While preparing for overseas deployment with the U.S. Marines late last year, Staff Sgt. Nathan Hampton participated in a series of training exercises held at Camp Pendleton, Calif., designed to make him a more effective serviceman. There were weapons qualifications. Grueling physical workouts. High-stress squad counterinsurgency drills, held in an elaborate ersatz village designed to mirror the sights, sounds and smells of a remote mountain settlement in Afghanistan.
There also were weekly meditation classes — including one in which Sgt. Hampton and his squad mates were asked to sit motionless in a chair and focus on the point of contact between their feet and the floor. “A lot of people thought it would be a waste of time,” he said. “Why are we sitting around a classroom doing their weird meditative stuff? But over time, I felt more relaxed. I slept better. Physically, I noticed that I wasn’t tense all the time. It helps you think more clearly and decisively in stressful situations. There was a benefit.”
That benefit is the impetus behind Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (“M-Fit”), a fledgling military initiative that teaches service members the secular meditative practice of mindfulness in order to bolster their emotional health and improve their mental performance under the stress and strain of war.
Designed by former U.S. Army captain and current Georgetown University professor Elizabeth Stanley, M-Fit draws on a growing body of scientific research indicating that regular meditation alleviates depression, boosts memory and the immune system, shrinks the part of the brain that controls fear and grows the areas of the brain responsible for memory and emotional regulation.
Four years ago, a small group of Marine reservists training at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va., for deployment to Iraq participated in the M-Fit pilot program, taking an eight-week mindfulness course and meditating for an average of 12 minutes a day.
A study of those Marines subsequently published in the research journal Emotions found that they slept better, had improved athletic performance and scored higher on emotional and cognitive evaluations than Marines who did not participate in the program, which centers on training the mind to focus on the current moment and to be aware of one’s physical state.
The Army and Marines have since commissioned separate studies of larger groups of troops receiving variations of M-Fit training, the results of which currently are under scientific review and likely will be published in the next few months.
“The findings in general reinforce and extend what we saw in the pilot study,” said Ms. Stanley, an associate professor of security studies at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. “These techniques can be very effective in increasing situational awareness on the battlefield, in not having emotions drive behavior, in bolstering performance and resilience in high-stress environments. I’ve seen effects in my own life.”
A former Army intelligence officer, Ms. Stanley served in Korea, Macedonia and Bosnia. Subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), she struggled after leaving the military and enrolling in graduate programs at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Frustrated by the ineffectiveness of prescription medication, she began to research mindfulness and quickly became convinced that the mental and emotional health benefits of meditation could help not only her, but also other service members.
Ms. Stanley wrote a paper for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), essentially arguing that meditative techniques similar to those used by Buddhist monks were both necessary and appropriate for today’s military — from drone pilots coping with information overload to infantrymen conducting dangerous and stressful counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations.
“The initial concerns form the military were, ‘Is this going to be a waste of time, and is this going to interrupt my finely honed rapid-action drills?’” Ms. Stanley said. “The concerns coming from the mindfulness side were, ‘If you teach them these skills, and they become more open people, will it undermine their ability to armor up psychologically? A few people even wondered if I was trying to make, quote, ‘better baby-killers.’”
Undaunted, Ms. Stanley sought support for a pilot program through her connections in the Army — the same Army that in the mid-1980s conducted a Trojan Warrior Project, in which 25 Special Forces soldiers nicknamed the “Jedi Knights” received six months of meditative and martial-arts training that helped them perform better than their peers on psychological and biofeedback tests.
She found an advocate in Maj. Jason Spitaletta, a then-Marine reservist who was a psychology graduate student in non-military life. Mr. Spitaletta read Ms. Stanley’s DARPA paper and brought it to the attention of his superiors, who agreed to participate in the 2008 study.
Over eight weeks of 12-hour days otherwise devoted to mock firefights and exhausting field exercises, 31 Marine reservists were taught breathing exercises and yoga poses, how to focus their attention and how to prevent their minds from wandering. More than once, they could be seen outdoors, sitting cross-legged and practicing meditation.
Amishi Jha, the researcher who evaluated the troops, found that the service members in the program ended up with improved moods and greater attentiveness — and that the individuals who spent additional time meditating on their own saw the biggest improvements.