“Meditation is like a gym in which you develop the powerful mental muscles of calm and insight.”– Ajahn Brahm
I would guess that we think more, and sense less than our ancestors. Whereas before humans used sight, smell, touch or taste to see whether food was fine to eat, now we use a sell-by date, and devote much of that residual attention on more abstract things. We end up spending more attention to our thoughts.
I practice meditation to divert my attention away from my thoughts for a short while and notice what it feels like to be more aware of my senses. I believe this practice or similar is a must for decision-makers. Join me in this 3-part series:
why I recommend meditation (today)
how I meditate
breath and state of mind
What is meditation and mindfulness?
I believe meditation is a simple tool to improve decision-making and in general improving your quality of life. Meditation involves training your mind to focus and redirect thoughts. Most commonly it is practiced sitting comfortably in a quiet environment, choosing a focus and trying to achieve a state of mental clarity and emotional calm.
Whilst it is often dressed up in mystical language, I think of meditation much like jogging! It is enjoyable and beneficial as a practice that you can do in your own time, at your own pace and benefits you most with consistent practice.
Meditation and mindfulness have a huge overlap. The language of mindfulness is much more inclusive for example, mindful eating.
What it is not
Meditation has a lot of ‘hippy’ and religious baggage. The non-English words, incense and superstitious language are instantly off-putting for some. To counter this image the language of mindfulness is increasingly used and is indicative of an everyday secular practice.
Another challenge beginner meditators find is that the immediate benefits have been hyped up too much. There is often a huge anti-climax after people start practicing. Expectations of out-of-body experiences are not met - leading to a feeling of ineffective practice. This expectation gap is enhanced further by unsubstantiated claims made regarding the long-term benefits.
Why decision-makers should consider meditation
My hypothesis is that your old brain (creating impulse) and new brain (more long-term thinking) will often give you different approaches to situations. Meditation helps differentiate between them. You want your new brain to make the final decision on important and nuanced things.
There are three benefits that I am comfortable are scientifically backed and relevant for decision-makers. Mediation can help you:
1) Improve focus
We spend too much time thinking about ‘other’ things. Bad things we are anxious about, or regretful of or good things too, like looking back on our triumph yesterday or how we are looking forward to the football game tonight. The problem is, your thoughts about other things spread more thinly your limited focus. You end up focusing less on what is happening right now. One of the immediate benefits of meditation is bringing your mind back to something you choose to focus on.
Experiments have shown that people found their mind frequently wandering. The more their mind wandered the less happy they were regardless of what they were doing. In other words, their level of happiness was more a function of where their mind was rather than what they were doing. Trying to quieten these ‘other’ thoughts is what people mean when they refer to being ‘present’ i.e. focusing their mental bandwidth on events here and now.
Meditation has helped improve my focus (ask the better half!) and resist distraction. Focus is not solely a productivity tool, it allows you to enjoy and immerse yourself more in leisure activities too (giving something or someone your undivided attention). Increased focus also has the benefit of making events more memorable due to greater immersion in it.
2) Promote calm.
Meditation improves calm. Calm to me is the ability to maintain a level head in uncertain or volatile situations. The practice of meditation, focuses on your senses. This engages your parasympathetic nervous system, the part that is involved in relaxation. When it is engaged it has the impact of lowering stress hormones and lowering your heart rate.
In a state of calm people are able to better weigh up, upsides and downsides and more actively recall knowledge they have. In a state of calm, you are also more likely to benefit from creativity and lateral thinking which will promote more innovative problem solving. It is not a coincidence that Archimedes made his discovery in the bath.
3) Reflect on your emotional state
Our emotional state impacts everything around us. If we are happy, we are likely to trust people and take risks. Conversely when angry, we see malice in the actions of others. Good decision-makers can reflect on their emotional state and course correct to a more objective state. This might be by sleeping on it before making a decision (superb advice for things that can wait), or by enlisting the help of a confidante. In essence, meditation helps improve your emotional self awareness and self control.
Regular meditators tend to benefit from improved mental clarity, stress reduction and constructive self-reflection. This has also been shown to lead to some physical health benefits including lowered blood pressure and more restful sleep.
How is this relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways before we pick it up next week:
1) Meditation helps train your mind to improve focus by redirecting distracting thoughts.
2) To enjoy meditation or mindfulness it is worth looking beyond the superstitious language sometimes used and think of it as 'jogging for the mind'.
3) Decision-makers should consider meditation or something similar as it helps improve focus and promotes calm and emotional reflection. These result in improved mental clarity, stress reduction and physical benefits like lowered blood pressure and improved sleep.
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