In 1994, I was in the second year of my bachelor’s degree in Psychology. The Psychology department had organized its annual seminar which was a great learning experience for all of us attending it. The sessions were well thoughout and engaging. In one of the sessions, there was a line uttered which I remember very clearly even today. The session was led by an eminent psychiatrist and he started his talk by saying –
“if you want, your mind is your best friend and if you want, your mind is your worst enemy.”
The words made an impression in my mind even though at that stage in my life, I could not fully absorb them. During the following years, as I completed my bachelors degree, masters degrees, started working in the corporate world, continued studying within programs as well as on my own and lastly and most important, learned from life itself, I started understanding and practicing living these words. It is still a practice as we are all human and it’s of value to be kind with ourselves. It’s an eternal journey and as Abraham-Hicks have said, “even for people who feel ecstasy on a rather regular basis, there is more”. There is always more growth to look forward to, more to grow into for each one of us wherever we are in our unique and beautiful journeys. The good news is that as one goes along allowing in one’s journey, one continues to connect to the insight and clarity within. It’s an eternal journey on which the easier it gets, the easier it gets. There are tools, techniques and processes which can help in one’s journey in order to empower oneself and feel free, predominantly and consistently. One of these techniques, an easy and effective technique, is meditation.
“Meditation is like a gym in which you develop the powerful mental muscles of calm and insight.”
– Ajahn Brahm
In an article by Ryan Smith, in the Harvard Business Review titled – “How CEOs can support employee heath in a crisis”, the statistics were on the lines of what many of us have been feeling about the way this crisis is affecting the world. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, 75% of people say they feel more socially isolated, 67% of people report higher stress, 57% are feeling greater anxiety, and 53% say they feel more emotionally exhausted, according to a global study of over 2,700 employees across more than 10 industries undertaken by Qualtrics and SAP during March and April 2020. There is a clear asking for more well-being. In addition to this, the changing markets and consumer demands over a period of time have been leading to companies asking for more agility and innovation.
Even if one looks at the world in its entirety, there is a lot which is being asked for with regard to well-being. According to WHO in May 2019, globally, an estimated 264 million people suffer from depression, one of the leading causes of disability, with many of these people also suffering from symptoms of anxiety. A recent WHO-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity. Close to 800 000 people die due to suicide every year, which is one person every 40 seconds. There are indications that for each adult who died by suicide there may have been more than 20 others attempting suicide.
At a time like this, there are answers which can be implemented (and to an extent, are being implemented). One of the answers, the ancient technique of meditation is probably more important to the world in modern times than it was when it took birth or was realized.
Studies have shown the benefits of meditation leading to better decision making, increased productivity, more capacity for happiness and less propensity for negativity. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), some of the most empirically proven positive benefits of mindfulness meditation include reduced stress, improved memory, better focus and greater emotional control. These make the ROI on meditation extremely high.
According to an article in the Harvard Business Review in 2018, ongoing research has suggested that a regular meditation practice can help by changing how the brain responds to stress and anxiety. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD sifted through nearly 19,000 meditation studies and their findings, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that mindful meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain. One of her studies, Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School found that a mindfulness-based stress reduction program helped quell anxiety symptoms in people with generalized anxiety disorder, a condition marked by hard-to-control worries, poor sleep, and irritability.
It’s the value that meditation allows which is making people turn to meditation for nurturing their well-being. In an article in the Business Insider titled, “5 successful business leaders that have used meditation to improve productivity, creativity, and business acumen” CEOs like Jeff Weiner of Linkedin, Marc Benioff founder of SalesForce, Bill Ford executive chairman of Ford and Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates speak about how meditation has been helpful. Among others who believe in meditation are Bob Stiller, founder of Green Mountain Coffee, Andrew Cherng, founder Panda Express and Russell Simons, founder of Def Jam Records. Companies like Apple, Google, Nike, Aetna, Bosch, Goldman Sachs, Intel,Target, Linkedin, Twitter and SAP are among the many who have implemented meditation. According to an extensive study by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), more than 18 million Americans practice meditation on a daily basis. In recent years, surveys have been conducted to find out how many people meditate globally. Though there are no reliable results, rough estimates range from 200 million to 500 millions globally.
Since meditation honors the unique and beautiful being that each individual is, it is extremely self-empowering. It’s like the old saying attributed to Confucius which goes something like, “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed him for a lifetime.” If you advise or give an answer to someone, it will be a temporary solution as compared to teaching the principles or the tools for ascertaining his own unique solutions. Meditation is the tool or technique which allows the latter by allowing the connection to the insight within. It allows one to make friends with one’s own mind, one’s own clarity, one’s own strength.
Also since it honors each individual’s uniqueness and magnificence, it’s not hurried or rushed. The process or technique never forces any insight without the readiness of the meditator. Insights are allowed by the meditator as per his own path of least resistance, his own readiness.
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”
– Lao Tzu
And nature’s brilliance and magnificence is a sight to behold.
