Ok ok…I’m sure by now you have read about meditation in a number of places.
But is meditation really for you and WHY should you even sit down and shut up?
Let me explain…
Meditation has been used for centuries as a method for relaxation, improving health, and finding mental clarity. With so many benefits, it’s no wonder that it is used in cultures all over the world.
It’s hard to believe that something that looks so much like sitting around doing nothing is really doing quite a lot for your mind, body, and spirit. However, it has been found that as little as ten minutes of meditation a day can bring about significant positive changes.
In 2003, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School conducted a research study regarding the effects of meditation on highly-stressed employees at a high-tech company. The resulting brain scans showed that those employees who had been taught to meditate experienced a transfer in their brain activity into the joy and happiness center in the left frontal lobe of the brain.
Studies like this one are getting more and more companies, as well as individuals, thinking about the benefits of meditation and what the practice could mean for them. From increased productivity and job satisfaction to better relationships among employees, there are some real reasons to consider meditation in the workplace.
Of course, all of these benefits can be extended to everyday life, too, so considering meditation just for job purposes is too narrow of a focus. Instead, think of how you could gain physically, emotionally, and spiritually by incorporating a few minutes of this deep relaxation into your daily schedule.
Thousands of years’ worth of evidence shows pretty conclusively that those who practice meditation are both happier and healthier overall. Not bad for something that requires no money, no equipment, and only a few minutes a day.
What are you waiting for?
A quiet explosion of new research indicating that meditation can physically change the brain in astonishing ways has started to push into mainstream.
Several studies suggest that these changes through meditation can make you happier, less stressed — even nicer to other people. It can help you control your eating habits and even reduce chronic pain, all the while without taking prescription medication.
Meditation is an intimate and intense exercise that can be done solo or in a group, and one study showed that 20 million Americans say they practice meditation. It has been used to help treat addictions, to clear psoriasis and even to treat men with impotence.
The U.S. Marines are testing meditation to see if it makes more focused, effective warriors. Corporate executives at Google, General Mills, Target and Aetna Insurance, as well as students in some of the nation’s classrooms have used meditation.
Various celebrities also are known meditators, including shock jock Howard Stern, actors Richard Gere, Goldie Hawn and Heather Graham, and Rivers Cuomo, the lead singer of the band Weezer.
In one study, a research team from Massachusetts General Hospital looked at the brain scans of 16 people before and after they participated in an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation. The study, published in the January issue of Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, concluded that after completing the course, parts of the participants’ brains associated with compassion and self-awareness grew, and parts associated with stress shrank.
Recently, the Dalai Lama granted permission for his monks, who are master mediators, to have their brains studied at the University of Wisconsin, one of the most high-tech brain labs in the world.
Richie Davidson, a PhD at the university, and his colleagues, led the study and said they were amazed by what they found in the monks’ brain activity read-outs. During meditation, electroencephalogram patterns increased and remains higher than the initial baseline taken from a non-meditative state.
But you don’t have to be a monk to benefit from meditation, which is now gaining acceptance in the field of medicine.
Physicians have increasingly started prescribing meditation instead of pills to benefit their patients. A Harvard Medical School report released in May found that more than 6 million Americans had been recommended meditation and other mind-body therapies by conventional health care providers.
Perhaps the most mind-bending potential benefit of meditation is that it will actually make practitioners nicer. Chuck Raison, a professor at Emory University, conducted a meditation study in which he hooked up microphones to participants who had been taught basic meditation and those who hadn’t. He then recorded them at random over a period of time. Raison found that these newly-trained mediators used less harsh language than people who had no meditation experience.
“They were more empathic with people,” Raison said. “They were spending more time with other people. They laugh more, you know, all those things. They didn’t use the word ‘I’ as much. They use the word ‘we’ more.”
However, even the Dalai Lama admitted that meditation is not the silver bullet cure-all for every ailment or emotion.
“Occasionally, [I] lose my temper,” he said. “If someone is never lose temper then perhaps that may come from outer space, real strange.”
The Dalai Lama also cautioned that meditation takes patience, so new mediators should not expect immediate results.
“The enlightenment not depend on rank,” he said, laughing. “It depends on practice.”
Some scientists believe that in a generation, Americans will see meditation as being as essential to maintaining a healthy lifestyle as diet and exercise.
