Mindfulness research is not only valuable for the insights it has provided into personal health and happiness. In recent years, it has also impacted a wide variety of social institutions. Often inspired by Jon Kabat-Zinn's work with MBSR, leaders in the fields of education, health care, criminal justice, and beyond have developed mindfulness-based programs for their fields, with encouraging results.
In this next video, Dacher highlights some of the many real-world applications of mindfulness research that have blossomed over the past decade. In many cases, these mindfulness programs have helped people in highly challenging circumstances: new parents, men and women in prison, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. As you watch, can you think of any other areas where mindfulness "interventions" might be particularly relevant and effective? In light of what you have learned about mindfulness this week, why do those areas come to mind?
The next few units report in more depth on how mindfulness is being applied in schools, workplaces, and law enforcement.
Over the past decade, a movement to bring mindfulness into schools has taken root. This should probably not be surprising, given the research suggesting that mindfulness fosters skills that students need in the classroom, such as reduced stress and better attention.
Many educators got out ahead of the researchers on this front, developing programs before much research had been done on mindfulness among youth. However, in recent years the research has been catching up, as indicated by this round-up of studies on mindfulness in education, produced by the Greater Good Science Center.
This article was written in 2007, just as the mindfulness-in-education movement was taking off. It provides a window into the problems targeted by school-based mindfulness programs, what these programs look like in practice, and some of the evidence of their effectiveness, as well as the potential controversy surrounding them. Newer research is listed at the link above, and other programs are listed toward the end of this subsection, but this article still elucidates the objectives and potential obstacles of programs bringing mindfulness into schools.
Mindfulness at Work
This essay originally appeared in Mindful magazine. Reprinted with kind permission of The Foundation for a Mindful Society. All rights reserved.
Ofﬁce politics. Dictatorial bosses. Coworkers’ emotions bouncing up and down and sideways. Hi-tech tools that keep changing and updating. An uncertain economy and a volatile job market. Escalating levels of expectation. Loss of direction. Too much to do. Too little time. Not enough sleep.
Whether you work in a traditional or progressive environment, on your own or in a sea of cubicles, work life is full of challenges. Most of us are beholden to the income we receive from our jobs, and beyond that, we get up and go to work because we have a real desire to contribute to the greater good. Turning away from work is not an option for most of us, so we buck up and throw ourselves into the challenges of the workplace. Some of us are doing well, successful and satisﬁed. But too many of us are not happy at work. We’re stressed out and quite possibly confused. We may appear to be effective, but gnawing issues like those above can make work secretly (or not so secretly) a drag. That’s not great for us and it’s not great for the people we’re working with. So where do we begin if we want to improve our work life for ourselves and those around us?
I suggest starting with the mind. Ask yourself: What is the quality of my mind at work? What’s happening in my mind as the hours at work go by day in and day out? Is my mind working at its utmost?
The mind contains untold resources and possibilities—for creativity, kindness, compassion, insight, and wisdom. It’s a storehouse of tremendous energy and drive. And yet it can also be a nattering annoyance, an untamed animal, or a millstone that drags us down. Sometimes we would like to just shut it off so we can get some work done or have a moment’s peace.
Yet our mind is the one thing we can’t shut off. So why not make the most of it instead? Why not put it to good use? Through mindfulness, we can train our minds to work better.
By training us to pay attention moment by moment to where we are and what we’re doing, mindfulness can help us choose how we will behave, nudging (or jolting) us out of autopilot mode. Here are a few suggestions for how to bring mindfulness into our workplace. This won’t just give us some relief from stress; it can actually change, even transform, how we work.
1) Check your lenses
Do we see what is really there, or is what we experience ﬁltered through our own thoughts and preconceptions? Maybe we should check how we’re seeing before we try to change what we’re seeing. First, we need to make sure our lens is clear.
Much of the suffering and discomfort we experience at work—and elsewhere—stems from our deeply held views, opinions, and ideas that become lenses through which we perceive the events of our lives. No doubt the machinery of perception each of us has developed has served us well for the most part, guiding and supporting us at critical junctures. But the burden of adhering to set patterns of perceiving while we grapple with the drama and minutiae of everyday life can be limiting and, frankly, an invitation to misery.
