At a time when there is an uneasy, sometimes even volatile, divide between some communities and the police officers who are sworn to protect them, one police chief is encouraging her department to practice meditation as a way to help ease the stress of policing.
Chief Sylvia Moir, who has been the head of the Tempe Police Department in Tempe, Arizona, for the past year and has nearly 30 years of policing experience, believes teaching and practicing meditation should be a key piece of police officer development.
“In policing, it’s essential that we respond. We don’t react,” Moir told ABC News’ Dan Harris in an interview for his “10% Happier” podcast. “Without a doubt I think the [meditation] practice shows promise, getting us to be present, not take triggers, not take the bait that makes us react and if the practice can get us to see the perspective of another to enhance our compassion, then I think it does lend itself to broader application in policing.”
It’s important for officers to “be tactically sound and physically fit,” Moir said. She practices mindfulness, a series of meditation techniques that are designed to slow the mind, focus on the breath and bring attention back from distraction, as well as gratitude — focusing on positive emotions.
“I really practice gratitude a lot,” she said. “I say thank you for the people that come at me with anger, I say thank you for things I used to fight against, and it’s given me a really interesting kind of path.”
Moir said she usually practices meditation in the early morning for about 10 minutes while sitting in a chair.
“The great thing about meditation is that it takes no equipment,” she said. “I’m a runner and I’ve run, in the past, full marathons and I need my shoes and nowadays I need my GPS and I need my fuel and I need all my stuff and meditation really offers you … this equipment-free practice that enriches your life.”
Moir spoke at length about benefits of meditation, including how it not only helps officers make smarter decisions in the field but also how it makes them more thoughtful people who see tense situations from all perspectives, not just their own.
“It takes courage because there’s this narrative around police officers that we are hard and tough and cynical,” she said. “[But] I have found police officers to be incredible people, and we view our responsibility, our duty and this call that we are guardians always and warriors when we need to be.”
Moir admitted that some of her officers will grumble about whether it will make them lose their “edge,” but she doesn’t see it that way.
“We’re really good at — I call them perishable skills, the shooting, driving, defensible tactics,” she said. “And what we’re doing with mindfulness practices is we’re saying, ‘Look, we’re going to give you a set of tools, you take it, you use it for the whole you, personal and professional, make it what works for you. Maybe a little quirky. … Maybe different from what somebody else does but you make it yours.’”
As chief, Moir said mindfulness helps her deal with the public in high-stress situations and also lead her fellow officers. The practice has been useful, she said, in helping her realize “micro-cues” she may be unintentionally sending, such as a raised eyebrow or a squint, when she’s meeting with an officer or a grieving family member.
“I meet with a lot of people who are really angry,” she said. “I meet with people who are suffering, who don’t feel like they have been served by the justice system … with family members who have lost someone, [with] officers that have done wrong and I’m holding them accountable … it’s in those moments where I have to really engage but also listen.”
Meditation always struck me as the distillation of everything that was most annoying about the granola lifestyle. I pictured myself seated in an unbearable cross-legged position in a room that smells like feet. My attitude was not far from that of Alec Baldwin’s character on “30 Rock,” who said, “Meditation is a waste of time, like learning French or kissing after sex.”
Turns out, meditation is the victim of a terrible PR. It’s really just exercise for your mind — bicep curls for your brain. And there’s an explosion of recent science to back it up. A blockbuster MRI study from Harvard found that people who took an eight-week meditation course had thicker gray matter in the areas of the brain associated with self-awareness and compassion, while the regions associated with stress actually shrank.
Best of all, it doesn’t require robes, chanting or incense. You don’t even have to sit funny.
Three simple steps:
You don’t have to twist yourself into a cross-legged position — unless you want to, of course. You can just sit in a chair. (You can also stand up or lie down, although the latter can sometimes results in an unintentional nap.) Whatever your position, you should keep your spine straight, but don’t strain.
Feel Your Breath
Pick a spot: nose, belly or chest. Really try to feel the in-breath and then the out-breath.
Return to the Breath
This one is the key: Every time you get lost in thought — which you will, thousands of times — gently return to the breath.
I cannot stress strongly enough that forgiving yourself and starting over is the whole game. As my friend and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg has written, “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real’ meditation.”
Notice that I said the above steps are “simple,” but not easy. Repeatedly hauling your attention back from distraction takes grit, but it’s worth it. Once you learn how to watch your breath without reactivity or judgment, you can start to do the same with anger, annoyance, impatience and all the other noxious impulses and urges that too often carry us away.
Start with five minutes a day. It’s not a panacea, but it can help you in all sorts of ways — from curbing your addiction to email to reducing mindless eating to being less frequently yanked around by your emotions. These benefits are why modern meditators include CEOs, elite athletes, marines, and me, a skeptical newsman. I’ve even written a book about it, called “10% Happier,” coming out next month.