Harley Murphy, who heads the Ireland operations of BNY Mellon, used to lie awake at night unable to sleep because of an avalanche of problems facing his division during the banking crisis. ''I'd go to the office each day feeling exhausted and was beginning to feel miserable,'' says Murphy. He found it difficult to think clearly and make confident decisions. He looked for ways to get back on track and then, as part of a leadership training session, took a meditation class. After 30 minutes, he began to relax and focus. ''I couldn't believe it,'' says Murphy.
Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons meditates. So does Ray Dalio, the 61-year-old founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s biggest hedge fund. Bill Ford’s a big advocate. Steve Jobs was often associated with the practice. Facebook, Ebay, and General Mills execs are meditators. Google set up separate rooms so senior staff would be able to pursue it. What is meditation? And why should you do it? Among entrepreneurs and business leaders, meditation is an increasingly popular seated practice that encourages alertness in the present moment, a pause to relax and focus, and, ultimately, a recentering to lead better.
Over the past decade, wellness programs, specifically those that emphasize improving employee physical fitness and nutrition, have received significant funding from corporate human resources programs. The goal: alleviate stress in the workplace and help promote work-life balance. Recently meditation got a toehold too, riding the increasing popularity of Eastern traditions, from yoga to Zen Buddhism.
''It’s a case for performance,'' says executive coach Ray Williams who has spent the past 12 years helping leaders take off the edge. ''Because leaders are under so much stress and because there is that performance requirement you have to look at how to be much more productive and better at what you do.''
Meditation is not just about finding yourself. Scientific studies show the positive affects of meditation on the brain. Last year, an article in Psychiatry Research Neuroimaging by researchers from Harvard Medical School, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and the Bender Institute of Neuroimaging in Germany, found that brain activity changed in a group of 16 participants who had not previously meditated. Among the enhancements: learning and memory processes, emotional regulation, and perspective taking. Meanwhile a study at American University published in 2009 in Cognitive Processing found that college students who meditated experienced enhanced brain activity. Here’s how:
Focus on what matters. What the scientific research is getting at, says Michael Carroll, who teaches meditation as part of becoming a more mindful leader, is that meditation can help leaders pay attention to what really matters. ''There is so much information coming at us, we struggle to remain agile which is the most critical leadership skill. The practice teaches us to slow down instead of trying to be faster, better, or quicker, and rush past our experience instead of trying to have it.''
More control. Meditation enables leaders to stay in the present moment as opposed to worrying about the next dismal economic report or upcoming quarterly earning. Not that those things are not important. ''Often leaders get caught up in what happens next versus what is in front of them right now,'' explains Williams, the executive coach. By dealing with what you can control and letting go of what you cannot, you can make better decisions. It also helps to approach problems in a non-judgmental and non-reactive way. The more in control you are, the more you can focus on what you are going to do. ''Really great leaders are in complete control of their emotions even in the worst situations,'' he adds.
Better stress management. The best part about meditation is that anyone can do it–anywhere–for free. ''This is something that executives can do anytime, while waiting in line at an airport, or waiting at a stop light in the car,'' according to Dr. Martyn Newman, author of Emotional Captalists: The New Leaders, and managing director of leadership consulting firm RocheMartin. You don’t have to go off on a ten-day mountain retreat, or take up yoga or tai chi. Dr. Newman recently taught meditation skills to executives at one of Asia’s largest telecommunications companies and reports that participants said they were better prepared to handle stress and conflict and felt more productive after practicing meditation techniques.
How do you do it? Here are five easy steps to meditate and establish calm.
1. Pause. Turn off cell phones, blackberries, and computers, and give yourself a moment of quiet. The immediate physical impact: blood pressure decreases, and brain activity is less frenzied.
2. Get comfortable. Get into a favorite chair or sit on a cushion. The physical environment should not be a distraction.
3. Focus on your breath. Observe the in-and-out flow of your breath, and stay focused on that sensation. Breathe from your diaphragm not your chest.
4. Clear your mind. Put the to-do list aside. ''Think to yourself, 'I'll catch up with this thought later,' not 'Don't think of this because it will only make your mind wander','' says Williams.
5. Practice every day. A meditation session can be as short as five minutes, sitting on the edge of the bed when you first wake up. There is no formula. Make it work for you.