The Case for Mindfulness and Meditation in Law Enforcement


Crawford Coates

Photo Courtesy of Landon Jensen

Have you ever experienced dissociation during a critical incident? For example, a police officer friend of mine was shot at while pursuing a robbery suspect in an apartment complex. Multiple shots were fired and he remembers hearing none of them. He remembers worrying preeminently about his rookie partner (whose shoulder was grazed by a bullet) and seeing a muzzle flash. Tunnel vision, memory lapse, auditory exclusion, altered sense of time—these are all indications of dissociation, which he then experienced. Does it sound at all familiar?

Dissociation is a psychological term for negative mental disconnection – those times when the healthy integration of thoughts, feelings, and experiences into the stream of consciousness and memory doesn’t, for one reason or another, happen (Bernstein and Putnam, 1986).

I didn’t start to meditate for fear of dissociation. Way back in 2005 I was working at a title called Brain Research. Several studies of mindfulness, particularly of the cognitive flavor, were coming across my desk. Paired with the emerging research into neuroplasticity, this seemed promising. But it required a few years and a couple of offspring before I actually learned to meditate. Not easy. Simple, but not easy.

The mind is wild. That’s the first lesson meditation practice showed me. No joke: I nearly stood up, screamed expletives, and ran out of that dojo with no intention of returning! But I didn’t. I let crazy thoughts go and returned to my breath, as I was instructed to do. It was profound to see how my thoughts could run riot, on one hand, and how at the same time I could be my own source of calm and peace. So I stuck with it, despite challenges. I even wrote a book on the topic.

Am I enlightened? Not. Even. Close.

Let’s return again to the concept of dissociation. Like other trait disorders, dissociation exists on a spectrum. There are the more extreme, trauma-induced examples like my police officer friend experienced. And then there are more mundane and run-of-the-mill cases like, well—me. Through meditation I was able to see the value of presence, even when I’m confronted with uncomfortable feelings such as loneliness, boredom, tiredness, aversion, guilt, hunger, and so on. Feelings pass. But within me—and, I believe, within each of us—is a deep and abiding peace that we can learn to access, maybe through prayer or a walk through the park, or meditation.

I hasten to add that I didn’t learn to meditate because the science said so. Meditation practices aren’t mechanistic. That is, I can’t tell you to do X and expect Y as the result. Americans operationalized (and commercialized) meditation practices under the broad concept of mindfulness. With the development of fMRI and other imaging technologies, we have been able to see the changes it imprints upon our brains and in our lives. It’s fascinating stuff. But it’s not a recipe for enlightenment. The best I can tell, there is no recipe for enlightenment. The most we can hope for is to be more present and at peace in our lives.

This is especially important for today’s first responder. In a December 2008 article published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders, McCaslin et al. argue that trait dissociation predicts post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in police. A July 2006 article published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences by Marmar et al. correlates dissociation experience during and immediately after traumatic events with increased PTSD symptoms in emergency responders as well. In other words, as a first responder you might be called into a traumatic event and not remember being there. Or, you might remember something that didn’t happen outside of your mind. And down the line you might suffer for it, perhaps profoundly.

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you could do a better job of being here now. Training your mind to be present under ideal conditions (comfortable temperature, soft cushion, quiet, a time of your convenience—e.g., regular meditation) seems to pay dividends outside of those strict parameters. It seems this practice allows us to more fully appreciate the precious moments we have been given.

But there’s another benefit, one that we see readily when we look at the world of sport. When the heat is on, athletes deliver. Or they try to. They train tirelessly to this end, and meditation has assumed an increasingly important role in that effort. George Mumford, for example, has been the mindfulness coach for the championship Bulls and Lakers, as well as such individual athletes as figure skater Sasha Cohen. Mindfulness and meditation are now par for the course (pun intended) in professional athletics, ranging from golf to MMA. It seems that learning to paying attention, on purpose, when the stakes are low often translates to improved performance when the stakes are high. What’s this have to do with first responders?

As a first responder, you deal with highs and lows and boredom and everything else. But critical incidents are called that for a reason. Could meditation save your life? Perhaps. But it might also allow you to appreciate all you’ve got and inspire you to go use it to the best of your ability.

About Crawford Coates

Crawford Coates is the content marketing manager at Lexipol. He began working with public safety in 2006, with Wildland Firefighter and FireRescue. His prior experience as a journal manager at the neuroscience title Brain Research made explicit the links between mind, wellbeing, and human performance. In 2013, Crawford began studying Zen and practicing zazen routinely. He has since studied the arts and science of mindfulness and meditation. Crawford is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, International Pubic Safety Association, Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, and a co-founder of Below 100.