Personal Effectiveness and Responsibility
The Meditative Leader
In the business world in general, engaging in meditative practices most often tends to happen when referring to the need of a given person (and perhaps a leader in particular) who needs badly to de-stress or to find more inner peace when faced with high levels of pressure, and has tried many other approaches first. While this is often a reasonable strategy in such circumstances many business people either dismiss the idea of engaging in meditation as being too loose and “spiritual” to apply to their world or consider it to be too embarrassing to admit to as a regular and serious pursuit. And even if they can overcome these obstacles to doing it, many individuals find that their fledgling attempts to meditate are too difficult to do alone and/or that they can’t drown out the inner voices which are often running many thoughts at the same time, chief of which might be “you need to get back to work right now – this meditation stuff isn’t going to work”.
Just as any skill needs to be learned over time, meditation takes practice before it is likely to have any effect. In this regard, for any leader willing to give it a try, it may well be worth not only trying much earlier but persisting with for longer, especially as the regular use of this method may help to quiet that incessant voice in the head (even if it’s only to some extent).
So, what does meditation involve on a practical basis for a business person or as a practice which can potentially help an individual to do a better job, especially as a leader?
According to Dan Harris, a TV journalist and anchor on ABC, who recently wrote a book about his personal journey to incorporate meditation into his working life (called 10% happier), meditation has had some unhelpful press (as well as what he calls “cultural baggage”) that we should all work hard to overcome. This “press” has mainly portrayed the practice as being “only for philosophers, Buddhists and hippies” and so not very applicable to business life, even in the guise of the less spiritually couched term of “mindfulness” which has been popular in the last few years. Harris suggests that we simply ignore this baggage and look to the core practices that have worked for millions of people for hundreds and even thousands of years and which are now starting to be borne out by modern neuro-scientific research. This research, in summary, suggests that regular practitioners of meditation have not only more relaxed brains and dispositions in stressful situations but are measurably able to better combat unhealthy addiction, ADHD, asthma, depression, high blood pressure, immune system issues, insomnia and many other human problems.
What are the core practices of meditation without the baggage?
Although everyone’s journey will be different, the following are a few of the practices that can be seen to be at the core of meditating successfully and without it having any of the additional spiritual “trappings” that often come with it (which individuals can then choose to add back if they so wish):
- Meditation needs to take place every day. This can be at the start of a day, in the middle or at the end but should ideally be at a similar time and run for a fixed duration. Five minutes each day is a good initial target (and you can set your watch or smart phone timer to go off at the end of this time). Once you have done this for a few weeks, you may want to increase this to seven, ten or even twenty minutes a day (and build up even more as you wish).
- Meditation should take place in a comfortable place where you can be uninterrupted. This will depend on the job you do and the space you have available to you but you should ideally sit up straight and comfortably on the floor or if you prefer, lying flat on your back, and in a location where people will not interrupt. If you can’t do this sensibly at the office even reclining your car seat is one way to do this. Another is to meditate while walking a fixed distance and route – although this takes more focus and practice.
- A good starting point to learn meditation is to focus on your breathing. The key here is to try to still what Harris calls “the monkey mind” or those stray thoughts that rush through our heads most of the time (which either try to re-think the past – when it has gone or imagine the future – before it has happened). This is nicely illustrated by the image at the top of this article which shows the little voices – depicted as mini characters on our shoulders) that most of us listen to regularly arguing back and forth. By focusing on something as basic and regular as our breathing we can help to drive out these “stray” thoughts (or at least diminish their occurrence over time) and focus on the present.
- Every time the mind wanders learn to note the experience of wandering but re-focus on the breathing. As Harris says as an example of what happened to him early on, “thoughts calcify into opinions, little seeds of discontent blossom into bad moods, unnoticed back pain leads to irritability” etc. In other words, it is inevitable that our mind will wander off for the most simple of reasons, but the more we can note this happening and then come back to our breathing the better – some people even count their breaths in and out to help arrest the frequency of the “drifting off”.
- Read books on the subject of meditation. Meditation is a lot harder to do well and to stick with than it first appears, and needs discipline and focus and often the trying of many ways to do it. In this regard, books on meditation can be a great help and there are many that are either very practical or which give many of the wider theoretical underpinnings of what happens in the mind when meditating effectively.
- Find friends who meditate. Particularly if you are the only person who seriously meditates it can feel lonely, not to mention stupid to be taking time out to close your eyes and lie down to meditate in the middle of the day. This feeling may well wear off naturally over time but the habit can be strengthened by finding friends and colleagues who also meditate. This helps to discuss individual experiences and borrow ideas from one another about how meditation can be more effective (and build camaraderie into the bargain). In practice, some colleagues may be curious about what you are doing over time and may even give it a try themselves.
- Take it as far as you want to go. Meditation may only be a quick five minute quiet reflection each day for some people, at one end of the continuum, or something much deeper and more substantial, at the other (perhaps taking on a much more spiritual dimension and self-love and compassion for others aspects perhaps). The journey along this continuum is naturally up to each individual to think about and pursue as they wish, and as he or she starts to realize the benefits from the practice. Just remember perseverance and regular practice is always called for.