The following article appears in the Spring 2014 issue of Inquiring Mind

The Militarization of Mindfulness
By Ronald Purser

In 1966 my uncle had just returned from his second tour of duty in Vietnam. He promised that on his next tour he would cut off an “ear from a gook” and send it to me as a souvenir of the war. Disgusted by his grotesque promise at the time, looking back I feel compassion for what he must have endured. My uncle was already suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), given the horrors he faced as a U.S. Army Vietnamese interpreter on the front line, serving in an extremely violent and unjust war.

Similarly, nearly 30% of soldiers suffer stress, trauma and unimaginable pain from repeated tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. I believe every effort should be made to ensure that our soldiers, reservists and veterans receive the best medical and psychological treatments for PTSD.

Mindfulness-based Mind Fitness Training (MMFT, or M-fit) is an adaptation of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s well-established Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. MMFT is a twenty-four-hour program taught to cohorts of soldiers over an eight-week period prior to deployment. According to neuroscientist Dr. Amishi Jha and her colleagues, predeployment mindfulness training may buffer soldiers against cognitive degradation, acting as a form of “mental armor” or psychological prophylaxis against deployment stressors.

MMFT has received a great deal of positive media attention extolling its salutary mental health benefits. Nevertheless, this enthusiasm has managed to detract attention from the ethics of employing mindfulness training for achieving “optimal warrior performance,” which, as I see it, is in the service of war and killing in two unjust wars. Yes, MMFT appears to have legitimate potential for preventing PTSD, but I am troubled that mindfulness practices are being utilized for predeployment counterinsurgency training. I am also surprised that the contemplative community has been relatively silent on this matter.

At the 2009 Mind & Life Institute meeting with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, Dr. Jha presented her research findings on MMFT (available on YouTube). Dr. Jha said to His Holiness: “There is something that I have been very [pause] conflicted about because these results that I just described to you come from . . . Marines . . . before they went to Iraq.” She said, “It seems to me that there is a trust in these practices, assuming they are taught properly, that is corrective. ”

I am not at all confident with the assumption that mindfulness training is taught properly in this context, especially as the military scales up the program. And it is a significant program. Dr. Jha is the recipient of $4.3 million in grant funding from the U.S. Army and Department of Defense for her research on MMFT. The U.S. Army alone has invested over $125 million on resilience research programs as part of its controversial Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) initiative—of which Dr. Martin Seligman from the University of Pennsylvania received a $31 million no-bid contract for a positive psychology program that will involve 1.1 million soldiers.

Dr. Jha, in the meeting with his Holiness, went on to state that, as many scientists worry “that their science could be used for good or evil,” she requested the Dalai Lama’s advice. His Holiness turned to confer with his translator, then said to Jha, “Zero.” After another pause he added, “I appreciate your work. That’s all.”

Dr. Elizabeth Stanley, founder of the Mind Fitness Training Institute, remarked in a podcast interview with Federal News Radio that meditation has “a lot of baggage,” and that MMFT is a technique for “paying attention to what’s happening.” She went on to say that “this is not a new teaching by any means. . . .  Warriors have been using these techniques for millennia before they go to battle. . . . Longer term, meditation may become as standard in the military as rifle practice, another way of making troops more effective and resilient.”

She is quite right. There is nothing new in the fact that Buddhism has historically been used as an instrument for power and militarization, especially when it has been closely adjoined to the state. This is especially the case when it has been stripped of its ethical moorings, as was the case with Japanese Zen militarism during World War II.

Contrary to Dr. Stanley, my understanding is that mindfulness is more than simply paying attention to the present moment. Mindfulness practice in the Buddhist tradition is embedded in an ethical and soteriological framework that includes a cardinal prohibition against intentionally killing a living being. Such ethical restraint against killing can be found throughout the Buddhist path, such as in Right Action, the first of ten unwholesome actions, or the Five Precepts—as well as the commitment to nonviolence, nonharming and wishing for good will for all sentient beings.

