Strengthening Core Values thru Mindful Awareness

The morning of March 5th, 2020 unfolded with a deep reminder of the power of things all us caregivers, therapists, teachers, parents, 1st responders and retired 1st responders carry. March 5th is the anniversary date of the Santana School shooting (circa 2001) and March 1985 the anniversary of line-of-duty death of Officer Tom Riggs and wounding of Officer Donovan Jacobs & ride-along, Sara Pena-Ruiz.

These types of reminders often activate a flurry of other memories in us. Some describe it akin to flipping through a rolodex of memories or a replaying of a movie, bringing with each image, emotions and body upsets. For me, when I read the recollections, I immediately recalled my own direct and deep connections to Santana and also to 13 SDPD officers who dies in line-of-duty during my 40 plus years of association with SDPD. The mind seldom if ever rests and is ready and willing to also offer reminders of other difficulties across the lifespan.

One of the greatest gifts and strengths 1st responders carry with them is their sense of integrity and the values that inform that sense. It is not unusual for individuals to describe integrity” simply as doing the right thing even when nobodys watching.

Yet, when looking deeper, integrity describes a state of bringing together many parts to form an integrated sense of oneness. I prefer to use the term whole heartedness” to describe being fully present in doing whatever that next right thing might be. This ultimately translates into remaining true to who we are at our core. 

In other videos posted on YouTube, I describe three aspects and three traits that cops, firefighters, paramedics, lifeguards etc. carry with them into their careers. The links are in the description below.

Most 1st responders possess a strong sense of Noble Cause: A drive to help those who can’t help themselves; to rescue those in harms way; to protect others from wrongdoing. Noble Cause is fueled by a sense of compassion. Those in public safety do the work at the outset because they care so much. Caring is at each first responder’s heart and informs a core value from which integrity flourishes. Integrity is exactly the sense that allows first responders to sacrifice their safety and wellness to act upon that Noble Cause.

When the Noble Cause is realized and felt, it results in an experience of Moral Elevation. Moral Elevation is just recently being studied by sociologists, neurologists, psychologists and other researchers. Moral Elevation is often felt in the body and accompanied by experiencing the emotion of Awe.

Awe is a complex emotion.  Flavors of awe include:



   Skill or talent


   Supernatural or religious Experience

Awe in the face of beauty or some amazing skill or talent often presents in the body as a warmth and expansiveness in the chest. Yet awe is also experienced when faced with extreme tragedy or violence. 

Moral Elevation coupled with awe, promotes pro-social behaviors, leading to altruistic actions of 1st responders to move into the threats and dangers of public safety. Theres a shadow side of standing in other’s upset too often or for too long.

Earlier in the same week, another friend posted on Facebook a graphic reminder of the types of first responder experiences accumulated and carried yet hidden from others.

I cried when I found your daughter lying in a ditch, high on meth - But you didn't know”


“I was devastated when I found the 32-year-old veteran dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound - But you didn't know”


“I missed my kid’s birthdays, school plays and family trips because I had to work - But you didn't know”


“I had nightmares about the 2-year-old I found crushed under a truck tire while mom was inside buying dope - But you didn't know”


“I really struggled with EVERY death notification I made to a family about their loved one - But you didn't know”


“I was never comfortable at social gatherings because with the things I've seen, I can't trust anyone - But you didn't know”


“I've seen things you could never even imagine - But you didn't know”


“My job was hard on my family - But you didn't know


“I had problems, just like everyone else - But you didn't know”


“The next time you see any first responder, remember that they are people first and there is no training in the world that prepares them for the things they see and do on a daily basis.

Too much altruism can result in Moral Distress - Moral distress arises when we are aware of a moral problem and we determine a remedy but are unable to act on it because of internal or external constraints.” (Halifax, 2018)

In other words, our actions conflict with our sense of right and wrong. This form of distress can show in the body as uncomfortable or difficult, even overwhelming sensations. It can also show in the form of numbing or dissociation. Too much Moral Distress and an individual then is motivated into selfish pro-social behavior. They move in to ease pain and suffering in another but also to ease their own suffering. Moral Distress applies undue challenges and threatened the integrity of an individual. 

Occasionally, an experience moves beyond being distressful to becoming a moral injury.

Moral Injury is a psychological wound resulting from witnessing or participating in a morally transgressive act; its a toxic, festering mix of dread, guilt, and shame.” (Halifax, 2018)

Events like school shootings or witnessing injury or death of other public safety workers can result in Moral Injury. Witnessing or taking the life of another can also overly tax an individual’s sense of wholeness, resulting in Moral Injury. It can be like a part of us died also. 

Yet, these are extreme examples not all public safety workers encounter. The wearing and tearing or distress and injury transpires through time from unrelenting, repetitive exposures to, and moving into the challenges and dangers of the human drama.  A psychic equivalent of repetitive use injuries in muscles and bones.

We can heal psych injuries similar to how we heal physical injuries. It takes time and sometimes direct effort. Not unlike physical therapy to recover from a musculoskeletal injury.

But what about whats left? These are the memories we carry. These memories may bring emotions and body sensations with them. These memories have a name also: Moral Remainder.

Moral Remainder is, Painful emotional residue that lingers following actions that violate ones sense of integrity.” Moral remainder can be present for decades.

I often use the analogy of a backpack loaded with rocks. As we move through life, we never let go of the backpack. Each experience adds a pebble, a stone or a rock into the backpack, there to be forever carried along. Some of the stones settle to the bottom, never to be experienced again. Others somehow find their way to the top and stay in view and awareness. They can become problematic and even overwhelming and disabling. They can represent a burden that just becomes too much.

The rocks in our backpacks do not need to be burdensome. The experiences are ours and uniquely ours to carry. They do bring with them depth of emotions and thoughts and body sensations while in awareness. The odd thing of it is though, the emotions and body sensations are in real time. Present moment awareness. The thoughts consist of memories and active beliefs focused on our failures, resentments, regrets from the past and /or concerns about what is not yet occurred and may never occur.

The challenges that face any of us engaged with our own moral remainder is to be compassionate to ourselves and to form new positive meaning for having the experiences. Sense making is the process to give meaning to collective experiences. 

Mindful awareness practices, self-compassion practices, faith-based practices, and psychotherapy are all useful avenues for acknowledging, being with and moving forward with our experiences. Not to disavow them, but to lean and welcome them.

Practices based in mindful awareness offer individuals skills and abilities for navigating life’s difficulties and challenges but also for recognizing and savoring the beauty and joy in the world. Mindful awareness is simply paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is. Moral distress can interfere with this practice.

Formal programs such as Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) or Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teach students skills for being in the present moment. Students come away from such programs cultivating a deeper awareness and compassion and tolerance of life’s difficulties. 

Mindful Awareness in Public Safety Training Institute ( has created programs specifically for those doing the difficult work of public safety and other caregiving professions to maintain and cultivate strength around integrity. Students learn skills for navigating career and life challenges with awareness of when and how core values are under attack, interfered with, hidden, or diminished. These skills then set the stage for creating renewed relationships with the various aspects of the four moral elements: Moral Elevation, Moral Distress, Moral Injury, and Moral Remainder.

If therapy is needed, useful therapy approaches for addressing troublesome memories include CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), Prolonged Exposure therapies, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing), Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, and others. Clinicians can discuss what might be best. 

This being human is a guesthouse.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably.

They may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

VIDEO: Pillars of 1st Responders – Part 1

VIDEO: Foundations to Pillars of 1st Responders – Part 2