Probably every culture on planet earth has given some sort of mental practice that can be termed as meditation. Meditation is a practice by which an individual uses different techniques to calm and focus the mind. There are many different types of meditation like mindfulness, Transcendental, Zen, breath awareness and many others from so many lineages and teachers of meditation. Each one of them has value depending on the resonance felt by the meditator.
Mindfulness meditation combines concentration with awareness which together lead to insight. Both concentration and awareness work like a team and are important in order to allow insights. Concentration results in a state of calm, stillness and tranquility during the meditation. There is sweet relief, rest and respite in this place of deep calm, silence and a quiet mind. Combining concentration with awareness leads to an unbroken continuous awareness in the present moment. This state of concentration (leading to calm and tranquility) and awareness together can be thought of like a “receptive state” or a mind that is able to allow, receive, translate or interpret the insights and clarity within.
One can carry mindfulness to day-to-day activities too. Whenever one is resting one’s attention in the present moment and in whatever one is doing, i,e, one is being in the present moment and being awake to life, one is being mindful. As one practices mindfulness more often everyday, the momentum is allowed to be more predominant and consistent. Realisation of ideas, inspirations, answers, clarity and insight can come in at any time and not just during the sitting mindfulness meditation.
Being in the present moment, being immersed in the activity one is doing – focus, concentration, calm and awareness are what can be referred to as “being in the flow” or what athletes call “being in the zone”. It seems like time has slowed down. One’s senses are in heightened awareness of the present moment, of the here and now. One is aligned with the task at hand or the creative activity or the physical work. This combination is when the inspiration for the composition is realized, this is when the idea for the next scene in the book one is writing comes in, when the ball goes into the hoop, this is when the answer for something at work or in one’s business comes in. Authors, composers, inventors have long realized that until and unless they are not in the flow, nothing flows. The good news is that this state of flow is available and accessible to all and can be practised in the formal sitting mindfulness meditation as well as in everyday activities too.
Though it must be mentioned here that the purpose of meditation is not solving problems or getting answers but it is the meditation itself whether in a formal sitting meditation or carrying mindfulness to everyday activities. When one meditates in order for something to come out of it, as a means to an end, then one keeps calculating and judging each step. When one is completely immersed in the sitting meditation or totally immersed in the activity one is doing in the present moment with mindfulness just for the sake of the meditation or the activity itself, i.e. one is being in the moment, then one just lets it all unfold and easily allows the flow.
Bhante Gunaratna, in his book, “Mindfulness in Plain English”, writes that mindfulness is extremely difficult to define not because it is complex but because it is simple and open. Mindfulness meditation is inherently experiential and not theoretical. In meditation, one is one’s own laboratory. Mindfulness can be experienced and it can be described,as long as you keep in mind that the words are only fingers pointing at the moon, they are not the moon itself. The actual experience lies beyond the words. According to Bhante Gunaratna, mindfulness can be described in completely different terms than the way he uses in his book and each description would be correct. I feel that Bhante Gunratna says this because mindfulness is such a living activity, it is so experiential.
The purpose of mindfulness is to clearly see our experiences without any reflections, without any memory, without any judgement or story about them. It is to see our reality for what it is, to see it in its preconceptual awareness, without adding or taking away anything from it. When we first become aware of something, there is a fleeting moment of pure awareness about it before we identify it. Something like when we wake up in the morning, for a fleeting moment, our mind has just a soft awareness before any thought starts to come in. This is a flowing soft moment of pure awareness and according to Bhante Gunarathna, it’s like what we see with our peripheral vision as opposed to the hard focus of normal or central vision. This soft flowing moment of pure awareness is mindfulness. This moment contains a very deep knowing. Mindfulness meditation is the use of techniques to prolong this moment of awareness. Mindfulness is learning to observe our thoughts without getting caught up in them and this is what makes it resistance-free, free of any struggle – the soft slowing moment of pure awareness of just being in the moment. When this moment is prolonged, the experience is deep and profound of the knowing, the insight, the clarity within. Mindfulness is cultivating the mind with the aim of seeing in a special way that leads to insight and understanding.
Mindfulness helps in sharpening one’s focus, managing stress effectively as well as recharging and renewing one’s energy. Daniel Goleman, a Harvard psychologist and Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin provide proven benefits of mindfulness in order to thrive in uncertainty and unpredictable environments. Their book, “Altered Traits” sheds light on these proven benefits – staying calm and open minded, mental agility, ability to perform complex cognitive tasks and maintaining focus and clarity.
According to an article by Christian Greiser and Jan-Philipp Martini of the Boston Consulting Group, Aetna has demonstrated the benefits of mindfulness by a reported stress level reduction of 28% which led to a secondary benefit – productivity improvements estimated at $ 3000 per employee. Mindfulness was introduced gradually in the company leading to these benefits. In the field of sports, NBA coach Phil Jackson introduced the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to mindfulness. Mindfulness is taught to the politicians in the British parliament to help them make better decisions on public policy.
