Our military and paramilitary troops often struggle with contradictory stresses – that of boredom punctuated with potential conflict or crisis. Doing things no-one else is willing to do, for a sometimes ungrateful public. It’s great to see more groups turning to meditation and mindfulness training.
This report is part of a four-day series on mindfulness and policing. Members of the Hillsboro Police Department and others spoke to The Oregonian about their experiences with the training, how they applied mindfulness on the job, what it could mean for law enforcement and why it matters.
Rohn Richards is a SWAT guy.
The Hillsboro sergeant’s job requires extreme concentration. He must be able to watch, and wait, for hours at a time, ready to act the moment a suspect emerges.
Focus is crucial; the mind can’t wander too far. It’s also one of the hardest parts of the job.
So when the Hillsboro Police Department started offering mindfulness training last spring, he was a bit skeptical. He understood the premise — the practice of being present in the moment to build resiliency — but it involved meditation. He thought it was fluff, yoga. Stuff he didn’t need.
Yet he kept an open mind. He knew the U.S. military used mindfulness training, and figured there must be something to it if the Marines are doing it.
Richards went into the training hoping to develop stronger focus. He also wanted more clarity, both on- and off-duty.
“Not that everything was just in disarray,” he said. “But things get so busy.”
Work life, home life.
Police work can make it hard to relax, he said. The stress can make it tough to wind down, to go to bed and go to sleep.
“It’s easier,” he said, “to grab a drink, watch TV and fall asleep in the chair.”
Richards, a former dairy farmer, has been an officer for 14 years. The mindfulness course was unlike any training he’s ever had. For weeks, he didn’t get it. He was beginning to think it was a waste of time.
“I am being forced to sit still,” he recalled thinking. “I’m being forced to try and not think about things,” which only had the opposite effect.
While sitting on the yoga mat, Richards would mentally flip through his to-do list: the calls that needed to be made, the reports that needed to be done. He thought about this, he thought about that.
Then it began to click. He started paying more attention. When his mind started wandering, he’d notice and stop it.
He focused his attention on his body, exploring how he felt. “And it’s weird,” he said. “It’s different. It’s uncomfortable.”
The class seemed to help alleviate stress. It helped him prioritize; it gave him more clarity.
Police work, he said, has a tendency to cloud your head. “I guess we see quite a bit in this job,” he said.
“Everybody we meet is having their absolute worst moment or worst day, worst time of their life,” he said.
“That stress absorbs into us. It has to.”
Police see pain. They inflict it. Both can weigh heavily.
“Arresting people isn’t the most pleasant thing to do,” he said. “I don’t want to ruin anybody’s life, but we still have a job to do.”
The mindfulness training, Richards said, has helped him let go. It has helped him unwind a little.
Though he has not done the meditation since the course ended, he uses other skills he learned every day. He finds he’s less distracted at home and at work.
“More, I know I’ve said this a bunch, but more in the moment,” he described.
He learned how to grab thoughts that float into his mind, place them aside and stay present. The practice has made him more organized and calm.
He tries to focus on one call at a time, one activity at a time. He can put his phone down, and check emails after the weekend.
He learned how to take a cleansing breath. To breathe in and out, stress leaving with the exhale.
— Rebecca Woolington