Samurai mind training for modern American warriors

Time: Not long ago at Fort Bragg, N.C., the country’s largest military base, seven soldiers sat in a semi-circle, lights dimmed, eyes closed, two fingertips lightly pressed beneath their belly buttons to activate their “core.” Electronic music thumped as the soldiers tried to silence their thoughts, the key to Warrior Mind Training, a form of meditation slowly making inroads on military bases across the country. “This is mental push-ups,” Sarah Ernst told the weekly class she leads for soldiers at Fort Bragg. “There’s a certain burn. It’s a workout.”

Think military and you think macho, not meditation, but that’s about to change now that the Army intends to train its 1.1 million soldiers in the art of mental toughness. The Defense Department hopes that giving soldiers tools to fend off mental stress will toughen its troops at war and at home. It’s the first time mental combat is being mandated on a large scale, but a few thousand soldiers who have participated in a voluntary program called Warrior Mind Training have already gotten a taste of how strengthening the mind is way different — dare we say harder? — than pounding out the push-ups. Read more here.

Warrior Mind Training is the brainchild of Ernst and two friends, who were teaching meditation and mind-training in California. In 2005, a Marine attended a class in San Diego and suggested expanding onto military bases. Ernst and her colleagues researched the military mindset, consulting with veterans who had practiced meditation on the battlefield and back home. She also delved into the science behind mind training to analyze how meditation tactics could help treat — and maybe even help prevent — post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rooted in the ancient Samurai code of self-discipline, Warrior Mind Training draws on the image of the mythic Japanese fighter, an elite swordsman who honed his battle skills along with his mental precision. The premise? Razor-sharp attention plus razor-sharp marksmanship equals fearsome warrior.

The Samurai image was selected after careful deliberation; it was certifiably anti-sissy. “We took a long time to decide how we were going to package this,” says Ernst, who moved to North Carolina in 2006 and teaches classes at Fort Bragg as well as Camp Lejeune, a Marine base near the coast. “There are a lot of ways you could describe the benefits of doing mind training and meditation. Maybe from a civilian approach we would emphasize cultivating happiness or peace. But that’s not generally what a young soldier is interested in. They want to become the best warrior they can be.”

The benefits of Warrior Mind Training, students have told instructors, are impressive: better aim on the shooting range, higher test scores, enhanced ability to handle combat stress and slip back into life at home. No comprehensive studies have been done, though a poll of 25 participants showed 70% said they felt better able to handle stressful situations and 65% had improved self-control.

The results were intriguing enough that Warrior Mind Training has been selected to participate in a University of Pittsburgh study on sleep disruption and fatigue in service members that will kick off early next year.

For now, success is measured anecdotally.

On patrol in Iraq two years ago, John Way would notice his mind straying. “Maybe I should be watching some guy over there and instead I’m thinking, ‘I’m hungry. Where’s my next Twinkie?'”

With privacy at a premium, he’d often retreat to a Port-A-Potty to practice the focusing skills he’d learned from Ernst at Fort Bragg. “To have a way to shut all this off is invaluable,” says Way.

The importance of the mind-body connection is being acknowledged at the highest levels of the military. The West Point-based Army Center for Enhanced Performance (ACEP), which draws on performance psychology to teach soldiers how to build confidence, set goals and channel their energy, has expanded to nine army bases in the past three years since the Army’s chief-of-staff praised the program.

“The Army has always believed if we just train ’em harder, the mental toughness will come,” says Lorene Petta, a psychologist at Fort Bragg who works for ACEP. “A lot of times with this population, because they’re so rough and tough, they tend to say, ‘This is too touchy-feely for me. No thanks.’ But we talk about the importance of being a good mental warrior too.”

Free to members of the military and their relatives, Warrior Mind Training classes are offered at 11 U.S. military installations and veterans centers across the country; an online option opened up this spring. At Naval Amphibious Base Coronado in California, for example, Warrior Mind instructors prep elite Navy SEALS candidates for Hell Week, when potential newbies are vetted in a 5 ½-day sleepless trial of physical and mental endurance.

