Meditate Like a Bad Ass: Insights from the Military Special Operations Community
By Seth Hickerson and Zach Morton
Meditation is NOT hard. Learning to meditate is hard.
The mind of a Navy SEAL is an amazing tool. The mind controls the body, and it takes training to control the mind. When it comes to individuals needing to have complete control of both body and mind, the tip of the spear is the U.S. military special operations community. The strength of the U.S. military has always been dependent upon the strength of the soldiers within its ranks. The strength of individual soldiers--the cognitive functioning and physical capability of soldiers--is the most critical element to overall military health and resiliency.
Meditation is making its way through military ranks and has been for quite some time. When it comes to training and development, the military is second to none. Military personnel spend countless hours training physically, technically, and mentally. It’s about habits and routines. The goal of this intensive training is to be able to perform optimally, especially during extreme stress and adverse conditions, and that requires consistent mental skills training.
In the civilian world, many people often struggle with meditation. There are a couple of primary reasons. Some people have a tendency to believe it is “soft” skill or a sign of weakness. They don’t necessarily see it as a tool for performance improvement. However, some do decide to give it a try, and they claim they just “can’t do it.” It’s simply the fact that most people DO NOT like discomfort. And sadly, most people fail to grasp the concept of the progressive acquisition of skills. That being said, there are some people who are perhaps already meditating but just aren’t aware of it. It can come in several ways--it’s not always sitting on a carpet and listening to wind chimes. More about that later.
Any skills worth attaining in life require work, practice, and routine. Forming new healthy habits can be a challenge, but the benefits are exponential. Far too many people in our country often lack the self-discipline, motivation, and accountability to acquire life-changing skills. So, they settle, get complacent, struggle…and then complain. This used to be me.
In our society, everyone wants everything now. They want the big muscles, but they don’t want to lift the weights. They want the ideal body but don’t want to develop a healthy eating routine. Today, more and more people want to be more mindful and meditate. Unfortunately, they don’t want to put in the work that is required. They don’t want to face the challenge of being alone with their thoughts and WORKING, practicing, and training on quieting the mind.
The military teaches you how to “Embrace the Suck.” Sometimes you have to do the things you don’t want to do because it WILL make you better, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Try telling Navy SEALS that meditation is “weak” and doesn’t work.
Meditation and mindfulness training are not “fluffy skills.” They are skills that the elite in every industry possesses and practice. I run a company that teaches Mindfulness, Emotional Intelligence, and Cognitive Fitness and our Leadership consists of PhDs, Military Special Operations, Professional Athletes, and Fortune 500 Executives. All of our content and training is developed and practiced by the best of the best. Badasses who dominate life and their industries.
To be a full-on Bad Ass you have to understand energy and energy systems
Before we get started, I want to make a couple of things very clear. To understand the benefits of meditation and mental skills training in their truest sense you need to be familiar with energy systems. Humans are energy systems. Everything we do requires and utilizes energy. When it comes to meditation, it is a form of mental energy renewal. Most people in our country struggle with energy levels for a variety of reasons including the “distraction epidemic,” technology addiction, unawareness, lack of education, inadequate tools and resources, and unqualified “gurus” who make promises they can’t deliver on. I could expand this list but I am not about the problems, I am about the solutions.
Mental energy is essential for optimal performance, and meditation is critical for acquiring and managing your mental energy. Some of the badass benefits of meditation are as follows:
- Reducing stress
- Controlling anxiety
- Enhanced Self-Awareness
- Improved attention span
- Focus on the present
- Decreased pain
Imagine the competitive edge you gain in life, business, sports, or combat when you possess these skills. Your ability to be present and responsive, especially under stress, is what gives you an edge. Your ability to be just as focused at 5 pm as you’re at 8 am is a skill that separates the best from the rest in every industry and arena. Everything comes down to energy. You either have it or you don’t. Meditation practitioners know how to acquire and conserve it and harness the power for performance improvement.
“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” --General George Patton
When it comes to energy systems in our lives, there are four pillars of health from which we draw our energy and that are the foundation of our existence:
- Physical Health
- Nutritional Health
- Spiritual Health
- Mental Health
Now that you know the 4 pillars, I would like for you to start to think about what you actually know about each of these areas and what you currently do to address them.
If you want to have sustainable, renewable and maximal energy for optimum performance then it is IMPERATIVE that you have an understanding of all four pillars. More importantly, you must have ROUTINES for each of them. Without a clear understanding of these four pillars and the routines they require, you will struggle with energy.
I am ex-military. I have served in two branches of the military. I love the military. Because one thing the military does better than anyone is training and development. When it comes to the pillars of health, most people fail to grasp that TRAINING is required.
I just want to reiterate that these skills are attainable, and you will receive the multitude of benefits--IF YOU TRAIN and PRACTICE. It doesn’t take much, but it requires consistency. I try to meditate five or six days a week and usually for around 10 minutes. It is a habit and part of my daily morning routine. My ECR (emotional control routine).
So it might not be your fault that you aren’t doing it right now. That being said, if, once you finish reading this article you DO NOT decide to take any action and make changes, well, then that IS YOUR FAULT.
Back to energy. I will lay out each of the four pillars, and we will do a brief review. What have you been taught about a routine, and most important, where would you go or what would you do if you wanted to start a routine to improve or deepen your expertise in a particular area?
