Because I am a retired Navy SEAL with PTSD and I practice and teach mindfulness and meditation, people sometimes ask me if I ever get retriggered. I can, and I do. What I tell people is that practicing mindfulness and meditation doesn’t make you impenetrable to pain, sadness, anxiety, stress, or even depression, but it does help you process those emotions in a different way.
Recently, in fact, I did get triggered by something and I had to take a step back rather than push down and avoid my emotions as I did for many years, which as we all know only works for so long. This time, I told myself it was okay to feel these emotions and went to a quiet place by myself and just sat with them, allowing them to be what they were. My personal mantra has become, “The only way out is through,” and so when I sat with those triggered feelings of sadness and anxiety, I simply encouraged my inner capacity to let go and practice nonjudgmental awareness. I meditated, did some breathing exercises, and after about two hours, I was on the other side of it.
I think what’s crucial to understand is that we are not our emotions. “I am” can be powerful words, but not always powerful in a positive way. If we tell ourselves, “I am angry” or “I am afraid,” then we start defining ourselves as such, which can stagnate us. But the truth is that we are just going through a particular experience that caused us be feel angry or afraid. So, if you have something that triggers fear, for example, then sit with it; you can’t be brave or courageous if you’re not scared, right? That’s where the growth is … in that liminal space between fear and courage. I read somewhere that if you visualize yourself standing behind a waterfall, you can watch your emotions, one by one, fall with the water. They come, they go, they wash over you, but they are not you.
I miss being a Navy SEAL. It was my dream job — surrounded by people who were some of this country’s top performers, both men and women, SEALs and non-SEALs alike in the special operations community. I also loved the work itself. There was a sense of purpose, mission, identity, and a sharing of goals that truly meant something.
When I started thinking about getting out around spring 2018, a previous military boss of mine turned friend and mentor told me to start planning, to find something where I could discover new meaning. I did a lot of researching, networking, and thinking as I started that planning process. It took a while, but ultimately, after retirement, the answer to what I wanted to do — what I had already started to do on a small scale with a few fellow veterans and others — stared me right in the face. I still wanted to help my fellow men and women here in this country, and now I could do it by teaching mindfulness and meditation. I took a leap of faith and my work now has been — and continues to be — a phenomenal journey. I mean, I get to help other people as I continue to answer my own greater “why.”
What started with my own need to help myself deal with PTSD — basically, help myself come back to life — has developed into a business where I can offer mindfulness and mental health consulting to individuals and audiences of, to date, mostly service members, veterans, and their family members, fire departments, police and law enforcement organizations, and first responders.
And the more I do, the more opportunities I get to expand my world and myself through the people I meet and work with. For example, I collaborate with Theresa Larson, DPT, at MovementRX, a Marine vet turned doctor of physical therapy, to help people develop their own deep connection between the mind, body, and spirit; Navy and Air Force Veteran Dr. Seth Hickerson at My Steady Mind, helping people “breathe and move on”; and Army Special Forces Veteran Jason Van Camp at Mission Six Zero, helping people grow through deliberate discomfort. And for the last year-and-a-half, I have partnered with Will Schneider, a yoga and mindfulness teacher, on our Men Talking Mindfulness podcast where we interview some amazing thinkers and doers. From so many new connections, moments, and endeavors, I get to expand my own journey of healing — and of what it means to be a human being — while also helping others do just that for themselves.
When I think of myself back when I first started out as a SEAL, I see a very driven, committed guy. Though I am obviously still that same person in many ways, I don’t think that guy could ever have imagined where I am now. But I do believe he would be proud and excited about what has developed and what is to come. One chapter at a time. One breath at a time, right? The world keeps expanding, teaching, and giving through the simplicity of breath.