What Is Meditation
Various forms of meditation have been practiced in countless cultures around the world, for thousands of years. Until fairly recently, many in the West viewed meditation as a religious, even ritualistic practice limited to people engaged in Eastern philosophy or to eccentric mystics.
The word meditate comes from the Latin meditari, which means to think about or consider. In meditation, the mind becomes quiet. This mental stillness is created by bringing the body, mind, and senses into balance which in turn, relaxes the nervous system. When we are grounded physically and mentally, we are keenly aware of our senses, yet disengaged- detached, yet observant. Even though you need to be able to concentrate in order to meditate, meditation is much more than concentration. It ultimately evolves into an expanded state of awareness. The intention behind meditating is not to get anything, but rather to look at and let go of anything you do not need. The practice of meditation encourages and develops concentration, clarity, balance and abundant energy in your daily life.
Meditation assumes many forms. It is practiced individually or in organized groups. Three of the most widely known practices are mindfulness meditation, mantra and Transcendental Meditation. However, practically speaking, meditation simply entails relaxing your body and calming your mind. Chances are you are already meditating. When you are walking, running, playing a violin, watching the sun rise or set, reading a book or simply “catching your breath”, you are meditating. All the various techniques and forms of visualization exist either because people have difficulty bringing themselves to this basic state of awareness and relaxation, or they have chosen to take their meditation to a more challenging and expanded level.
Regardless of which type of meditation we practice, without it, our minds are constantly pacing, our bodies are out of balance and the troubles of the day, the past and the future weigh heavily upon us. When we are unable to let go, tension builds and we either internalize it by “stuffing it” or externalize it by reacting- “kicking the cat”. Either way, this will inevitably manifest in other areas of our lives and eventually consume us.
A formal meditation practice can be a powerful tool. As an executive or a leader, you may find yourself sitting in a boardroom being bombarded by several challenges or having a difficult conversation in your office and want to calm and quiet your mind and body. It is not practical to pull out a violin or go running at that moment. Instead, you can use meditation to help you quiet your mind, calm your body and become present in the moment.
The Benefits of Meditation
There are countless physical, mental and emotional benefits of meditation. With regular practice and patience, you may find that…
Meditation reduces stress and builds resilience.
It calms the mind, reduces the power of negative thoughts and emotions and decreases anxiety, thereby boosting resilience and performance under stress.
Meditation improves focus, presence and listening skills.
Meditation helps train the mind to focus fully on whatever is happening in the present moment. A person who meditates regularly will become more able to recognize when their mind starts to wander and bring themselves back to the present. By being present, one will listen more attentively, thereby building trust and improving communication.
Meditation boosts emotional intelligence (EQ).
Brain-imaging research suggests that meditation can help strengthen our ability to tune in with our own emotions and the emotions of others, thus helping us empathize with others and connect more deeply. Meditation increases our sense of connection to others and encourages feelings of empathy and acceptance.
Meditation enhances creativity.
Research on creativity suggests that we come up with our greatest insights and biggest breakthroughs when we are in a more meditative and relaxed state of mind. This is likely because meditation encourages divergent thinking (coming up with the greatest number of possible solutions to a problem), a key component of creativity.
Meditation increases our sense of purpose.
When meditating, we silence our minds and connect to the source. We find clarity on our purpose and declare the vision for our lives. This helps us create the work we do every day with passion and creativity and gives us meaning.
Meditation helps us be better leaders.
Meditation supports our continuous effort to maintain control of our emotions, thoughts and feelings and act from our highest self at all times.
The Brain and the Body During Meditation
Studies continue to show that meditation has an amazing variety of neurological benefits, from reduced activity in certain centers of the brain to physical changes in the brain itself.
Research has found that as meditation deepens, brain activity in specific areas decreases further. The frontal lobe, the most highly evolved part of the brain, is responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions and self-conscious awareness. During meditation, the frontal cortex tends to go offline. The parietal lobe is the part of the brain that processes sensory information about the surrounding world, orienting you in time and space. During meditation, activity in this region slows down. The thalamus is the gatekeeper for the senses. It focuses our attention by funneling some sensory data deeper into the brain and stopping other signals in their tracks. Meditation reduces the flow of incoming information to a trickle. The reticular formation is the brain’s sentry. It receives incoming stimuli and puts the brain on alert, ready to respond. Meditating dials back this arousal signal as well. Furthermore, it has been found that mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the brain’s “me center”- the default mode network (DMN), therefore reducing mind-wandering and quieting self-referential thoughts- the “monkey mind”.
