The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society


Symposium on Contemplative Practices for Army Care Providers

Representatives from across Army organizations recently attended a symposium hosted by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. They met with distinguished scientists, scholars, and meditation teachers to discuss how contemplative practices and mindfulness training may equip chaplains and medical care providers with enhanced capabilities to give compassionate care and reduce the occupational risks of compassion fatigue, secondary trauma, and burnout. The one-day symposium was a formal way to bring proponents from the Army medical community, Army Training & Doctrine Command’s Human Dimension, Army Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, Army Chaplains, DOD’s Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, Army research labs, civilian neuroscientists, scholars, and experienced contemplatives/mindfulness trainers into a dialogue with each other about the research and science related to contemplative practices/mindfulness and care providers.

Army Symposium

The symposium was the second of a three-phase study initiated by the Center in partnership with Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC), represented by the Chaplain Integrator CH (MAJ) Robert Williams. The first phase produced a literature review by Maia Duerr entitled “The Use of Meditation and Mindfulness Practices to Support Military Care Providers” (download it here). The third phase is a planned collaborative research effort between the Center, the Army, and scientists at Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education as well as the Soldiers who volunteer to participate. The research will be conducted with Army medics and chaplains before and after they attend a 3-4 day contemplative retreat taught by Norman Fischer and Mirabai Bush.

There are increasing indications that military personnel are suffering negative consequences of attending to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of Soldiers. A report commissioned by the U.S. Army Surgeon General (MHAT-II, 2005) found that 33% of Behavioral Health (BH) personnel and Unit Ministry Teams (UMT), which includes chaplains, reported “high or very high” burnout. Primary Care (PC) providers, including physicians and other medical providers, reported an even higher rate of burnout at 37%.  When asked if the stress of deployment impaired their ability to provide services, 15% of the BH and PC personnel agreed; 16% of the UMT personnel agreed.

At the symposium, Norman Fischer (Everyday Zen) talked about the benefits of meditation practice and demonstrated mindfulness and tong len (compassion). He said that military service and Zen training both cultivate selfless service. Sharon Salzberg talked about loving kindness.  Together, they created a stunningly quiet, attentive space. Mary Jo Meadow, a religions scholar and a Christian practitioner who also practices insight meditation, talked about Christian resistance to meditation and yet how the two traditions complement each other, using John of the Cross as an example. Saki Santorelli, Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, bridged into the research by talking about his work with doctors and nurses. 9000 have been trained in MBSR.

The civilian scientists at the symposium represented a small but important and growing group of neuroscientists and behavioral researchers/clinicians who investigate relationships between cognitive/emotional/social/moral aspects of the human dimension and contemplative practices/mindfulness training. The research presented at the symposium demonstrated that rigorous investigation is well underway to understand the mechanisms and connections between contemplative practice/mindfulness training and brain functioning, other psychophysiology, health, and human behavior.

Clifford Saron, assistant research scientist at the Center for Mind and Brain at University of California-Davis, presented on the Shamatha Project, one of the most extensive studies on the long-term benefits of meditation practice ever conducted. The project examines the effects of intensive meditation training on attention, cognitive performance, emotion regulation, and physical health. William Mobley, professor of neurology and co-director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University, emphasized that compassion is a mental state that requires training and effort to develop. The final presentation was by Phillipe Goldin, also of Stanford, a meditator and researcher who also gives the neuroscience lecture as part of Search Inside Yourself at Google.  Phillipe is leading the research in our upcoming Army retreat. 

Military attendees at the symposium validated the need for the research that Phillipe suggested, to examine the acceptability and effectiveness of contemplative practices/mindfulness training with chaplains and medical care providers in a Brigade Combat Team. Medical researchers offered useful recommendations regarding the execution of the study, the Army Provider Resiliency Training program staff offered valuable descriptions of current Army care provider training, and others made suggestions about translating this science into the military culture. As currently planned, the study will examine the acceptability and effectiveness of contemplative practices/mindfulness training with chaplains and medical care providers in a Brigade Combat Team. Pre and Post deployment assessments will include objective cognitive processing tasks and subjective self-report evaluations of compassion fatigue and well-being.
Elizabeth A. Stanley, PH.D, an attendee and an associate professor at Georgetown University in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government, is very much aware of what these practices can mean to someone in need. A former U.S. Army military intelligence office officer, Stanley served in Bosnia, Germany, Macedonia, Italy and South Korea. After she left the military, she spent some months in a Burmese monastery, learning meditation.

“I think this could be transformational for the Soldier,” Stanley said about the training. “I think that our caregivers in uniform have such a capacity and such a desire to serve and are so selfless that they forget their own self care.  These kinds of skills can help provide that self care process to help them be the most effective possible at caring for others.”

return to the Spring '09 e-newsletter