In this week’s episode, Billy talks to Commander Jon Macaskill, a retired navy seal commander turned leadership and mindfulness coach. Throughout his 24-year navy career, he held a variety of highly dynamic leadership positions, from the battlefield to the operations center and the boardroom. He has a very unconventional teaching style, yet highly effective. He’s passionate about helping people and organizations become the best version of themselves through mindfulness coaching, keynote speaking, and grit and resilience training. Commander Macaskill also hosts the Men Talking Mindfulness podcast.
Billy and Jon discuss:
--How does meditation complement his faith, and how does his faith complement his meditation practice?
--What was his day-to-day life like as a marine?
--What role do sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems play in situational awareness?
--The struggle of losing identity and not recognizing grief
--Jon’s transition from the Navy back to civilian life
--What is an emotional inventory and how does it make us more aware of our emotions?
--Does Jon’s experience as a Navy SEAL help men be more vulnerable about their mental health?
Want more from Commander Jon Macaskill? Check out:
Men Talking Mindfulness Podcast
Download the Emotional Inventory here!
If you enjoyed this episode, you may also enjoy:
–-Episode 4: What Is Mindfulness? with Sarah Rudell Beach
--Episode 34: The Language of Mindfulness with Brett Hill
--Episode 41: The Midlife Male with Greg Scheinman
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Billy: Today's guest is Commander Jon Macaskill. Jon is a retired Navy SEAL commander turned leadership and mindfulness coach. During his 24-year career in the Navy, he has served in a multiple highly dynamic leadership positions, from the battlefield to the operations center and the boardroom. His style of teaching leadership is unconventional, yet highly effective. He is passionate about helping people and organizations become the best version of themselves through mindfulness coaching, keynote speaking, and grit and resilience training. Commander Macaskill also hosts the podcast, Men Talking Mindfulness. That's what the two of us are going to do here today. So, welcome to the show, Commander Jon Macaskill.
Jon: Hey, thanks, Billy. That's the first time I've ever gotten a clap to come on to the show. But I appreciate it, man. Thanks.
Billy: Yeah, I used to have a co-host named Brian. It was more enthusiastic when there were two people clapping. Now it's just a sad one-person clap. But for you, maybe I'll add in like a thunderous applause, because we do have that on the software.
Jon: That would be great.
Billy: First and foremost, I want to express my gratitude for your service to our country. Thank you so much, and thank you for taking the time for sitting down to chat with me today.
Jon: Well, thank you, Billy. I appreciate your having me here with you. As far as my service to the country, I look back on it as a unique honor and privilege to have done so. So, I thank everyone for allowing me to serve this great country.
Billy: I'll tell you, it's funny. I tell people that I practice mindfulness so that I can be this level of intensity. You very much have just a calming demeanor. So, I'm hoping that that will rub off on me. Because I'm excited to talk to you, but I think as we get to talking more, that calming demeanor is going to settle me in a bit.
Jon: Hopefully. I can tell you, I'm not always calm. My three kids — I've got three young kids. They would probably argue and say, "You know what? Daddy is not calm." When you're trying to — this morning, an example, not to take this down a random tangent, but my five-year-old just started kindergarten. My other two are in preschool. There's a starting time, right? They don't understand that there's a starting time for school. They said, "Okay, let's just hang out for five more minutes. Let's hang out for five more minutes." I'm like, "No, no, we've got to go. You got to go to school. I got to get you there. If I get you there late, then that makes me late." It started getting a little intense. Then I was like, "Jon, just breathe. Do what you teach. Do what you teach. You practice what you preach, right?"
Billy: Well, father is one of the 10 roles that you play in your life. So, what are some of the other roles that you play in your life?
Jon: Oh, man. Yeah, father, husband, son, brother. I mean, just like many, many males are those roles. But I'm an aspiring triathlete, which if you'd asked me a year ago, I definitely would not have said that. But I have a reason behind that. We can talk about that. Aspiring triathlete, veteran. I'm a veteran, and I am a proponent for veterans — mental and physical health — entrepreneur, reader. I'm an avid reader, and then meditator. I consider myself a Christian as well. So, I think those are my big 10 roles.
Billy: So, this aspiring triathlete, let's talk about that. Where's this coming from? If a year ago, this wouldn't have been on your radar. Why is it on your radar now?
Jon: Yeah, funny enough, I got challenged. So, I am a Naval Academy graduate from the class of 2001. I am friends with two West Point graduates, also from the class of 2001 but from West Point. My buddy, Andy Riise, is roommates — we're really good friends — with Jason Van Camp. Again, those are the two from West Point. Jason is a retired Green Beret and Founder of an organization called Warrior Rising, which is a non-profit that helps veterans start their own businesses, and then subsequently hire veterans. So, it's this virtuous cycle.
Anyway, Andy retired from the Army last year and then, like many veterans, lost focus. He says — this is his word and not mine. He says "he got soft" and lost mental toughness, physical toughness. So, he wanted to do something hard. He decided, with Jason, that he would do a Half Ironman training, to do a Half Ironman to raise funds for Warrior Rising. To make it more interesting, he wanted to make it an army versus navy competition. So, he reached out to me and said, "Hey, you know what? Would you be interested in doing a Half Ironman?" I was in a very similar spot. Then I retired in 2020. I had prior enlisted time, so I was able to retire about a year before. I was like, "Yeah, absolutely. I'll do it." Any kind of thing that's army versus navy, that's always fun. But then, in making it at Half Ironman, that would give me something to focus towards physically. That would be hard. Mentally, that would be hard. I have found that it is, in fact, both of those. But it's also incredibly rewarding.