Moreover, meditation changes the physical structure of the brain. It increases cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory. It also decreases brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety and stress.
And this is simply a fragment of the research that has been and is being conducted…
During meditation, respiratory rate and perspiration decrease. Blood circulation improves and both heart rate and blood pressure lower. Blood cortisol and metabolic waste levels in the bloodstream decline. Muscle tension, stress and pain diminish. Anxiety and feelings of depression and irritability lessen, while feelings of well-being increase. The immune system is strengthened and the process of aging is slowed by increased protection of the ends of chromosomes, called telomeres.
The changes that occur in the brain and the body during meditation are numerous and profoundly positive.
Starting Your Meditation Practice
The foundation of a successful practice is commitment and discipline. There are no rules, no right or wrong way and no perfect form. The key is choosing a technique that is best suited for you and the challenges you are facing in the present moment. We recommend that you begin with a basic meditation practice of simply 2-5 minutes a day.
When and Where to Practice:
To establish consistency, we suggest you meditate at the same time and in the same place every day. Find a time that works best for you. Traditionally, the morning is considered the optimal time because you are less likely to be distracted by the demands of your day. Many people find that a morning meditation helps them enter the day with a greater degree of equanimity and poise. However, if a morning practice is a struggle, try an afternoon or early evening meditation. Then, choose a place that is quiet, pleasant and where you’ll be undisturbed.
Choose a position that works for you. If you prefer sitting, either on a chair or on the floor, keep your spine erect and body relaxed. Your hands should rest comfortably on your lap or thighs, with the palms up or down. If you choose to walk or stand, maintain a good posture and let your arms hang freely by your sides. When lying down, place yourself in a symmetrical and comfortable position with the appropriate support under your head and knees if needed.
Decide on your point of focus. If sound appeals to you, create your own mantra, silently or audibly repeating a word or phrase that is calming to you, such as “peace”, “love”, or “joy”. Affirmations are also helpful. Repeat “I am relaxed.” or “I am calm and alert.” with each breath out. If you choose imagery, visualize your favorite spot in nature with your eyes closed, or gaze upon an object placed in front of you: a lighted candle, a flower or a picture.
One way to observe the breath is to count it. Breathe in for three to seven counts and breathe out very slowly. Then shift to simply observing the breath, noticing its own natural rhythm and movement in your abdomen.
Whichever posture and method you choose, stick with them for the duration of your meditation period. Once you find what works for you, you’ll want to maintain that practice. Do not be surprised or discouraged by how frequently your thoughts wander. When you realize that your mind has become distracted, simply return to your breath.
How Do You Know If It’s Working?
At the beginning, you might feel uncomfortable meditating. Sitting for even 5 minutes may cause physical discomfort, feelings of impatience or agitation, or sleepiness. Conversely, you may have some profound experiences the first few times you sit, only to spend the next few frustrating days trying to replicate them. Meditation shouldn’t cause you to feel unreasonably stressed or physically uncomfortable. If it does, reduce the length of your practice time or change your position (from walking to sitting; from sitting to standing).
5 Solutions to Common Meditation Excuses & Fears
In working with leaders in business, we have found that when they have chosen not to meditate, it is often for one or a combination of the following reasons.
1. “I don’t have time.”
Even short meditations can be transformative. Meditating for just five minutes a day can yield noticeable results, including increased focus and stress reduction. Start by carving out time each day.
2. “I’m not doing it ‘right’.”
There is no “right” way to practice. Honor your experience and try not to worry about what you think you are supposed to feel, see or think about.
Simply sit comfortably in a quiet space, on a chair, with your spine erect, but not strained. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Notice the sensation of the air as it enters your nose, fills your chest and abdomen, and releases. Then let your attention rest on your natural rhythm of breathing. If your mind wanders, don’t worry. Notice whatever has captured your attention, then let go of those thoughts or feelings and return your awareness to your breath.
3. “I don’t like to be alone with my thoughts.”
Meditation can free you from the very thoughts you are trying to avoid. Unhealthy thoughts tie us to the past. Through mindfulness we can acknowledge, sit with and transform these thoughts in the present moment.
4. “My mind is too scattered ... I won’t get anything out of it.”
