Back in the late 1990s, I suffered two major head injuries while operating as a Navy SEAL. The first was a 10-foot headfirst fall through a floor onto solid concrete. The second was a 30-foot fall from a ladder while boarding a ship at sea. These falls essentially ended my time as a Navy SEAL. I loved being a SEAL and was devastated at the loss of a career I thought would be long and fruitful.
Losing my career was not my biggest problem, though. Unknowingly dealing with the effects of an undiagnosed Traumatic Brain Injury for over 20 years was the problem.
When I was finally diagnosed, the doctor explained to me that because of my injuries, the part of my brain that handles the processing of emotions was dormant, it wasn’t working. He went on the explain that the injuries were so severe that I probably should have ended up like the 22 veterans a day that commit suicide based in large part on injuries like mine.
How, he asked, was I not in a dark place in my life, but in fact living a fruitful and productive personal and professional life? My answer was simple.
I explained that I began to see my emotions racing out of control shortly after my injuries and that I had to make a conscious decision right then and there to always be mindful of how I was feeling. If I didn’t do this, I continued, then the emotion would blindly drive an action I wasn’t aware of until it was too late. And that action, I concluded, usually led to a less-than-desirable outcome regardless of the situation.
For over 20 years, in every situation I encountered, I maintained a deep awareness of how I was feeling. I then had to be mindful of generally what my intuitive action was based on that given emotion. Then I had to decide on how I should best behave and make a plan to get through the situation.
The doctor asked me how often I went through this process.
“Every day,” I responded. “Some days were better than others. But the days I was mindful of this process were good days because I made good decisions. The days I wasn’t were generally bad days.”
“Tell me about this cold exposure you practice,” the doctor continued.
“There is nothing quite like it. When we meditate or do any other similar activity, we possess the ability to come in and out of mindfulness without consequence. The cold, however, does not provide such luxury.”
The doctor was nodding in understanding, silently urging me to continue.
“We should strive to maintain a calm demeanor in an ice bath,” I explained. “At first, we use our awareness to calm the physiological panic that naturally occurs when you enter an ice bath. After that, the only way to remain calm in a tub full of ice is to be mindful. Mindful of where we want our mind, and mindful of where it is at all times.”
“When we do this,” I continued, “a couple of things happen. First, we practice, in an extreme setting, how to be truly focused and in the present moment because when we are not mindful in an ice bath there is no hiding. You will leave it in a panic. Next, we reset our nervous system which helps us to think clearly.”
I wasn’t sure if I had just talked in circles as the doctor contemplated what I said. And then he spoke.
“That explains it,” the doctor concluded. “You save your own life. This process you created to always be aware of how you are feeling and how you are acting on that feeling saved you. Practicing this mindfulness in the ice bath, along with the mental and physiological benefits associated with it, saved you.”
In short, mindfulness literally saved my life. Now that I am healed, it has become a habit that allows me to not just survive but thrive in any situation. If mindfulness is good enough to save a life, it is certainly worth consideration to add to your daily practice to ensure you are bringing your absolute best to every situation.
Look out for Errol’s upcoming new book, “Ice Cold Leader: Leading From the Inside Out” available for PREORDER SOON!