No doubt you have already heard about the benefits of meditation—decreased stress and anxiety, greater focus, and increased creativity. You may have even meditated on occasion, even without developing a consistent practice.
What you may not have realized is that institutions filled with ambitious, stressed-out high achievers working in very intense environments have started to teach meditation to help improve performance.
Perhaps that’s because their leaders know, from their own personal experiences, that high stress combined with fast-paced environments leave many of us depleted, unable to focus on one thing at a time, and less able to perform at our best. We all know, on some level, that chronic stress compromises our mental and physical health, diminishing our ability to succeed at work or school.
These leaders may also be reacting to data from studies like the American Psychological Association’s 2010 Stress in America report, which reveals that “nearly 75 percent of respondents said that their stress levels are so high that they feel unhealthy.”
Google Leads the Way
Google has started offering employees a free meditation class called Search Inside Yourself, taught by Chade-Meng Tan, author of Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace). The often-oversubscribed class, designed to strengthen emotional intelligence through meditation, teaches attention training, self-knowledge, self-mastery, and the creation of useful mental habits. It is very telling that one of the world’s most successful companies, built by engineers like Tan, views meditation as a valuable professional skill.
Three years ago, Columbia University started the Mindfulness and Meditation Working Group, co-founded by Home H.C. Nguyen, Sarah Sherman, and Joe Levitan. Nguyen, who had been running an organization, turned to meditation when “life became so stressful, I got sick easily and developed migraines and ulcers. I was looking for another way of dealing with the world by dealing with myself and what’s going on internally.” The co-founders had long-time meditation practices and wanted to share the experience with others, providing practitioners a place to meditate and learn together.
What Is Meditation?
Meditation is a practice many use to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is not about religion and, some say, not even about spirituality; it’s about concentration—the ability to focus on the present moment. In fact, the cover story for last month’s edition of Scientific Americanmagazine is on mindfulness and how it can sharpen focus and improve attention.
Although there are many ways to meditate, the basic foundation of mindfulness-based meditation is a focus on the breath.
“Sitting and doing breath meditation is the foundation,” said Sherman. “Very simple observation of the breath to calm and stabilize the mind involves observing bodily sensations and emotions and the rising and passing of thoughts. [You exercise] the muscle of letting go, of figuring out how to stay in the present moment.”
You don’t have to be in the privacy of your own home to meditate. You can engage in an informal meditation practice, focusing on your breath during a class or in a meeting. There are even walking meditations in which you focus on the sensations on the bottom of your feet.
It doesn’t take much time to meditate. Sherman sometimes tells her students to “just try and see. You probably wasted 10 minutes on Facebook today… everyone has time.”
Evidence That it Works
Research has shown that meditation practice can literally change your brain, increasing activity in areas of the brain involved in “learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”
After attending Deepak Chopra’s class at Columbia Business School, Peter Harriss decided to sign up for the school’s 21-day meditation program.
“Before I had this practice I had a tendency to get overwhelmed or stressed out if I had multiple projects due,” Harriss said. “I am much more able to focus on what I have right in front of me. I think being in the moment is a very important aspect of leadership. It cultivates emotional intelligence. I think, ‘What am I feeling now, why am I feeling it?’ which helps me have a better understanding of other people and their behaviors and motivations.”
Meditation proved so effective at reducing stress and improving mental health that Hollywood filmmaker David Lynch (himself a long-time meditator) started the David Lynch Foundation, which teaches Transcendental Meditation, a distinct meditation practice, to traumatized populations. The foundation’s programs help populations dealing with traumatic stress, including military veterans, survivors of sexual violence, and civilians who have lived through war and its aftermath.
When I asked Britten Chroman, the Foundation’s Director of Women’s Programs, about whether Transcendental Meditation could be helpful for the general population, she shared, “In doing this work, so many people share that they were victims of rape. It’s something people don’t talk about. I’ve heard many stories about how people shut down at work and are unable to function. People have to put themselves together again to function at work and in life.”
Whether helping traumatized populations regain their ability to function, or helping others improve their emotional intelligence and increase their ability to focus, the benefits of meditation are clear.