Try Mindfulness in a War Zone!

I am a social scientist, researcher, in the midst of a PhD focused on mindfulness. Yet, I struggle with being mindful on a daily basis, at least how most people define it and practice it. The reason, hasn’t always been self evident. This all changed last December when I went on holiday to SE Asia with my family.
The first week was tough (on all of us), I felt uneasy, slightly paranoid, and filled with anxiety. Walking around Bangkok, my youngest son turned to me and asked, “Daddy is it safe to walk down this street? It doesn’t look like it!” When we spent time at a small fishing village in Rayong, it took my eldest son days just to relax and realise that people were genuinely coming up to him just to say, “hello” — and not to mug him.

Environment Informs Behaviour

However as the weeks went by, I felt more at ease, at peace, and mindful (we all did). After a long discussion one night in the hotel with my wife, it suddenly dawned on us. Environment, has a huge impact on ones dispositional mindfulness. Said another way, it is far easier to be mindful in a cave, than it is to be in a war zone. And this is exactly what we, as average South African’s are feeling.

My neighbour has been hijacked twice in her driveway. An elderly lady down the road from us, was brutally gang raped, hung from her rafters, while the perpetrators proceeded to then rob her home and steal her car. Gunmen held up to the store a walking distance from my home, I and my family were in that store, and we were lucky to have gotten out unharmed. I could go on and on (just do a Google search about crime in Johannesburg or South Africa in general, you will be horrified). As a self-defence instructor it’s even more closer to home. Each week, every week, I hear of someone’s loved one being mutilated, tortured, raped, or assaulted. Every week, I have to help every day citizens in my country not only overcome the trauma of the violence inflicted upon themselves, and those they love, but to teach them how to survive if and when it happens to them (again).

I live, as does my wife, with 24-hour a day background anxiety. We leave the house always on guard. Our house is essentially a prison, with a safe room, burglar bars on every window, and with CCTV cameras surrounding our house (we have big terrifying dogs too). Take a walk down my street, and you will find every house set up just like ours. We all live in prisons. The thing is, this isn’t a poor, crime ridden neighbourhood either — it’s a well off, middle class neighbourhood. The reality is in South Africa, in Johannesburg, in the end, where you stay is irrelevant when it comes to the level of crime we have to deal with.

What always gets me is that, of course there is crime everywhere in the world, but it is the level of depravity, that goes hand in hand here with crime that makes it different. Here, they won’t just break into your house and steal your TV. Here, you actually hope they find you alone at home when they do break in — because if your family is around — the unspeakable acts they will perpetrate against them, is hard to stomach. No wonder I have been struggling to be mindful. I think I am doing better than most. But when your reptilian brain is on high alert, 24/7, and you haven’t had a complete undisturbed night sleep in years, it all adds up.

Two Kinds Of Mindfulness

I have had no choice but to change my approach to mindfulness. The ‘Hampton’s’ celebrity style mindfulness doing the rounds simply won’t work here. My version, sadly, is an Extreme form of Mindfulness.

Typically mindfulness has been defined as paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. One has to acknowledge that this definition is often presented in a therapeutic setting, not from the position of its application in a war zone. Because of this, I have had to define two types of mindfulness for myself.

Firstly, like anyone else practicing mindfulness, I want the practice thereof to cultivate loving kindness and compassion both to myself as a human being and towards my fellow man. In addition for Buddhists, mindfulness is noted to aid in the moment-by-moment observing of the Three Marks of Existence, namely, impermanence, suffering, and not-self. Impermanence (or Annica) suggests that all things are in a state of flux, both mental and physical events come into being, and ultimately dissolve. The human body for example displays the nature of impermanence in it’s ageing process, nothing lasts, everything decays. Suffering (Dukkha), is the mental and physical suffering of birth, living and dying. Much of our awareness of this suffering is observed in the clinging to worldly desires. Anatta, or no-self, implies that as with impermanence — the self is changing, and fleeting, and to hold onto a self is to invite Dukka or suffering.

From this perspective it is clear that in Buddhist Philosophy, that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, laid a path out that would lead to enlightenment (Nirvana) through what is referred to as the Eightfold Path (Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration). Here mindfulness is only one aspect of this path, which is intended to aid a person in becoming more aware of himself, feelings, thoughts, people and reality. In other words, mindfulness was part of a wider philosophy of life, and only one aspect of the spiritual path.

That’s all and well, until you step out into a world where you are required to be prepared to survive. Life may be impermanent, and fleeting, but I am sure just like you I want to remain living until I pass on from old age. I also want to remain living for my family, and for my boys. Here is where a second kind of mindfulness is required. I refer to this as Self-Preservation Mindfulness. This approach to mindfulness, is one of accepting where one finds oneself, but prepared to respond with defensive action if required. It is a heightened state of purposeful awareness, where the objective is to be clear minded about the environment one finds oneself in and ready to respond to violence if need be. Here, sadly, the objective is not to be altruistic, but rather, to be wide awake to the potential threats one may encounter. Approaching this from a non-judgemental perspective, allows the body to respond from it’s training in surviving interpersonal violence. It’s a clear headed approach, not driven by emotion, or unhelpful thinking.

Here just like the Samurai, being fully present is the only place one can respond with clarity to a threat. As Togo Shigekata notes, “One finds life through conquering the fear of death within one’s mind. Empty the mind of all forms of attachment, make a go-for-broke charge and conquer the opponent with one decisive slash.” It is this state of being that is required from any person, who when confronted with physical danger, is required to secure their safety, and of those they love.

With that said, I recognise that from a Buddhist perspective there is a distinction made between Right Mindfulness (samma sati) and Wrong Mindfulness (miccha sati). This distinction is not moralistic in nature, but rather highlights the aim of mindful practice, as wholesome intentions and positive mental qualities, that not only lead to positive human flourishing, but wishing those for others as well. A sniper, assassin or white collar criminal can be said to be exhibiting mindful behaviour in the deployment of their deed, albeit Wrong Mindfulness.

Maybe to some Self-Preservation Mindfulness may be seen as Wrong Mindfulness. But as I noted earlier, to survive here, in this War Zone, being fully present can mean the difference between living or dying. At the heart of it, no one has the right to destroy, or take away my personal sovereignty. As Mencius, a Confucius Philosopher, notes,

“I dislike death, however, there are some things I dislike more than death. Therefore, there are times when I will not avoid danger.”


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