Let go of your expectations and simply dedicate yourself and the next 5 to 20 minutes to your meditation. Expectations stir emotions that become blocks to and distractions from the present. While you meditate, thoughts and feelings may arise. Simply acknowledge then let them go. Return to your breath with awareness that your “monkey mind” is part of the practice.
5. “I don’t have enough discipline to stick with it.”
Make meditation a high priority in your daily routine, like eating and bathing.
All are valid reasons. However, when the process, intent and power of meditation are understood, you will see that it is a simple (but not easy) practice that will create significant clarity, balance and energy in your life.
Meditation in the Workplace
Envision a meditation master sitting on top of a mountain in deep serenity, tasting the nectars of life and being one with the universe. It is a beautiful and serene setting, far removed from the stressors of civilization and extremely conducive to such a peaceful state.
The true test of a meditation practice is how the practitioner transfers the discipline from the top of the mountain to the world below. What happens when the master comes down the mountain in his fine linen robe and is splashed by a passing rickshaw with muddy water? How does the master respond?
The tools learned in a meditation practice can be applied in the office, the boardroom or wherever you may need them. Just the posture alone, your back is straight- not stiff, your shoulders are relaxed and your face is calm, can be easily emulated as challenges arise. Whether you choose a formal meditation practice, or you simply sit down and empty yourself, you will experience a calming silence and a deep, satisfying sense of peace.
Some of the world’s top companies have chosen to incorporate meditation in their workplace. Apple, Intel, Aetna, Ford, Google, Target, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America are just a few who have implemented meditation as a way to reduce stress and boost employee productivity. Here are the ways some of these companies have done this:
Steve Jobs introduced Zen mindfulness meditation to the corporate structure at Apple. Workers have access to a meditation room, 30-minute daily meditation breaks and on-site meditation classes.
One of their original software developers spearheaded a program called, “Search Inside Yourself” (SIY). This 3-part program focuses on: 1. Attention training 2. Self-knowledge and self-mastery 3. Creating useful mental habits. Google offers an on-site meditation space and meditation courses.
Lindsay Van Driel, a platform strategist in Intel’s Software and Services Group co-founded Awake@Intel. This began as a meeting during lunch to meditate and discuss the feelings associated with working in the high tech industry- which is often stressful, fast-paced and complex. Through word of mouth, the group slowly started to expand. After 3 years, the self-sustaining, volunteer-run program now has a waiting list of over 500 employees. Awake’s unique curriculum includes a 10-week course with 90-minute classes where the emphasis is on training people how to meditate. It has an arrival meditation, a topic and a second meditation. Each week the topics are respectively: Presence, Mindfulness, Intention, Emotional Intelligence, Empathy and Relational Intelligence, Vulnerability, Compassion and Gratitude.
Proctor & Gamble (P&G)
When other companies were installing gyms, CEO A.G. Lafley was starting a meditation instruction program and installing meditation spaces in P&G’s corporate buildings. He’s quoted as saying, “You cannot out-work a problem, you have to out-meditation it.”.
Implementing Meditation at Work
Stress is the number one epidemic of our civilization. Indirectly or directly it is related to challenges like insomnia, anxiety, fear and inflammation in the body presenting as cardiovascular and autoimmune illnesses. As business becomes more global, ever-changing and complex, we all experience varying degrees of mental and physical demands and stress throughout the day. Meditation is a very effective way to handle stress. Unlike other mindfulness tools or meditative activities, breath-based meditation is accessible at any time. Even if you are in the middle of a meeting or a difficult conversation, it can be used as a tool to quiet your mind, calm your body and become centered in the present moment.
Try to find a consistent time to meditate during work, so it becomes a daily habit. Integrate a 5-20 minute meditation each day at the office. If possible try to go outside to meditate in the fresh air. If that is not possible, simply close the door to your office or find a comfortable room where you won’t be interrupted. Over time, you will be able to meditate at any time, under any situation. You won’t need to shut the door or close your eyes.
Meditation in Action
Dr. James Doty, a neurosurgeon at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, also values meditation for its ability to cultivate emotional intelligence. In the Harvard Business Review, he shared the following experience: “A colleague had developed a cutting-edge medical device, but the company he had started to develop and sell the device was on the rocks. Doty, an early investor, became the CEO. At a meeting with vital – but disgruntled – stakeholders, he faced an angry, unreasonable investor. He credits his mindfulness practice with helping him respond with empathy: “I paused and slowly took a few breaths… This led me to actually listen and understand not only his situation, but what he wanted and expected. By not responding in an emotional manner, it resulted in his not only becoming supportive but also becoming an ally in making the company a success. The company ultimately went public at a valuation of $1.3B.”
