At an exact moment last week when my mind jumped from one needless worry to another, my siblings and I received this e-mail from our brother Mike:

“In my mail today was an envelope from the U.S. Navy indicating that their records show that Dad had not been issued all the service awards he was due. Enclosed were four additional medals. For one, the World War II Victory Medal, I’ve attached pictures. Take a minute and read the words … look at the symbolism. Let us not forget what these guys fought and died for.”

I felt whacked by the Zen stick, the wooden paddle that some meditation masters use to hit students whose minds drift in trance, like rats who scamper around and around in a maze of forgetfulness and confusion. The letters on the Victory Medal spelled out, “World War II, United States of America: 1941-1945: Freedom from Fear and Want: Freedom of Speech and Religion.”

Like a whooshing vortex, Mike’s wake-up call zapped me into a crash-landing-type awakening. Instantly I saw a much broader perspective than the mundane minutia that often fills our psyches, tricks our brains and keeps us from serving life like a veteran, fully and honorably.

I wrote to Mike: “Freedom from fear and want. WOW!!!  AMAZING!  Brings tears to my eyes.”

He replied, “Makes you stop and put some perspective on your day.”

He was right. I hated to confess how my thoughts had been churning at that moment. I wrote: “Ya. When your note about huge heroism came, my mind felt tiny, ambushed and obsessing about my midlife midriff muffin-top jiggle.”

I know such self-judgmental rants hold captive my time, energy and limited talent. I doubt that the guys who fought and died for freedom allowed themselves such enslaving rumination. I know out-of-control thoughts lead nowhere other than to a marathon run on the inner treadmill. I know.

But I forget. Meditation teachers joke that the mind can be like a bad neighborhood, a risky space no one dare enter alone. I know that, too.

So as I took the refocusing minute Mike had encouraged, I walked to my living room to gaze through the windows into the deep woods. I wanted to shine outside light on my inner darkness. I wanted soul growth which can only crack us open when we do not ensnare ourselves in mind traps.

But habitual patterns hijacked me yet again. I first spied the overgrown plant’s brown, dried, dead leaves on the wooden floor. Ouch … because then I saw the dust kitties in the corners of both my house and my brain. Only after this usual wandering blah-blah-blah did my gaze land and steady on the big picture.

The mind is shameless, spiritual teachers tell us. Thus, perhaps we need metaphoric flashlights when we find ourselves lost in the rugged landscape inside our head. Perhaps to defeat our demons, our victory campaign must invite Grace, must find some core gravitational pull other than what we can muster on our own.

So, to shine light in a more gentle way than a world war or a Zen stick, I have placed at my desk a few items to help pull me out of rough inner terrain: a picture-scene of a lush green garden; photos of my parents, my grandparents, our two children, and our 5-month-old twin grandsons; a few elements from the earth like rocks, stones and a plant. My writing-table symbols and the awards which represent freedom — Dad’s Navy medals, pins and buttons — awaken me again and again. When I let myself receive their meaning, I walk off the battlefield. Personal struggles demand grounded centering, not minds that go AWOL. When I remember to take that minute, I know that we can all fight honorably against our fears and want.

Now, if we could only remember to stop every now and then to put this perspective on our day.

Susan Lebel Young, author of “Lessons from a Golfer: A Daughter’s Story of Opening the Heart,” teaches mindfulness, meditation and yoga and may be reached at: [email protected].