Coming back to the roles of the father and the husband, it's actually making me — in a counterintuitive way — a better father and a better husband. I've always said, I've tried to meditate and practice mindfulness so that I can be a better father and a husband. But at the end of the day, there's times when I'm really tired. I don't feel that I have the energy. I think a lot of that came from when I retired, I started eating poorly. My physical fitness was degraded. Now I'm getting that back. I'm starting to eat better. I'm starting to work out more regularly. With that, even though it takes time and energy to do that, I'm getting energy and time back. When I'm with my kids and when I'm with my wife, I'm much more enthusiastic, much more energetic. So, it's feeding those other roles, which is great.
Billy: Well, you listed here father and husband as two of the roles that you're most looking forward to in the second half of life. I always am fascinated when people who identify as Christian are heavy meditators. They have a strong mindfulness meditation practice as well. How does meditation complement your faith? How does your faith complement your meditation practice?
Jon: Yeah, great question, Billy. Because I do get asked that. Now that I teach mindfulness meditation, I often get asked, "Hey, are you a Buddhist? Are you X, Y, or Z?" I teach completely secular meditation. That is primarily what I practice as well. But I have found that secular meditation does, in fact, support my faith. Whatever that faith may be, for anyone listening, it does support your faith.
For me, that faith is Christianity. Going into the Bible, Jesus Christ meditated. I won't get too far down that road. But there is meditation mentioned in the Bible. Now, granted it may not be exactly what meditation looks like today. But what I have found is that when I set aside time to be quiet and meditate, that allows my mind to quiet down which allows me to be more in touch with what's going on in and around me. So, I can go from a meditation into reading my scriptures. I'm going to be more focused on what it is that I take from the scriptures, and I'm going to be more focused in my prayer. I always feel that prayer is me speaking to God. Scriptures is God speaking to me. If I'm not in the right mind state, if I'm not in the right body state, then I'm not going to be able to hear that message as well. I might be reading the scriptures, like many of us when we spend time reading just before we go to bed. We may read two or three pages, whether that's from the Bible, or scriptures, or from some nonfiction, or fiction novel. A lot of the time when we're not in the right mind state, we read that and we're like, "Oh, wait. What did I just read?" and go back and read that paragraph again, or read that page again. While by practicing the mindfulness and meditation prior to my quiet time, my scripture study, my prayer, I believe it gets me into the right mind state to hear what is being said by my higher being or who I consider to be my higher being, and then receive the message as well in prayer and in scripture reading.
Billy: I think that's so well stated. Because like you said, does that mean you're a Buddhist, or does that mean you're a Hindu? No, it's a practice. Is there may be some history that's connected to it? Yes. But there is mention of meditation and sitting quietly, and being with your thoughts, being with your breath in the Bible. So, I think that that's a really, really powerful message for people to hear. I like how you use it. I've talked about this before. I don't have a strong faith. But for you, it enhances your faith. I'm jealous of people who do have that kind of faith. It's just not something that I've ever developed. It's really impressive to hear you say, it's almost like you use mindfulness to enhance your understanding and your appreciation of your faith. I think that's very beautifully stated.
Jon: 100%. Absolutely. The other piece of your question is, how has my faith deepened my meditation practice? Well, because I feel that my prayer is more powerful after meditation, that I'm more apt to doing meditation through the day. In the morning when I practice my quiet time, or in the evening before I go to sleep, I am going to do that because of all the science and benefits of the meditation. But also, because of what I've seen in my faith. So, they complement one another. It's just, that's the cycle. The meditation improves my faith. As my faith improves, my meditation deepens.
That's also the side of mindfulness and meditation. People talk about mindfulness, and they think that that is meditation. They talk about meditation, and they think that that is mindfulness. Well, mindfulness is a way of living. Mindfulness is a way of being in the present, in that present moment, in the here and now, not worrying about what you screwed up yesterday, and not worrying about what you may be doing later today. That's a way of living.
Meditation is the formal practice, right? But they do complement one another. As you meditate, you're going to be more mindful in life. As you are more mindful in life, your meditations are going to deepen. So, that's where — I think there's another cycle there. I really think there's kind of three overlapping circles in that Venn diagram. If you remember those Venn diagrams that we all studied when we're younger, there's overlap between faith, mindfulness, and meditation. Whatever that faith may look like — whether that's Christianity, Hindu, Buddhism, Muslim, whatever — there's a lot of overlap in faith, and mindfulness, and meditation.
The other thing, as you mentioned, there is, if you go back into meditation, yes, a lot of it is founded in Buddhism. But that doesn't mean that it is exclusive to Buddhism. That's like saying kindness is exclusive to one particular faith, and everybody else cannot practice kindness. We obviously know that's not true. But there's a lot of people who believe that mindfulness and/or meditation is based in one particular faith. They actually push against it for that reason. Unfortunately, they're missing out on the scientific physiological benefits of mindfulness meditation. But they're also missing out on the deepening in their own faith that can come with that.
