Have you heard of a man called Andy Puddicombe? If you haven’t, he’s a Himalayan monk-turned-entrepreneur who is helping revolutionize and provide meditation as medication to our main ailment: the 21st Century. With the ever present work-life balance challenge looming over us and the constant foray of messages and notifications beeping at us from everything electrical it’s not surprising that frazzled masses are turning to the art of mindfulness and meditation. But does it really work? Can you increase your productivity through mere sitting and concentrating? Or is it just the buzzword we’re hearing everywhere?
What was previously known simply as ‘relaxation’ or ‘hypnotherapy’ is now more commonly branded as meditation. It’s becoming as commonplace as your morning coffee and is being taken just as seriously. Some of the more tempting benefits of the practice include its alleged ability to make you smarter, happier and more productive. “Sign me up!” I hear you shout.
This notion was so tempting to current owner of the world Google that they invested many thousands of dollars in meditation for its employees. Google staff can take ‘Neural Self-Hacking’ and ‘Managing Your Energy’ classes if they’ve not already completed the ‘Search Inside Yourself’ course. (Pun intended? Maybe? Probably?) Perhaps more interesting than that is twice per month Google host ‘Mindful Lunches’. During which, apart from the ringing of prayer bells, these lunches are conducted in total silence. I bet Staff don’t bring Doritos to work on those days!
However, the focus on meditation and practised mindfulness isn’t retained for Google alone – it’s sweeping across the entire hub of geniuses and their slide-bearing offices of Silicon Valley. In an in-depth article on the matter for Wired, Noah Shachtman summarises the phenomenon well:
“These companies are doing more than simply seizing on Buddhist practices. Entrepreneurs and engineers are taking millennia-old traditions and reshaping them to fit the Valley’s goal-oriented, data-driven, largely atheistic culture. Forget past lives; never mind nirvana. The technology community of Northern California wants return on its investment in meditation. “All the woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde,” says Kenneth Folk, an influential meditation teacher in San Francisco. “This is about training the brain and stirring up the chemical soup inside.”
It seems that meditation is behind future iPhones and the robots of the future – is there something to be said for meditation now?
Anyway, back to this Puddicombe guy. Let’s be honest, it probably doesn’t get more zen than becoming a monk. For him, meditation isn’t about ‘stirring the chemical soup’ or increasing your productivity. Instead, it’s about protecting “our most valuable and precious resource”: the mind.
“We’re talking about our mind. The mind, our most valuable and precious resource, through which we experience every single moment of our life. The mind that we rely upon to be happy, content, emotionally stable as individuals, and at the same time, to be kind and thoughtful and considerate in our relationships with others. This is the same mind that we depend upon to be focused, creative, spontaneous, and to perform at our very best in everything that we do.”
For Puddicombe, meditation provided a way for him to familiarize himself with the present moment through focused relaxation. He describes it as ‘thoughts without the attachment’. But for many other people, the focus on the mind is only the starting point. The benefits of taking some time out each day are numerous not only for the mind but for a person’s social life, work life, self-control, relationships, health and happiness.
This is where meditation-doubters step in and say “But does it actually work? Like, actually actually work?” Well, you’re in for a treat. There’s a plethora of information and data out there which supports claims that meditation increases focus and creativity whilst decreasing stress and negativity. For example, a study conducted at Stanford University found that an 8-week mindfulness course reduced the reactivity of the amygdala (part of the brain which processes emotions) and increased activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex that help regulate emotions, which in turn reduce stress. This is one of many studies documenting the benefits of meditation and as such, I would recommend you check out this article from Psychology Today which provides a detailed list of the benefits backed up by stats and studies.
“Now, what usually happens when we’re learning to be mindful is that we get distracted by a thought. Let’s say this is an anxious thought. Everything’s going fine, and we see the anxious thought. “Oh, I didn’t realize I was worried about that.” You go back to it, repeat it. “Oh, I am worried. I really am worried. Wow, there’s so much anxiety.” And before we know it, we’re anxious about feeling anxious.”
Now, at this point, there won’t be any more quotes from Puddicombe’s talk. This is because:
1) It’s really long and this post is already too long
2) He starts juggling (this makes it a must-watch for fans of visual metaphors!)
However the quote above illustrates brilliantly what happens when you meditate for the first time. It’s a tedious blend of paradox and irony as you focus on relaxing your body but then you start thinking about important and stressful things (the big ‘don’t press this red button’ of the meditation world) which, in turn, stresses you out, rendering the whole exercise a cause – rather than a solution – for stress.
To get beyond this stage you could go to a local meditation class or set up your own ‘meditation zone’ (as corny as that sounds) in your own home.
From then on it’s all about sitting comfortably, controlling your breathing and fixing yourself to the present moment. In fact, you don’t even need to be sitting comfortably, as walking meditation is another technique which is growing in popularity these days. However, what’s most important – whether you’re walking or sitting alone somewhere is focusing with your mind. In his excellent article on io9 about the subject, George Dvorsky highlights the thought process during meditation:
“A common misconception about mindfulness meditation is that practitioners put themselves into a profound state of relaxation while clearing their mind of all thoughts. Not exactly. Rather, practitioners are hyper-aware of a single, consistent thought — and it takes a bit of effort to stay focused. Practitioners are like ducks on a pond. At the surface, they look calm and serene, but at a deeper level they’re busily working away.”
The technological route: download your zen
Need a guiding hand but don’t have time for classes? There are a plethora of apps out there at the moment which will teach you how to meditate and encourage you to make it a habit. Some of the most popular include:
However, you can also experience guided meditation through podcasts. A popular one at the moment is Zencast, which offers meditation instruction for all levels. There’s also The Meditation Podcast (which uses binaural beats in the audio “that actually affect the brain waves”) and free guided meditations from UCLA to name a few!
One term flying around our office at the moment is ‘have more goes’ (you can hear about its origin story in Dave’s article here) but if you’re old school like me employ the notion of ‘practise makes perfect’.
Just try it out and then try it out some more. Incorporate it into your morning routine or do it straight away after work to decompress. You don’t have to dedicate an hour to it every day, just do what suits you. Get family and friends involved to keep momentum going. Have more goes.
If you haven’t already, watch Puddicombe’s video. The visual metaphor is really very illustrative…
“Life isn’t as serious as the mind makes it out to be.” Eckhart Tolle
Do you practise meditation? Why does it work for you? Or have you tried it and it didn’t work? Why is this? Let me know in the comments below!