Zen of the Army Field Manual

Lessons in achieving contentment from a surprising source.

Posted May 07, 2020

Decades ago, researchers studying the psychology of happiness identified the state of satisfaction as rooted in experiencing pleasure with what you had (Myers and Diener, 1995). In this sense happiness or contentment is rooted in the interpretation of one’s life by savoring and appreciating the good. This state requires mindfulness of the moment. One aspect of Zen Buddhism adopted by Western psychology is the practice of mindfulness to enhance well-being (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). Mahayana Buddhist philosophy enumerates six perfections, including discipline, forbearance, and diligence.

The U.S. Army produces manuals with directives about war maneuvers. These have been adapted to provide soldiers with resilience enhancing techniques (U.S. Army, 2013). The concepts can be applied to the psychological battles we all face that create inner chaos and keep us from moving forward; viz., discouragement, sadness, anger, frustration, and boredom. There is a Zen to the Army’s lessons learned approach that can enhance mindful self-reflection. Here are a few applications.

Psychological reconnaissance. A reconnaissance (recon) mission is gathering information to determine what obstacles may be in front of you. “Intelligence-gathering” on yourself is a deeply profound action as it represents becoming mindful of your inner process: feeling states, thoughts, and attitudes. Conducting a psychological reconnaissance mission can prompt changes in maladaptive life patterns.

For example, you may be struggling with coming to terms over the loss of a relationship that happened months ago. You feel lethargic, detached from others, and unhappy most of the time. In your psychological “recon” of your emotional experiences, you discover that your inner thoughts center primarily on feeling rejected and reviewing and re-reviewing all your deficiencies that led to the break-up. Ruminating on all the things that went wrong in one’s life fosters what psychologists call a negative expectancy bias—or a mindset that is pessimistic and expects failure and disappointment. The psychological recon demonstrates that the obstacle to well-being is the tremendous amount of psychological energy you consume by the constant gnawing of what went wrong and what is wrong with you. This mindset is clearly an obstacle to overcoming the loss and moving on. The key is in not allowing negative emotions to take the upper hand. A counter to that ruminative style is to be mindful of the moment—to force yourself to literally smell the roses as you walk by them; to stop thoughts, right at the outset, of the person who left you; and to replace negative inner narratives with positive ones.

Psychological reconnaissance is useful if the mission is clear, e.g., to learn the lessons that difficult times can teach us and move forward. The military highlights the ability to re-group and re-track after a mission goes wrong, or obstacles arise, or the plan is unworkable because the intelligence was wrong. Plan A may fail, and often does. Therefore, you go to Plan B, and on, and on, until you get to your goal. This process keeps one in the “driver’s seat” and fosters what psychologists call a positive expectancy bias—or a mindset that is optimistic and expects success in the long-run.

In our example, it may be that the psychological recon also results in a discovery that staying mired in the loss blocks you from initiating another relationship and protects you from rejection. Plan A, that of stopping negative inner narratives, fails because the intelligence was wrong and the plan unworkable. The mission to stop negative thinking fails because it is sabotaged by the fear of rejection. Plan B is to re-group and re-define the mission: “address the fear directly.” It may involve re-framing the experience of rejection as painful; rather than viewing it as a deficiency on your part, view it as your ability to emotionally connect deeply to another person. Or, it may result in psychological insights that are painful—such as your view of the other person was clouded by idealization, but was useful for growth.

Psychological capabilities gap. A capabilities gap refers to an identified deficiency in what is needed to succeed in a mission. A capability gap that is not addressed and resolved is likely to be repeated in the future. To identify a psychological capabilities gap, take a moment to identify attitudinal sets or habits that are not productive. Attitudes can create psychological capability gaps that cumulatively constrict an individual emotionally, financially, and spiritually. For example, a “glass half-empty” attitude can lead to a chronic sense of dissatisfaction. Constant worrying is another gap that can lead to a sense of helplessness. Habits such as procrastination or not taking responsibility for one’s actions are behavioral examples of capability gaps. The way to narrow capability gaps is to

  1. articulate the psychological gap;
  2. make a plan to narrow the gap;
  3. put the plan into action; and
  4. amend it as needed.  

Psychological ops. The military has a term familiar to most of us, that of an “operation.” An operation refers to the goals of a mission and how to execute the actions required to achieve that goal. Accomplishing the mission is a powerful philosophy that can be harnessed and applied in a non-military context to identify emotional obstacles that sabotage contentment. Success for an action requires:

  • defining the goal
  • identifying obstacles
  • knowing capabilities
  • developing the steps to achieve the goal
  • engaging in actions to accomplish the goal

Operations can be re-framed to identify personal goals and aspirations.

A psychological operation starts with the identification of a specific goal, e.g., reducing fear-driven decision making. The second step is identifying obstacles, e.g., doomsday material from TV, the internet, emails, colleagues, friends, family dominates information received. The third step is to know your capability, e.g., you have been fear-driven all your life; change will come but it is a process that is long-term and not immediate. The fourth step is to develop ways to achieve the goals and acting on them, e.g., reduce the amount of time you watch negative news reports to X number of minutes a day; increase the amount of time you spend on activities that uplift you to Y minutes a day. This process can serve to energize creativity. It can also be used to develop a blueprint to move away from comfort zones that may bog one down into negative emotional states.

The military’s goal setting and self-review model provides concrete actions needed to bounce back from disappointments, to re-group, and re-track. It offers a way to quiet the inner voice of negative or mindless chatter and to focus your mind and concentration toward a purpose. Think of it as a kind and gentle boot camp for the difficult work of changing the attitudes and mindsets that can keep one stagnant, mired in mediocrity, and clutter minds with negative chatter. That is the Zen of the Army Field Manual. 


Myers, D., & Diener, E. (1995). Who is happy? Psychological Science, 6(1),10–19. doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.1995.tb00298.x

Wallace, A. B., & Shapiro, S. L. (2006). Mental balance and well-being: Building bridges between Buddhism and Western psychology. American Psychologist, 61(7), 690-701. DOI:10.1037/0003-066X.61.7.690

U.S. Army. (2013, July). Goal setting for personal & professional excellence. Joint Base Lewis-McChord, WA: CSF2 Training Center.

U.S. Army. (n.d.). Field Manuals. Retrieved May 3, 2020 from https://usacac.army.mil/sites/default/files/misc/doctrine/CDG/fms.html