12/19/2013 07:14 pm ET Updated Feb 18, 2014

Paying Attention to Protect Us

When I worked for Outward Bound 20-some years ago, I heard the saying, "ships in a harbor are safe, but that's not what ships are made for." At that time, I understood the obvious meaning: that we, as humans, are meant to venture beyond home and hearth in order to realize our potential.

After spending a day providing mindfulness training for U.S. Customs and Boarder Protection (CBP) officers at a major U.S. port of entry, I understand this saying more deeply. I see that having a safe port is a privilege and an honor, and those who keep our ports safe deserve our gratitude, support and respect.

If you watch closely as CBP officers work, you can see that they bear a huge responsibility yet have very little time to make incredibly complex assessments regarding a seemingly endless stream of people. They work hard all day "thinking" as one supervisor explained, and looking for the tiniest red flag that might indicate an enormous threat. What looks like the simple task of stamping passports and collecting forms is just the outermost level of their ongoing activity.

Paying attention, without paying attention to the experience of paying attention, can lead to mental and emotional fatigue. And, such fatigue can take a serious toll on those who remain vigilant, and directly place all of us at risk. Here are two ways that mindfulness training can help CBP officers, or any one doing this kind of job, mitigate their own mental strain, and increase everyone's security:

• Recognize that protecting borders utilizes two main types of attention: open attention (for scanning the crowd to see what stands out) and tight attention (for focusing hard on someone or something that catches attention). Rapidly switching between these two types of attention takes skill, and can be exhausting -- and this is what CBP officers do all day.

It helps to pause, frequently, and let the mind take a several-second rest in between shifting focus. Switching attention to taking a single, mindful breath can provide this beneficial mental pause, and also allow the body to have a mini-moment of relaxation. Then, a few seconds later, both mind and body are in better shape to continue paying attention.

• Realize that it's critically important to experience each instance freshly, and benefit from past experience without being blinded by rapid assumptions. Mindfulness techniques support this skill, by heightening sensitivity both to what's actually happening as well as the mind's natural tendency to interpret current experience by matching it to the stuff of memories. This heightened sensitivity comes with practice, and it helps us differentiate between what we think is real, and current reality.

Consider a CBP officer sees someone who looks, speaks, acts or otherwise repeats behaviors that raise a red flag. Maybe the person wears dark sunglasses to the immigration counter (located in a windowless room). As anyone who watches crime shows on TV knows, this behavior raises suspicion. Immigration officers know a whole lot more that reinforces our common-sense assessment. But what happens when an officers sees those glasses and automatically makes an assumption that triggers a process which, while warranted for a potential terrorist, is a totally inappropriate for some poor guy with a serious eye infection who is wearing sunglasses to spare others the gross sight of his eyes. What's important is being able to see what is, and not just what seems to be.

CBP officers have to make quick decisions that have profound consequences. They are so much more than functionaries who stamp passports and collect customs forms. They are the first line of defense at U.S. Borders, responsible for maintaining a secure homeland for those who stay in America, and safe harbors for those of us who venture outward and then return home.

CBP pays attention to protecting us, and deserves greater public awareness and appreciation. A little more mindfulness would help all of us -- CBP and civilian alike -- fulfill our roles even better.