When we’re convinced things ought to be a certain way and they’re not, we suffer. When someone refuses to act in the way we think they should, we suffer. When we don’t get what we want, when we want it—or when we get what we don’t want, anytime—you guessed it: we suffer. The workplace, such a microcosm of life in its entirety, is rife with opportunities to march straight into suffering. What we need to explore is whether our distress really derives from the workplace itself or instead from how we apply our default ways of perceiving to the challenges we face at work.
The mind will try to force any situation it meets into its favorite ways of perceiving and will react with distress when it meets resistance. Many years ago I had a coworker who consistently got me riled up. She had a way of doing things that just got under my skin. I would think to myself, “If she would only act this way instead of that way, we would all be happier and more productive.” This was pretty much a daily, and sometimes hourly, occurrence.
Of course, what I was really feeling was that if she acted differently, I would be happier and more productive. I was seeking the comfort of the familiar and the expected and yearned for my coworker to act in a way that precisely supported my needs. However, as soon as I realized that I was caught up in a particular way of perceiving, I found I could alter my perception and apply real choice to how I felt about her. And when choice entered the equation, I quickly realized I no longer needed my colleague to change—because I had.
It can be difficult enough to be open-minded toward others, but it is even more difficult to be open-minded toward oneself. It takes real training. To discover the ways of perceiving you’re apt to blindly apply, experiment with keeping yourself curious, attentive, and receptive.
Whenever you detect yourself falling into an old, familiar pattern, stop and examine what is actually going on. Notice the physical sensations in your body; notice the emotions that have bloomed; notice what stories your mind is generating that make your body tense and inﬂame your emotions. But it’s important not to disparage yourself for falling into an old and unhelpful pattern. Recognize the potentially explosive negative charge generated by your body, thoughts, and emotions. Accept that it has arisen, then make the decision to be in control of it instead of being controlled by it.
2) Put some space between you and your reactions
Inﬂexible patterns of perceiving inevitably prove too small, too conﬁning, for all that our minds need to encompass and accomplish. Inﬂexible patterns of reacting squeeze the life out of us. Each of us has our own pet scenarios that chafe against our expectations. When they pop up, they threaten to stir up jealousy, anger, defensiveness, mindless striving, and a stew of other possibilities. We may end up saying or doing something hurtful, something we’ll regret later and may have to apologize for. We leapt before we looked. Conversely, when we stop to examine how we typically respond to situations, we create space for more creative and ﬂexible responses. Ultimately, as we build the habit of mindfully examining our responses in the moment, mindful awareness becomes our new default mode. Let’s take an example that hopefully is not too familiar. You’ve been working tirelessly with a coworker on a project, but when it comes time to receive accolades for the project’s success, your partner manages to take all the credit. You’re now entering that decisive moment when you have the chance to become master of your reactions. Or, to put it another way, to meet your experience.
Becoming aware of the impact the slight has had on you is the ﬁrst step. Separate yourself from yourself just enough to allow you to examine, free from rote reactions, how your body, emotions, and thoughts are combining to gear up for a response.
By decoupling what’s happening from your reaction to what’s happening, odds are you will prevent yourself from simply being carried along by the experience and instead will prove yourself capable of getting ahead of it.
In examining your thoughts, you’ll probably see a story forming, something along the lines of how you heroically brought the project to completion, only to have it stolen away at the last minute. Once you can see this narrative open out before you like a book—once you have become the reader of the story instead of its protagonist—you have put yourself in position to let it evaporate. You may notice how the pounding heart, sweaty palms, and tightened shoulders you just experienced slip away along with the storyline you just let go of. You gently shift to a state that is more relaxed and, as a result, more conﬁdent. States of being, which can seem so permanent and monumental, are not in fact static. They shift moment to moment, and they can change in response to our awareness of them. It’s amazing how easily a grimace can morph into a smile.
There’s no need to assume that mindful self-examination means you have to allow your coworker to take credit where credit isn’t due. Rather, its goal is to allow you to respond in a new way that frees you from old, ingrained, automatic patterns.
3) Pay attention to the small stuff
Consciously, conﬁdently meeting experiences, instead of being carried away by them, is a practice you can apply in all situations. It is helpful not just in emotionally charged events like the one above, but also in situations that may seem insigniﬁcant, but which could become more signiﬁcant if left unexamined.
Let’s say you’ve taken the attitude that the tasks assigned to you are unimportant or undervalued. Ask yourself if you feel that way because it is true. Or do you feel that way because you’re so used to telling yourself it’s true that you can’t think of it in any other way?
