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What sitting behind a machine gun taught me about life?

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I want to invite you to be bored.

Not the usual introduction to a motivational talk, I realize…

Why, do I want you to be bored? Not just because it’s good for your mental health, but also because it’s how we develop amazing ideas and solve some of the worlds, and our own deepest problems.

It’s no mistake that some of my most vivid memories are of being on sentry duty in the military.

Why can I recall these benign events?

I’ve done all these incredible things while in the Special Forces, but why can I remember these particular snippets of life in such amazing detail?

I have memories of laying on sodden earth in rain-swept jungles while training in North Queensland, where you strain to hear the sounds of a creeping enemy over the raucous noises of insects and the omnipresent sound of water flowing.

One afternoon while sitting on top of an Armored Vehicle in Somalia, I can recall that in an instant the wind changed from hot to cold and then a violent storm thundered across the open plains, soaking us all and making the Somalis run for their shelters.

I remember the terror at night in Afghanistan, sitting, shivering up on a rocky escarpment while my men slept in a small ravine behind me. I peered out into the darkness searching for an enemy who knew only too well how to blend into the rocks. Far down in the valley below, artillery and fast jets hammered an enemy position while the American Special Forces escaped an ambush set for them. A drone circled overhead, silent in the darkness, covering our position. I watched it all unfold and when it had finished I looked up to the stars and day dreamed of when I was back at school, and THAT fight with a bigger kid who had my measure, and now here I was in Afghanistan in charge of Australia’s finest troops.

Ask any soldier and he or she has had to pull a sentry duty at some time in their career. Usually, there are two people together, but not always, it’s dependent on the threat, you sit there and listen and watch for the enemy while the rest of your team sleeps or carries out work behind you and usually out of earshot. All of this can be exhausting, trying to stay awake by day or night and in all seasons, weather and terrain.

I’ve lost count of how many sentry duties I would have done over the course of my life. I know that some sentry duties would have been about 25 minutes and at the other end of the spectrum some in excess of 3, closer to 4 hours. It all really depends on the size of the force and the enemy threat.

But, what’s really interesting is that the sentry duties I can remember most vividly are the ones that lasted more than an hour, when I was by myself and before we had night vision goggles, and looking back, I didn’t want them to end.

Here’s the thing.

Slowly you become one with the environment, tuned in to your surroundings a silent voyeur to what’s going on around you. The flora, fauna, the weather, all these things become existential; their existence explains itself to you. I imagine that it’s second nature to us that it’s in our DNA to become aware of our surroundings, although you wouldn’t know this to see passengers on the train on the way to school.

There was one sentry duty where I was sitting a few hundred meters from my platoon. I was all by myself, sitting in the heat of the day, in a rocky outcrop somewhere in the High Range training area in Queensland. I was trying not to sleep but my eyelids had other ideas, I knew there was no enemy out there as it wasn’t a contested exercise, and it’s really hard to be motivated without an enemy. I was daydreaming about all manner of things; girls, motorbikes, girls, triathlon, girls, and my future – you know, normal soldier stuff, when I felt a weight being exerted across my knees. I slowly looked down and a King Brown snake had decided that I was in his way and that he was going to casually slide across my legs. He looked up at me and then back in the direction he was going. It was like waiting for that giant cargo train to pass, the carriages just kept on coming, about 12 feet of scaled carriages. I was surprised at how calm I was; there wasn’t any time for “flight or fight”, so the adrenaline never kicked in. He slid off slowly down in the direction of my platoon and I stayed up there on sentry contemplating nature and how amazing it was and the profound experience that I had just had with a reptile that could have easily ended my life up there. That was until I heard screams below me and people running everywhere, I found out later that they had apparently seen a snake…..

I didn’t know back then that I was building a skill. I was learning to be bored! I was learning the skill of mindfulness a building block of emotional intelligence and perhaps the precursor to enlightenment.

Mindfulness teaches us the art of projecting our thoughts and imagining outcomes, training our brains to make informed decisions and war gaming permutations of plans – understanding the second and third order effects of those plans that then lead to desired outcomes.

I had discovered a form of meditation that allows us to manage the subconscious with the conscious.

I say discovered, but really I mean stumbled upon. I mean let’s face it; people have done this for millennia. Greek rational philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, psychologists, writers and others have sat and been bored and then pondered and then thought – deeply about things. (Einstein, Aristotle, Davinci, Galileo, Shelley and Keats, etc)

I can recreate this now too. I’ve learnt how. I can just sit and think.

So, I want you to ask yourself this question.

When was the last time you were truly bored?

What do you do when you are bored? Reach for the iPhone, the iPad or the TV remote….?

Or did you start to think about something, I mean really think about it.

Well, here’s the secret. Here’s the secret to discovering things about yourself and the world around you, here’s the secret to having more in life – actually, maybe this is the secret OF life.

You need to be bored occasionally.

It’s important to train yourself, and especially your kids, to embrace boredom. Train yourself to be able to work through it and not be someone who reacts or needs the constant stimulus of society. Train yourself to be someone who actually thinks, reflects, ponders and imagines things.

Go and sit somewhere in nature, somewhere quiet and hidden away. Leave your distractions at home. Your mind needs to be observant of the benign. Just look around for half an hour, you can use your watch to check (trust me a soldier on piquet is checking their watch every couple of minutes too). You need to be observant. Ask yourself questions about things.

That ant running, how fast is he moving relative to his size? The formations in the leaves and bark, the patterns, why are they like that? Why do clouds look like that and how do they form? Observe everything like a four-year-old with wonder and amazement and talk to yourself in your mind’s eye.

Then after half an hour, unpack an idea. Contemplate something deeper than just what you see around you. Think about religion, creation, your life, your future or your past – let your thoughts wander. Come up with theories of things to be contested (hypothesis) or action plans to be implemented.

In fact, if you can’t remember something (a singer or actor’s name or a book title or anything really), don’t reach for Google… go and be bored and then come back to it. You knew the answer before; it’s still in there!

If you go and do this regularly, once or twice a week, or if you have time then do it every day, you will find that the decisions you make will be better informed, you will solve problems rather than react to issues and you will realize more of your own potential, and all this comes from being comfortable being bored.

You see, I learnt sitting behind a machinegun to firstly just be bored, then to think, then to imagine and finally to develop theories on issues and the universe.

Most of society has lost the skill of being bored and in being bored comes deep and wonderful thought. Thinking and imagining events in the future is arguably the main thing that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom and my fear is that if we loose this ability we stagnate, humanity withers on the vine and we don’t avert disaster, we don’t realize peace, we cease to exist.

So – go an be bored, amazing things comes from it.

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