Beefing up the brain for combat is one aspect of the training; another is decompression. If one day you’re dodging snipers in Iraq and the next you’re strolling the aisles at Wal-Mart, Warrior Mind Training techniques can ease the transition.

“It’s kind of like a reset button,” says Erick Burgos, a military paramedic who takes classes at Coronado. “It’s a time-out for you to take a break from the chaos in your life.”

If the Army’s new mental-toughness initiative, set to kick off in October, is to be successful, it needs buy-in from the people it plans to train. It can be a tough sell. At Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, in N.C., Adam Credle, who teaches military, law enforcement and Coast Guard personnel how to drive boats equipped with machine guns really fast, has encouraged his students to try out the meditative techniques. So far, he’s been rebuffed, though he continues to try to persuade them to give the discipline’s central exercise a chance. The mental focusing technique is called deep listening and it sounds super-simple but — unless you’re accustomed to meditation — it requires exquisite concentration.

To help develop this skill, Warrior Mind, relies upon music. The idea is to listen, really listen, to the wail of the guitar or the staccato tap of the drums instead of letting your mind wander. In athletics, this concept is called being in “the zone.”

As with anything, practice makes perfect, which is reassuring for rookies — like me — who find it next to impossible to rein in their thoughts at first. During the course of one five-minute song, I thought repeatedly about whether I’d remembered to lock my car and turn my cell phone to vibrate. And, because I’m a reporter, I thought about what everyone else might be thinking about, which, if they were doing it right, should have been nothing at all.

9 Comments. Leave new

  • If you seriouly think Meditation is good for preparing solidiers to go into battle and mindlessly kill total strangers, then I will give it up straight away!!

  • I am sorry. They can call this “meditation” but it seems like mind control to me, the exact opposite of practicing freedom from all grasping. This is packaged to sell “mental shaprness” with the goal of overriding any reality of connectedness and holding on to the single concept of individual superiority. They can call it meditation, but it is not.

  • Your comment raises some interesting questions.

    I’d question the assumption that the point of this training is to help soldiers “mindlessly kill”. I’d rather military personnel have focus and mental discipline than be stressed and distracted. That way they’re much less likely to kill anyone.

    All the people I know who have done military service have done so because they felt a call to serve others and to transcend themselves — something that’s not a million miles away from a spiritual motivation, and which involves considerable discomfort and putting their lives in danger. While I’d often question what military personnel are asked to do, I have great respect for people who have chosen that path.

    As for giving up meditation — wouldn’t that be like giving up exercise because soldiers do physical training? Or like giving up healthy eating because healthy soldiers are better soldiers?

    I do think it’s worth making the point, though, that meditation in itself isn’t sufficient to fuel a spiritual life. An ethical code is an essential prerequisite for that, as is a degree of insight, and without those things meditation can be misused. It could be misused by soldiers, as it apparently was by the samurai. I’m assuming that this is something like the point you were making.

  • Of course, Bodhipaksa, you are correct and I apologize for what may have appeared to be a sweeping statement. I live in a U.S. military research city – 75% of my friends work for the military. They are all beautiful people. I did not in any way mean to disparage the individuals or their path. I have practiced what I have learned to call “devotional” yoga for 20 years. It is different than “gym” yoga. However, I began my devotional yoga path with gym yoga. I know that all gym yoga people are on their individual paths, some of whom will end up in devotional yoga. Still, there is an essential difference – what you referred to as an ethical code may be a big part of it, as are intention and insight – which differentiates gym yoga from devotional yoga. And still, I mean to say that there is an essential difference between mind control and meditation, between bio-feedback and meditation, and between stress reduction techniques and meditation although I have to agree that, on the surface, they might all appear similar or the same. This article may drive home the importance of using a qualifier before the word “meditation.” As a zen meditator I look forward to an open discussion with military meditators – I am sure we will all learn from each other.

