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A remarkable story of courage and resilience.

On 23 June 2018, 12 young members of the Wild Boars soccer team — and their novice monk turned assistant soccer coach — from a small town on the Thailand-Myanmar border went missing. They were remarkably discovered alive ten days later. This sparked an extraordinary saga of international cooperation, ingenuity, and compassion. Experts from many fields planned how to maneuver them out of their predicament.

12 young soccer players, aged 10 to 16 years, and their coach were stuck in the Tham Luang cave, for 10 days. They were stuck about 2.5 miles inside the cave, which was dark and flooded with murky rainwater, with no contact with the outside world and little hope of rescue. Yet they survived and were calm and smiling when met with the first rescuers after 10 days of confinement that was characterised by limited food and water but filled with uncertainty and hopelessness. It took a total of 18 days, that seemed like a lifetime before they were all rescued.

Was it a miracle or can it be attributed to something else?

An “all-star” team of expert divers and navy seals from at least six countries worked on the mission to find and rescue the team. A daring rescue mission in the treacherous confines of a flooded Thai cave. At certain points, the underwater crevices through which people had to squeeze were barely wide enough to accommodate an adult human body. Each arduous roundtrip extraction took between 9 and 11 hours. The operation also claimed one life: Saman Gunan, a 38-year-old former Navy SEAL who volunteered to help in the search and rescue. He died after carrying air tanks into the flooded cave, losing consciousness underwater after running out of air himself.

What makes Navy SEALs work relentlessly in the face of resistance and such overwhelming odds? Is it just a job for them or is there more to it?

Navy SEALs and the art of not giving up

Navy SEALs are the most elite of the defence forces. “How do you find the right people for this elite force?”, a Navy SEAL commander was once asked. He answered, “We are not looking for the most athletic or the brainiest of the lot. We put them through some of the toughest physical and mental routines. When they are physically and mentally spent, there are some candidates that can dig deep and find energy to protect and save themselves and their teams. Those are the kind of people that make it to the Navy SEAL team”.

What’s the source of Navy SEAL’s long-lasting energy? Is it resilience? Is it mental toughness? Is it tenacity? Or, is it just good old perseverance?

Leadership thinker Rajeev Peshawaria in his book, Open Source Leadership, calls it Leadership Energy. The difference between leaders and non-leaders is simply this – Leaders don’t give up. They have the ability to continue in the face of overwhelming odds, when others would falter. Leaders don’t give up because they are able to dig deep and find their leadership energy – they find the source of their leadership energy through a slow and deliberate process of self-reflection and self-discovery. There are two primary sources – deep clarity about your values and a purpose based on those values./ And then there is a third reinforcing source – mindfulness. In our study of great leaders, past and present, mindfulness is regularly practiced by a large number of them. True leadership is not about a title, position or power. It is about finding the source of your own leadership energy and working relentlessly towards a worthy cause. The Navy SEALs epitomise true and authentic leadership. This kind of authentic leadership is required today, more than ever before.

The Wild Boars’ miraculous survival and mindfulness

The members of the Wild Boars Soccer team, the young Thai boys, and their assistant coach were stuck in the cave with no light and limited food supply for 10 days before they were first discovered by the British divers. Such an ordeal is terrifying to say the least, and full of anxiety, fear and hopelessness. When they were greeted for the first time by the rescue team, they were not crying or in a state of panic. Astonishingly, they were found to be calm and smiling.

How do you survive such an arduous ordeal? How are you able to stay calm and be able to smile at the end of it?>

It turns out that their coach, Ekapol Chantawong, who led them to hike inside the Tham Luang cave, had trained in meditation as a Buddhist Monk for a decade before becoming the soccer coach. According to multiple news sources, he taught the boys to meditate in the cave to keep them calm and preserve their energy during their 18-day ordeal.

What is mindfulness? Simply put, it is ‘Attention with Intention’. The practice of mindfulness is all about creating focus on your breath or on sensations in your body parts. And when your mind wanders off, you gently bring your attention back to the focal point. When this is done repeatedly, the mind gets used to focusing, and bringing the focus back on intention. Similar to a physical workout, this is a gym for your mind and the more you exercise it, the better your mind gets at it.

As a result, you get better at paying attention. You can make choices and exercise free will regardless of your life situation. You can decide the best course of action based upon reason and compassion, as opposed to emotion.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner once said – “Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space, is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”. Practice of mindfulness can help you to create a pause between stimulus and response. It moves you from reacting to responding. Panic, anger and shouting are signs of reacting that can lead to unnecessary loss of energy and no constructive output.

Are you reacting or responding? Are you able to pay attention to what’s happening in and around your life and intentionally make the choice? Because that’s where the opportunities lie for you to exercise freedom of choice and discover potential for learning and growth.

The stress, anxiety and uncertainty that we face in our professional and personal lives is in no way greater than that faced by the young Thai boys in that cave during those uncertain 10 days. We can learn from their experience that the practice of mindfulness can be instrumental in our ability to overcome stress and anxiety in our everyday lives.

Lalit Gupta

Lalit Gupta, Chief Marketing Officer

Lalit has over 30 years of extensive business leadership experience and has led Strategy formulation, execution and change initiatives across countries in Asia Pacific and Japan. Lalit is also a mindfulness practitioner for over 8 years and believes that regular practice of mindfulness is imperative to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life and is more required today than ever before. Lalit brings real world experience to Leadership Development and Corporate Governance and is a well-respected thought leader.