What mindfulness is not: 8 pitfalls first responders must avoid

Mindfulness is about grounding yourself to where you are so that you can respond to the situation you’ve been called to


By Crawford Coates

“On a daily basis, officers can be exposed to the worst humankind has to offer. They are called upon to make life-and-death decisions in a split second and margins for error are slim.” This according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The chiefs continue, “Despite these known stressors, officer mental health is an often overlooked component of officer safety and wellness.”

Certainly.

In this June 22, 2017, photo, Dallas police Lt. Michael Igo, left, contemplates his response to a task as he and fellow officers participate in a training session at the Center for Brain Health in Dallas. Only hours after the ambush that killed five Dallas law enforcement officers July 7, 2016, mental health experts began thinking ahead, searching for ways to ease the long-term effects of the attack on the men and women who patrol the nation’s ninth-largest city. Scores of them have received or are on track to receive specialized training in “mindfulness” and other stress-management techniques. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
In this June 22, 2017, photo, Dallas police Lt. Michael Igo, left, contemplates his response to a task as he and fellow officers participate in a training session at the Center for Brain Health in Dallas. Only hours after the ambush that killed five Dallas law enforcement officers July 7, 2016, mental health experts began thinking ahead, searching for ways to ease the long-term effects of the attack on the men and women who patrol the nation’s ninth-largest city. Scores of them have received or are on track to receive specialized training in “mindfulness” and other stress-management techniques. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The good news is that more officers and agencies are paying attention to wellness and resiliency, with mindfulness increasingly part of the conversation. But what exactly is mindfulness? It may first be helpful to consider what it’s not.

1. Mindfulness is not the path to enlightenment. 

There’s a sense in the popular press that to put the adverb “mindfully” in front of any course of action is to make it just right. But life, and certainly the work of public safety, is more complex than this arrangement allows.

2. Mindfulness is not about daydreams or waterfalls.

Mindfulness is a unicorn slayer! The idea of mindfulness practice is to return to our senses, because only from a grounded sense of the present (AKA subjective reality) do we get a sense of what action is required if us.

Pay attention. Much of the time, we waste energy on anxieties and guilts, aversions and diversions, and so on. But if you want to be truly effective, you deal – to the best of your ability – with the here and now. Right?

3. Mindfulness is not meditation, though these are related concepts.

Meditation is a deep dive into our consciousness, a sort of practice that over time might enhance mindfulness. However, as former Navy SEAL commander Mark Divine says, “If you’re an asshole and you simply ‘meditate’ for 20 years, it’s possible you’ll end up a bigger asshole because you’re doing a technique that magnifies your dysfunction.”

Nobody wants that.

Having said this, meditation is the best practice I know to pin myself down to reality consistently. It doesn’t take long either and anyone can do it.

4. Mindfulness practice is not impossible. 

I’ve met many first responders who’ve told me they tried to meditate, but just can’t make it work. Or that they have some ritual that works for them, but it isn’t proper meditation. Both assertions belie a premise: That mindfulness is a fixed state or practice and that formal meditation is the only way to get there.

You’ve been here: Maybe during a moment of heightened awareness (suspect pulls a knife or flames suddenly leap from a roofline) or relaxation (a quiet walk in the woods or a few miles of highway on the motorcycle). Sometimes it’s a blend of heightened awareness and relaxation (a newborn puppy in your lap). Time slows down, things become clear and it’s as if that which happens was meant to happen. That’s the meditative state as I understand it.

5. Mindfulness is not complicated. 

Take meditation, again, for example. Conceptually, meditation is simple. You sit in a quiet, unadorned place (a place where your mind isn’t prone to wander) and you come back to yourself. To begin with, you might focus on your breath: The tide-like in and the out, the sensation of oxygenated blood in your hands and feet, the heart and lungs that make it possible. From here, we proceed past the breath, into bare awareness of being. You’re here and you’re alright.

No magazine subscriptions or special sweatpants required. This is a practice that taps into something inherent in each of us.

6. Mindfulness is not easy.

I would be lying if I were to claim to be mindful as such. I don’t meditate daily (although I try to). I sometimes get lost in my thoughts and emotions. Simply put, I could do better. That’s sort of the point.

So, I try to check in with myself at given cues: at red lights, while running, between songs on the radio, during work breaks, and so on. I connect with my breath and body, and then I just allow myself to be present and aware in my place, doing what I’m doing, for its purpose.

7. Mindfulness is not about sitting still. 

Obviously, formal meditation is about sitting still. But life isn’t formal meditation, is it? As a first responder, you must make quick decisions with the best knowledge available. You must deal, furthermore, with bureaucracy and boredom and other such challenges. It’s a lot.

That’s probably a good place to start – acknowledging the vastness of this life and the sorts of attentional compromises required.

8. Mindfulness is not a defense against being a jerk. 

This brings us back to our first point, but it deserves emphasis. I don’t care how often you meditate or what kind of bumper stickers you have on your van, putting “mindful” in front of misdeeds doesn’t excuse them.

Mindfulness isn’t about getting from Point A to B. It’s about grounding yourself to where you are so that you can respond to the situation you’ve been called to. Ultimately you will be judged by the quality of your response.

Conclusion

As a society, we have outsourced much human misery and gore to first responders. The current emphasis on officer wellness and resiliency, and, of course, mindfulness, are welcome developments.

Now that you know what mindfulness isn’t, could you be more mindful today?


About the author
Crawford Coates is the author of Mindful Responder: The First Responder's Field Guide to Improved Resilience, Fulfillment, & Presence–On & Off the Job. He began working with public safety in 2006, working on Wildland Firefighter and FireRescue. Prior to that, he was a journal manager at Brain Research. In 2013, Crawford began studying Zen and practicing zazen. He has since studied mindfulness and meditation. Crawford is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association and International Public Safety Association. He is the publisher at Calibre Press and is completing a master's degree in public policy and administration from California Lutheran University.

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