Mindfulness as a spiritual practice is easily subordinated for military purposes when viewed as a decontextualized, ethically neutral, attention-enhancement technique. In the book Bio-Inspired Innovation and National Security, in which Dr. Stanley has a chapter, she states:

The military already incorporates mindfulness training—although it does not call it this—into perhaps the most fundamental soldier skill, firing a weapon. Soldiers learning how to fire the M-16 rifle are taught to pay attention to their breath and synchronize the breathing process to trigger the finger’s movement, “squeezing” off the round while exhaling. (p. 263)

MMFT proponents view it as a form of “harm reduction,” as the training improves working memory capacity that can prevent soldiers from overreacting and overgeneralizing, coupled with higher levels of emotional regulation that can even improve their ethical decision-making. With greater mindfulness, soldiers can purportedly be more “discriminating” of their targets, thus “reducing harm.”

However, the “evidence” that MMFT enhances ethical decision-making is limited to a few anecdotal and moving vignettes where soldiers avoided snap judgments that could have led to the killing of innocent children or civilians.

Perhaps in the circumscribed world of “military ethics,” sparing the lives of civilians while taking better aim at the designated enemy is considered exemplary practice. But it is orthogonal to Buddhist practice where ethical decision-making is based on intentions of nonharming, noninjuriousness, and universal metta and compassion for all sentient beings. It is also far removed from the Hippocratic oath of medical practice of primum non nocere, to first do no harm—the very context from which MBSR was rooted.

Let’s remember that the U.S. military is a highly organized system of violence and institutionalized ill will, where battlefield readiness and offensive superiority are driving forces—its raison d’être. It is a little-known fact that 75%–80% of soldiers did not fire on exposed enemies during World War II, which was of great concern to military generals. However, by the height of the Vietnam War, the firing rate upon the enemy among soldiers increased to nearly 95% through enhanced psychological techniques infused into military boot camp.

This mental training is now well established, where new recruits are systematically trained to kill, maim and inflict harm when ordered through desensitization, operational conditioning and denial defense mechanisms. The U.S. military has taken a keen interest in funding new forms of mental training for making resilient, indomitable soldiers. And so we should not be surprised by the militarization of mindfulness.

MMFT is the heir of MBSR, both of which operationalize mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Even if mindfulness is considered “a placeholder for the entire dharma” in MBSR, this clinical definition is extremely vulnerable to being denatured and severed from its dharmic roots—which clearly is the case with MMFT.

The default position has been that the ethical dimensions of mindfulness are implicit rather than explicit, and simply “naturally built into” MBSR, ultimately contingent upon the responsibility of individual practitioners. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in a previous issue of Inquiring Mind, suggested MBSR involves the cultivation of “affectionate attention” and that this form of mindfulness is inherently wholesome. 

However, for me, the image of a solider showing “affectionate attention” towards the Afghani combatant as he pulls the trigger on his M-16 seems absurd. Integrating ethical behavior into mindfulness practice in the U.S. military may simply be too much to ask given its dubious mission and political objectives.

There is no support in the early Buddhist canon that justifies the intentional killing of another human being—civilian or “enemy.” Scholars such as P. D. Premasiri and Laksiri Jayasuriya assure us that the concept of a holy war or even a “just war” in the Buddhist canonical tradition cannot be found, while at the same time not denying the inevitable reality of human conflicts. However, rather than teaching soldiers mindfulness so they could be more resilient in combat zones, the Buddha frequently advised kings and generals to avoid violence and war, counseling leaders to examine the genesis of human conflicts and to identify the skillful behaviors needed to resolve them.

If MBSR is an expression of the “universal dharma that is co-extensive, if not identical, with the teachings of the Buddha, the Buddhadharma,” as Jon Kabat-Zinn has stated, then the contemplative community needs to reflect on whether such military adaptations of MBSR, in this case MMFT, are in accordance with the dharma. And if they are not, both the Western Buddhist sangha and leaders in the MBSR community need to confront the thorny ethical dilemmas with courage and honesty.

Ronald Purser is a professor of management at San Francisco State University and a dharma instructor in the Korean Buddhist Taego order. He began practicing the dharma at the Tibetan Nyingma Institute in the early 1980s. He resides in Pacifica, California.

© 2014 Inquiring Mind