Mindfulness is a very gentle technique but it is very thorough. Through our inner experiences, we seek to understand life, existence, reality and the world. Simply put, mindfulness helps experience ourselves and the world through a process of self discovery. In this sense, it’s an inside-out approach.
“Mindfulness is intimacy with life.”
– Oren Jay Sofer
As one continues practicing everyday in a formal mindfulness meditation session as well as carrying mindfulness to everyday tasks, one finds oneself allowing an acceptance based focus, love, kindness, compassion, lightness of being, joyful and energetic vibe. Life experiences become so much more richer when one starts living one’s authentic self consciously. For example, one’s daily walk becomes so much more with mindfulness than without as one can feel the breeze against one’s skin, hear the leaves rustle up as they move in the breeze, hear the different birds chirp, feel as each foot lands on the ground, feel how the legs and arms move, being aware of one’s breath. One is more open and aware. As Oren Jay Sofer says, mindfulness is getting intimate with life. Of course the mind gets distracted and wanders away. This is absolutely natural for the mind to wander away and when one becomes aware, one can gently bring one’s awareness back to the present moment. It is mindfulness which makes one aware that the distraction has occurred and it is mindfulness which redirects the attention to the present moment or the object of focus. Mindfulness is cultivated by gently reminding oneself to be in a state of awareness of the present moment.
In a similar way, when we eat more mindfully, we savor each mouthful, we taste the different flavors, we smell the aroma and appreciate the gift food is. Mindfulness also helps in being aware of the choices one wants to make when we want to reach for more beyond our hunger or beyond what we would like to eat. Mindfulness helps in being aware of the richness of life and also helps in discernment. Intentionally slowing down and becoming aware of day-to-day activities like eating, walking, sipping a cup of tea, tying shoe laces, solving problems in intensive calculus, cooking, exercising, brushing our teeth etc – whatever the present moment is, allows one to penetrate far more deeply into them than one otherwise could. As one practices this, one finds that profound revelations occur during sitting meditation and also as we become more mindful in the midst of day-to-day activities.
Another benefit of mindfulness is that it helps in avoiding the reacting out of habit in situations as one is cultivating calm, focus and awareness and connecting to the clarity within. As one practices mindfulness, It enables one to choose consciously to act rather than react on reflex from behavior patterns developed over time. In an article on mediate.com, Leonard Riskin, the C.A. Leedy Professor of Law and director of the Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution and the Initiative on “Mindfulness in Law and Dispute Resolution” at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law shares that mindfulness can help mediators in many ways one of which is being aware of one’s habitual impulses. Professor Ricken shares an example here to illustrate this point – if a client begins to raise his voice and the mediator begins to feel anxiety, the mediator’s normal reaction would be to insist the client lower his voice. However, if one is really mindful, one can become aware of one’s anxiety and decide whether to carry out one’s habitual impulse to quiet the client or decide to release one’s anxiety. If one is aware of one’s anxiety, sometimes that anxiety without judgement is enough to dissipate the anxiety and to have less power over oneself. Mindfulness can also help in releasing the impulse to react in a certain way.
One would have seen in one’s experience that it takes time for a negative emotion to build up. For example, initially irritation leads to anger which can lead to rage. As one starts feeling irritated and if one is mindful, it’s easier to become aware of irritation right in the beginning stages. At this point, one can decide whether to progress on to anger or to release the irritation on one’s own. Practicing mindfulness makes it easier to become aware and choose the latter, to practise pivoting and hence feeling more empowered and free from the ups and downs of life. As one practices mindfulness, from this place of strength, it’s easier to be tuned in and tapped in to the insight within.
It’s wonderful to see that experienced meditators are jovial and can chuckle at their own mistakes with love and kindness for themselves and for others. They know that they too have had struggles and are able to feel compassion for themselves and from this place of strength for others. Happiness, being non-judgemental, compassion, love and kindness are some attributes which get nurtured with mindfulness.
As one touches base with the awareness within, one allows oneself to feel refreshed every time they connect. Focus, awareness and concentration are cultivated. Being in the present moment consciously, deliberately and on purpose helps in feeling free. Being in the present moment can be tremendously nurturing, healing and restorative. Being in the present moments also helps in having an attitude of non-striving, a resistance-free attitude in which you can focus on your dreams, goals and things-to-do from a place of beingness, a place of alignment, a place of ease and strength and therefore, increase your effectiveness manifold. Observing without analysis, acknowledging and letting go helps in further feeling free, feeling lighter, calmer and moving forward. The practice allows one to connect with the insight, clarity and wisdom within, predominantly and consistently. The best thing is that all this happens spontaneously as one continues practicing consciously, consistently and predominantly, as per one’s unique and beautiful path of least resistance. It’s a beautiful unique automatic spontaneous allowing as per one’s readiness of ease, calm, well-being, compassion, love, kindness, clarity, insight, resilience and growth.
“Let the waters settle and you will see the stars and moon mirrored in your being” – Rumi
Photo Credit – Zac Durant via unsplash.com