    • Hi Kathy,

      I’d imagine that a lot of the military personnel taking up meditation are doing so for very “worldly” reasons and in order to be “tougher.” But I know committed Buddhists who originally took up meditation in order to be “cool” or to meet attractive people, and the came around to a different perspective. It’s not impossible that these guys might experience some real spiritual growth.

      I suspect that the way the article packages the training may not be accurate — cultivating “fearsome warriors.” It sounds more like what we’re getting is “cooler-headed” warriors (more in control of themselves) and more emotionally-intelligent warriors (able to come back to civilian life without bringing a bunch of aggression and stress with them).

      There are, as you point out, definitely things that are like meditation that aren’t. And while the attitudes expressed by some of the men are very macho, I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that what they’re being taught is not genuine meditation. Mindfulness can definitely lead to greater endurance and courage. The Zen tradition has stories like the monastery that is being overrun and the monk who stays behind. He refuses to bow to an invading samurai who angrily tells the monk he’s a man who could run him through with his sword without blinking. The monk cooly comments that he’s a man who could be run through without blinking. That attitude of courage and non-attachment comes from genuine spiritual practice. Until I hear more I’m not assuming that this course that’s being taught isn’t introducing real Dharma.

  • I think maybe I have misunderstood the background and objective of Wildmind “Buddhist” Meditation?
    It was my understanding that Buddhism adheared to a philosophy of non violence and was against killing. Hence I don’t understand the celebration of the fact that the army are adopting meditation to enable them to be more efficient in every respect.
    I also find it hard to equate my concept of meditation with the objectives the army are seeking to achieve.
    I’m quite sure that that they are not intending to instill the sort of courage whilch will enable their soldiers to reply, like the monk, that they can be run through with a sword without blinking!
    Again perhaps I am wrong but I always associated Dharma with Buddhist teachings, and I assumed Meditation, was a tool to assist with following those teachings and not of itself capable of instilling the Dharma.
    I would be grateful for any enlightenment on the above.

    • Hi Gerry,

      Posting a news article about meditation practice in the military isn’t in itself celebrating anything — it’s just what we do. We try to collect and make available all significant news stories on meditation so that our readers can know what’s going on in the world of meditation. Posting a story doesn’t imply approval.

      You’re absolutely right — Buddhism teaches nonviolence. All I know about this meditation program is what I’ve read in the article, so I don’t have much to go on in terms of judging it. But in principle, given the reality that we have a military, I’d rather that military personnel were developing mindfulness than not. For one thing, troops in stressful situations will be less likely (I would hope) to make rash decisions and to lose their heads, leading to less loss of innocent life. For another, soldiers who are able to manage their emotions better will be less likely (again I would hope) to bring undigested stress back into civilian life, leading to a reduction in post-traumatic stress and the violence that can lead to.

      As I said, I don’t know enough about this program to either celebrate it or condemn it, but I can see how it could be a force for reducing the amount of violence in the world. Who knows, if some military personnel really take on board the potential karmic consequences of harming others (and remember that that’s a relatively rare event — one third of all US soldiers in WWII returned home without having fired a shot) they may even decide to change careers.

      I’m not sure what grounds you have for saying “I’m quite sure that that they are not intending to instill the sort of courage which will enable their soldiers to reply, like the monk, that they can be run through with a sword without blinking”. I’d have thought that was very much the case — although not quite as literally as you seem to be taking my remark. Soldiers who are more mindful are less likely, say, to retaliate against civilians who are insulting them or harassing them. They’d be better able to handle their emotions. I think that would be a good thing.

  • Dear Bodhipaksa,
    Thank you for your very helpful and comprehensive reply to my comment.
    It is always helpful to get another viewpoint on a situation, and, as in this case, see a positive side, where there seemed to be none.
    Many thanks again,
    Very best wishes,

    • Hi Gerry,

      Thanks for your kind reply. I’d imagine you’re probably wary — and rightly so — of the way that historically religion has sometimes allied itself with militarism, and lent its blessing to violence. As you’ve probably gathered, I don’t hold with that at all.

      All the best,


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