01/12/2012 08:53 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Healing and Optimal Performance

Resilience -- Part 2

At the outset of World War II, the British Ministry of Information came up with the slogan "Keep Calm and Carry On" for a poster designed to allay the fear that Germany would invade Great Britain. My friend, a commander serving in Afghanistan, uses it for his signature line. Presence of mind in the midst of crisis is a precious capacity, indeed. Zen and the Art of Archery presents the power of immersed concentration (although it does not portray Zen practice accurately). Modern day sports and performance training draws on this wellspring, (see early examples like The Inner Game of Tennis and Golf and the Kingdom).

More recent ideas like entering "the zone," and finding "flow" are offshoots of this approach. Relaxed, deep focus may allow us to function more efficiently while exerting less. Whether or not effectively deploying such focused attention in the fog of war, also reduces war's inevitable emotional repercussions, remains to be seen. Keeping calm and carrying on, completing the mission, and protecting his or her buddies is what a warrior is trained to do. But, a warrior may fight with focus and composure, and a family member may persevere through great strain, while at the same time, overwhelming traumatic experiences are being overridden and sequestered away, to reemerge in unexpected ways and at unanticipated times, months, years and decades later. We need to make space for different kinds of transitions on the road home.

In Tony Schwartz's account of his pilgrimage for meaning in What Really Matters: Searching for Wisdom in America he meets with a wide variety of healers, spiritual teachers and performance gurus. The accounts helped me see that, while there are fertile areas of overlap to mine, there are also differences between optimal performance and healing. The standard for active duty service members is understandably "fitness for duty" -- optimal performance over a wide range of conditions and time periods. The standard for successful reintegration into civilian life likewise has a "fitness" dimension: the ability to receive and benefit from education and training, to find and hold a job, to earn a living, to make and sustain relational bonds, and so on. In other words, functional markers of external success.

But what about living a life without undue anguish? A balanced, fulfilled life, with joy, aliveness, and pleasurable bonding? A gratifying life, infused with meaning and purpose? These point to the "inner transitions" that support and contribute to outer successes and performance, but are not reducible to them. Balanced approaches are needed that address issues such as veteran employment, education, housing, resilience and family wellness, mental health, transition assistance and reintegration, in integrative rather than fragmented ways that recognize the inseparability of "inner" growth and "outer" success.

What are the conditions necessary for creating a good life for ourselves and for others? One critical skill is being able to learn from experience. Stop and think: how many times have we, as individuals, communities, nations, persisted in acting in ways that are detrimental to ourselves and others? How many times do we, as Einstein said, do the same thing over and over and expect different results? What constitutes "fitness for learning?"

An originally untitled prayer by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr points us in the right direction: "May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." There is so much we can't change and yet quite a bit we can, by our response to trying circumstances. We say "give me some peace and quiet!" but can we let ourselves experience their benefits? More to come on perennial practices of quiet and attention, gateways to inner peace.

(Correction: Dan Sagalyn's original story on the Army's Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program was featured on the PBS Newshour, not NPR. Here's the update, in which experts debate the results of an Army study of the program's effectiveness).