University, military collaboration promotes ‘push-ups for the mind’

Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt shared a wide range of experiences during a public discussion on Dec. 14, in which he credited the practice of mindfulness with promoting positive outcomes. Photo: Joshua Prezant/University of Miami
By Michael R. Malone

Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt shared a wide range of experiences during a public discussion on Dec. 14, in which he credited the practice of mindfulness with promoting positive outcomes. Photo: Joshua Prezant/University of Miami

University, military collaboration promotes ‘push-ups for the mind’

By Michael R. Malone
A general who led combat troops in Afghanistan and Iraq touted the benefits of mindfulness training at a forum last week, part of a visit to the University of Miami with other U.S. military leaders to further collaboration with the UMindfulness Initiative.

At a public presentation on Wednesday evening in the Newman Alumni Center, Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt, director of U.S. Army Staff, shared how some of his most intense military experiences—from an assault in the Afghan mountains to negotiations with antagonistic tribal sheiks—convinced him to adopt practices to better focus and calm the mind and how these mindfulness techniques have transformed his personal and professional life.

Piatt, Maj. Gen. Christopher Norrie, and the cadre of other military officers visiting the University of Miami are leading advocates for integrating the awareness-enhancing practices into all levels of the military experience, from junior enlisted soldiers in boot camp to top enlisted and officer leadership across the Army.

The officers continued their University visit on Thursday, meeting with Mindfulness Practice and Research Initiative (UMindfulness) co-founders Amishi Jha, a professor of psychology and director of Contemplative Neuroscience, and Scott Rogers, a law lecturer and founder and director of the Mindfulness in Law Program at the School of Law. They also met with other University leaders to discuss the long-term mindfulness research collaboration that Jha and Rogers have had with the U.S. Army. Both Jha and Rogers have authored books on the benefits of mindfulness.

Leonidas Bachas, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, welcomed Piatt to the “Leading with Attention, High-Stakes Decision-Making” forum, noting that researchers in his field of chemistry benefit from the practices.

Piatt, who has spent four decades in military service with deployments in combat zones around the world and received distinguished service medals, shared a wide range of experiences in which he credited mindfulness training with promoting more positive outcomes.

“Soldiers in our Army can be as young as 17 and have a variety of different professional and life experiences. We depend on our soldiers to make life and death decisions, sometimes without all of the information and with minimal time to react,” said Piatt. “Mindfulness trains the mind to be present in the moment, focus on what’s really important, and gain an understanding of the entire situation. A soldier’s decision to act can be just as important as their decision to not act—mindfulness is the tool that sharpens the mind. We owe it to our country’s sons and daughters to place as much emphasis on the mind as we do on the body.”

“It showed me that there are other ways that we can provide this type of mind training and that we need to develop a preventive strategy and an implementation plan for including this training in the military,” he added.

LT COL Izabella Lundy, Jha, Piatt, Rogers.
From left, Lt. Col. Izabella Lundy, Amishi Jha, Lt. Gen. Walter Piatt, and Scott Rogers. Photo courtesy Amishi Jha

Jha founded UMindfulness together with Rogers soon after arriving at the University in 2010 with the intent of creating a world-class hub for cutting-edge mindfulness research and training. In addition to its research and scholarship, the initiative offers public lectures and training programs to the University and local community. 

Piatt first met Jha 12 years ago. He was a brigade commander and after his brigade returned from a 12-month deployment to Iraq, he started observing a variety of problematic behaviors in soldiers, and many appeared to be “checked-out,” already planning for the next deployment.

Piatt began practicing mindfulness techniques and soon recognized the benefits.

“I didn’t know about this thing called ‘mindfulness’ and I don’t think we mentioned ‘meditation’ in our initial meetings with Dr. Jha. I just knew that the way we were doing things and the re-integration programs we had established were just not working,” he recalled.

“The techniques were like push-ups for the mind; and as soldiers, we’ll try new exercises and new approaches. And if we see the benefits, we’ll want to do more,” he added.

Etienne Atangana, a first-year student studying neuroscience, said that listening to Piatt’s presentation made him more sympathetic to the plight of soldiers.

“They’re often in dangerous situations and have to make split-second decisions that can be the difference between life and death,” said Atangana, who has practiced mindfulness meditation for several years. He’s familiar with the practice through podcasts and has been reading Jha’s recent book—“Peak Mind”—on the subject.

Carol Kaminsky, a senior lecturer in dance and the dance program coordinator at the Phillip and Patricia Frost School of Music, will be collaborating with Jha’s team on a pilot research study next semester to explore the effect of infusing mindfulness techniques into dance therapy classes. 

“Leaders have so much influence, and it’s so inspiring to see military leadership really advocating for this training and practices. People really look up to a three-star general like Gen. Piatt and pay attention to what they have to say,” Kaminsky said.  

Piatt said he was very grateful to Jha and her colleagues who have been researching and publishing scientific results on mindfulness-based training. Her research has led to collaborations with the U.S. Army, first responders, nursing and medical professionals, teachers, and others for whom attention is a matter of the utmost importance.

“It’s compelling and it’s helping people change their lives for the better both personally and professionally,” he said. “For anyone who has a high-stress job, one where maybe their decisions can result in life or death or the loss of billions of dollars, you want to be right there in the moment—and not somewhere else—so you can make the best possible choice.”

A member of the audience asked whether the military would adopt an approach seen by many as “soft.”

“There are skeptics, yes. But with all the scientific evidence and self-identified results, those at the operational level get it and the younger generation gets it,” the three-star general responded. “The Army is interested in how this will improve performance. It isn’t about being ‘soft,’ it’s about being sharp, focused, tuned-in, and on point.”