The M Word

Not just something else to do!

By Crawford Coates  |   May 30, 2019
A Marine with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 assumes a meditative position on the ramp of a CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Brittney Vito

Most first responders run from the idea of meditation nearly as fast as they would run toward the proverbial flames and gunshots of their training. And I get that impulse. The first time I tried meditation I just about lost my mind. The stillness and quiet—beyond oppressive. What was the point of it all? I had better things to be doing! What had I gotten myself into?

But thankfully and luckily I worked past those reactions.

My point: As a busy first responder you don’t need something else to do. There’s already too much professionally and socially and individually out there. Which is sort of the point of meditation, as I’ll explain. It clears the proverbial desk.

Meditation Required?

Since writing a book on the topic of mindfulness, I’ve had many fascinating conversations with cops and firefighters and EMS personnel. One of the most common refrains has been: “Mindfulness is great and all, but you don’t need to meditate to be mindful. Right?

No, you don’t. That’s a simple, technical answer.

But this answer misses something bigger. Meditation is, in my opinion, the deepest dive into the regions of life we too often ignore, often at our own peril. Here’s what I mean: Like it or not, sooner or later we all have to sit still in quiet. We have to face cold facts. This might happen in a church pew or a hospital bed or therapist’s office. It might happen on the golf course or on the streets or anywhere and at any moment. These are often what George Mumford—mindfulness coach to Shaq, Kobe, and Jordan, among many others—calls AOF moments, ass on fire: the crucible moments in life where you’re pinned very much to where you are.

Just like meditation.

Meditation, as I practice it, isn’t about getting somewhere beyond the here and now. In fact, just the opposite. It’s not about chanting or incense or sweat pants or visualizations. First, you find a quiet and peaceful spot. There you sit. You breath. You connect with your breath and maybe have a few good, big ones. Then you simply observe the world, and yourself, in this relative quiet. Weird and bizarre thoughts will come, and you will learn to let them go. Same with itches and other bodily functions. Let ’em go. Return to bare awareness. Just be here. Where you always are.

Try it for a minute now. Sit, at first with your breath and then letting the breath go, as well as arising thoughts. Do nothing. Be.

How’s it?

If you’re at all like me, a minute can seem like an eternity. That’s okay. For others, meditation comes more naturally and minutes slide on by. Here’s the good news: You’ve been here before. You have at times in your life returned to the basis of life itself. Maybe during a gunfight or a trench rescue. Maybe during a quiet walk in the park. You’re here and time slows down and things just sort of make sense, everything in its place.

This meditation practice over time has proved effective for top-tier athletes like the ones Mumford trains, as well as elite military operators and CEOs. It also helps with terminal hospital patients, drug addicts, and a variety of mental illnesses and injuries, such as PTSD and depression. That’s sort of the wonder and mystery of meditation. By returning to yourself, things get clearer. Back to reality.


Nobody, least of all today’s first responder, needs something else to do. There’s plenty of bullshit to contend with in this world as it is. For this reason I meditate. It helps me to cut through the clutter and take account of what truly matters. Are there other ways to do that? Of course. But from my experience routine meditation–maybe just a few minutes a day at first–is the most direct route over time. It’s for me the hub of the wheel, so to speak.

Here’s the thing: You have everything you need right here, as you are. All you need to do is accept this, mind and body. Do this regularly, and I think you’ll be impressed.

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Crawford Coates

Crawford Coates is the author of Mindful Responder: The First Responder's Field Guide to Improved Resilience, Fulfillment, Presence, & Fitness--On & Off the Job and the publisher at Calibre Press.

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