Think even smaller. Imagine something as routine as the way you hoist the phone to your ear when it rings. By really examining this action—seemingly so inconsequential, so unworthy of examination—you feel like it’s something you’re doing for the very ﬁrst time. You may detect anxiety traveling down your arm and tension as you pick up the phone. Experiencing everyday actions up close in this way is not about being self-conscious. It’s about bringing choice, attention, and awareness back into things that you’ve allowed to become automatic. By opening up to the tiniest habit, you make it possible to crack open the larger habits, which seem more resistant to change. You can look at every action and interaction freshly.
The more you understand your own mind, the more you can understand the minds of others. If you come to understand your own body language, you can read the body language of others better. Mindfulness doesn’t give you a crystal ball, but it tends to increase your empathy, your ability to put yourself in someone’s shoes with greater understanding. It enhances your connection with other people and supports you as you build relationships. No action, reaction, interaction, or relationship ever feels uninteresting or unworkable if a curious mind is brought to bear on it. You can actually transform that feeling of, “Oh man, here comes John, my supervisor—I bet he wants me to change my work, again” into “Here comes John again. How can I see and hear him, without judgment, as though we were interacting for the very ﬁrst time—just dealing with what comes up in the moment?”
4) Make a habit of it
For mindfulness to work at work, it helps to have both a formal practice of mindfulness and informal practices that extend mindfulness into everyday life. Formal practice involves learning a basic mindfulness meditation such as following the breath and practicing it on a regular, preferably daily, schedule. Informal practice, no less important, can literally take place any second of the day. It involves nothing more than focusing the mind on whatever is happening in the present moment, outside of the shopworn patterns we have built up over a lifetime.
Mindfulness interrupts the conditioned responses that prevent us from exploring new avenues of thought, choking our creative potential. Each time we stand up against a habit—whether it’s checking our smartphone during a conversation or reacting defensively to a coworker’s passing remark— we weaken the grip of our conditioning. We lay down new tracks in the brain and fashion new synaptic connections. We become less likely in the future to default to patterns that can trap us into being satisﬁed with ineffective and outmoded strategies. We take steps to improve not only how we are at work but the work environment itself.
In this way, mindfulness is not just personal. It has a contagious quality that will change the culture in an organization—not necessarily in big, sweeping ways but gradually, incrementally.
Tara Healey is the program director for Mindfulness-Based Learning at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.
This essay originally appeared in Mindful magazine. Reprinted with kind permission of The Foundation for a Mindful Society. All rights reserved.
On a Tuesday afternoon this spring, nearly two dozen cops from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, ambled into foreign territory: a yoga studio. They were here for a unique course in mindfulness, one that proponents say could help transform policing.
As they settled in, they joked and jabbed with the ease of colleagues who have worked together for years. They piled up mats and pillows with the excessiveness of those who haven’t spent much time in savasana, some building nests that looked like La-Z-Boys.
On one side of the room sat an officer who recently had to confront a man hacking down a door with a Japanese sword—he was ﬁghting off imaginary attackers. On the other side of the room was a former Marine sniper who had served in Iraq, with a haloed grim reaper tattooed on his arm.
Now, in this peaceful room, with the daylight dimmed by mauve curtains, these members of the Hillsboro Police Department were being asked to contemplate a raisin.
“Press on the raisin,” the instructor said in a soothing monotone. “Is it soft, rough, or smooth? Is there a stickiness?”
Everyone was engaging mindfully with their raisin—or so it seemed. “We all knew what was crossing each other’s minds,” Officer Denise Lemen says later.
“We all wanted to start shouting out one-liners.” If they’d so much as glanced at each other, they would have burst out laughing. Or worse.
“Being able to go there, and focus, is hard,” Lemen continues. “In my mind, I’m like, it’s a frickin’ raisin.” (Except she didn’t use the word “frickin’.”)
You may know the raisin exercise. You may recognize it as challenging. What you may not realize is just how difficult it is to run this exercise for cops—and how much it took to get them here. These officers have responded to homicides and suicides; they’ve removed children from abusive parents and slapped cuffs on drunk drivers; they’ve chased down robbers and been taunted by hostile gangbangers. They think of themselves as warriors. And now a shriveled old grape was making them feel like they were losing control.
“It was probably the most difficult thing I’ve done in a long time,” says Officer Lisa Erickson.
Yet, as uncomfortable as this class would get, the two dozen officers signed up because they knew something had to change. Their profession is tough. In Hillsboro, things were even worse. In fact, you might say that Hillsboro’s ﬁnest came to mindfulness the same way a drug addict comes to treatment: they hit rock bottom.
