Mindfulness for better work performance, less stress
Phil Jackson holds the record for the biggest number of NBA titles (six with the Chicago Bulls and five with the Los Angeles Lakers). Behind his coaching success is the Zen principle “one breath, one mind” (Huffington Post). “As much as we pump iron and we run to build our strength up, we need to build our mental strength up… so we can focus… so we can be in concert with one another,” he says. This he accomplished with his teams by having them practice mindfulness through meditation.
Athletes, Fortune 500 corporate leaders, Silicon Valley techies, the US Marines, hardened criminals, educators, doctors and many more—all have discovered transformational power in the simple practice of sitting still. And it is not a flash in the pan. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT scientist widely acknowledged as the man who introduced mindfulness to mainstream America, research on the topic has expanded exponentially in the last few years—from two articles in 1990 to more than 500 scientific articles in 2014 alone.
The findings from all the research are nothing short of compelling. Studies suggest that mindfulness can help relieve stress, boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, increase relationship satisfaction, build compassion, and help treat depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders and other mental ailments.
There was a study out of Harvard involving participants who completed an eight-week mindfulness program that suggests that the size of the hippocampus—the gray matter in the brain associated with emotion and memory, the same part of the brain shown to be smaller in people with stress-related disorders like depression and PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder)—can increase through meditation practice.
Mindfulness can literally change the brain, and it looks like for the better.
Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s Jolly Good Fellow (his title, seriously), best-selling author, and my teacher, concluded in an “aha!” moment that mindfulness is equivalent to self-awareness. It is self-awareness, asserts Daniel Goleman, in his groundbreaking book “Emotional Intelligence,” that is the foundational competency for emotional intelligence, now accepted in the corporate world as more important than IQ for stellar performance and outstanding leadership.
With this idea, Meng created, with the help of thought leaders in the Buddhist, psychology and neuroscience spaces, what is still the most popular program at Google, called Search Inside Yourself.
Matthieu Ricard, a molecular geneticist turned Tibetan monk, was once wired up to a brain-activity-measuring machine while in different meditative states. When Matthieu’s brain was scanned, his happiness measure was off the charts. The media started calling him the “happiest man in the world.” (Ironically, he was not very happy with that moniker, according to his friends.)
Mindfulness is nothing mystical, and it is not dogmatic. It will not make one change or disavow any belief system that he or she already has, or turn one into a cult member. As Phil Jackson said, it is nothing more than mental exercise for a healthier mind—what running or sports or crossfit is for a healthier body.
The practice is simple but it is not easy. As with anything else, with time and regular practice, it does get easier and the benefits more profound. Here are the steps:
- Sit comfortably, either on a chair or cushion on the floor, with the spine up but not stiff.
- Close your eyes, take a few slow, deep breaths, and feel the body in contact with the chair or floor. Notice the sensations of pressure, tingling, warmth, etc.
- Focus your attention on your breath wherever it is most vivid—the tip of your nose, the back of your throat, or the rising and falling of your abdomen.
- As soon as you notice your mind wandering, as it will—all the time, in fact—acknowledge the present thought itself, and then gently return your attention to the breath. Go back to step 3.
Long-time practitioners do it in silence but beginners may find it helpful, as many do, to use guided meditations. There are apps that can help, including Headspace, Mindfulness App and Buddhify, or find something free on YouTube. Ten minutes once a day is all it takes to start.
It will probably get challengingly boring, but the effects of regular practice, without a doubt, will be profound. At some point, that voice in your head that keeps yanking you around with ruminations and worries will be under your control. That’s only the beginning.
Joel Villaseca is a lawyer working at the United Nations in New York City and a mindfulness-teacher-in-training with siyli.org. He says he’d be happy to answer questions and hear your thoughts at [email protected]
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