At dawn for the last three weeks, I’ve devoted time to “mindful meditation.” We’ve spoken previously about the potential benefits of “traditional meditation” on stress levels (and subsequently performance), but the practice has several other benefits to us as we aim to become better communicators, leaders, friends and family members. From the APA:
The term “mindfulness” has been used to refer to a psychological state of awareness, the practices that promote this awareness, a mode of processing information and a character trait. To be consistent with most of the research reviewed in this article, we define mindfulness as a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.
When we originally brought up the topic, I suggested merely engaging in thoughtful, controlled breathing. I still advocate this practice during times of stress or simply when we need a little additional focus. It’s undoubtedly difficult to argue that there is downside in focusing on breathing deeply. Recently, however, I have been experimenting with an iPhone app which claims to help us build a powerful habit. Its aim is to inspire us to spend 10 minutes engaged in a “guided” meditation. It’s been a solid experience thus far. If the returns continue to be positive, I’ll make a more formal recommendation in an upcoming post.
I’ve shared in the past that I work too much. So do most of you (sorry, some projection happening here). While productive at times, it’s the equivalent of overtraining. Particularly when we overtrain as athletes, we need to optimize for recovery through effective tissue repair techniques like sleep, and habitually consuming nutritionally dense foods. Similarly, we overtrain our minds with endless stimulation. During busy moments, dedicating 10 minutes to anything that doesn’t affirmatively check off a task on our agendas is a difficult sell.
Recently, I was connected with Jason Ferruggia. Like all great leaders, he left our crew (myself and the group of men and women he addressed) with a simple message. “Get up earlier.” Don’t ponder it. Just f’ing make the commitment. Rising earlier to squeeze in meditation has clear, unequivocal benefits. Studies have demonstrated positive impact in the areas of stress reduction, mood elevation, emotional regulation, memory and focus.
Perhaps most interestingly, studies have also illuminated a benefit to mental flexibility.
Another line of research suggests that in addition to helping people become less reactive, mindfulness meditation may also give them greater cognitive flexibility. One study found that people who practice mindfulness meditation appear to develop the skill of self-observation, which neurologically disengages the automatic pathways that were created by prior learning and enables present-moment input to be integrated in a new way (Siegel, 2007a). Meditation also activates the brain region associated with more adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations (Cahn & Polich, 2006; Davidson et al., 2003). Activation of this region corresponds with faster recovery to baseline after being negatively provoked (Davidson, 2000; Davidson, Jackson, & Kalin, 2000).
A strong sense of self-awareness, the ability to accurately evaluate oneself critically but not judgmentally, is crucially important for everyone and particularly for those of us charged with managing and guiding other individuals. As we’ve previously discussed, that basically includes all of us. Being able to thoughtfully consider our decisions, especially in emotionally charged situations leaves us in a place of being able to respond in a measured, reasoned way instead of reacting savagely.
These benefits alone would be enough to support the breathing practice. A 10 minute investment to be stronger for the rest of the day (and overall) is the optimal choice.
Taking this a step further, the app I’m flirting with (it’s courting me) asked me to consider the effect my new practice was having on those around me. At its heart, mindful meditation is about being present in the moment. “Being present” is seemingly overused and nebulous. It can come off as annoyingly new-agey. We can all define it for ourselves to strip out the buzzword feel. Essentially, we’re discussing being engaged in our current activity instead of skipping ahead (or back) to everything else that seemingly needs to be accomplished or considered at this moment.
Last week, we discussed the need to be flexible in our use of different mediums to communicate and connect with others. What isn’t questionable is the need for us to be engaged and invested during those moments of connection.
Here’s what sometimes happens.
Before we’ve effectively discovered what’s going on right now, we’re analyzing and plotting. Before we know what our senses are telling us, or what our needs are, we’re planning and conquering. Instead of really absorbing another person, our own ideas are bouncing around in our heads and popping out of our mouths. When we do this, we communicate without having the long (or at least the 30,000 foot) view. That’s when our words are least likely to impact another.
The commonality between hitting coach and hitter, performance coach and athlete, those engaged in negotiations, sibling and sibling and spouse and spouse is that these are all relationships that require mental and emotional engagement. Imagine a pitcher, coming off a strong outing, who wants to share with his pitching coach an adjustment he feels helped him. The pitching coach, who noticed a delivery tweak he wants to make, is locked into the desire to share that information. Both end up talking around each other and walk away frustrated and with needs unmet. The pitching coach dismisses the pitcher as “uncoachable” and the pitcher writes off the coach as unsupportive at best, entirely unaware at worst. From the University of Missouri:
Mindfulness increases the ability to both communicate emotions and understand the emotions of others. Mindfulness also helps you think twice about reacting to another person’s anger or stress–being able to access a sense of ease even in the midst of difficulties that often arise in relationships, be they marital or work… “more mindful partners literally see each other more clearly, regard each other more nonjudgmentally, [and] behave more responsively toward each other…
Interactions simply don’t feel as valuable when our conversational partner is absorbed in formulating what they’re going to say next or just distracted. It’s certainly frustrating to want to be invested in our partners’ message and to have our mental muscles fail us. It’s amazing how analogous with weight training mental training is. Intently exercising our minds absolutely impacts our strength in relationships, both professional and personal.