Billy: With all due respect to the other past guests that have been on here who have talked mindfulness on the show, this is already my favorite conversation about mindfulness. So, I'm just really enjoying this. So, let's do this. We're going to take a quick break. There's a mindfulness break in the segment, so be sure to listen to that. Then when we come back, we're going to continue talking to Jon, just a couple of dudes talking mindfulness. Thank you for listening to The Mindful Midlife Crisis.
Billy: Welcome back to The Mindful Midlife Crisis. We are here with retired Navy SEAL Commander Jon Macaskill. He is the host of the Man Talking Mindfulness Podcast. That's what we are doing here today. So, Jon, you transitioned out of the Navy a couple of years ago. I just wanted to talk to you a bit about what that was like. But I feel like in order to do that, it's important to get an idea of what the day-to-day of a Navy SEAL looks like.
Jon: I don't know that there's such thing as day-to-day. Honestly, it's different every day. That's why now as an entrepreneur, I can appreciate the different day-to-day aspect of the entrepreneur world, as well. But as a young SEAL, my day-to-day was leading a smaller group of men, primarily all SEALs and then we had some support folks there as well. Also, in my particular instance, all men in my platoon, there are support personnel that are not. But in my particular instance, they were all men. But leading them through going to the shooting range, diving, some of the air operations that we do, parachuting that type of thing, marine maritime operations MarOps. Learning to be a tactical operator. I use that term very specifically, 'tactical.' Because as you move up through the ranks, you move up from tactical to operational, to strategic.
As I did advance in my career, I stopped doing as much tactical stuff and much more operational stuff. So, I'm thinking about what the different communities are that we're engaging with both on our US side. As far as what communities, I mean working with special forces — the Green Berets, the Army Special Forces, working with the Air Force, the Marine Special Operations who are now the Raiders, working with our own internal, different units and then working within. There was Afghanistan and Iraq, working with the local nationals there to help them develop their own tactics, techniques, and procedures, and then how that all ties in. Afghanistan is very complicated. You've got different tribes, different cultures from one hillside to the next. You dig a dam for one village, and you think you're doing good. But what you're doing is tapping into the groundwater of another village. Now their wells aren't working. So, I said digging a dam. I meant digging a well. That's not my own analogy there. I think that goes back to General McChrystal. But bottom line is, everything that you do affects everything else. It gets pretty complicated pretty quickly. So, that's the operational level.
Then you go up to the strategic. I didn't make it up to strategic. So, if you can imagine, it's like mostly senior colonels and generals, admirals. Those are the people who are doing more of the strategic stuff. So, that's like what we do in Afghanistan. How that affects our communications and relations with other countries in that region, how it affects us as a country, and what our goals and aspirations are as a country. So, that's the strategic level.
But coming back to answer your question, more of the operational level stuff is I'm leaving bigger units or being part of the leadership team for bigger units. Whether that's a SEAL team, whether that, at the time, was Naval Special Warfare unit, that might vary between 1000 and 1500 people total. Not all seals. As a matter of fact, more support personnel than SEAL's combat service support personnel. That varies. But that, again, comes full circle to my life now as an entrepreneur. It's putting out fires, mostly. Most of the time, it's putting out fires, which is coming even further full circle comes to practicing mindfulness and meditation. When you have a fire pop up that you didn't expect, it's very easy to get stressed and anxious about it. But if you just take a breath — maybe several breaths — and reset mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally, you can handle things better, and the outcome is better. So, that's my quick spiel about the day-to-day.
Billy: Having never served, I'm not sure if you have monotonous or mundane moments during your time as a Navy SEAL. So, if you did have those moments, were you able to just breathe, or were you always on high alert so you were ready to go to combat at the drop of a hat?
Jon: No, I was certainly not on high alert all the time. There's different stages. I did a lot more administrative things in the SEAL teams than I had imagined — filling out paperwork to draw a particular radio or a particular weapon from the inventory, or sent hundreds of emails every day to get work done for our guys or to get our guys into specific areas for training. There was a lot more administrative things than I had anticipated. That was both early on and late in my career. As an officer in the SEAL Teams, as an officer in the military in general, there's a lot more administrative work than one sees in the movies. Now, that said, once you're on, you're deployed and you're in a combat zone, yes, there's still emails. There's still administrative work. There's still pay issues that you have to manage. There are still family issues from back home that you have to help work out, work through. But there are definitely times when you're on, on like a switch, for most of the deployment.
There, it's a lot harder to take that breath. But if you've trained yourself to do it in a quiet, less austere location and time, then when you are in those austere locations and times, then it's easier to at least think about taking those breaths. Sure, you may not sit down for half an hour in the morning, half an hour on lunch, and half an hour in the evening to do a meditation. But you can take a few breaths and still be mindful of the life that you're leading, and how you are leading as a leader. Are you compassionate with your people? Are you taking care of them? Are they experiencing any issues that they're not voicing? Is their body language telling you something that their voice and their words are not? Once you start to become aware of that, then I believe you're a better leader, which comes to what I teach now as a leader. Practicing mindfulness and meditation actually does make you a better leader. Whether that's a leader in your family, whether that's a leader in your community, whether that's a leader in corporate America, mindfulness and meditation can in fact make you better at all that.
