(LEXINGTON, Va.) -- Deep in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, a prestigious military college in southern Virginia steeped in more than a century of tradition has embraced meditation courses as a way for cadets to become more mentally fit.
Dr. Matt Jarman, a psychology professor who focuses on leadership and mental fitness, and Dr. Holly Richardson, a physical education professor who specializes in exercise physiology, both teach courses involving meditation at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia.
“Meditation is not this kind of soft, fluffy thing,” Jarman said. “You’re facing your fears, you’re facing your stresses head-on or leaning into them, and it’s giving you the tools to do that more effectively and not get swept away by them.”
Jarman has made mindfulness practice a centerpiece of his “Modern Warriorship” class. Mindfulness is a series of meditation techniques that are designed to slow the mind, focus on the breath and bring attention back from distraction.
“From my perspective, a warrior is one who … is creating change in a process for the benefit of others,” Jarman said. “And ‘warriorship,’ the way I’m talking about it, is the mental and physical training, the discipline training, to allow you to be a more effective warrior, to allow you to be more mentally and physically able to, when the time comes, to help others.”
Jarman said he has his students practice meditation for 15 minutes every morning and then five minutes before they start homework, as a way to tie the meditation to a habit.
“They have to do work, at some point, right? So if they can tie the meditation to that, then hopefully, even when they leave this class, they still have that cue to prompt this behavior,” he said. “Habits don’t require you to exert willpower because you just do it.”
Richardson teaches a mindfulness class following the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness curriculum, which focuses on stress reduction. She introduced meditation on campus as a way to help cadets handle stress better, whether it’s studying for an exam, preparing for a big game or having to go see the commandant of cadets, who oversees the college’s daily military regimen.
“We talk about … when they have to go see the commandant for a demerit, again they have their breath, have that presence to breathe three-five times before going in and [then] having a more productive conversation,” Richardson said.
Many VMI cadets have plans to serve in the military after graduation or some have already served in the military and come to the college as veterans. Jarman acknowledged that there are critics who have raised ethical questions about teaching meditation to soldiers when they may be ordered to kill another person during wartime.
“From my perspective … the mental training allows you to be better at making decisions [while] acting quickly,” he said. “So in my mind, it allows you to do your job better which hopefully results in as few casualties as possible. So I would rather, if someone is in a profession that requires that sort of action, that they be as mentally sound as possible.”
Richardson added that there is science that shows meditation can help soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because the practice helps them “remain present,” and “reset the channel” instead of “playing the same tape over and over” when they come home from war.
Jarman and Richardson said they have received little pushback from VMI cadets when they have them practice meditation. Richardson said some cadets will say they don’t have time. Jarman added that some cadets have told him their roommates will make fun of them for practicing, but he says he turns that around to show the cadets that practicing meditation can help make them tougher.
“If you can’t do something as simple as meditating and be OK with the fact that others might think that it’s a little weird, then you’re not really getting into the training yet,” Jarman said. “In modern warriorship, part of being someone who can make change when change is necessary means you’re going to be going against a lot of people, so I view that as wonderful practice.”
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