The Virginia Military Institute, which caused controversy for offering coloring books to cadets for stress, now has mindfulness meditation courses the school calls "Modern Warriorship."
Agreeing with the argument that "you're a wuss if you don't meditate," VMI assistant psychology professor Dr. Matthew Jarman told ABC News that the new age meditation technique mindfulness is effective for cadets to "lean in" to their stress.
Along with Dr. Holly Richardson, a physical education teacher at VMI, Jarman has slowly introduced mindfulness courses to the famed military academy. Jarman said he has received little resistance from the cadets, who do not fear that meditating would make them "soft."
"Meditation is not this kind of soft, fluffy thing," Jarman said. "You're facing your fears, you're facing your stresses head-on, you're kind of leaning into them, and it's giving you the tools to do that more effectively and to not be swept away by them."
Jarman told the Washington Free Beacon he currently has 19 cadets enrolled in his "Modern Warriorship" course, where cadets meditate every morning for 15 minutes, and for 5 minutes before homework. He also holds twice-a-week meditation sessions with Richardson in the VMI library.
Jarman and Richardson started their crusade for mindfulness by leading lunchtime meditation sessions for VMI faculty and staff. Jarman now teaches two courses that use mindfulness, and Richardson uses the technique in physical education classes.
The professors sat down with Dan Harris, an ABC News correspondent, for his podcast 10 Percent Happier. Harris had a panic attack live on air 10 years ago, which led to his discovery of meditation as a coping tool. He wrote a bestseller and now interviews people about mindfulness.
Harris's visit to VMI, along with his colleague Jeff Warren, was part of his "deeply absurd" national meditation tour, the "10 Percent Happier Road Trip."
Jarman said cadets are "very receptive" to meditation in his course that is "teaching them to be warriors."
"In a ‘Modern Warriorship' context, part of being someone who is preparing to make change when change is necessary, it means that you're going to be going against a lot of people," Jarman said. "So I view that as a wonderful practice. If you can't do something as simple as meditating and be OK with the fact that others might think it's a little weird, then you're not really getting to the training. I'm actually going to be having [the cadets] do stuff that will make them uncomfortable."
"I'm glad that you're turning that around," said Harris. "Because they're worried that they're going to be called a wuss if they meditate. You're saying, ‘Actually, no. You're a wuss if you don't.'"
"Right!" Jarman replied. "Because if you can't meditate and deal with the fact that—it's such a minimal threat, as far as the grand scale."
"Yeah, part of being a warrior is going against the stream," Warren added.
Cadets at rival school Citadel were quick to jump on the story.
"First coloring books and now meditation? About time to change the name to Virginia Military Commune," said the Facebook group Citadel Safari, referencing the Washington Free Beacon‘s reporting last year that VMI offered coloring books for cadets to deal with stress during finals week. The school advertised the "Stress Busters" event with a cartoon picture of a puppy.
The story caused turmoil throughout the VMI community, and forced Gen. J.H. Binford Peay III, a retired four-star general and superintendent of VMI, to defend the school as providing coloring pages with "intricate designs," not coloring books.
Another Citadel cadet responded to the mindfulness story with a new logo for VMI that replaced the "I" with a yellow crayon.
Jarman told the Free Beacon he has not encountered any meditation critics at VMI, from cadets or alumni.
"The podcast mentioned a negative response against something having to do with coloring books, but I haven't heard anyone lump meditation into this same category or have a similar reaction," he said.
"But if someone did critique it, I'd first clarify that meditation is about becoming more familiar with what your mind does (including in stressful situations), and to practice allowing some of the counterproductive thought patterns, such as rumination, to pass," Jarman added. "The reason for starting with an explanation of meditation is that most people simply lack an understanding of what I'm talking about (there are, after all, different types of meditation that serve different purposes). I'd also point out that experimental research has shown that these meditation practices improve psychological and physiological coping with high stress situations in military cohorts."
Jarman, who has no military background, told ABC News he got "hooked" on mindfulness in graduate school. He said the practice has made him more productive and efficient, and now he is "much less kind of scattered."
Richardson, who also has no military experience, said she was first introduced to transcendental mantra meditation in college because she "wanted to see nirvana," but then "kind of walked away from it and fell out of that practice."
"And then a few years ago I began reading Jon Kabat-Zinn and began to look at the brain research and the possibilities of mindfulness," she said. "So I've come back to it, and my practice is now steady."
Richardson said she wanted to bring mindfulness to VMI for future soldiers to deal with PTSD. She is slowly and "very carefully" trying to bring love and kindness meditation, where individuals send vibes of love to others, to VMI.
"I must admit, I haven't tried love and kindness with cadets," Richardson said. "I have tried a mantra that Thich Nhat Hanh [a Vietnamese Zen master] used, just the simple ‘I'm at peace.' ‘I am still.' ‘I am here.'"
"So that's as close as I've gotten to love and kindness, to confess," she added. "But I bring that into my practice, and it's helped. We'll see if I can go against the grain to bring that type of meditation here."
Jarman said he would not say mindfulness is widespread at VMI, but cadets in his and Richardson's courses meditate, as do a few faculty members and staff.
"I was thrilled when one of the central administrators showed up at mindfulness meditation," Richardson said. "It was like, ‘Yes!' He does it, he bought into it, and he's a tough soldier."
Harris paused while looking at a portrait of Stonewall Jackson, who taught at VMI for a decade before fighting in the Civil War.
"We've got a picture of Stonewall Jackson over here, who used to eat lemons like apples," Harris said. "I wonder if he practiced mindfulness.
"Doesn't look like it."