“You have power over your mind - not outside
events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
―Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Three years ago I was deployed and I had a lot of time to think. I did some root-cause analysis on what was holding me back in life, and I decided that I needed to learn how to be calm. I started learning mindfulness meditation, but it didn’t go well at first. My mind is very active, and it was used to having its way. As soon as I tried to focus on my breath I started thinking about other things. I noticed my distraction and focused on my breath again, but then my mind would wander and the cycle would start over.
I thought I was failing at meditation, but I was actually succeeding. As a beginner, the point of the exercise is to notice when your mind wanders, and then gently bring it back to your breath. Each time you bring it back, it’s like doing one rep at the gym. You can strengthen your body with reps at the gym, and you can strengthen your mind with mindfulness meditation. I wasn’t concentrating on my breath very well but I was noticing what my mind was doing, and then briefly redirecting it.
I was learning how to be calm, and I was also learning how to be aware. I became more aware of my thoughts and feelings, and I learned how to process them from a slightly removed place. I learned that I had been in a state of fusion with my feelings—when I felt anxious, the anxiety became part of me, to the extent that there was no real separation. I was anxiety, and anxiety was me. If my anxiety was a car speeding down the highway, I was in that car, strapped into the back seat, along for the ride.
Through meditation I gradually moved from the back seat to the drivers seat, and then I moved off the highway completely. From my new vantage point the emotion cars come and go, but they don’t take me along for the ride anymore. They’re still part of my life, but they don’t control me.
Most of the leadership blunders I’ve seen over the years have involved a leader losing emotional control. Some of those blunders were mine. We all know how important it is to be calm in stressful situations, but do we know how to practice that skill? Mindfulness has been the answer for me.
Major James Christensen is an RQ-4B Evaluator Pilot at Beale AFB. He is working on a Masters of Science in Psychology at Western Institute for Social Research in California.