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By Tom Hagy of HB Litigation Conferences
It was hard not to feel weird. I was sitting silently on a folding chair with my eyes closed in the middle of 800 strangers in a Midtown Manhattan ballroom. But there I was, attending a conference on the intersection of Western psychology and Buddhism, and, ostensibly, meditating.
Two leading voices in Western Buddhism and meditation were overseeing the event—Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach. And, yes, they did their “seven years in Tibet.” For Kornfield it was Thailand, India, Burma and beyond. For Brach, it was 10 years in an ashram followed by study with Joseph Goldstein, a prominent teacher of meditation and Buddhism, whose cadre of students also included Kornfield.
Fortunately, meditation is losing—or has lost—its exclusive association with Buddhist monks, or silly stereotypes about humming shut-eyed practitioners (like me), and the perception that it is some mysteriously cosmic practice beyond the reach, let alone desire, of the Western man or woman. It’s taking place in elementary schools, yoga studios, living rooms, parks and corporate office buildings. Sometimes even in cars and on sidewalks.
During a break at the conference, I overheard a woman on her cell phone telling someone she wasn’t coming back for the second day because, as she put it, “I think it’s for people advanced in meditation.” I wanted to say, “Trust me, unless you stand up and announce it, no one will know if your mind wanders.” Unlike practicing law, doing back-flips or playing the trombone, it’s very hard to distinguish beginners from veterans.
I’m sure she is not alone. I thought the same thing at one point. So let’s get some myths out of the way. And let’s number them, because the Buddha himself loved numbering his lists, like The Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path to Enlightenment, The Three Jewels, etc.
Here are Hagy’s Five Myths of Meditation:
Yes, all of these are myths. You can certainly choose to do all of these, but they are by no means required or even recommended.
One thing is certain, from my experience and study of the subject, it is worth doing. I started in 2009 after I launched my business. It was, you may recall, the worst economic period since the Great Depression. Panic, anxiety and insomnia were becoming part of my daily routine. And then I had lunch.
The science is there too, if you believe in that kind of thing. In a December 2015 article for the Harvard Business Review, Stanford University’s Emma Seppälä, PhD., said meditation has been shown to:
Dr. Seppälä, who is Science Director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, concluded her HBR piece by saying that meditation is not “just one more thing for you to do,” because “the only thing to ‘do’ in meditation is nothing.” She added that “both research and experience show, doing nothing can have real results.”
In a Sept. 17, 2016, post on her blog, Dr. Seppälä cited an extensive IBM CEO survey which concluded that the number-one attribute CEOs seek is creativity, something aided by meditation. [For more details, you might check out her book, The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success. It’s getting solid reviews.]
To get started you can find hundreds of articles if you search “meditation for beginners” on the web. I just did and it came back with 2.4 million results. And, no surprise, there are meditation apps, and many podcasts. Consider checking out the books, podcasts and blogs created by Kornfield and Brach. They are the real deal.
In the spirit of time, since you have none, here is a way to get started.
Now you have some choices. First a tip: Smile gently during your practice. Don’t put on a scary clown kind of smile, just sport a contented face. I don’t know, maybe it’s a “fake it until you make it” technique. The scientific jury is deliberating on whether smiling tricks your brain into thinking you’re happy, like a reverse message but it’s recommended and never hurts.
Meditation goes hand in hand with mindfulness, which means being present (or only thinking about this moment), not dwelling or dreading, just being where you are, doing what you’re doing, which is as close to nothing as a living person can get. Sometimes when I eat, for example, I wonder about the path the food took from the farm to my fork, where it came from, the people who had a part in getting it to my table, like the farmers and truckers.
After some practice you will find you can be mindful throughout the day. In a meeting with someone irritating, pause your thoughts and think about what’s happening. Step outside yourself and the situation and observe it. Observe them and observe yourself. It can be calming and lead you to a more thoughtful response, if one is required.
When you’re about to shoot out an important email, pause and ask yourself a few questions. Am I sending this to the right people? Is there someone on there who shouldn’t see it, like opposing counsel? Did I mean to attach a document? Does my subject line make sense? Might any of my phrasing seem snarky? (See our article on the ethical risks of mindless email practices.)
I’ve heard both Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach tell this story, but they replaced the rabbi in the original with a meditation master to fit their theme. The meditation student asks the master, “Master, is it ok if I smoke when I meditate?” The master replied, “No, you must focus on your meditation.” The student paused and asked a second question. “Master, when I go out for a cigarette, is it ok if I meditate?” Without hesitation, the master said, “Sure, meditation is always good!”
My take on that is, while there are many forms of meditation and many practices you can choose to follow, try to be still, wherever you are, for how much time you like or have. At its core, the goal is to give your thoughts a rest, let your brain re-set, and enjoy a more thoughtful day. With the addition of regular moments of peace you may just find a happier, creative and more effective version of yourself.
I’ve dropped a couple names here of people who provide guidance in this area, but I’d be happy to share others or some of my favorite books, podcasts or guided meditations. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.