(Photo: Isaac Benhesed)
If you’re a high-powered executive, or even your own boss at home, chances are you’ve heard about the benefits of meditation.
In 2015, a Harvard Medical School neuroscientist, Sara Lazar, was one of the first to test the benefits of meditation via brain scans. What she found was compelling, especially for those who want to build their capacity for focused attention at work and in life.
“Meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the auditory and sensory cortex, which makes sense,” said Lazar in a Washington Post article. “When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment, which enhances your sensory experience.” “We also found that [meditators] have more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making.”
Lazar’s discoveries about the effects of meditation have exciting implications, not only for brain health, but for personal performance and success.
A Closer Look at How to Approach Meditation
I have been practicing meditation for over 35 years, and have studied with some of the greatest yoga and meditation teachers in India. What I’ve learned is that meditation doesn’t happen by itself. It occurs as a result of turning the mind inward. In other words, you have to “do” something in order to lead yourself into the meditative state.
While meditation is an ancient science that’s survived for thousands of years, the practice itself is surprisingly simple:
Step 1: Preparation
Preparation in meditation is the process of changing your physical, mental, and emotional energy so that you can move from an “external” state to an “internal” state — from being active on the outside, to being active on the inside.
By turning the mind inward in preparation, your senses progressively withdraw from external stimuli — the office, the phones, your email, noise — and come alive in the inner environment of your mind. Preparation is used to reduce the distractions within your body and mind. It’s a practice that trains your mind to move inward and prepare you for deeper sensory experiences.
This movement is what makes meditation possible.
In the yoga tradition, the metaphor of the cup is frequently used: It is said that if you want to fill a cup with something, it first has to be empty. If your mind is full, there is no room for anything more. This is why you prepare before you meditate. You create space so that something new can come in.
You first begin by performing certain actions to empty your mind and change the condition of your physical and sensory perceptions. This is an active process. By altering the focus of your attention, or your breathing, or by performing simple movements or postures — you will successfully prepare yourself to meditate.
— To Prepare Your Mind: “Intentionally” decide that it’s time to meditate. Also, select a certain amount of time you want to meditate for, or get up and go to a quieter place. These are intended actions by which your meditation depends.
— Consciously Focus on Your Breathing: Deliberately altering the pattern of your breath affects change on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, even spiritual. Ancient science, now validated by modern science, confirms that breathing is one of the fastest and most powerful tools you can use to calm agitated states such as anxiety and fear and promotes mental clarity and focus. (So important is the breath, I’ve written two books on the topic).
— Prepare Your Body to Meditate: Shift your physical state, by deliberately moving or stretching your body while bringing your awareness to the breath. Give your mind permission to let go, easing out of the day’s busyness. Keep following the flow of your breath. Notice the quality of your attention and the overall sensations in your body, feeling relaxed and alert.
Once you’ve “emptied the cup” you’re ready to fill yourself up with something new. This idea of taking charge of both emptying and filling the cup provides the foundation for all meditation practices — and is a key variable for mental and physical renewal.
Step 2: Focusing Attention
Step two is the action of filling up the cup, and has two parts: 1) choosing an object of meditation; and 2) focusing your attention:
1. Decide upon the object you wish to meditate on. Your attention can be placed on anything: the tip of your nose, your navel, your heart, your breath, a sound, an object, or an idea. Whatever focusing technique you choose, you can bind your mind to any object that is positive or meaningful. The object simply becomes a support for your attention.
2. Attempt to hold your mind and focus it on that object. Keep your mind focused in one direction, with all of your attention.
This is the practice of strictly binding your attention to a single point. The more you encourage your mind to go toward one object only and place your attention there — not letting it wander or multi-task — the stronger that connection becomes, as all objects or distractions fall away. This is simple to do, but not so easy to sustain.
“Focusing” as a practice encourages you to pay attention to what you are doing. This practice has powerful benefits — it develops discernment and self-direction, and the ability to see clearly amidst chaos or stress. This can impact behavior and dramatically optimize your engagement and success.
Step 3: Sustaining Attention
True meditation is the process of intentionally directing your mind in a certain way for a period of time. You put your mind in one place, or on one object, and prolong contact with the object (image, emotion, or thought). Whatever happens between you and the object is the beginning of meditation.
As you meditate, your mind naturally becomes absorbed in the object and you become completely integrated with it. When you sustain your attention, something flows — and you are meditating. This makes your experience the process as well as the goal — it’s when you and the cup become one.
Final Thoughts: Explore the Many Types of Meditation
Keeping your mind on your breath is one practice of meditation. Reflecting on an idea or form, or quietly observing an emotion, is another. In meditation, you can have various starting points, distinct levels on the springboard from which you can dive.
Meditation is simply the practice of directing your mind away from what you feel is undesirable and linking it to what is desirable. It’s a practice you can come back to again and again. Once you sustain your inquiry, you can reveal something new, something you did not know before.
Yet, meditation is not a strict discipline of the mind, nor is it done in the same way every day. It can be a walk in the woods, a mindful sense of your emotions, a ritual, a sacred time, or simply a process of observation. By investing in and utilizing your mind’s power of attention, you will perfect yourself on a regular basis and develop the invaluable qualities from which wisdom, creativity, and inspiration truly arise.
Learn more about the multitude of benefits that meditation can bring to profoundly re-energize and transform your work, your workforce, and your life.