Billy: Well, I think that that answers this other question that I was thinking about. Because I was wondering, would it benefit soldiers to cultivate a mindfulness practice? Or is there a necessity to keep that edge so to speak? Even on the flip side, would a mindfulness practice serve a soldier well out in the field, so that they're able to respond as opposed to react? Or is being reactive necessary in combat, or is it more of a both end? But it sounds like you've answered that question.
Jon: Well, I'd like to unpack that a little bit more. So, the science and physiology behind mindfulness — I'm sure you've covered this on other episodes. But for those who may not have listened to those other episodes, a quick down and dirty is you got the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Sympathetic is the state where you're in fight, flight, or freeze. Parasympathetic is rest and digest. The sympathetic is run by the amygdala, and the parasympathetic is activated by the vagus nerve. We, in today's day and age, a lot of us live in that sympathetic stage. We're constantly in the red or red lining, right? That is to defend us from threats.
Well, in today's day and age, we're seeing emails that are coming into our inbox, social media notifications, text message notifications, traffic, deadlines, bosses. We're seeing all these as threats. Literally, seeing them or at least perceiving them as life threatening, but they're not. Many of them, most of them are not life threatening. If we can tap into the parasympathetic state more often, bring ourselves down from the red and into that green, we're going to be able to see those threats, recognize they're not life threatening and say, "Okay. You know what? This is just a life event. This is just an email. This is just traffic. This is just this and this and this." So, now we start to live in that parasympathetic nervous state more often, rather than the sympathetic. We can ramp up to that sympathetic if we need to. If we live in that red all the time, it's very hard for us to ramp up if we need to. We're burning ourselves out. So, now we see an actual life-threatening event. We're not able to react like we need to because we're burned out. Our amygdala is burned out. Our adrenal system is burned out. Now we can actually — if we are living that parasympathetic, now we can ramp up.
The other side of it is, I think, if you go into combat amped up like football teams right before they get on the football field. They're all bumping chests and jumping up in the air and getting all pumped up. Hey, that's great. That's great. But I think if you go on the combat battlefield, that way, you're going to see everything as a threat. You're going to have this — for lack of a better term right now — false bravado and just be like, "I want to attack everything." Well, not everything on the battlefield needs to get attacked.
Mindfulness and meditation, I believe, allow you to develop a tactical situational awareness, a tactical patience on the battlefield that is actually necessary. You may not escalate force where force is not needed. Whereas if you go in super amped up, maybe you've smelled some smelling salts before, you're like, "I just want to attack everything." You see an older gentleman on the battlefield. That older gentleman is coming up to you to literally sell you apples or something. But you see him as a threat, and you engage that. Well, there's, obviously, a negative side to engage in a noncombatant on the battlefield. Whereas if you had been practicing mindfulness meditation, you had that tactical situational awareness, the tactical patience. You may see that person as someone who's actually selling apples.
Now, granted some of the enemies have actually used that tactic against us and had grenades mixed in amongst the apples and those types of things. But I honestly think that the tactical patience, tactical situational awareness, that's going to be improved with mindfulness and meditation. Really, if you pull the word mindfulness down, it's the same as situational awareness. We talked about mindfulness at the beginning of the show, right? Paying attention to the here and now. Not thinking about the past, not thinking about the future. Situational awareness is the same thing. You're paying attention to what is happening around you right now. Right now, not what happened last week, not what's going to happen next week. So, that is a term that I sometimes throw out when I'm working with tactical folks. Whether they're first responders or military, I tell them, "Hey, do you talk about situational awareness?" Yes, absolutely. We talked about situational awareness. Well, that's mindfulness. That is mindfulness.
Billy: We talked about the parasympathetic and the sympathetic nervous systems in Episode 48 with Kolin Purcell and Anna Schlegel. They talked about just how we can reinvent our relationship with our breath. Because so often, we take our breath for granted. Really, our breath is a great anchor to regulate those nervous systems right there. I can't remember this whole situation, but you were talking about cortisol and adrenal glands. It was on a Jordan Harbinger episode. I can't remember how it went. But I think he went to the doctor. I think they've measured his cortisol or his adrenal gland levels, that kind of thing. I think they were low. He was like, "Hey, what do you think about that?" The doctor is like, "No, the thing is that you're always so high and so elevated that you're completely depleted right now. That's the problem here." This is not a good level of low. This is a level that indicates that you're running so high that you have drained yourself off. It's like driving with your foot to the pedal to the metal. You're always rubbing in the red. You're wasting gas, that kind of thing. You're going to wear out, or you're going to have to refill sooner than later if you were on cruise control. I think cruise control gets a bad rap sometimes. Because I think it's associated then with being comfortable. But sometimes you have to flip it on cruise control. Sometimes you just — sometimes, it's okay to coast. Yeah, it's okay to coast.
