Living in the moment

Lt. Col. Jannell MacAulay, 58th Special Operations Wing director of human performance and leadership, speaks to Team BLAZE members May 3, 2018, on Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi. MacAulay has been visiting military bases across the U.S. to speak about the benefits emerging from mental training, commonly known as mindfulness. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb)

Lt. Col. Jannell MacAulay, 58th Special Operations Wing director of human performance and leadership, speaks to Team BLAZE members May 3, 2018, on Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi. MacAulay has been visiting military bases across the U.S. to speak about the benefits emerging from mental training, commonly known as mindfulness. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Keith Holcomb)

COLUMBUS AIR FORCE BASE, Miss. -- If you were to be asked if physical exercise is good for your physical health, the obvious and easy answer is “Yes, of course.” There is scientific research and evidence to support that which is why a variety of credible sources offer recommendations for frequency, duration, and form of physical exercise.

However, if you were to be asked if mental exercise is good for your mental health … you may be at a loss for words. Even if you intuit the answer to be “yes”… could you quantify the frequency, duration and/or form?

In her own words, Lt. Col. Jannell MacAulay, the 58th Special Operations Wing director of human performance and leadership, stated the practice of mindfulness can be misperceived as a soft/fuzzy skill, but she then quickly corrected that notion by stating “no – this is not an easy skill. This skill is hard. It takes discipline.”

MacAulay shaped her doctoral dissertation on how to “create the most effective human weapon system” centered on what could be called “mental exercise.” She presented scientific research and evidence based solutions to stress that is detrimental to performance, or “distress,” and how people (in and out of uniform) can learn to detach from the perceived emotion of stress and learn to operate under intense, commonly “stressful,” situations and rather than allowing stress to degrade their performance instead they could operate at peak performance. The practice of mindfulness can be summed up as training and developing discipline for our own focus and/or attention systems.

The research displayed in MacAulay’s presentation(s) showed that the average person loses focus and has their attention run away from them (a passive activity called “mind wandering”) nearly half their waking moments. This is not only a problem in our everyday lives, but even more so when military members are asked to operate in such high levels of pressure where stressful situations are inherent. Surely learning to identify stressors and thoughts as they occur and proactively choosing what to respond to and how would be a positive skill to obtain. The skill of mindfulness equips service members with the tools to do just that.

The stereotypical “militant” way of learning to operate under stress has been to increase stress and have maximal exposure to stressful situations with almost a “sink or swim” outcome. MacAulay offered a different approach through mindfulness. By learning to detach from our stressors and thoughts and identify personal values we can learn to forego the perceived emotion of stress and operate confidently at peak performance. This sets the framework for sound decision making, task management, judgement, and risk mitigation.

These are keys to success whether you’re flying a T-38 in formation during low-altitude training or even driving downtown to grab a bite to eat where you are sure to encounter multiple distracted drivers. MacAulay repeatedly came back to “living in the moment.” A common mistake we have all fallen victim to before can be seen most any day in the pilot training environment during a flight briefing: a student beating themselves up for poor performance on a previous flight and weighing heavily on the consequences of future flights. This is counterproductive in the fact that it overlooks the only thing they can control at the time which is, of course, their performance in the moment.

When the research is presented it is hard to argue with; however, MacAulay’s leadership style can be a difficult sell. Mindfulness and meditation may look like nothing more than closing your eyes and breathing. Of course, it is a very productive practice, but the concept she presented to “slow down to speed up” or “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” may challenge the perception many have of what hard work ought to look like. It is for these reasons that I see tremendous courage in her bold leadership style as well as the practices she brings to the workplace. As the director of human performance at the 58th SOW working with the most premier human weapon systems in the Air Force she may have been met with skepticism, but being able to equip special operators with protective factors for their mind before they go into combat zones and increasing resiliency speaks for itself.

In closing, she gently reminded those in attendance that it was not long ago (around the 1960’s) that jogging was a “weird” practice. To go running without being chased nearly seemed like nonsense. It was only out of necessity when our own Air Force physiologists were trying to improve cardiovascular factors for pilots in the new jet age needing to pull G-forces and astronauts in space that jogging became endorsed and so widely practiced. She has now been leading the charge with what may be the newest of “weird” practices, with mindfulness, but it is her prediction that the science speaks for itself and exercising the mind will become the new common practice if only we can be so bold as to embrace it.