‘Soft Skills’ Business Courses Aim to Prepare Students for Management Roles
Business schools are tapping into their “soft” side.
This fall, students at Columbia Business School will be invited to learn the art of meditation. Emotions will run high in Stanford Graduate School of Business’ long-running “Touchy Feely” course. And professors at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business will try to teach students to rein in their type-A personalities, lest they upset fellow classmates.
It’s all part of a continuing push by business schools to teach “soft skills”—such as accepting feedback with grace and speaking respectfully to subordinates—that companies say are most important in molding future business leaders.
Although business schools have traditionally excelled at teaching “hard skills” like finance and accounting, those skills become less relevant as an employee ascends the corporate ladder and moves away from crunching numbers to overseeing employees, companies and experts say.
However, with classes often resembling a group therapy session, it is hard to quantify what students actually learn in the softer classes.
A recent study by DePaul University researchers found that managing workers and decision-making—two subjects that require softer skill sets such as being sensitive when delivering feedback—were most important to acting managers. However, those subjects were covered in only 13% and 10% of required classes, respectively, in a study of 373 business schools, said DePaul professor Erich Dierdorff, one of the study’s researchers.
“Business schools are falling short where it matters most,” Mr. Dierdorff said.
Part of the difficulty might be that soft-skill classes aren’t respected as much as “hard” courses, like finance, according to professors and students.
“[They're] very easy to parody,” said Michael Morris, director of the Program on Social Intelligence at Columbia University, which started in 2006 and coordinates the business school’s soft-skill classes.
Mr. Morris said the Program on Social Intelligence deliberately doesn’t brand itself on classes and keeps a low profile to avoid turning students off from the courses.
One such class is a course on “personal leadership,” in which students are tasked to set goals, spend time on introspection and even use meditation techniques to alleviate stress, he said.
Columbia also requires students to take a class on determining their leadership style, teamwork and “self-awareness” during their first year. They’re also paired with executive coaches to assess their problem areas and how to improve them over the course of the next year.
Part of the restructuring at many top programs is in response to feedback from recruiters, who say that business school students have always been good at technical aspects of managerial jobs but unrefined in leadership areas.
In recent years, BASF Corp., the North American unit of chemical company BASF SE, has trained managers who interview M.B.A. candidates to assess soft qualities like leadership capability, customer focus and creativity, said head of staffing Michael Kannisto.
Previously, the company looked for expertise in functional areas, like engineering and chemistry, but found that job candidates with proficiency in softer skills ended up leading better, no matter their functional background, he said.
When interviewing job candidates, managers from Deloitte LLP assume that M.B.A. candidates have technical prowess and focus almost exclusively on assessing candidates’ soft skills, said Kelly Marchese, a principal in Deloitte’s strategy practice.
In one round of interviews, for example, Deloitte has candidates work in groups to solve a business problem and monitors how they interact with each other and deal with disagreements.
“Those are tough things for an MBA program to teach,” she said. “Some of it you just have to learn through experience.”
In response to recruiter feedback, this fall the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California plans to double the length of its mandatory Management Communication for Leaders class, which currently lasts eight weeks.
Employers want to see that prospective hires are comfortable presenting to a large group or working one-on-one with peers or subordinates, said James Ellis, the business school’s dean.
So far, the redesigned course has paid off, Mr. Ellis said. Recruiters say that the students come across well in interviews, which he thinks is helping them land jobs and internships earlier than in previous years.
The Haas School of Business also has beefed up its course catalog to focus on skills, such as the importance of influencing subordinates, peers and outsiders without pulling what Dean Richard Lyons calls “the authority card.”
To be sure, soft-skills training isn’t new everywhere. Stanford introduced its optional interpersonal communications class, affectionately nicknamed “Touchy Feely,” more than 40 years ago. It is now one of many soft-skill classes at the school.
In the Touchy Feely course, small groups of students learn how to give and receive constructive feedback and control emotional responses to conflict.
Rather than use role-playing activities, Carole Robin, a lecturer in organizational behavior at Stanford, has the students learn from actual interactions. Starting with casual chats on topics of the students’ choosing, they get to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses, such as who dominates a conversation too aggressively or who comes across as weak for being too deferential.
