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Steady breathing

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — something as simple as spirit, important to special ops & law enforcement — an open question ]


Let’s begin with a quote from Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation:

Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.

That’s about as basic as you can get. Breath begins with your first gasp (in-spiration) and runs like a silk thread through your life till your last sigh (ex-spiration) and it’s all spirit — which turns out to be beyond the mind-body dichotomy, and a balancing factor for both.


Fast forward.

Let’s turn from breath — spiritus in Latin, as in spiritus ubi vult spirat, “breath blows where it wants to”, John 3.8 — to its specific application in “combat breathing” as illustrated by the still from the National Geographic movie Seal Team Six: the Raid on Osama bin Laden at the head of this post.

In “Fear Factor”, his review of Amanda Ripley’s fascinating-sounding The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes, published in City Journal 21 June 2008, blog-friend John Robb writes:

… in complex disasters, the biological-fear response can slow thinking so severely that it can kill you.

We can counter fear, however. The best method, FBI trainers say, is to get control of your breathing. “Combat breathing” is a simple variant on Lamaze or yoga training — breathe in four counts, hold four counts, exhale four counts, and repeat. It works because breathing is a combination of the somatic (which we control) and the autonomic (which we can’t easily control) nervous systems. Regulation of the autonomic system deescalates the biological-fear response and returns our higher-level brain functions to full capacity. So one of the best ways you can prepare yourself to overcome fear in a crisis is as simple as a meditation, Lamaze, or yoga class.

I find it fascinating and also sensible that yogic / meditative techniques are now taught by members of the special ops and law enforcement communities:

Training under stress also will help officers learn to control their arousal level. As their physiological agitation escalates, so might their susceptibility to perceptual and memory distortions. Thus, learning to control arousal level can help reduce distortions. Therefore, officers should receive training in and regularly practice ways to control arousal levels in high-stress situations. One process, the combat breathing technique, has proven highly effective in this area.

Alexis Artwohl, “Perceptual and memory distortion during officer-involved shootings”, FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, Oct, 2002

This reminds me of Richard Strozzi Heckler’s In Search of the Warrior Spirit: Teaching Awareness Disciplines to the Green Berets, now in its fourth edition.


Breath, spirit, breathing — it’s …

… “right under our noses”, all too easily overlooked, and heart-stoppingly, mind-blowingly important.

Let’s talk a bit about it…

The Best Books I Read in 2012

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Defining “the best” is at best subjective. In no particular order save the first two, these are the best books I read in 2012:

Best Non-Fiction: Inventing Grand Strategy and Teaching Command, Jon Tetsuro Sumida

Best Biography: The Last Lion, Winston Spencer Churchill, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, William Manchester and Paul Reid

National Security Dilemmas, Colin Gray

America in Arms, John McAuley Palmer

Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Admirals, Walter Borneman

Creating a Lean R&D System, Terence Barnhart

The Twilight War, David Crist

Catherine The Great, Robert K.Massie

Rubicon, Tom Holland

Honorable Mentions:

The First Battle, Otto Lehrack

Master and Commander, Patrick O’Brian

Clausewitz’s On War, A Biography, Hew Strachan

John Quincy Adams, Harlow Giles Unger

Cross-posted at To Be or To Do.

Bouleversé by forgiveness

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — not just “thinking outside the box” — how about upending the whole thing and seeing what shakes out? ]

FWIW, this isn't the world, nor is it upside down -- it's just a rather different map, eh?


A celebrated stanza by the Indian poet-saint Kabir — beloved of both Hindus and Muslims — asks:

Is there any guru in the world wise enough
to understand the upside-down Veda?

There’s a style of poetry used by Kabir and others to describe experience of the divine called “ulatbamsi” or the “upside down language” — and Linda Hess, Kabir’s great translator, writes of it as a language “of paradoxes and enigmas” — not too dissimilar, perhaps, to the koans or meditation paradoxes often encountered in zen training.


Boom! The French have the word “bouleversé” to cover the way we feel when suddenly our whole world seems turned upside down.

Maybe it’s a modern idea? Bob Dylan, I’m delighted to say, no longer belongs to Robert Zimmerman except for purposes of copyright — his songs have entered the cultural bloodstream. Here’s his version:

The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

The world often seems upside down, our values are often quite the reverse of what they might be if we had the kind of clarity that is implied in Samuel Johnson‘s celebrated quote:

Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

And then there are those great ones for whom our world is manifestly unjust, manifestly topsy-turvy — or “through the looking-glass”, if you prefer.

I mean, what else can being “in the world, but not of it” be all about, if it’s not about a major shift in perspective?


I’m writing about this at such length because I just read one of those paragraphs that turns my own world upside down. It came in the middle of a long piece on “restorative justice” and it focuses on the power of forgiveness.

This particular paragraph describes how an Indian-American woman, Sujatha Baliga, came to see the unexpected power of forgiveness, and for her it occurred in a Buddhist context — but the power itself is beyond the boundaries of specific religions:

Baliga had been in therapy in New York, but while in India she had what she calls “a total breakdown.” She remembers thinking, Oh, my God, I’ve got to fix myself before I start law school. She decided to take a train to Dharamsala, the Himalayan city that is home to a large Tibetan exile community. There she heard Tibetans recount “horrific stories of losing their loved ones as they were trying to escape the invading Chinese Army,” she told me. “Women getting raped, children made to kill their parents — unbelievably awful stuff. And I would ask them, ‘How are you even standing, let alone smiling?’ And everybody would say, ‘Forgiveness.’ And they’re like, ‘What are you so angry about?’ And I told them, and they’d say, ‘That’s actually pretty crazy.’ ”


I like the dark blue “sky” and the “clouds” at the top of the map I began this post with — but then, I’m a mostly vertical human who seldom stands on his head, so it looks “natural” to me. But that’s simply a matter of my point of view.

I imagine maps like that one must please our friends “down under”.


A hat-tip to Hadar Aviram, whose California Corrections blog first pointed me to the article about Sujatha Baliga.

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