on attention

On Attention

We were standing in ranks on the beach in Coronado, California, in front of the Naval Special Warfare Center. We were about to start an open ocean swim, and each student was being inspected. Along with the mask and fins, we each carried an SRK dive knife, emergency flares and a UDT lifevest.

The vests were simple gray inflatable rubber contraptions, worn around the neck and in emergencies inflated either by popping a CO2 driven actuator or by inflating them by mouth through a little tube. Along with the SRK, which was made out of some sort of steel that rusted almost immediately when placed in salt water, these vests were a source of a good deal of failures on swimmer inspections.

My swim buddy was across from me as the instructors went over his equipment. In one hand he held his knife, and in the other his CO2 cartridge. The instructor peered inside the CO2 actuator and saw several grains of sand. When you spend the better part of your day soaking wet and covered head to toe in sand, it’s pretty tricky to keep the stuff out of your hair, your ears and your equipment. But that’s the point.

“Are you fucking kidding me? So you’re gonna go ahead and bee bop your way into the fucking ocean with your lifesaving equipment clogged with fucking sand? You didn’t bother to check this before you came out here? Attention to detail! Drop on down.”

With that my swim buddy dropped into the pushup position, and I along with him. Down the ranks men were being dropped for similar violations: Knives that weren’t sharp enough or had a spot of rust, a twist in the strap of a UDT vest, the wrong type of knot tied in the little string that pulled their actuator.

You’ve got a lot going on as a student going through BUD/S or SWCC. The mental and physical stress is probably tough to match anywhere in the world outside of other special ops selection phases. Despite this, one of the concepts which is hammered into you is attention to detail. Even though you got two hours of sleep the night before, have already ran seven or eight miles in boots and fatigues, just spent an hour or two in a “beatdown” of calisthenics in loose sand mixed with sprints in and out of the ocean, there are countless small details regarding your uniform, your equipment and military protocols that must be adhered to.

There is no acceptable excuse for a failure to meet these standards and in the middle of all the chaos and fatigue, one must always be conscious of the condition of his gear, his swim buddy (who can never be more than six feet away),  and his self.

Right around this time period, about an hour’s drive up the coast, my friend and now business partner Marshall was going through Marine Scout Sniper School.

Scout Sniper selection is a process of similar brutality as the Naval Special Warfare schools, and because of the importance of observation and attention to detail in the sniper profession, Marshall’s training had some even more interesting components.

They would be on the range shooting for a marksmanship qual when the instructors would approach, dump buckets of water over them, cover them with dirt and rocks, twist all of the dials on their scope adjustments and then tell them that they had 30 seconds to hit their target. After taking their shot, they would be ordered to grab all their gear and get the hell out of there as fast as possible, running several miles to a new location.

At this new location, after another round of burpees, mountain climbers and being covered in mud, a tarp would be lifted off the ground. Under the tarp would be a random assortment of objects one might find on a battlefield. The Marines would have another 30 seconds to memorize every detail they could before it was all covered back up.

Anywhere from 20 minutes to two weeks later, the Marines would be required to recall everything they had observed under the tarp, describing in detail its position and condition.

The end result in either Marine or Naval Special Ops is that those who are capable of paying attention to small details under fatigue, stress and states of utter confusion will graduate and maintain this mentality.

Later on during deployments, despite incredible fatigue and chaotic conditions, their weapon will always be cleaned and well maintained, they will at any time be able to reflexively state the condition of their weapon, whether a round is chambered, whether the safety is on or not and how much ammo is remaining. They will have every essential piece of op gear on them in good condition, they will know the location and status of every person around them and their eyes will constantly be scanning for targets, threats and anomalies. The mind becomes a constant catalogue of small details, paying intense attention to every variable present in the moment.

Now, as a civilian, this concept of attention has become something I consider more and more frequently. Attention is a rare state, and it’s value as an operator in Special Operations is, although, not generally due to reasons of life and death or keeping sand out of your ears, still applicable as a civilian in day to day life.

Think back to moments in your life in which you were totally happy and fulfilled. Psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called it flow, and defined it as the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing via a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.

Take a moment and fully contemplate the meaning of those words. Full immersion and full involvement. This is attention. A state of being conscious of every detail as it flows past.

The most rewarding moments in our lives often come from our ability to maintain full attention during simple, day to day activities. Think about the last time you shared a two-hour dinner and wine with friends and family. For one, how long has it been since you did that? Second, was your attention fully focused on that moment, or were you off somewhere else checking your blackberry, thinking about tomorrow’s day at the office and wondering which way the interest rates were going to go?

When you’re at work, do you stay focused intently on your job, or are you distracted by the fact that you’re bored and unsatisfied with life, that you feel like you’re losing touch with your spouse, your children no longer confide in you and time spent with your friends has begun to feel more a matter of protocol than actual enjoyment?

When we’re only partially involved in life’s moments because of an inability to focus, we’re never really there. We don’t work as well, we don’t play as well and our friendships are less fulfilling.

Whatever it is you’re doing, try to put yourself in the frame of mind that what you’re involved in at that moment is the only thing in life that matters. Other avenues will be addressed at their time. When you’re at work, work will be focused on. Next time you’re having dinner with a friend, imagine that at any moment a very angry person with a bucket of water, a shovelful of sand and the ability and desire to physically torture you is going to be spontaneously quizzing you on every aspect of the experience.

What was your friend just talking about, what was their facial expression, or their state of mind? What are they wearing and what have they been doing today? If you’re in a restaurant, what’s around you? People? How many? Who are they? Men, women, a guy drinking too much who may be looking for trouble? Where is he sitting and is he facing you? Where are the exits to the building? Is there music playing in the background? What about the food, are you enjoying it? Can you even taste the wine you’re drinking?

This level of immersion should also be applied to the times in which you’re expressing your body. When you work out, forget everything else. Put down the magazine, ignore the tv and feel your heart pound blood through your body. Feel your muscles contracting and become aware of what they’re doing. Are you retracting your scapulae on your pullups or just pulling your arms back and wrecking your shoulders? The mortgage and your emails can wait. They are not here right now.

What do you really know about your body, and what happens to your mind when it is tested? Try to find your breaking point, and once you realize how far away that is, pay attention to what your body is doing. Can you still maintain strong posture and good technique even though you’re almost dizzy with pain and fatigue? Attention to detail: Is your weight on your hips during that squat, or are you breaking down and pitching stress forward onto your knees and lower back? Think about the pain burning through your body. Stop avoiding it like those dead people do and break it down for what it is. Does it control you?

When you perform that way in a workout, you will walk away with a feeling of fulfillment, of control and satisfaction. If you finish and were really only half involved the whole time, your state of mind will reflect that: Half satisfied. Make your choice.

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