was a benefit.”

That benefit is the impetus behind Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (“M-Fit”), a fledgling military initiative that teaches service members the secular meditative practice of mindfulness in order to bolster their emotional health and improve their mental performance under the stress and strain of war.

Designed by former U.S. Army captain and current Georgetown University professor Elizabeth Stanley, M-Fit draws on a growing body of scientific research indicating that regular meditation alleviates depression, boosts memory and the immune system, shrinks the part of the ain that controls fear and grows the areas of the ain responsible for memory and emotional regulation.

Four years ago, a small group of Marine reservists training at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., for deployment to Iraq participated in the M-Fit pilot program, taking an eight-week mindfulness course and meditating for an average of 12 minutes a day.

A study of those Marines subsequently published in the research journal Emotions found that they slept better, had improved athletic performance and scored higher on emotional and cognitive evaluations than Marines who did not participate in the program, which centers on training the mind to focus on the current moment and to be aware of one’s physical state.

The Army and Marines have since commissioned separate studies of larger groups of troops receiving variations of M-Fit training, the results of which currently are under scientific review and likely will be published in the next few months.

“The findings in general reinforce and extend what we saw in the pilot study,” said Ms. Stanley, an associate professor of security studies at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. “These techniques can be very effective in increasing situational awareness on the battlefield, in not having emotions drive behavior, in bolstering performance and resilience in high-stress environments. I’ve seen effects in my own life.”

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Watch mindfulness meditation videos here.

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