And as you are reading and thinking about these areas, I want you to understand that the most important thing is developing a ROUTINE. And when I am training individuals and groups, I always make sure that their routine has three components. I will break that down in each section.
When it comes to health and energy, this is an easy one. This is the area that most people are familiar with. We are taught at a young age that physical health is important. Schools taught physical education classes. Sadly, those are being removed more often due to “budget cuts.” Again, I could get on my soapbox about why they actually remove PE, Art, and Music. I believe it has nothing to do with funding; it has everything to do with minimizing creative and intellectual stimulation. In my opinion, schools want factory workers, not thinkers.
Now back to physical health. It’s probably not too difficult for you to rattle off what your current routine is for your physical health. Or if you don’t currently have one, you would probably have an idea as to how to go about getting one. You could join a gym, get a personal trainer, workout at home watching videos, do push-ups/sit-ups, etc. You would have an idea of how to get started. You either do it or you don’t. If you don’t have a physical health routine, then you won’t have much physical energy. Simple.
Nutritional health is another area that most are familiar with. Most people have a general sense of nutrition. Again, in schools, we are taught about healthy eating (kind of). We know about the general guidelines and portion sizes. What we should and shouldn’t eat. As adults, there are many options for establishing a healthy nutritional routine. Yes, there are also MANY fad diets and unhealthy options out there too. However, people could choose to learn how to improve their nutrition. They could work with a nutritionist, learn about macro-nutrients and portion control, and use apps to help count calories. There are options. Again, you do it or you don’t. The choice is yours.
Spiritual health is where it can start to get fuzzy for many people. Often people associate spirituality with religion. There are people who don’t believe in either. And that’s fine, but they are missing out on a lot of potential energy and peace of mind. Spirituality and religion can be synonymous, but they are NOT the same. Spirituality means studying the inside of you and how the laws of the universe affect you. Religion refers to a God that one worships outside of you. Neither is right or wrong; they are just different. And you can certainly apply both (I do). Now think back to your formal education. What were you taught about either? Did you learn it from your family? Where you like me and raised without either? The long and short of it is that we acquire energy by believing in something--by having faith that WE are not the CENTER of the universe. And then having some sort of routine that allows us to tap into that power to sustain us. As a Christian, my routine consists of daily prayer, attending church, and reading from the Bible. Notice the three components. Prayer and reading can happen daily, and I will sprinkle in other “tools” along the way--whether it’s volunteering or donating to a cause for my church. Our schools (mostly public) do not teach students anything about religion or spirituality. That should change in my opinion, and I believe it will.
Now lastly, but CERTAINLY not least, is the most important aspect of all four pillars. This is the area where the wheels really fall off when it comes to truly understanding it. When I say, or people read, the term “mental health", many may automatically think “mental illness or disorder.” There is a stigma around the notion of mental health due to the lack of education and awareness.
Mental Illness, or disorder, is a result of poor mental health (whether genetic or mostly due to inadequate education and training). Poor mental health may also result from traumatic experiences. In my opinion, our schools and country do a HORRIBLE disservice to mental health. I would be willing to bet that throughout your entire career (education, work or whatever) you have never been taught anything about how to TRAIN for pro-active mental health. Schools from kindergarten to college neglect any significant mental health education. Instead, we act like it “doesn’t exist” and is only something that needs to be fixed when broken. That’s nonsense. It’s time for schools to take mental health education seriously.
When it comes to mental health resources in our country, the only options are reactive. Prescriptions, talk therapy, counseling, psychotherapy, etc. These are valuable and needed interventions for people who do have a mental illness or disorder. However, they can’t be the only options. If you want to take control of your mental health (proactively), then you need to know how to train it just like the other areas.
Mental health training consists of activities like meditation. Meditation is allowing your brain to rest and recover. Think of your brain like your bicep. If you wanted to get big or toned arms, you would need to lift weights. But the muscle is being broken down and damaged when you are actually lifting the weight. The growth of the muscle happens when you PUT THE WEIGHT DOWN.
In the world we live in today, our mental muscle (the brain) is constantly “lifting.” We are in a constant state of distraction, thought, and stimulation---it’s like our brain is doing curls non-stop. Just like that wouldn’t be good for your arms, it isn't not good for your brain. You have to let the brain rest and recover so it can grow.
Meditation is a wonderful option and skill for improving mental health. There are numerous ways to do it--running, sitting, walking, guided and transcendental to name a few. You just have to get started and then carve out 5-10 minutes a day, ideally in the morning, and do it. It will be a challenge at first, but it doesn’t take long to start getting the hang of it and noticing/feeling the benefits.
Routines = Results
That being said, and as we mentioned before, these benefits ARE NOT going to kick in the first time you sit down and try to meditate (sorry). You have to be committed to it. You have to struggle and fight the discomfort. The good news is that the brain is AWESOME.
Start off simple. There are several good free apps out there that you can use. Make a commitment to try to meditate for a couple of minutes a day for two weeks. Write down how easy or difficult it is upon completion. Write down how you feel afterward.
Nobody can lift the weights, eat the food, have faith in something, or meditate for you. It is up to you and only you to do it. You either decide to do it or you don’t. If you do it, I promise you will feel, look, and behave better. Because you have options. The choice is yours. Embrace the suck and get it done.
The only thing you have 100% control of is YOU
Zach Morton is the Director of Leadership for Boost and a Navy SEAL with 13 years of experience. Zach completed multiple combat deployments and over 80 missions.