Take a moment and picture a successful entrepreneur or an innovative creator. What are they doing? Working on a laptop? Tinkering at a workbench? On a phone call? My guess it that your image includes some sort of impassioned activity and, in all probability, doesn't include someone sitting around doing nothing - but the reality is that many of the most successful and inventive minds today have begun to do just that. Sitting still, doing nothing-meditating- and finding their lives and endeavors all the more fruitful for it. Meditation is a powerful tool whose benefits, including increased levels of focus, positive structural changes in the brain and increased creativity, are far reaching in many facets of business and everyday life.
One of the greatest benefits of a regular meditation practice is an increased level of focus. The average human has over 60,000 thoughts per day, most of which amounts to mental chatter- unnecessary, repetitive and habitual thoughts that can seriously disrupt your creative flow. If that sounds unlikely, take five minutes to sit still and focus on nothing but your breath and then come back. Surprised? I’m guessing that that five minutes was frustratingly full of thoughts ranging from what you had for dinner last night to memories of the neighborhood dog of your youth. This monkey mind chatter doesn’t only occur when you are trying to sit quietly. Though you might not always notice it, it’s constantly playing in the background of your working mind, sometimes keeping you from working at optimal levels. Not to worry, with the help of a little meditation you can dull the hum of that constant chatter.
A study published in in the Journal of Neuroscience shows that when compared to non-meditators, meditators are better equipped to quit brain activity related to mind wandering and focus on the task at hand. This study showed that when comparing the MRI’s of meditators with those of non-meditators, the meditators in a resting state showed more stability in their ventral posteromedial cortex, the area of the brain linked to spontaneous thoughts and mind wandering. Additionally, the study tested focus using a visual processing test which focused on identifying target sequences in rapidly flashing numbers while minimizing false alarms. Again, the meditators outperformed the control group by identifying more target sequences with fewer false alarms. In plain terms, those who meditated had a greater ability to focus.
Meditation can also physically change our brain in ways that can help optimize our effectiveness in many facets of life. In their book, Just Sit: A Meditation Guidebook For Those Who Know They Should But Don't, Elizabeth and Sukey Novogratz discuss the ways in which meditation actually changes the structure of your brain and the ways in which these changes can give you an edge in the workplace. Examples include increasing the cortical thickness of the Hippocampus which aids long term memory and your ability to learn new things, a thickening of the prefrontal cortex which controls decision making and awareness, and a shrinking of the amygdala, the part of the brain in control of fear and our fight or flight mechanisms, which allows meditators to respond rather than react to highly charged emotional situations.
Creativity can also be enhanced by a regular meditation practice. A study conducted by the Institute for Psychological Research and Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition concluded that meditation promotes divergent thinking, a style of thinking that allows many new ideas to be generated in a context where more than one solution is possible, for example, a brainstorming session, and which is considered to be a key process in most creative processes.
The list of the scientifically proven benefits of meditation goes on and on-it decreases depression, helps regulate mood, improves your ability to work under stress, improves your mood and psychological well being, and much more-but how do you do it? The technique is very simple and you don’t need anything except 20 minutes of free time, so you have no excuse not to give it a try!
MEDITATION FOR BEGINNERS
1. Sit comfortably. I prefer sitting on a pillow in the quarter lotus position, which is just a modified cross legged position. The key is to ensure that your back is straight and you aren’t in any pain. Experiment a little with your sitting position before you actually begin your meditation.
2. Close your eyes. Breathe through your nose and maintain a natural breathing pattern.
3. Focus on your breath. Notice the movement of your body as you breathe. Feel the air as you inhale and exhale through your nose. Don’t try to control the intensity or pace of your breath, just breathe. If you notice your mind wandering, return your focus to your breath.
4.Continue for 20-40 minutes.
When you are just beginning meditation you might want to try a few things to help you ease into the practice. Initially you may want to start with only 5 minutes, and then increase by a minute a day until you’ve reached your target time. I like to set a timer so that I don’t have to worry about guessing when my time is up. The key here is consistency, you should try and make sure you are meditating every day.
Additionally, you may want to start by counting your breaths to help keep you focused. Count each breath until you reach ten - if you find your mind wandering go back to one and start again. Make it your goal to reach ten without a wandering mind. Eventually, when your meditation practice is more established, you will want to stop counting and just focus on your breath, but in the beginning this can serve as a guide in getting you on the right path.
Apps, videos and audio guides for meditation have become increasingly popular in the past couple of years but my feeling is that they are unnecessary and, according to some, may even sabotage your meditation practice. The truth of the matter is that meditation is really as simple as the four steps I’ve outlined above. You don’t need a specific meditation for sleep, confidence or self esteem - you will receive all of those benefits and more in merely learning to minimize the chatter in your mind. If you would like a bit more guidance in how and why to meditate I would recommend reading a few books on the subject, I found Our Pristine Mind: A Practical Guide to Unconditional Happiness by Orgyen Chowang to be particularly enlightening.
Most of all, be patient! Meditation can be very frustrating in the beginning. I mentioned above that meditation is incredibly simple, however simple and easy don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Our minds are so accustomed to constant chatter that quieting it for a moment may feel impossible, but give it a few weeks and you will notice the chatter begin to dissipate and the benefits start to appear!