Lieutenant Michael Rouches likes to say that when he joined the Hillsboro police force some 20 years ago, “we were 24 miles away from Portland but light years away from its progressiveness.”
In those days, Hillsboro was all about agriculture—the kind of town where kids were sometimes let out of school to help with the berry harvest. Back then, one of the larger employers was Carnation, the powdered-milk company.
In Rouches’ time here, the population has doubled, to 93,000 residents. There’s still agriculture—including vineyards of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes— and a sizeable Latino population supporting it. But now it’s mainly known as the center of Oregon’s “silicon forest,” where the drivers are biotech and high tech. Genentech, a company that makes blockbuster hormone therapy and cancer drugs, has a packaging-and-distribution facility here. Intel, the chipmaker, has 18,000 employees in Hillsboro, its largest site in the country. Those industries have attracted well-educated workers from around the globe.
For the city’s 120 sworn officers, policing here is challenging, as it is everywhere. As cops like to say, it’s 80% boredom and 20% sheer terror.
“This job,” says Officer Stephen Slade, “will break you down and crush your soul.”
Think about it. Cops take people to jail. They’re not happy. Cops give people tickets. They’re not happy. They arrest the husband who is beating his wife—only to have the wife jump on them because she doesn’t want him locked up.
“Everyone hates you,” Slade continues. A hulking 6-foot-5, he’s on the SWAT team and is called out in some of the most volatile situations. Twice in 10 months he was shot at. As he talked, he jostled his leg up and down, nonstop, for almost an hour.
Everyone knows this job gets to you, says Sergeant Deborah Case. But you can’t act like it. “Our culture is such that we’re supposed to suck it up and not be impacted,” she says. And most police institutions still don’t do a heck of a lot to address these issues. At the police academy, Case says, they talk about stress-reduction strategies for maybe 15 minutes.
“You’re told to de-stress by working out,” says Lemen. A lean and ﬁt K-9 officer, she does CrossFit and triathlons. “It’s weird,” she muses. “I’m still kind of stressed out….”
“We deny ourselves the experience of being human,” says Case. “It’s going to leach out somewhere.”
That “somewhere” might be among their colleagues or while talking to law-abiding citizens. It might be on the street, where some officers are so amped that things escalate more than they should. Or it might be at home, where officers say they have trouble decompressing completely.
That’s what happened in late January in Hillsboro. Police were called to the home of Officer Timothy Cannon. The 13-year-veteran had been drinking heavily and was out of control, according to news reports. He was holed up in the house with his wife, his daughter, and a cache of weapons.
Over the next hour or so, 10 officers, including SWAT team member Slade, tried to coax him out. He told them he wouldn’t surrender, then threatened to shoot them, according to a transcript of the dispatch call. A ﬁerce gun battle ensued, with as many as 100 shots ﬁred. Cannon ultimately surrendered and was charged with 11 counts of attempted murder.
No one was seriously injured—at least physically. But to the department, it was devastating.
“We are so impacted by the toxicity of our profession,” says Lieutenant Richard Goerling, “so consumed by our jobs, we don’t know what to do.”
Figuring out what to do has been Goerling’s longtime crusade—and it’s what has led this suburban police department to some cutting-edge work.
Ask Brant Rogers—the soothing-voiced instructor with the raisins—how he got involved with the Hillsboro police department and he’ll laugh. A rail-thin 6-foot-8, he had the idea several years ago to offer a yoga class for police and ﬁreﬁghters. “I ﬁgured I’d just put it out there,” he says. “I didn’t know if anybody would show up.
“And sure enough, nobody showed up.”
Cops and ﬁreﬁghters, it turned out, were not interested in yoga. Except for one: Goerling. A member of the Coast Guard reserves with an MBA, he’s a little bit unusual for a cop. “I’m a contrarian in the business,” he says. “Because somebody needs to be.”
Some years back, Goerling began noticing how many of his colleagues were suffering from lower-back pain. He knew that elite athletes, including Shaquille O’Neal, were practicing yoga and thought it could help. So he went to Rogers for lessons. Then he started “sneaking in plugs for yoga” when he talked to his aching colleagues.
As he got to know Rogers better, he learned more. Rogers is an instructor of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts, which began in 1979. From the moment he and Goerling began talking, Rogers recalled, they were “on the same wavelength.”
