After a While It Becomes Normal

Excerpt from "Meditation Fit for a Marine," by Vanessa Gregory, Men's Journal, Nov. 11, 2010:

[A 2008 research study, partly funded by the Department of Defense, tested a group of] Marines for something called “working memory capacity,” a term that brain scientists use to define a cognitive resource that is much more than simple recall. Working memory capacity powers complex thoughts. It’s what we call upon to figure out restaurant tips, break down spreadsheets, or even settle ethical dilemmas like whether or not to pull a trigger. The level of this resource can be depleted throughout the day. A morning disagreement with a co-worker — or a roadside bomb for that matter — can make it harder to solve a problem that requires math skills a few hours later in the day. In the battlefield low levels of working memory capacity might mean the difference between life and death.

The results of the Marines’ experiences, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Emotion, showed that the men who embraced meditation walked out of pre-deployment training with minds that were more agile than those who didn’t. They also reported improved athletic performance, relief from anxiety, better sleep, and stronger memory. “I wasn’t scatterbrained anymore,” says Major Jeff Davis, a 39-year-old infantry officer. “I had no problem concentrating when I was upset.”

Meditation, of course, has made headlines for years for a range of health benefits, from reducing symptoms of depression to lowering blood pressure and speeding healing. One UCLA study found that meditation slows the progression of HIV by reducing stress that hurts immune function. But many of those studies involved experienced practitioners; some of these Marines had never meditated before but still made mental strides, suggesting the practice is more accessible to first-timers and faster-acting than commonly thought.

The Marines engaged in a form of secular meditation called mindfulness, which is characterized by paying attention to the present. A beginner exercise, for example, involved concentrating on an area of contact between the body and whatever it’s touching, like a chair, for about five minutes. Whenever their minds wandered, the Marines were instructed to refocus. “It doesn’t take you to some transcendental state,” Davis says. “It’s not as foofy as that.” Some of the men, accustomed to excelling at everything they did, were surprised at how much focus they had to muster. As the weeks passed, Elizabeth Stanley introduced more complicated exercises. The Marines practiced “shuttling” their attention between contact points and sounds like wind or the hum of electricity. That may seem remedial, but consciously switching between focal points exacerbates the mind’s natural tendency to wander, and focus can easily drift to a dozen thoughts instead of two.

Near the end of training, the Marines attended a mindfulness retreat at the mansion of John Kluge, a former television mogul whose foundation also partially funded the study. The men spent an entire day in silence, trying to be mindful about every move they made. But some men, like Hermes Oliva, a Navy medic assigned to the unit, still weren’t buying it. “We’re barefoot on this guy’s lawn doing yoga, and we’re supposed to be silent,” he says. “We’re like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”

However, once Oliva was stationed in Iraq’s Anbar province as the sole medic for 60 Marines and 200 Iraqi soldiers, he “did a 180.” He remembered Stanley’s lectures about how mindfulness could cultivate an ability to more easily endure racing thoughts and the body’s primal fight-or-flight responses — those physical manifestations of stress that include shaking and a knotted stomach. “In my tent at night all by myself, I started doing those exercises,” he says. “It would help me recognize the symptoms in my body before they got out of control.”

It doesn’t take a situation as intense as Iraq to trap people in unhealthy stress cycles. Everyday life has the potential to weaken the immune system and diminish psychological resilience, especially in the age of e-mail, text messaging, and nonstop multitasking. Davis, who remains on active duty in Quantico, continues to meditate every day. “I can’t think of any aspect of my life that this hasn’t helped me in — academically, as a dad,” he says. He compared mindfulness to a physical workout like running: At first it seems impossible to fit in your schedule, but after a while it becomes normal. What’s the minimum to get results? Scientists aren’t certain, but none of the Marines in the Emotion study actually stuck to the full 30-minutes-daily regimen — the high-practice group saw benefits with an average meditation time of just 15 minutes a day. What’s important, notes Stanley, is to be consistent on a day-to-day basis.

How You Can Benefit From Marine-Style Mindfulness

Meditation improves concentration, zaps stress, increases memory, and promotes restful sleep. Here are a few exercises to get you started.

Boost concentration (5 minutes)
While sitting, use your hands to find tension in your brow, jaw, neck, and shoulders. Spend half a minute or so trying to release it by rubbing the tension with your hands and relaxing the tightness with your mind. Then focus on the contact points between your body and the chair. Focus on the point where the pressure is greatest. Whenever your attention wanders, refocus it on that contact point, thinking about nothing else.

Relieve stress (10 minutes)
Again, start by focusing on a contact point between your body and the chair. Then switch your attention to a single sound. It could be the traffic outside or even something quiet like the hum of a computer. Alternate between the contact point and sound at a slow, steady pace. This will free your mind from stress. End the exercise by returning to the contact point, and then slowly widen your focus outward to the rest of your body.

Induce sleep (15 minutes)
This exercise should be done right before bedtime, either in a chair or lying down. Wiggle and flex your toes. Focus on the sensations in your feet. Pause and continue to observe any feeling in your feet. Continue this pattern of flexing and resting sequentially throughout your body: ankles, knees, hips, fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, jaw, and eye sockets. Soldiers found this exercise to greatly improve sleep.

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