If you’re not a meditator, or you’re a failed one, being told it’s the answer to reducing stress, disease and even ageing is incredibly irritating.
After all, how can a simple little thing like meditation do that. And, if it’s so simple, how come you can’t do it or find time for it.
Not only that but isn’t meditation for alternative spiritual types?
Well, no. Increasingly it is for corporates, many of whom are taking part in programs where meditation is stripped of any hint of Eastern spirituality and used as a solution to maximising staff potential.
More than 500 workers at IBM Australia and New Zealand now take part in a mindfulness program which an initial trial showed reduced stress levels and increased teamwork.
Ford, Google, Target, Adobe and even Goldman Sachs have all dallied with mindfulness programs while, at the National Australia Bank, meditation is offered through an online interactive health portal.
NAB Group Executive Michaela Healey, who practises Transcendental Meditation, says finding moments of stillness to refresh her mind is part of her approach to sustainable leadership.
“I work in an intense environment at an intense pace,” she says. “It’s important to remember to stop and breathe instead of clicking through your iPad or checking your phone.”
Healey initially learnt meditation because she realised her pace of living was taking a toll on her body. “I had no energy left.”
That’s changed since she meditates daily, and uses a visualisation exercise once a week.
For Kylea Tink, former CEO of the McGrath Foundation, anxiety was the motivation to explore meditation.
“My life had hit a point where between my work, my family, my friends and my interests, everything was moving so incredibly quickly that my dominant feeling on a day to day basis was a sense of being completely overwhelmed,” she says.
“For the first time in my life I had started to experience panic attacks - something I had never thought of as even being a possibility for me. Up until then I prided myself on thriving under pressure- the more stress the better the outcomes tended to be for me.”
Today the director of her own company, Tink & Associates, that helps community-orientated businesses and not for profits to become more sustainable, says she has more energy and patience and, from a work perspective, everything is much less personal.
“Learning to meditate has let me stand in a space where I can choose which balls I want to play.”
Says clinical psychologist Dr Paula Watkins, of Calm, Conscious and Connected: “Mediation is not a panacea for stress - nutrition, exercise and other factors matter too – but it’s another string to your bow.”
Research has shown that not only can it balance out a stressed nervous system but cultivate sharper thinking and clearer, more creative decision-making and enhance interpersonal skills to make you a more effective leader, says Dr Watkins who teaches high flyers how to move out of a space of hyper-adrenalin addiction and fatigue.
Even quick sessions of meditation – perhaps three minutes every hour - incorporated into the workday at regular intervals – may pay results in terms of attention, productivity and wellness, says neuroscientist Richard Davidson, founder of the Centre for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin that is exploring the impacts of meditation on the business world.
Meditation may also increase knowledge use and storage, according to a 2007 study by Richard Chambers of the University of Melbourne, that found those who took part in an intensive 10-day meditation course performed significantly better in tests than they had previously.
Besides the corporate benefits, evidence suggests meditation boosts the immune system and reduces markers of inflammation associated with a range of illnesses from ulcers and diabetes to asthma and cardiovascular stress, as well as decreases biological age.
A now famous study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience into the effects of TM on the ageing process found the mean biological age of the controls was 2.2 years younger than for the general population; of the short-term TM subjects, 5.0 years younger; of the long-term TM subjects, 12.0 years younger.
Unfortunately learning to meditate can be incredibly difficult and many people fall by the wayside before they accrue benefits.
Dr Watkins believes: “A key reason people give up on meditation is because they can’t stop their minds from thinking. This shows a profound misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the practice and reflects one of the biggest and most unhelpful meditation myths, which is that when you meditate, you should try to stop all of your thoughts.
“The goal of meditation is not to stop all thinking, but to change your relationship to your thoughts so that you’re not so caught up in them, swept away in them and finding yourself fighting with them.”
As for choice of technique, she says research shows most forms of meditation, from mindfulness, breath oriented meditation, mantra, open awareness and meditations for cultivating empathy and compassion involve the same fundamental brain functions.
One, two three, breathe
Try apps like Equanimity, Take a Break and Omvana or this simple meditation technique to get started. Build from five minutes a day to what is comfortable for you, but ideally 20 to 30 minutes at least twice a day.
1. Sit in a comfortable seated position and close your eyes.
2. Enjoy three full, conscious breaths and then let your breathing settle into a natural rhythm.
3. Begin with a brief body scan. Let go of any obvious tension in your body.
4. Rest your awareness on an anchor for your meditation. Your anchor could be your breath or a mantra. Let your mind rest and pulse on this anchor.
5. You may become distracted by thoughts in your mind, noises in your environment or sensations in your body. Let them be but let them go. When you realise your mind has wandered, simply float your attention back to your anchor.
6. At the end of your practice let go of the anchor. Expand your awareness to your breath, body and then into the room around you and as you feel comfortable to do so, open your eyes.