Dating back to Ponce de Leon, humans have been searching for that golden habit leading to optimal health and longevity. Recently, there has been an enormous amount of media attention towards meditation and mindfulness. Sports teams, celebrities, and politicians are boasting its effects on performance and quality of life. But what is so great about this mysterious practice that seems to be replacing mobile technology as the hottest new trend? Is meditation a passing fad like step aerobics and rollerblading? Unlikely, given that it has already survived 4,500 years. Ironically, this ancient practice could be the key to surviving our chaotic modern times.
Good morning. You open your eyes to the clock and read 7 a.m. Your alarm did not go off--you are already behind the eight ball and you did not even press snooze. You have an 8:30 meeting, and you have to get the kids to school. You rush into their room, rouse them by pulling the blankets off and shouting, "we're late--hurry up!" You are running this 8:30 meeting and cannot be late. Soon your boss will be calculating bonuses.
You barely remember the shower, your breakfast, packing your bag. Your daughter asks you to braid her hair. Sorry honey, not today. You rehearse the meeting agenda in your head all the way to school drop off. You run to the subway, and realize you still have your daughter's bag. Now you remember why she asked you to braid her hair--she has a recital today. What else did you forget? Damn, your son's tennis racket. He has a match after school. Not only that, it was your turn to pack snacks for his friends. You chastise yourself--how hard can it be to remember five bags of trail mix? You wonder what went wrong in your own childhood that you cannot be more organized. Completely in your own world, you miss your subway stop. You look at your watch and it is 8:25. You will never make it. And it is only Monday.
This scene is all too familiar in our modern world. We have all struggled to take care of ourselves and others as we rush to begin the day. Nothing is wrong with you if you feel overwhelmed. What you need is a tool to help manage the pressure of getting it all done.
Monday Morning Redux
Mindfulness is a term that means to be present and aware in a non-judgmental way. This translates to being uncritical of yourself and others and seeing a situation clearly.
In the above scenario, imagine if the person was not caught up with how the morning should have gone, but was able to be present for what was actually occurring. He might have realized a parent's kiss at the nape of a child's neck takes as much time as pulling off blankets. She might have felt pride and exhilaration at the opportunity to run an important meeting, and inspired her children to take on new responsibilities such as preparing their own breakfasts and packing their own bags. Perhaps he could have experienced a moment of peace in the shower, or smelled the beauty of the morning air. And if time truly was an issue, perhaps she could have sent an email highlighting the important events of the meeting agenda, reassuring everyone that despite a late start, the critical items would be addressed.
How Meditation Helps
In our busy times, the ability to manage stress is integral to success. It is a tall order to succeed in the workplace and at home, while maintaining your physical and emotional health. In order to toggle between these equally important facets, one must be emotionally resilient and flexible. Being emotionally agile does not mean that you are always calm. It means that when you do begin to experience worry and doubt, you disentangle yourself from what is actually happening from what you have constructed in your mind.
All humans have an inner stream of thoughts to protect them from whatever dangers lie ahead. It is our biology to think of the worst-case scenario, which unconsciously activates our fight or flight system to runaway from a perceived danger. But how dangerous is it to be 15 minutes late for work? Hasn't everyone, from CEO to staff member, shared that experience? It is our modern day challenge to fight this innate tendency to be triggered over inconsequential events. If we have a skill that can help us reframe our negative emotions as transient overreactions, we can be present for what is actually occurring and work with whatever challenges we are facing.
Mindful meditation is a form of meditation that helps resolve the human tendency to distract from the present. This is accomplished by setting aside some quiet time to focus on the present for several minutes each day. By continually focusing on the breath, the body, or anything else occurring in the present, it is possible to build a skill that can center you during difficult times. During meditation, as one is focusing on the present, the mind invariably wanders. The whole point of the exercise is to bring it back to the moment. In doing so, you are building a mental muscle that will eventually help you self regulate during tumultuous times.
This skill is shockingly handy. When we find ourselves going down the rabbit hole of worst case scenario and self doubt, we can pull ourselves out and perform analytical problem solving. This can not only keep a Monday morning from unraveling, it can broaden our skills, improve our performance, and boost our quality of life.