They are then taught methods for identifying and critiquing those characteristics, and ultimately improving them. Tears are commonplace, and even hugs, as students accept feedback and share their feelings.
Former Touchy Feely student Arnulfo Ventura, who received his M.B.A. from Stanford in 2008, filled his schedule with classes about exerting influence, marketing messaging and leadership development. He said those courses were key to his success in launching Cobá, a Los Angeles-based natural beverage company.
“The real reason why I chose Stanford over other schools was the leadership aspect of it,” said Mr. Ventura, 32 years old. “The analytical side, you can get anywhere.”
Mr. Ventura said his deeper understanding of interpersonal dynamics helps him connect with prospective customers, distributors and financial backers.
Still, not everyone is enamored of formal soft-skills training.
“Having a professor that’s never led an organization teach me leadership out of a book, really doesn’t do anything for me,” said Mike Marchak, a program manager at Google Inc. and 2008 graduate of Columbia.
Mr. Marchak, 32, said he learned more from interacting with classmates in study groups and leading team projects than in classes intended to teach leadership strategy. “I felt like they were too abstract,” Mr. Marchak said.
And perhaps that’s because soft skills are some of the hardest to teach.
“At the end of the day, it’s relatively easy to teach people how to run financial models,” said Eric Hirst, associate dean for graduate programs at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. “What’s challenging is to lead change, to manage.”
Meditation has become increasingly popular, and also increasingly available, to the average consumer in the past five to 10 years. While anyone who practices meditation on a regular basis can attest to its positive benefits — reduced stress and anxiety — going “om” may also lessen physical pain and provide other benefits.
This month in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina published a paper showing that meditation reduced pain intensity in a group of adults with no previous meditation experience.
In this study, 15 healthy adults were taught to meditate in four 20-minute classes. Prior to and at the end of the study, the participants underwent a special kind of MRI that measures activity in the part of the brain responsible for the perception of pain. While they were getting the scans done, a device that produces painful heat was placed on each participant’s leg for five minutes.
At the end of the study, all participants noted a reduction in their pain ratings, some by as much as 93 percent — this is more than the pain reduction seen with narcotic and other pain-relieving drugs.
The MRI scans also changed at the end of the study — meditation reduced activity in the part of the brain that perceives pain-ful stimuli, and it also increased activation of areas that reduce the sensation of pain.
Another recent study done at Massachusetts General Hospital showed that participation in an eight-week mindfulness meditation training program also produced measurable changes in the areas of the brain associated with empathy, stress, memory and learning. Participants in this study meditated an average of 27 minutes per day over eight weeks and reported significant reductions in stress at the end of the study.
Dealing with the experience of cancer can sometimes result in heightened anxiety, stress and fear.
Now patients and survivors have turned to the practice of meditation to help them cope and adjust.
The cancer patients at Gilda’s Club Westchester sit in stillness, focusing their minds and their attention on one thing. In this case, they are focusing all their attention on their breath.
“I’m trying to go for a more natural way of becoming more peaceful, more relaxed, less agitated, less worried,” said cancer survivor Regina Kirsch.
“Especially with cancer , I think it’s great to be able to clear your mind, center yourself and kind of clear those worries away,” said another cancer survivor Monica Ventorino.
Psychologist Merril Harmin has been teaching meditation for 30 years. “We’ve noticed that an easy way to let go of a thought is to shift from the thinking to the breathing,” said Harmin. “We can open up our mind and our body works better. The glands work better. The nerves work better,” said Harmin.
Research shows that people who meditate heal faster and get sick less quickly and less often. A recent study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that 30 minutes a day of meditation changed areas of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress. The study was published in the current issue of Psychiatry: Neuroimaging Research. ”
I just found that I had to do meditation just to stay calm because I was just so anxious all the time. But I still have thoughts of cancer. It will be two years in April that I was diagnosed, so I’m on the mends. I definitely feel I’m on the mends,” said cancer survivor Chris Smith.
“It’s a form of stationary relaxation and I really enjoyed it. You’re in piece with your mind,” said Eva Culhane.
“It really helped me to relax and to sleep better. I had been taking sleeping pills so I was very happy that after 6 weeks of meditation I managed to get off my sleeping pills,” Culhane added.
Off pills and into a calmer plane with the help of a 2,000 year old therapy.