Mindfulness … & First Responders???

May 6, 2019

Mindfulness is, at this point, an almost meaningless concept for many. It reeks of an attractive middle-age woman sitting cross-legged in a field of grass with OK signs planted on each knee. She’s ridden a bike here, it seems, and eats lots of salad, and doesn’t do much more than that.

How many times, furthermore, have I heard it suggested that we “mindfully” brush our teeth? Do the dishes? Clean house? And if you were to put the adverb “mindful” in front of any course of action, would it be OK?

Where do these ideas come from? Why are they broadly tolerated?

And then why, for the love of all things decent, did I write this book?

I wrote this book because, as a publisher, the people who I thought should be writing such a book weren’t. Pretty simple. I also knew something first hand. I was—sometimes, too often, still am—a fidgety and angry person. I learned to do zazen (Zen meditation) and it helped. Having worked with first responders for a dozen years, I knew there was a related issue here to be addressed. Many first responders too have trouble sitting quietly in a moment. There is trauma. There are performance questions. So I would gallantly tell their story, from my perspective, for them—that’s my honest starting point.

Beginning the work of research I got a lot of advice on how to “approach the audience,” specifically because I’m not a first responder.

In the book I break it down into two camps, the Touchy-Feelies and the Mumbo-Jumbos.

The Touchy-Feelies want to talk about trauma and community and everyone hugs afterwards and, after blowing their noses, exchanges phone numbers in the parking lot. The Mumbo-Jumbos, on the other hand, want to talk about LeBron and Navy SEALs and neuroscience and then do CrossFit while listening to Joe Rogan’s podcast. They too hug in the parking lot, but aggressively.

In other words, reach people where they are. This I was told. The problem with pandering to people, however, is that we, as people, are all over the place, emotionally and mentally and physically—even as we don’t like to admit it!—and especially my friends in first response. The job demands it.

The real challenge of this book then was to reach you comprehensively: in your darkness and also in your light, in your stillness and in your activity, on duty and off. So I deferred, as we often do, to the scientific literature.


Meditation shrinks the amygdala. Mindfulness improves relationships. It cures psoriasis, and so on. The mindfulness boosters in the scientific community are astounding in their output. Google Scholar has 439,000 mindfulness-related search results, and growing. The mind boggles. That’s in the book too.   

A few weeks ago I completed what we in Zen call sesshin. In Japanese this means “touching the heart-mind.” In English, this means “pain in the ass”: getting up at 4:30 a.m. and sitting still for four or more hours a day staring at a blank wall, on a freezing mountain, without talking to anyone, eating barely seasoned vegetarian food out of tiny oryoki bowls, with sticks …

But something quite profound comes of this process. It sucks, intensely, but for a purpose.

Simply put: Sitting in front of blankness, in quiet, and letting the thoughts and feelings of the mind percolate through this stillness, like water purifying itself over river sands and cobbles, through reeds and fishes and algae, the issues of life show themselves in bold relief. And, paradoxically, that bold relief shows itself to be an ambient gray. And then the gray itself becomes—luminous.


I’m sure you’ve had a similar experience in your life. Time goes by a little more slowly and everything seems to be exactly in its place. We sometimes call it “Flow” or “The Zone.” It’s a great place to be, right? To see the miracle of the moment in its infinite glory?

That’s why I meditate. Sort of. Not because I’m getting some reward for it, but something about sitting on a cushion, in relative quiet, over time, with intention and attention, pins me to the here and now—where I will always be. Self-consciousness makes way, subtly, maybe, for self-awareness. It reminds me of a quote I’m probably getting wrong (attributed, I think, to either Joshu Sasaki or Shunryu Suzuki): “You’re perfect as you are. And you could use some improving!”


What worries me about the term mindfulness now, and the industrial complex that has arisen to buttress it up, is that it seems a bit lost in a bustling swap meet. It’s like some sort of get-rich-quick scheme on the installment plan. Bullshit. You don’t need special cloths. You don’t need to be right in the head. There is no requisite magazine subscription. It doesn’t care about your race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or what you ate for breakfast. In fact, it doesn’t care about the celebrated science behind it. You come to this practice as you are, where you are.

You sit. The subconscious somehow becomes, over time, objectified: a silly, beautiful friend, this monkey mind. You accept that. Life goes on. But you sit. As T.S. Eliot put it in his poem “Ash Wednesday”: “Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still.”

Mindfulness isn’t about inaction or stopping the cognitive process or becoming apathetic at all. It’s instead about creating the space for real thinking about real issues and thereby formulating a reasonable response. This is why it’s so important, I think, for you, my front-line friends—why I wrote the book: The A in OODA stands for what your will be judged by.

To see the miracle through the noise and the inevitable grief that will arise: Social media, bad calls, politics, illness, money trouble, phony leaders, betrayals, and so forth—if you can deal with that (life) and still appreciate the miracle of it all (also, life), well, you’re probably more mindful than I am.


It’s a book I didn’t want to write. And having written it, it’s not the book I would write today. Still, I think it’s one that will be helpful for first responders and other front-line workers. Bottom line: Life doesn’t require celebrities or social media, pundits or academics. But without people like you all institutions shut down. Life as we know it stops. As soon as now.

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