Jon: Yeah, it is. Absolutely. I think in coasting, it allows you to slow down even more when you need to, like when you're with your family and you need to decompress and turn off work and just be. Or when you're at work and you suddenly have 10 tasks that you need to accomplish, now you need to ramp up. But if you're constantly in that red, like you mentioned, you're worn out. You're not going to be able to ramp up when you need to. You're not going to be able to go from cruise control to pedal to the metal or pedal to floor, right? You're going to be worn out. You're not going to be able to amp up when you need to, whether that's in a work situation or a literal life-threatening situation. Your adrenal glands, your adrenal system is going to be worn out. So, it's better to recharge, take a look, wrap off and decompress. Maybe that's cruise control, or even slower.
Billy: You're doing some work now with veterans and mental health. I remember when my friend, Matt, came back from Iraq. I think this was like 2005, right around there. I was going to Florida to visit my best friend. He was on a mandatory six-month leave once he came back. Meaning, they didn't even want him to join the workforce at that time, because they wanted him to be able to transition back into society after serving in the war. I'm wondering, is it enough to say, "Hey, just take some time to yourself?" Does the armed forces need to provide more opportunities for our soldiers to access mental health support? I don't know if they're doing that already. That's just a curiosity. Are they doing enough? Could they do more? I mean, everyone could always do more, but what do you see?
Jon: What I see within Special Operations, I have to admit, we are well-taken care of in the Special Operations Community. For the most part, we do get access to programs that many others don't. But those programs are growing to provide support for the conventional forces as well. That's great to see and great to hear. That said, I believe that the better programs actually exist on the outside of the military. We have great counselors. We have great support within while you're still wearing uniform. But there's a lot of non-profit veteran service organizations that are out there doing incredible work. Now, figuring out which ones — that's the problem. There's actually what's called the Sea of Goodwill. There are so many veteran support organizations that are out there doing their work. It's tough to figure out which ones are the good ones and which ones are not. You can figure that out with time as you sift through all those ones that are out there.
The piece about veteran mental health that, I think, needs the most addressing is not, hey, here's what you wear to an interview. Not hey, here's how you write your resume, which is a lot of what we get within the military as we start to transition out. But more dealing with the loss of mission, the loss of identity, the loss of purpose as you hang that uniform up. I wore a uniform for 24 years, and then I hung it up. The last time I hung it up, my uniform in my closet, the last time I had worn it, I was like, "You know what? I'm not ever going to wear that in an actual official capacity again." When I used to wear that uniform into an office or into a room, everybody in that room would see the fact that I had a certain rank, the fact that I had certain ribbons, the fact that I had different medals and things. That would be able to identify my name, which service I was a part of. They would know instantly 80% of who I am, at least professionally.
Now I walk into a room of complete strangers. They turn around, and they see me in a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. They have no idea who I am. They have no idea what my history is. That is what a lot of transitioning service members and veterans struggle with. It's that kind of loss of identity. That's the first piece. Then that loss of purpose and mission. The purpose is the overarching, "Hey, I'm here to serve my country." The mission is each kind of individual, "Hey, I'm a CEO. I'm serving in Special Operations, or I'm X, Y, or Z and serving in this particular capacity." That service admission, it instantly gets taken away from you.
Then the other side is a grieving process that we aren't really afforded the opportunity to go through. Literally, it feels as though a part of you is dying. A part of you is dying, and you don't get an opportunity to mourn that. Then, on top of that, that non-ability to grieve or to mourn that loss of that person, it almost feels as though you are abandoning the service, and they are abandoning you. What I mean by that is, you've served. Whether it's 4 years, 24 years, 40 years, you've served as part of this machine, if you will. When you leave, that machine keeps going. There are people still putting their lives at risk on the battlefield. There are still people in that machine that you feel that you could help, but now you're not in a position where you can. That machine has left you behind. That machine gave you that sense of purpose and mission and identity, and now it's gone. It's continuing to roll down the tracks. There's a lot of guilt associated with both sides of that. So, I've actually completely forgotten your question, Billy. I got all sorts of sidetrack there.
Billy: No, what you just said right there, it just hit me like a ton of bricks. Not even really recognizing that grief of losing identity. But as you were talking about that, on a much, much different scale, when I resigned from being a teacher in November 2021, in January 2022, I was what I call in the gray area. We talked to Kari Schwear about being in gray area living. I was really in a gray area. As you're saying this now, it makes me think that I wonder if I was grieving or struggling with that loss of identity as an educator. Like I said, that's on a significantly different scale. But wow, that really, really hit me right there. I like what you said. That was powerful.
Jon: I wouldn't say that it is on a different scale. That was your purpose, mission, and identity, right? You were an educator. The people that you were educating, when you left, you may have felt almost like a sense of, "Well, I'm abandoning them. Who is going to come in here and fill my role as an educator for them? They're going to go on through their educational system without me. I'm being left behind," as whatever role it is you're doing now. I wouldn't say that is on a different scale at all. I think it's almost the exact same thing.
Another experience very similar, as far as what I felt in my heart, in high school, I trained for four years for tracking cross country. We were very good. We're a very good team. The last race of my senior year, I did well. Then I was like, oh. I finished and I was celebrating the good run. Then I was like, "Oh, what now? Who am I now? I've been training and focusing so intently on these four years of running, and training, and everything to this pinnacle. Now I'm at that pinnacle, and now I'm past it. Now what?"
