Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Should I Meditate?

I was peripherally interested in the idea of meditation for a long time before actually sitting down and trying it. The thing that finally pushed me over the edge to start practicing was meditation’s practical implications: its potential impact on creativity and productivity. A few years ago I read the book Train Your Mind Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley, which explores the link between neuroscience and meditation. I found the implications for creativity, focused attention, self-mastery and productivity to be fascinating. It turns out that the brain, once thought to be fixed in its stubborn ways, is quite malleable. In fact, your brain is ready for a lot more than you give it credit for. (Just ask any monk.)So in 2010, after my 3rd child was born and I was feeling the need for some real cosmic balance, I figured why not turn my casual curiosity about neuroplasticity into decisive action? I had heard that meditation would make me calm, focused, happier and healthier. So I sat down and started breathing.

What I found was not at all what I expected, yet exactly what I expected. I can say that, within reason, that I am more calm, focused, happier and healthier. (I think my wife would agree.) But with meditation those things are a byproduct, not a destination. Conversely the daily practice of meditation has proven itself at times to be guilt-ridden, frustrating and stressful – adjectives we don’t normally associate with the blissed-out pop culture picture of meditation.

It turns out that the brain, once thought to be fixed in its stubborn ways, is quite malleable.

The positives of meditation are subtle yet dynamic. Any kind of mindfulness training is really about life and death: It’s about waking up to your own life as it is, right now. Is there anything more urgent than that?

If you’re interested in meditation there’s only one thing to do: Sit down and start breathing. But if you need a little more push, here are some tips on starting a meditation practice:

1. Get someone to show you the ropes. Go to a class. (I walked in off the street to a zen center in my town.) There is a proper way to sit and breathe, and a technique for focusing the wandering mind. It helps to learn it from someone who has been doing this for a long time, preferably within a lineage that is a few thousand years old.

2. Establish a routine. Many people meditate in the morning when they wake up, or at night before bed. The big thing is making it a regular part of your day. You can start by sitting for just a few minutes. In the beginning, it’s feels very difficult to be still.  Work your way up 20-30 minutes, or more. But remember, meditation is all about consistency; it’s much better to do 5 minutes each day than an hour once a week.

3. Don’t expect anything to happen. While it is certainly possible that you will find yourself feeling or acting differently after meditating, usually it’s just… nothing. In the beginning this can be disappointing, especially if you’re expecting lightning bolts. With proper practice and consistency those subtle changes will come, and they will likely exceed your greatest expectations.

4. Can’t stop thinking? It’s your heart’s job to beat and it’s your brain’s job to think. That’s what it’s there for. Don’t try to empty your mind of all thought. Instead, whenever your mind drifts, gently bring it back to your breath (or mantra or counting or whatever it is you’re focusing on.) The ability to redirect your thoughts and to not dwell on them is what meditation is all about it.

5. Find a community. As with any new habit, it’s helpful to find a group to keep you accountable and motivated, ask questions, provide perspective when you’re in a rut, and to share your successes. Ask around, or start with one of the many directories on the web.

Productivity is not the goal, nor is enlightenment. The goal is to sit down and breathe. That’s it.

What’s Your Take?Have you developed a meditation practice? Did it change your perspective?

Scott McDowell takes the risk out of hiring your management team. He’s also a DJ at WFMU. Follow Scott @mcd_owell.
More insights on: Energy / Fatigue, Well-being

Scott McDowell

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Scott McDowell is a strategy consultant and a coach to new managers & first-time leaders. He wrote New Manager Handbook to help leaders in transition panic less. He also hosts a radio show called The Long Rally on WFMU.
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