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Meditation and Mountaineering: Surprising Life Lessons From a Navy SEAL

Nick Norris found out he was equipped for combat but not for life


spinner image Two images show Nick Norris during his time in the military and also meditating on a mountain
Courtesy Nick Norris

Former Navy SEAL Nick Norris experienced intense combat during three deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq between 2006 and 2010.

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy and Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Class 247, he spent more than a decade with SEAL teams, followed by three years in the reserves.

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Norris, 41, is now CEO and Co-founder of Protekt, a supplement company, and sits on the board of directors at the nonprofit VETS where he works on helping veterans recover from traumatic brain injury and mental health conditions. He’s a husband to his high school sweetheart and father to two kids, ages 10 and 6. 

He wants to share with veterans the lessons he learned transitioning from military to civilian life, and the internal work that has to happen for a full and healthy transition.

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Facing loss head on

When his fellow SEAL Brendan Looney was killed in a 2010 helicopter crash, dealt with the loss by separating his feelings from his missions. He didn’t realize until later how this compartmentalization affected him.

Then, Norris lost his brother Chris in an avalanche in Colorado in 2012. His own wife was pregnant and Chris’ second child was just four weeks old. Norris decided he needed to retire from the Navy to support his own and his brother’s families.

Norris has realized that his own mental health journey wasn’t unique. He found senior leaders from his time as a SEAL were trying psychedelics to improve their mental health.

So, after much research, he learned that he could access the “root problems” by using psychedelics paired with therapy. It was an “eye opening” experience.

He found he could enjoy the present moment once again. Now, he’s on a mission to teach other veterans about the healing aspects of this type of mental health treatment—while advising that people should not take psychedelics without first consulting their medical provider.

Reconnecting with emotions, and people

“As a former special operations guy, I was very good at my job because I compartmentalized emotion very well,” he told AARP Veteran Report. In high-stress situations, he said, he was about to avoid “muddying the water,” maintaining his focus by excluding extraneous matters.

 “That’s a universal quality for successful military personnel. It’s a wonderful resource and asset when you are in the service, and the biggest thing from transitioning from active duty is finding ways to de-compartmentalize and be more connected with myself and others emotionally.” 

It wasn’t easy — he found himself dissociating from his emotions in his post-military career at Range Partners, a commercial real estate brokerage, falling back into military focus where “job becomes number one.” He felt anger and edginess during this adjustment. 

“Family came second to the mission because what we were doing was life or death,” he said in a VETS video. “You get programmed to fixate on that.” Getting out of uniform meant it was time to focus on a “re-prioritization” of relationships that had atrophied over years of service.

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“I needed to learn how to feel again and my ability to reconnect with emotion allowed me to begin reconnecting with the people that I love. That human connection is what has saved my life.”

Staying connected to the military

When Norris left the Navy, he saw his next mission as making a life that had nothing to do with the military, disconnecting from long-standing friendships and relationships. He believes this was a mistake, and veterans should stay connected to the military community. 

“I tried to distance myself, to reinvent myself and prove myself,” he said. “It was the worst mistake I’ve ever made. The connections built during military service—the only thing I can compare them to is family.”

Increasing vulnerability through contemplation

Norris describes his own post-military transition as a quest to become emotionally vulnerable and advises veterans to find their “contemplative practice.”

He said: “Whether that’s prayer, meditation, breathwork or physical activity if you are a runner, swimmer, hiker, whatever,” he says. “I climb a lot, I’m an outdoorsy purpose, and I meditate every single morning, for 20 minutes. I can quiet my mind and open my heart.”

Norris finds this enables him to be in touch with who he truly is. He said: “I’m not trying to be anything for anybody else, but sit with who I really am.”

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published twice a month. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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