A really interesting program that I went through a few years back. It's called Tuck Next Step. It's a quick introduction to business and entrepreneurship for transitioning service members and elite athletes. It's at Dartmouth Business School Tuck. At first, you're like, well, what do elite athletes and transitioning service members have in common? I thought I knew everything about elite athletes. Oh, yeah, they're Olympic gold medalists. They're set for life. They're probably millionaires. No, they're not. Not at all. They've been doing a lot of the same thing we've been doing. They've been hyper focused on one mission in their life. That's training to that pinnacle event. Maybe it's the Olympics, maybe it's the NFL, the NBA.
Now, because of time, because of change of body, because of change of skill, now they have to transition out. They experience that same feeling of loss, that same feeling of grieving, the same feeling of, "Oh, now I have to reinvent myself." Really, it's for, maybe it's a high school track and cross country runner. Maybe it's for an Olympic athlete. Maybe it's for a transitioning service member. But maybe it's for a transitioning educator. We all experience this transition and loss of purpose, mission, and identity, and also the grieving associated with that in different ways. But I don't think they're different. I don't think that one is scaled more than the other. So, I just wanted to put that out there for you, Billy, and for your listeners. Because I'm sure your listeners have experienced this themselves just in their own way.
Billy: I appreciate that. This reminds me of the conversation I had with Eric Romanek. I think that episode is coming out next week. That's next week's episode. But he did a little bit deeper dive into Simon Sinek's theory on finite games and infinite games. I think that'd be a cool conversation for people to hear next week. Let's do this. We're going to take a quick break. Because Jon here has transitioned out of the Navy, and so we want to talk about how maybe he sees that as a finite game or what the infinite game is in that transition. So, thank you for listening to The Mindful Midlife Crisis.
Billy: Welcome back to The Mindful Midlife Crisis. We are here with retired Navy SEAL Commander Jon Macaskill. He is the host of the Men Talking Mindfulness Podcast. You can check out his website at www.jonmacaskill.com. You can also go to www.mentalkingmindfulness.com. Of course, we will link those in the show notes. Are you people checking out the show notes? That's where all the good stuff is, so you should really check that out. I wanted to ask you what that transition out of the SEALs into civilian life look like for you. You talked a little bit about the losing identity, and the grief, and the guilt. In off air here, you were talking about how some of that had bubbled up in your own mindfulness practice, but you didn't have the words for it. Does that sound right?
Jon: Right. Yeah, exactly. So, I was feeling the frustration, almost a rage, like this internal rage. I didn't know why. The meditations were helping some things bubble to the surface. But yes, I wasn't able to put it really into words. I was talking with some fellow veterans. The loss of purpose, loss of mission, loss of identity — that comes up all the time. All the time, we were discussing that very thing. One of them turned to me. He was like, "Well, do you feel any grief? Do you feel any guilt?" I was like, "Yes, I do." As a matter of fact, I had not put them into those words. When I felt — rather, when I heard him say that, I felt it like this Mack Truck had hit me. Now I was like, "Oh, now I know what to do with this." I can go to talk counseling, and I can go into my meditations with an intention of processing the guilt, the grief. It's not the same guilt and grief that you have from the battlefield, necessarily. But it is still guilt and grief. You need to work through it. The only way out is through. That's what I was able to do once somebody had highlighted it to me in those terms. I was better able to process and work through, so that I could get out now I feel that I am out of that guilt and grief.
Billy: My friend, Jill Dahler and I, we have a program out now. When this episode airs, we will have this program called Reflect, Learn, Grow. We meet weekly. one of the first two things that we do is, we do a mindfulness practice at the beginning of that session, followed immediately by what we call an emotional inventory. It has maybe 150, 200 words of emotion on there. We have them circle the emotions that they were feeling. The emotions range from, the simple it down to positive emotions and negative emotions. Because you can feel those simultaneously. But what we're trying to get people to do is clearly communicate which emotions that they're feeling. Because if you're limited in your emotional vocabulary, then you're just saying, "Well, I'm happy, I'm sad, I'm mad, I'm angry," those types of things.
I think people need to do that emotional inventory from time to time, because you're able to check in and say, "Oh, this is what I'm experiencing now in this moment." In fact, I will link that worksheet in the show notes as well. Because I think, like you mentioned, those things were bubbling up but you didn't know the words to use in order to say, "Oh, that's exactly what I'm feeling," until someone brings that to focus.
Jon: Absolutely. A lot of things will bubble up in a meditation. Sometimes it's grief. Sometimes it's guilt, like we just discussed. But it may also be memories that you've long since boxed up and suppressed and put away for processing at another time. You didn't realize that today was going to be the day you're going to process it. It's going to bubble up. It may be a happy emotion. It may be a sad emotion. I love that you said you can experience that, both of those, simultaneously.
I went and worked with a particular fire department. Last year, they had lost a friend. After me talking with them, we were joking about something. I could tell that they felt guilty because they were joking about something, at the same time, as they were experiencing this grief and mourning. I said, "Hey guys. It's okay. It's okay. Your buddy that you lost would want you to be joking. If he were here, he would be joking alongside you." It's okay to be mourning and laughing at the same time.