Goerling took Rogers’ MBSR course and began a practice of mindfulness, which he continues today. With a busy lifestyle, he found his four-times-a-week swimming habit to be a great place to practice. “You’re focused on sliding through the water, the sound of your breath in the water,” he says. “You ﬁnd moments to be present in the moment you’re in.”
Goerling found that his mindfulness practice helped him be more patient at home, that it helped him deal with the stressors of his management position as a watch commander supervising two teams of 24 officers in total and as leader of the newly formed crisis intervention team, which focuses on responding more effectively to the needs of the mentally ill in crisis. It didn’t take long for him to begin to wonder how this could apply to policing itself. For instance: could mindful breathing help officers when they had to drive “code 3” to a call, with lights and sirens? Would being “present” help them handle calls involving people with mental illness? Would it help them with their own stress level?
He was certain it was worth a try.
“I began looking into how we build resilience so police officers can go through trauma—whether it’s acute or cumulative. How can they come out and be stronger?”
Goerling was also dedicated to the idea that when police are well themselves, they are able to treat citizens with greater empathy, which forges a greater connection with the whole community. He saw how improving emotion regulation and increasing self-awareness and attunement to others could both protect officers and help them be more effective on the streets.
Goerling began mentioning MBSR to his colleagues, but initially many of them saw it as a little too touchy-feely—something akin to the dreaded yoga.
“I don’t do yoga,” Megan Hewitt still insists. “I don’t understand yoga and I don’t want to do yoga.”
Goerling was undeterred. He began inviting Rogers to training events. Rogers remembers one vividly: a simulation of a Columbine-like shooting in a big empty warehouse. “People were dressed up like they were wounded, screaming, frantic,” he recalls. “Police cars were going with lights and sirens. Officers began jumping out of their cars and started running toward the warehouse. Gunshots were going off, and C-4 charges. “I was like, what am I doing here?”
At the end, Rogers said Goerling introduced him this way: “He said, ‘We have a mindfulness teacher here. How wild and crazy is that?’”
One officer came up and shook Rogers’ hand— a sign, to him, that the team was open. “We’re all human beings,” Rogers says. “No matter what we’re doing, we suffer, and this is a path out of the suffering.”
Well, maybe not so fast. One or two officers may have been curious. The rest? It would take something more than a handshake to convince them.
In the past few years, the military has begun seriously testing a variety of mind-ﬁtness programs, like MBSR, with its troops. Where once military training focused mostly on wartime skills and physical ﬁtness, the Pentagon is beginning to see the beneﬁts in training soldiers to focus their minds through practices like meditation.
In 2009, a study published in the journal Joint Forces Quarterly gave Goerling something to work with. Marine reservists were trained before deployment in mindfulness practice, and a series of later tests showed that those who spent more time engaging in mindfulness saw improvements in their cognitive performance and felt less stressed than their colleagues.
This wasn’t the touchy-feely-hippie stuff cops loathed. These were warriors.
“The anecdotal and scientiﬁc evidence was just remarkable,” Goerling says. “You just couldn’t ignore it.”
He went to the police chief and got the go-ahead to put together a class, taught by Rogers, at city expense. But before the program was launched, the department got a new police chief. And just like that, the MBSR course was dead.
“Basically, he had no use at all for mindfulness meditation,” Goerling says. “It was just a bunch of voodoo.”
The new chief would face far bigger problems. As his tenure wore on, his relationship with officers grew more and more strained. By 2013, there were two unfair labor practice complaints ﬁled by the union and a lawsuit against the department ﬁled by one of its own officers. Morale was tanking.
“It deﬁnitely was a hurricane,” the chief would later tell the local newspaper.
Meanwhile, it was clear that at least some officers were straying. One sergeant was disciplined after buying two gallons of maple syrup—expensing it to the city—then pouring some on a transit station bench. He later explained that was his way of preventing loitering.
And of course, there was the incident with Officer Cannon.
“That was the incident that snapped the organization,” Goerling says.
Six weeks later, the chief resigned. The city hired an interim, Ron Louie, who had served as Hillsboro’s chief from 1992 to 2007.
Louie, who in his retirement was teaching a class on “tactical communication” at Portland State University, was the son of Chinese immigrants. As a rookie cop in Palo Alto in the 1970s, he was among a handful of officers selected for an experimental program: they were sent off to a monastery, where psychologists trained them in a new way to handle difficult calls.
