Don’t Forget to Breathe
Do mindfulness & meditation have a role to play in first response?By Crawford Coates | Apr 26, 2018
I’ve been a meditator for a little over five years now. I’ve been an editor and publisher working with first responders for more than twice that amount of time. I never saw the two as overlapping in anyway, until recently. Lots of interesting conversations have come up in the last couple of years—with cops and firefighters and EMS personnel, scientific researchers, military operators, athletes—and I’m becoming convinced that mindfulness and it’s practice would benefit first responders.
What is Mindfulness?
There are several competing and complimentary definitions of mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and one of its principle researchers and advocates, defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.” For Ellen J. Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, mindfulness is simply noticing new and novel things. She likens it to child’s play.
I think both definitions can be useful, with plenty of overlap. But it can also be a little confusing, especially at first. In fact, for that reason my friend George Ryan, a former SWAT officer who teaches meditation to LAPD officers, doesn’t like the term mindfulness: “To me it suggests that your mind is full. That’s the opposite of what we’re after. Therefore, I call it meditation.”
For me, mindfulness is appreciating the miracle of the moment I occupy. I train myself for this by meditating most mornings. Over time, the practice has reverberated throughout my life. When I say the “miracle of the moment,” I don’t mean that every moment is as I would wish for it to be. Not at all. But every moment of consciousness is worthy of my attention and appreciation.
Mindfulness, if you haven’t noticed, is all the rage at the moment. That’s not why I’m convinced that it’s good for first responders. In fact, I worry a little bit that all the hype might be self-defeating. Might meditation shrink your amygdala, the brain’s emotional processor, and in very short time¹? Might it improve immune function², reduce stress³, and improve your performance4? Scientific studies suggest that could be. But as my friend Enrico recently told me, “Meditation is not about getting from here to there. It’s about getting from here to here.”
To get there—I mean, here—you must breathe …
How I Do It
I first learned and continue to practice zazen, a form of Zen meditation. Here are the rudiments.
- Find a good time when you are alert and relatively at peace. Find a quiet place where you won’t likely be disturbed. [Note: Doing this before bed, in my experience, isn’t a good idea because it tends to awaken your mind and makes sleeping difficult.]
- Sit comfortably, but with good posture. You can sit on the ground cross-legged or in a chair. I like to sit about two feet from a blank wall on a cushion. You can also lie flat on your back.
- Relax your face. Relax your back, neck, legs, arms, and stomach too. Feel this relaxation spread and have a nice deep breath.
- Allow your attention to settle on your breath as you breathe naturally. Feel it in your hands and feet, your head and back, and so on—the lift of the inhale and the fall of the exhale.
- Thoughts and feelings will arise. Let them bubble up and then let them go. Let them burst and disappear like bubbles. Return focus to your breath. [Note: This can be very frustrating at first! Sometimes the mental chatter will be overwhelming. That’s okay. Try to return your focus to the breath. It would be like going to the gym for the first time and getting upset that you can’t bench the bar. You have to start somewhere.]
- Repeat and quantify. Five minutes a day, in my experience, would be preferable to 30 minutes weekly. But make it work for you.
There are lots of mindful responders out there. Some simply were born that way. Others cultivate it with meditation practice. There are agencies, such as Tempe, Ariz.; Hillsboro, Ore.; and Madison, Wisc., that have built it into their culture throughout. There are programs, such as NYPD’s academy, LAPD’s Police Science Leadership program, and many others, that make it part of certain aspects of what they do. And then there are great people out there like Lt. Richard Goerling and Sgt. Shawn Perron (Calibre’s beloved “Mindful Officer”) and George Ryan who are creating positive awareness in their own indelible ways.
As Jim Glennon says, “Your attention is the most precious gift you have to give.” The world we live in is busy and crowded with content that constantly vies for our precious attention. Mindfulness practice is like a pause button amid the noise. Return to the breath, in total awareness, and see the miracle for what it is …
I think it might help. Let me know what you think: Crawford [at] Calibre Press [dot] com. Until next time, don’t forget to breath.