Thursday, January 10, 2013

Yoga and Meditation in the Military

The United States Military is trying out a new program called Mental Fitness Training, which integrates yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises in an effort to cultivate mindfulness among active service members and manage stress. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the military has reached epidemic proportions, particularly among soldiers who spend multiple tours of duty in occupied areas and war zones. Meditation appears to be one of the few methods that can help ward off this condition. By acclimatizing the brain to calmer states, it should be possible to limit the damage caused by artificially high adrenaline levels maintained over a significant period of time. Research has shown that meditation evens out the "fight-or-flight" response in the limbic cortex, so there's reason to think that it might be just the thing to help keep our soldiers more mentally healthy and address rising suicide rates that most experts link to PTSD.

The suicide rate of active service members has skyrocketed in the last few years. In 2012, the U.S. military averaged one suicide every single day, with service members were — shockingly — more likely to commit suicide than be killed on the battlefield.

Meanwhile, there is already a disturbing pattern of aggressive Christian proselytizing and accusations of government-sponsored prayer in major military institutions, including at West Point and the US Air Force Academy, which some say is more divisive than healing. A Yale Divinity School study voiced “concern that the overwhelmingly evangelical tone of general Protestant worship encouraged religious divisions rather than fostering understanding among basic cadets.”

On the other hand, new programs like the Mind Fitness Training program are, in part, a non-religious response to these soaring suicide rates and the recognition that, for active service members, mental health and well being is just as important as physical training.

So far, service members appear to appreciate the program. “A lot of people thought it would be a waste of time,” Sgt. Nathan Hampton said to the Washington Post. “But over time, I felt more relaxed,” he continued. “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.”

So the service members taking part in the program find it useful, and research suggests the methods it teaches are helpful. It remains to be seen how it works over the long term, but so far everything looks good, right? The only person who seems to be upset about it is Poor Oppressed Christian Tony Perkins, the head of the conservative Family Research Council.

When he heard about the goals of the program — that yoga promotes relaxation, mental calm, productivity and restraint from substances— he exploded:

“What a coincidence–so does faith! Unfortunately, the military seems intent on driving religion out and replacing it with wacky substitutes,” he said on his morning radio program. “They’ve added atheist chaplains, Wiccan worship centers, and now, meditation classes. But none of them are as effective or as constructive as a personal relationship with God. Unfortunately, though, it’s mind over what matters–and that’s faith.”

While it's tempting to simply mock Perkins' closed-mindedness toward methods that he sees as other than his own, I think it should be pointed out that "faith" in and of itself does not involve nor depend upon any sort of sustained spiritual practice. What makes meditation practice effective has nothing to do with its religious origins and everything to do with actually doing the work. Meditation studies have consistently shown that contemplative Christians who practice the meditative methods of their tradition reach the same brain states and receive the same benefits as meditators working with Buddhist or Hindu techniques.

The problem with the "accept Jesus as your personal savior" model espoused by evangelicals like Perkins is that it entails little ongoing practice comparable to daily meditation. Christian services are not generally set up to facilitate sustained contemplation, which is why mainstream Christians generally do not seem to receive the same benefits as their contemplative counterparts. It's not that there's anything wrong with accepting Jesus if that's where your spiritual exploration takes you, but it's important to understand that a singular event is not just going to "make everything okay" and eliminate the need for ongoing, dedicated practice. Nobody can do your spiritual work for you, not even Jesus, at least if you are expecting your practice to help you work with your mind and cultivate psychological well-being.

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