“Instead of walking into a crisis, taking out the baton, and throwing everybody in jail, we’d communicate,” says Louie. “Remember, this was a new thing in the seventies.”
Today, much of what he learned is widely accepted. Still, when cops confront bad guys, the ﬁrst thing on their minds isn’t always reasoned discussion. It’s maintaining control.
“Most cops yell commands like crazy,” Louie says. “Drop the knife! Drop the knife! Drop the #*$% knife!”
Louie was interested in Goerling’s ideas. The department was clearly in need of some help, and with a six-month interim appointment, he had nothing to lose.
“One of the ﬁrst things he did when he became chief,” Goerling recalls, “was to call me and say, let’s make this mindfulness thing happen.”
What resulted was a nine-week class called Mindfulness-Based Resiliency Training, taught mostly by Rogers but with other experts brought in. Rogers would teach meditation, breathing, and other mindfulness techniques and throw in a little yoga, too. Officers would have homework, including readings and daily mindfulness practices, and would eventually engage in a daylong silent retreat.
A few officers, like Sergeant Case, who had already taken an MBSR course from Rogers at Goerling’s suggestion, decided to go through it again. The ﬁrst time around, most of the beneﬁts she noticed were in her personal life—in particular, when trying to get back on a horse after being thrown from the bucking animal.
“Every time I’d get back on, my whole body would shake,” Case says. “I couldn’t control the physical elements of the stress, no matter how badly I wanted this.
“There’s already shame attached to fear in my profession,” she continues. “Mindfulness practice allowed me to accept the feeling and not judge it— accept it and move forward instead of getting stuck.”
If this could help with such a powerful emotion as fear—that “body wash of terror,” as Case calls it—then she ﬁgured it could also help deal with the stresses of police work.
Many officers remained skeptical. Goerling wasn’t going to order anyone to sign up. Instead, he asked for volunteers, taking care to pitch the class as the stuff of warriors. “It’s the graduate school of tactical breathing,” he told them in an email.
That was something Slade, the SWAT team member, understood. As a sniper, you’re taught to control your breath, to squeeze the trigger during the few-seconds pause after you’ve fully exhaled. You have to keep your eye on a target. You have to sit still for hours. Maybe mindfulness, being “present” in the moment, would be useful for that. It might also help ease stress, as studies have shown.
“Maybe this will help me,” he thought. He agreed to sign up.
On the third day of mindfulness class, Chief Louie looked around the room approvingly. There were members of the hostage-negotiating team, the K-9 team, and a team that focuses on calls involving mental health problems. There were civilian employees of the police department, too.
“We have the best and the brightest in here,” he said.
Goerling hopes that these 24 officers will spread the word, and that, as time goes on, the whole force (121 sworn officers and 41 professional staff) can go through Rogers’ MBSR class.
Rogers has had to adjust his teaching for the audience. He tries to use the language of cops—forget Buddhist and Sanskrit terms—sprinkling his discussion with terms like “tactical” and “strategy” and “situational awareness.”
The typical MBSR lingo, about being “present in the moment,” wasn’t necessarily going to resonate here. Instead, he tells them, “Pay attention to what’s happening around you. Notice the thoughts….”
Language choices aside, the upshot of mindfulness training is to help police decrease reactivity and increase thoughtful responsivity; to be assertive rather than aggressive. Without a doubt, this is the heart of good police work. Officers with these skills will be better able to relate to the wife who doesn’t want her abusive husband arrested, better able to communicate and think clearly under stress. In a nutshell: better able to help the people in their communities whom they have sworn to serve and protect. To get the message through to police, Rogers takes care to liken this mental ﬁtness work to the physical ﬁtness activities that law-enforcement culture has long embraced. “Over time, the shape and size of the brain is changing,” he tells the officers. “You’re reshaping how the mind works, just like you’re reshaping the body.” Every week Rogers takes the class through a 30- to 40-minute body-scan meditation. When you get distracted, he tells them, just notice that, without judgment. Then bring your thoughts back to the body. “Each time you do that, that’s a rep,” he says. At one point in class, he ﬂexes his arm like he’s doing bicep curls. Practicing mindfulness, he says, is like building “muscle memory. It’s like doing reps.”
All this is great conceptually. But as Slade points out, you’re asking this of police officers. As he and the others lie down in Rogers’ studio with their eyes closed, he can’t help thinking, “Anybody can burst in that door and take full advantage of us. Part of me is saying, you’ve got to stay on high alert because you never know. …”
Out on the street, he adds, “My life depends on it.”