One of the things that happens in the SEAL Teams is, we call them reunions. But really, what they are is funerals. One of the times that we see most of our friends within the SEAL community is at our fellow SEALs' funerals. Obviously, that's an incredibly sad time. But it's also great to see guys that you haven't seen in years, maybe even decades. You can raise a beer with them and have a good time while still mourning your lost brother.
Life, this human experience that we're all a part of, it is messy. It is glorious. But there's also a lot of times when we're going to be experiencing seemingly, completely opposite emotions, and that's okay. That's okay that we do that. We need to know that it's okay that we do that.
Billy: As you're talking about the reunions, it reminds me when I was — in 2003, one of my best friends passed away in a single car accident. He was the life of the party. This guy, he was the center of attention. He captured everybody's attention in the room. His loss was a huge loss. When they had his viewing, people were lined up outside the door for blocks. We had to have his funeral at a high school gym. There were that many people that he knew. This is not a celebrity. This is just the Wesman, like everybody knew who the Wesman was. I remember, particularly at the viewing, weirdly having a really good time. Because I saw, like you said, so many people that I hadn't seen in a long time. Those memories that we had with Wes together, they made us laugh.
Billy: They made us laugh. So, it's weird to think that as difficult of a time as that was, man, I did laugh a lot that day. I cried a lot that day, too. So, there is kind of that emotion in it. Just kind of going back to something you said before, too, that struggle to communicate those emotions. You're a practitioner of mindfulness, and yet you struggled to find those emotions. I think that's important for people to recognize that, hey, even people who are practicing this on a regular basis, they still struggle to find those emotions. So, it is good to take an inventory from time to time and think about what it is that you're really feeling. Because it can be hard to put that stuff into words. It's really important to, especially, communicate with family, with loved ones that this is what I'm feeling right now and get a better understanding around it.
Jon: Right. That's going to be better for your relationship with your friends, family, colleagues. But it's also going to be important for the relationship that you have with yourself. Jon Kabat-Zinn, his definition of mindfulness is being present in the here and now without judgment. That piece gets forgotten a lot. Where we, as human beings — I don't want to use the word fail, but I'm going to use it for lack of a better term right now. Where we fail in mindfulness is that, yeah, we may be present in the here and now. But a lot of what we miss is, we judge the emotions that we're experiencing. Coming back to your example, you're at the viewing for Wesman. You're having a lot of fun, because you see people that you haven't seen in so long. You're experiencing these great memories that you haven't thought about in so long. There may have been a point where you're like, "Oh, I shouldn't be having this fun. I shouldn't be laughing. We just lost Wesman, and we should be sad." Well, I guarantee Wesman is like, "No way you shouldn't be sad. You should be so happy right now."
Billy: Oh, yeah. People slap nuts and just being ridiculous. Absolutely. If anybody listening knows who the Wesman is, you'd know exactly what I'm talking about.
Jon: If and when I die, for the folks who do mourn the loss of me, I want to be able to look down and be like, "Hey, it's okay. Laugh it up. Let's relive some memories. Let's do it." I wouldn't want to look down on them and see them being sad. I want to see them celebrating my life, the memories that we created together as friends, as family, as colleagues. That's what I want to see, and that's how I want to go out. But this comes back to the judgment without judgment. We've got to experience life and experience the feelings that we are experiencing without judging ourselves.
Billy: I do want to point out that you said if and when I die. You said if. So, if mindfulness is giving you some sort of immortal powers, I want to tap into this.
Jon: Yes, I have found the fountain of youth. I'm actually 85 years old, Billy. I'm 85.
Billy: You look amazing. You look amazing. I got to tell you. Mindfulness has more appeal with women. I imagine there are guys out there who think that mindfulness is some woowoo hippie bullshit or what have you. But do you find that men are more inclined to tune into your message and your experiences with mindfulness because of your Navy SEAL experience?
Jon: 100%. That's not lost on me. I realize that. That's actually one of the reasons I do what I do. Because of my background, I know that I'm going to be able to speak to some men about what I do, with mindfulness and meditation, that other people would not be able to talk to. So, my background opens up. The way I say it is that my background opens up doors, so that I can open up minds. Because we, men, we're tough to break through to. Having somebody who has served in a primarily ultra-masculine community, I feel that I'm able to better relate to them, and they're better able to relate to me.
So, a lot of my work is done with first responders and veterans who have highly masculine personas. That's not just men. I mean, there's a lot of women out there with highly masculine personas. I'm able to talk to them, where some traditional stereotypical mindfulness and meditation practitioner or teacher comes up to them. They're instantly on guard, and they're pushing back against the message. Not that there's anything wrong with that stereotypical mindfulness and meditation practitioner. They may be monks. They may be hippies. They may be whatever. That's perfectly okay. But they're not going to be able to communicate and relate to the veteran community, as well as someone with a similar background, as well as someone cut from a similar cloth.
So, yeah, it's not lost on me. That's actually one of the reasons we have the show Men Talking Mindfulness. Will and I — Will Schneider is my co-host — we realized that men are tough to get through to, and are especially hesitant when you start talking about mindfulness, or meditation, or yoga. They think that that is for hippies, monks, and weirdos. Very well could be, but it's also for the rest of us. It's also for the rest of us. So, that's why we have the show, so that we view ourselves as the typical man or typical masculine type. We want to bring these practices to those types who typically push back against them.
