Paying Attention: The Power of Mindfulness Meditation
Many of my clients ask about mindfulness meditation, a powerful method for enhancing the performance of individuals, teams, and leaders that is being adopted in corporations large and small, around the world. In response to those questions, I decided to provide a short introduction here.
I first learned about mindfulness meditation over 30 years ago and I have had the opportunity to study with some exceptional teachers. Meditation has been a daily practice of mine since I first learned it, and I have been teaching it to my clients and helping them develop mindfulness practices within their organizations for over 20 years.
Mindfulness meditation is being studied extensively in research laboratories throughout the world, and the more we learn about it, the more benefits we discover. It is surprisingly simple and can be practiced anywhere, anytime. I have clients who practice at home, in the office, and on airplanes. I even had one client who chose to do it in the parking ramp beneath her office every morning because it was the quietest place she could find on a daily basis.
I always advise people to use a timer for this exercise, ideally something that doesn’t tick. The reason is simple: mindfulness is about letting go of distraction, and without a timer, you will be distracted by having to monitor the clock. Any calendar app on a smartphone will do. If you decide to continue this practice, there is a wonderful free app available here: https://insighttimer.com/
To get started, find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed for fifteen minutes. You can sit in a chair, or you can use a cushion on the floor to sit on. In either case, when you sit down you want your back to be straight, and your legs in a comfortable position. Your torso should be upright and relaxed. If you are sitting in a chair you may want to place a pillow or cushion behind you, to provide some back support and ensure that you don’t slouch. Your feet should be flat on the floor. If you cannot adjust your chair low enough to have your feet comfortably flat on the floor, find something to place under your feet.
Set the timer for ten minutes. Now focus your attention lightly on your breathing. I say “lightly” because the point is not to turn off your thoughts and senses, but rather to disengage from them. Let them come and go, but don’t pay attention to them. (This may be harder than you expect.) When you find you have become distracted don’t judge yourself, just return to lightly focusing on your breath. Some people find it useful, when they become aware that they were chasing thoughts, to gently label that “thinking,” and return to light awareness on breathing. I invite you to try this now.
How did it go? How many thoughts, emotions, and sensations came up, and how many took you away, so that you became absorbed in them and lost awareness of your breath? Most people discover, from this simple exercise, that much of the time they are distracted and unaware of all the things going on inside themselves and around them.
Among the many benefits of mindfulness meditation is that it enhances your capability for awareness and attention. The two are closely related. You can only pay attention to something after you become aware of it, and even then holding your attention is not all that easy. How often have you missed hearing what someone was saying because you became distracted? The exercise you just did took only ten minutes. How much of that time were you able to stay aware of your breath? How many times did your attention wander? And how consciously did you choose where your mind went, versus having it wander, then discovering where it had gone?
What you experienced in this simple exercise was no different from what is happening all the time in your consciousness. The only thing that was different was that this time you were noticing what was happening. And you discovered that, when you became aware, you had a choice. Rather than constant wandering, you were able to choose to bring your attention back to your breath. You experienced the reality of “choice follows awareness.”
When I teach meditation, the first questions people usually ask are how often and how long should they meditate. There is no single answer to that question. What is most important is that you practice on a regular, ideally daily, basis. It is better to do five minutes a day than 35 minutes once a week. That said, I generally recommend starting with 10 minutes. If that is easy, then go to 15 or 20 minutes. If 10 minutes is too difficult, cut back to 5. Many people find that when they start practicing around 20 minutes per day their practice gets substantially deeper and the benefits grow exponentially.
In addition to freeing you from watching the clock, there is another reason for using the timer: without a timer, it’s easy to give up when the distractions become too compelling, to say to yourself “I can’t do this right now, I’ll wait until my mind settles down.” But that is the point where your practice is right at the edge, and often it is in those moments when staying with your meditation has the greatest value. The distractions are at their peak level, and overcoming them builds your meditation muscle.
We live today in a world more full of distractions than at any other time in history. In fact, much of our human environment is specifically designed to distract and alter your consciousness, without you even noticing. We are surrounded by billboards, colorful packages, music, TV, text messages, the internet, videos, radio, emails, and people all vying for your attention. Being able to tune out the noise and focus on what’s important is an essential skill for effectiveness at work, and mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool for developing that skill.
I’d love to hear your experience with this practice. If you’re already doing some kind of meditation, I’d love to hear what your practice is and how it benefits you. And if you’re new to this practice, let me know how it goes and if you have any questions.
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Davidson, Matthieu Ricard, Antoine Lutz, Richard J. “Neuroscience Reveals the Secrets of Meditation’s Benefits.” Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/neuroscience-reveals-the-secrets-of-meditation-s-benefits/