Honoring Our Warrior Spirit

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It was August 1976. We were in Florida participating in the last phase of Army Ranger training. Over half of the candidates we started with had been eliminated. Elite military training, like Ranger School, has one main purpose: to eliminate those that aren’t mentally fit. The training is physically challenging, but military trainers know that the mind quits long before the body. They structure training programs to eliminate those that don’t have a resilient mind or spirit. Those that remain have warrior spirit, which is necessary for teams to be successful and to serve their country.

Our Ranger TAC (Training, Advising, Counseling) officer, Captain John Vines, got our platoon together to counsel us. We were nearing the end of the difficult training and he wanted to tell us what to expect once we graduated. The gist of what I remember of his comments is that, as Rangers, we’ll be expected to do more for our nation than others, whether in military or civilian life. A nation needs its warriors to lead it, which will require us to work harder than others. We should accept this as part of our responsibility to our nation. This was his command.

I didn’t want to accept Captain Vines’ command. A voice in my mind expressed a need for rest, a focus on my own needs. Perhaps that was due to the sleepless nights I’d experienced during recent days or the taxing patrol operations we did day after day.

At the same time, though, I also noticed a second, more subtle voice, one that was excited, that wanted to do what he commanded. Captain Vines’ command emphasized embracing the warrior spirit and using it to serve something larger than ourselves. I wanted to do what he commanded, but my immediate needs quickly shifted my focus to doing what was necessary for me to graduate.

The military creates paradoxical experiences for soldiers. The training emphasizes individual mental fitness, while at the same time, teaching the importance of service to something larger. The former shifts our attention inward to ourselves; the latter shifts our attention outward to something beyond the self. I think it’s paradoxical yet understandable. We need to focus on ourselves to develop our ability to serve others. We can’t give what we don’t have. Once we’ve developed ourselves, we can shift our focus toward giving ourselves to others. We need awareness of the importance of making this shift.

The military develops creeds to help warriors do this. Part of the Army Ranger Creed says: “I accept the fact that as a Ranger my country expects me to move further, faster and fight harder than any other Soldier…I will always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong and morally straight and I will shoulder more than my share of the task whatever it may be.”

Creeds help soldiers focus on service. They can also help guide the process of honoring our warrior spirit, which can become damaged over time through trauma and life struggles. The main thing that gets damaged is our trust in life. We lose trust that life’s challenges are necessary for our growth and we lose trust in our ability to navigate those challenges. Trauma can cause us to become lost; creeds can help us find ourselves again and honor our warrior spirit so we can trust ourselves and trust life again. Let’s dig into this part of the Ranger Creed to find out how it can help us do this.

  • Move further, faster, and fight harder: The Ranger motto is “Rangers lead the way.” We move further, faster, and fight harder in how we lead our lives. We do this by having a method and daily practices. A method, such as The Warrior’s Way, gives us a structured process for dealing with life’s challenges. Daily practices give us the means for applying the method. Together we’re able to fight harder, although “fighting” and “harder” are understood differently in The Warrior’s Way method. Fighting harder involves compassion and mindfulness. By being compassionate and mindful of the present moment, we’re able to stay connected to ourselves and others. This helps us stay committed and not quit.

  • Remain mentally alert: We remain mental alert by learning how to pay attention. Our method helps us know what tasks to focus on, how to notice when our attention becomes distracted, and how to redirect it to the task.

  • Remain physically strong: Having strong bodies is important for maintaining our warrior spirit. Part of our daily practices include staying engaged in physical training or activities that move us. If we move our bodies, our minds will follow.

  • Remain morally straight: We remain morally straight by determining values that guide how we live. These values guide how we think, how we make decisions, and how we behave. The Warrior’s Way values of compassion and mindfulness soften our heart and help us remain present. These soften our defenses, allowing us to stay connected, to be more aware of our needs and the needs of others. Such connection isn’t just a nice idea; it’s a moral responsibility we owe to ourselves and the world.

  • Shoulder more of our share of the task: The main task is holding teams together: ourselves, our families, our nation, the world. Destruction and death occur when things fall apart. Holding things together requires us to shift our attention away from separate individual needs and toward the collective needs of the world. Both needs are important, but a focus on service helps us achieve them both.

If you’re a veteran or someone who’s experienced trauma, then find or develop a creed that can guide you to fight harder for yourself and the world. Doing this will help you honor your warrior spirit.

When I was severely stressed at the end of Ranger School, all I could think about was myself. I needed to rest to clear my mind. Once rested, I remembered the more subtle voice I’d heard when Captain Vines gave us his command. We don’t remember much of our past life experiences. Unexpected experiences that shock or surprise us, though, tend to become ingrained and remembered. I remembered Captain Vines’ command because of the disparity between what he said and my current perceptions.

Vines’ command resurfaced throughout my life, demonstrating again and again the importance of serving the world. We are all responsible to life itself, to do our part to hold life together. We do this through service. Start by serving yourself so you have something you can give away. Then shift your focus to serving your partner, your family, your nation, and finally the world. Vines’ command is really life’s command. Life commands us to serve life, whether we realize it or not. Paradoxically, serving life honors our warrior spirit, which sustains us. It’s the paradox of life itself: we get what we need by focusing on the needs of the world. Life’s command and our warrior spirit help us trust life again.

Practice tip: Serve Life’s Command

You have certain needs. Instead of focusing on them directly, focus on what the world needs. You’ll meet your individual needs by structuring your creed to serve the world, which will revive your warrior spirit.

Service drill:
When: First thing in the morning
Where: Outside

  • Determine what you want to call the “Larger Whole” that you’re serving: God, Tao, world, universe, nature…

  • Start with presence: Kneel before that “Larger Whole” and pay attention for a few moments to what you feel, what you hear, and what you see. Be present. Look up into the sky with open arms; bring your hands to your heart, bow your head, and close your eyes.

  • Continue by saying these phrases silently to yourself…slowly. Let the feeling of the words permeate your body so you can feel their significance:

    • “I turn over my will, power, and control to “Larger Whole”. Let thy will be done through me, through service.”

    • “I serve myself with loving kindness”

    • “I serve my partner”

    • “I serve my family/friends”

    • “I serve others through my work”

    • “I serve my country”

    • “I serve the world”

    • “I’m grateful and appreciative for the opportunity to serve.”

  • Finish with presence: Pay attention for a few moments to what you feel, what you hear, and what you see. Be present. Then rise and start your day.

  • During the day: Notice stressors, frustrations, or discouragements. Shift your attention to seeing them as opportunities to serve. Say to yourself: “Thanks for the opportunity to serve.” Then do some action of service.

Arno Ilgner distinguished himself as a pioneering rock climber in the 1970s and ‘80s, when the top climbs were bold and dangerous first ascents. These personal exploits are the foundation for Ilgner’s unique mental training program–The Warrior’s Way®. Ilgner is the founder of the Desiderata Institute and partners with Mission 22 to offer the Honoring Our Warrior Spirit Rock Climbing treatment program.

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