A Breathing Meditation
When the mind experiences chaos during a significant challenge, creativity in problem solving can simply freeze. The ability to consciously still the mind in the midst of chaos may be the most important tool you have. Meditation is an efficient and effective way to cultivate this ability. With deliberate practice, meditation can increase your ability to experience stillness of mind more easily and more quickly while facing adversity.
Breathing is not only an essential element of meditation, it can be a meditation in and of itself. Slow, conscious breathing stills the mind and relaxes the body. In the following meditation, breath will be your point of focus. You will simply observe the breath as it is- every nuance and each sensation it produces: how it moves in your abdomen, how it feels as it flows through your nose and across your lips, its quality and its temperature. As you become fully aware of all these details, we encourage you to not dwell or judge them, instead remain detached from what you’re observing. What you discover is neither good nor bad, simply allow yourself to be with the breath from moment to moment.
The key to conscious breathing and to meditation, is to enter without any expectations. This time and space is not intended for re-playing problems or challenges, but rather for learning how to create space and stillness within. While the intention is not to solve a particular problem, in the mind’s stillness, you may experience great insight.
Please keep in mind that meditation is a practice. Just as we learn to play a musical instrument, a new sport or to speak a foreign language, we must practice. The foundation of learning a practice is commitment, discipline and a willingness to grow. You must also be willing to experience failure, disappointment and frustration. Be patient with yourself: practice, not perfection.
A Breathing Meditation
Find a quiet space.
Sit comfortably on the front edge of a chair with your feet flat on the ground. Hold your spine upright, yet not stiff. This posture reflects your intention of being open, aware and awake.
Close your eyes. Starting with your face, slowly relax your muscles. Continue down your body, relaxing your shoulders, arms, hands, chest, belly, hips, legs and feet.
Take a moment to explore the sensations you are feeling at this moment. Experience them, but do not analyze or judge them. Simply accept them.
Slowly breathe in through your nose, paying close attention to your breath, while thinking “in”. Take the breath down to your abdomen- just below your belly button and pause briefly.
Now breathe out through your mouth very slowly (approximately 4 times slower than the “in” breath), while thinking “out”. Feel your breath as it moves across your lips.
Repeat this cycle a few more times, thinking “in”...“out”. Experience the presence of each breath as it enters and leaves your body. Observe the sensations in your body as they arise and dissolve with each breath. Periodically check in with your body to ensure you are staying relaxed.
When you are ready to finish, take in a quick, deep belly breath, let it go and smile.
Applying the Breathing Meditation to Your Everyday Life
When you are experiencing a challenge and become aware that you are feeling stress, fear, anger or self-doubt, you are simply a deep breath away from becoming present. With each breath, you are not in the past nor the future, you are here, now. With that breath and those that follow, you are consciously creating space between you and the situation. In that space you are building stillness and clarity. As a result, you will see your choices and find yourself responding to others rather than reacting. This can be applied in your office, the boardroom or wherever you may need it. With the practice of meditation, you will find peace and serenity within, even when surrounded by chaos.
An Exercise on Gratitude
For this exercise, you will need a piece of paper and something to write with. You will be listing what you are grateful for in your life today.
Before we begin, please take a few minutes and practice your Breathing Meditation.
Now, at the top of your paper write the title:
Today, I Am Grateful For:
First, explore the general aspects of life, including life itself, nature, the sun, the moon, our ability to breath… Write down what you are grateful for. Once you have committed it to paper, close your eyes, take a deep breath and visualize what you wrote.
Next, consider your loved ones. Start with your family, then friends and other people in your life and write them down. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and visualize what you have just written.
Lastly, review your work or the company you have created. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and visualize what you put in writing.
Now, slowly read all that you have written out loud, softly and gently.
Slowly close your eyes, breathe deeply and feel the inner joy.
All is well.
For more information and practical help with your meditation practice check out the VIM Meditation Web Site
How to Meditate: A Practical Guide to Making Friends with Your Mind
by Pema Chödrön
Wherever You Go, There You Are
by Jon Kabat-Zin
Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer
by Richard Rohr
Meditation for Beginners
by Jack Kornfield
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening
by Joseph Goldstein
The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
by Thich Nhat Hanh