Few scenarios exist where we can all share a common understanding through similar struggles. COVID-19 has united us in an unexpected way by flipping our worlds upside down, putting our lives on pause as we try to acclimate into the “next normal.” We’re suddenly faced with unexpected challenges as individuals, coworkers and parents, partners and more. Adapting to this rapidly shifting situation is new for many of us. But for our nation’s military, uncertainty is something they’ve been trained to handle, with bravery, grit and sometimes with the help of mindfulness.
We sat down with four of our nation’s heroes from Veteran’s PATH, an organization (and eM Life Vibe Tribes charity partner) that builds a community of support for veterans, offering mindfulness, wellness and meditation tools. We’ll hear from: former Air Force F-15 Pilot Mark Williams; former US Army Special Forces Officer Fred Krawchuk; former Marine Corps Intelligence Officer Quentin Finney, and Navy SEAL Commander Jon Macaskill. Here, they share real-world advice for developing resilience, facing uncertainty and more based on their experiences in their time in active duty, combat, transitioning back into civilian life, plus the integral role mindfulness played in their journey along the way.
Check out their insights below, and if you’d like to hear more, be sure to register for our webinar series, Five Strategies from Military Elite Veterans. Click here to view the full schedule.
Using Mindfulness to Cope with Change and Fast Pace
Many of us are unsure of what our next normal is going to look like, and how the world and the way we interact, will shift. Coping with this uncertainty can leave us feeling anxious and unsettled. So how do we approach these sudden changes mindfully? Former US Army Special Forces Officer Fred Krawchuk, who’s spent years developing a mindfulness practice, shares details of an experience where his practice helped him navigate a terrifying situation while stationed in Iraq, where he faced regular threats of attack.
“One early morning the alarm went off while I was sleeping, impending an incoming rocket attack. Imagine getting jolted out of your sleep and realizing in a matter of a couple of seconds, do I really have time to run to a [safety bunker] or not? Am I going to die, get hurt? Emotions, regret…In that moment there was a lot of fear coming up, this avalanche of emotions. Then all of the sudden, I felt the mindfulness training kicking in. In that instant, total calm, total peace and total clarity.
“A few seconds later, I realized I was spared from the attack. In that moment after the rockets hit, I only felt gratitude coming up. Gratitude to be alive, gratitude that I put in the time and effort to have that practice, and for whatever reason in that moment of potential life and death, an amazing amount of peace came to me.”
Through this, Fred discovered how a mindfulness practice can be powerful and help us in the most difficult times.
Former Air Force F-15 Pilot Mark Williams relates to the disorienting experiences of change with the shock of coming back from combat, and the importance of looking inward.
“To leave that world where the stakes are high, where there’s an extreme level of meaning and purpose, all the sudden, it forces you to look inside and really figure out what is your priority. What helps you move through the world with honor and integrity, who is the kind of person you want to be when you show up? It’s a journey learning how to bring all those things together. It’s not always elegant, but it’s deepening. “
The Importance of Being in the Here and Now
It’s a human tendency to dwell on past experiences, and let our minds wander into the future – the uncertainty resulting in pangs of anxiety. Bringing awareness to the present moment keeps us grounded and better equipped for the unknown. Former Marine Corps Intelligence Officer Quentin Finney expresses the importance of sitting with your emotions to increase your window of tolerance, a concept which describes normal brain and body reactions, especially in times following adversity.
By increasing this window, we’re more prepared to handle experiences that might otherwise overwhelm us. Quentin suggests checking in on this capacity regularly with qualifying questions: “Am I safe? Ok, I’m safe. Can I sit with what I’m feeling, moment by moment? Sometimes the real task is asking oneself one moment at a time, is what I’m feeling annihilating me? If no, I can go one more moment.”
Additionally, being in the here and now allows us to focus on what’s important, so you can handle the issue at hand. “There’s a certain level of focus and attention that you have when you’re doing something like flying a fighter jet,” says Mark. “If you get stuck on something you did in the past, the consequences are extreme. Part of the training for a fighter pilot is to really learn how to be present in the moment and have your mind open so you can see what’s happening around you. Being able to listen and see and process and take in information and not get stuck on the story of what should be or could be, but knowing exactly what’s happening in the here and now.”
Finding Peace and Resilience in Discomfort
In the military, whether you’re in the front lines of combat, enduring the challenges of training or trying to navigate normalcy transitioning back into civilian life, tapping into a state of mind that helps you find peace in extreme moments of discomfort is undoubtedly a challenge. However, it is one that ultimately strengthens you by revealing your limitless spectrum of abilities.
“In a lot of the training we had, you’re physically uncomfortable, mentally exhausted, spiritually taxed,” says Navy SEAL Commander Jon Macaskill. “Coming into a mindfulness meditation initially can be uncomfortable. Not just the act itself but some of the things that bubble up in your mind that you may not have dealt with in your past. The training I’ve had in the past helped me both physically and mentally develop the resilience that helped me deal with some of those challenges.”
Jon referred to ‘Hell week’ during his time in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training (BUD/S) where “you go through 120 hours 5 days of training with only 3 hours of sleep. That’s 3 hours of sleep total. And that definitely sent me to places that I have never visited before and since, but it definitely helped grow resilience and mental toughness.”
Amid these difficult times, we’re doing the best we can, but even that sometimes doesn’t feel like enough. When each day feels like a step further into uncertainty – the future of our jobs, the health of our family and our own well-being, self-doubt begins to pool beneath the surface of each choice we make. Excessively questioning our every move can lead to harsh self-critical tendencies. Quentin relates this concept to imposter syndrome, and how to face it gently and pragmatically.
“Sometimes you can start to feel the presence of the imposter, which is an aspect of the inner critic, and working with the inner critic can be particularly challenging. It can be paralyzing, neutralize positive behavior, zap energy,” says Quentin. So how to address it? He suggests meeting ‘the imposter’ by being kinder to yourself.
“Don’t just focus on the negative aspect of things that could go wrong or could have gone better, instead bring in self-compassion by really thinking about whether or not you did the best you could with the information you had at the time – be curious about the lessons, and learn them.”
Other Benefits of Mindfulness
So how does mindfulness translate to how these veterans approach their work? “In the spirit of working in collaboration it requires really trying to be mindful of listening to what people’s needs are without trying to blame, judge or second guess people, so really trying to be open and curious,” says Fred.
Additionally, Jon enforces that a mindfulness practice helps improve productivity, focus, creativity, and perhaps the most important of all: empathy and communication: “If you’re speaking with someone who’s going outside the norm as far as their emotional response, you can understand where they’re coming from and bring them back from the red zone to a more calm level of communication. Empathy and communication go hand in hand.”
Getting Started with your Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness has helped our veterans navigate through difficult scenarios, both personally and professionally. So for those looking to get started, what’s the best way to go about it? “Don’t judge yourself on whether or not you’re doing it right,” says Quentin. “There’s no right or wrong way. I probably spent about five years in the cycle of feeling like I needed the right book, the right teacher, the right location to sit. Now when I work with people, I tell them if you’re trying, you’re doing it right. It’s not about any judgement applied or about how you’re doing, it’s about whether or not you’re simply trying something new that may be beneficial despite being different from your typical experience.”
Quotes have been modified for brevity and clarity.
Written by Melody Beuzelin