Billy: Well, I'm glad that you guys are having that conversation, because it really is important to have that conversation. There's a statistic that middle-aged males are still the most at risk for suicide. It's something that doesn't get talked a lot about. I do feel like we need to address it. We need to talk about it, because these are people's fathers, these are people's sons. They're connected to them. Obviously, everybody is impacted by suicide, regardless of age or demographic. But when you're seeing such stark numbers in one age group, I just feel like we got to do more. There's got to be more. I think what we can do is just start with a conversation.
Jon: Right. Absolutely. I think the statistic is, actually, for women, it's higher in the number of attempts. But the successful suicide — again, for lack of a better term — for those who succeed at actually taking their lives, men have a higher rate of completion of suicide. That's typically because the modality of taking their lives is more violent. Really, it's the kind of binary, if you will. If I do this, I'll live. Rather, if I don't do this, I'll live. If I do this, I'm dead. Whereas a lot of the ways of taking lives in women is less binary, if you will. That said, the mental state of men, the societal state of men is one where we don't talk about our feelings. It's one where we have very few friends. It's one where, as a man, it's harder to make new friends.
Most of my friends, most of men's friends come from their childhood or their work. If they're making friends, maybe church. If you throw in church, if you have some type of church that you go to, you can develop friends that way. But if you develop friends outside of that, you start to be very self-conscious. Like, "Oh, are they going to feel that I'm weird because I'm wanting to be friends?" Whereas women, they make friends all the time, in all sorts of different walks of life. There's no concern about what's the thought about it. My co-host on Men Talking Mindfulness, he made a friend out in town. They went to the beach together. He's like, "That was really awesome to do that." But typically, if you go to the beach with another guy, and there's no women involved — especially a new friend — there's this like, "Oh, are people going to perceive me as X, Y, and Z?" Who cares, first of all? Then why is it different for men to be able to make friends versus women. But that's really what we think. It comes back to that false bravado, hey, I'm tough. I can handle this life on my own. I don't need new friends. I've got my three friends that I've got in my life, and that's enough. Well, maybe it is. But I think it's okay to make new friends. It's okay to make new friends that are outside of work, outside of your church, and outside of the three friends that you made in high school.
Billy: That's why I'm looking forward to heading back to Korea. Because the connections that I made with men and women over there, I mean, there wasn't that stigma whatsoever. It was just, "You're cool to hang out with, and I'm going to hang out with you." So, I wish we could shift that mindset. I want to get you out of here on this, because this is one of my favorite things here. In your emails, I sent you some emails to get you on the show and that sort of thing. They provide you with information. There's an automatic note that comes back that says, "Please forgive my delay in sending a personalized response. I'm working on reducing my time spent on email and plan on only checking it twice a day. If this is an emergency, please call or text me." That is a very beautiful boundary. I love that you said that and that you communicate that. How has it benefited you since you started doing it? How long have you been doing it?
Jon: I've been doing it about a year. What's hilarious is, if you are one of those people who get my email, and then you decide I'm going to call him, you will get my voicemail that says, "Hey, I don't check my voicemail so send me a text." I literally do not check my voicemail. I've never checked it. Never checked it. Then if you text me during certain times, it's going to say, "Hey, I'm either with my family, or I'm doing something away from my phone. I will get back to you as soon as possible."
I've set these boundaries, because it's very easy to get into that reactive mode and feel that you need to respond instantly to every email. You need to respond instantly to every voicemail, and you need to respond instantly to every text. Text, especially. Text is like you get the three dots. When you see somebody else communicating back to you, like anticipating response so that you can respond to that response. It's just this cycle that we all get into. Before you know it, you've spent all your time on email. You spent all your time on answering voicemails, or spent all your time on texts. You haven't actually gotten any of the things that you plan on doing done. Whether that's your task list at work, whether that's spending time with your family, whether that's spending time on your own, you don't do it.
So, checking email twice a day, that's a boundary that I try to stick to as much as possible. I don't always do it successfully. But I tried to at least set that as a goal. It allows me to get so much more done and realize that there is, in fact, so much more time in the day than we think. Again, you spend all the time answering emails and phone calls and texts. You don't get through your to-do list. Then you say, "Well, there's just not enough time in the day." Well, if there was more time in the day, what would you do? Probably, answer more emails, phone calls, and texts. So, I had to set those boundaries, and it allows me a lot more freedom.
Billy: I got to tell you, Jon, you are a role model to me in so many ways. I've really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate it.
Jon: My pleasure, Billy. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate the conversation. It went a lot of great ways, and I'm going to come back and listen to this myself.
Billy: I was just thinking, I probably am going to listen to this episode multiple times right here, because there are so many nuggets to take away. If you guys are looking for nuggets to take away, you can go to www.jonmacaskill.com. Check out his podcast at www.mentalkingmindfulness.com. We'll put them in the show notes. Thank you again, sir. Appreciate it.
Jon: My pleasure.
Billy: So, for Jon, this is Billy. Thank you for listening to The Mindful Midlife Crisis. May you feel happy, healthy, and loved. Take care friends.