Goerling says that’s called “hypervigilance.” And it’s not healthy, it’s not sustainable, and it’s not protective.
The mindfulness class “isn’t about being relaxed,” he says. “It isn’t about eliminating stress. It’s about being aware of what stress is doing and mitigating its impact.”
Like the others, Officer Eric Russell, the tattooed former Marine sniper, came to the class with a dose of skepticism. The homework alone requires that something’s got to give—like sacriﬁcing an hour at the gym, for instance. “It really is a big investment,” he says. “A blind investment.”
Still, he’s determined to be open-minded. If there’s something that will give him an edge out on the streets, then he’s all for it. He thinks about what he has to juggle every time he gets in his police car. There’s an earpiece where he hears the voice of the dispatcher. There’s a police radio in the car, which may or may not be tuned to the same channel. There’s a computer screen that spits out information about calls and suspects. Then there’s the regular car radio, which he can tune to his favorite radio station. And then there’s the driving, sometimes with lights and sirens.
“As officers, we spend so much time ﬁne-tuning this craft of multitasking,” he says. The mindfulness class seems to be asking him to do just the opposite: to “sit here and focus on one concept.”
He pauses for a moment, thinking further about what goes on in the police car. “It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen,” he concedes. “Maybe now I can acknowledge that the distractions are taking place but focus on one thing.”
Lemen, too, is giving it a shot. As a K-9 officer, she says, “I’ve been taught that my stress runs down-leash to my dog. If my dog is a little calmer, maybe I’ll be a little more successful. Maybe because I’m doing this mindful stuff, maybe that will help me not be so amped up.”
As she was going through her daily routine of putting on her bulletproof vest, belt, gun, and boots, she realized something: she could put on her uniform in a mindful way, rather than letting her mind race. That would be good practice. Engaging mindfully with routine daily tasks, she reasoned, could help her in the ﬁeld, when things are much, much more complicated.
Goerling has a hypothesis: “The outcome of the police/citizen encounter, every single one, is in large part dependent on how well I am as a police officer. If I’m not physically well, that creates some problems. If I’m not emotionally well, holistically well, I’m not going to regulate my emotions very effectively. I’m not going to listen very effectively. I’m not going to be empathetic.”
Mindfulness, he believes, is “where emotional intelligence and wellness come together.” If officers are trained in mind work, if they practice it, they’ll feel better. They’ll police better. And that’s good for the community.
This isn’t just about tiny Hillsboro, Oregon, either. If Goerling had his way, officers wouldn’t be driving around in the police cars that Russell described. “How do we design a cockpit that is less demanding on the cognition of police officers?” he wonders. Where else can we make cops’ work easier? Can his officers—a group who was brave enough to go through this unusual class—play a role in shaping police work across the country?
“My vision is that we become the epicenter of positive cultural change in law enforcement,” says Goerling.
“Because of our perfect storm of where we are, because of how screwed up things are, a lot of good things are happening.”
Maureen O’Hagan is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Seattle Times reporter.
If you would like to read more about mindfulness, check out the following material.
Greater Good's Mindfulness Feed: A news feed of Greater Good's articles on mindfulness.
"Tips for Teaching Mindfulness to Kids": Megan Cowan, a co-founder and co-director of the Oakland-based Mindful Schools program, lays out some guidelines for educators wishing to teach mindfulness to children.
"Eight Tips for Teaching Mindfulness in High School": Research-based insights shared by Patrick Cook-Deegan, formerly of the Inward Bound Mindfulness Education program.
"Mindfulness in Education Research Highlights": An annotated bibliography of major studies involving mindfulness and education.
"Quiet Justice": Charles Halpern, a lawyer and law professor at UC Berkeley, discusses the movement to promote mindfulness among lawyers.
"Can Mindful Managers Make Happier Employees?": A recent study looks into the effects of mindfulness training for managers.
"Is Attention the Secret to Emotional Intelligence?": An interview with best-selling author Daniel Goleman about his book Focus.
"Meditation Makes Us Act With Compassion": A study suggests mindfulness meditation may help overcome what is known as the "bystander effect."
"Nurturing Mindfulness in Education": Dr. Mark Greenberg discusses mindfulness practices in education.
"How to Be Mindful When You Don't Have Time to Meditate": A Mindful magazine article listing three alternatives to formal meditation when time is scarce.