Photo Credit: Viewminder

Zen @ Work:

A Practical Guide To Mindfulness & Meditation For The Career-Driven Professional.

By Christina Lopes, Energy Healer, Life Coach, Author


The most common question I get from busy, career-driven clients is usually a variation of this:

“How do I improve my work-life balance so I can be productive but also happy and fulfilled?”

If you’re spending more than average time at work, are running a business, or are working for a company/organization that demands a lot of you, finding some relaxation or downtime can be a challenge. Trying to keep yourself balanced and at peace can feel next to impossible.

Yet, it is possible to have the best of both worlds: to be an extremely productive, creative professional, while also living with deep peace, joy and happiness.

Becoming a successful professional doesn’t mean you have to give up on what makes life amazing. In fact it’s quite the opposite: those that know how to remain fully centered in life are also the ones who become exceptional at their jobs.

I wrote this practical guide for the person that wishes to look at meditation & mindfulness as tools to complement and improve their professional performance, as well as increase their sense of happiness and joy in life.

I’ve divided the guide in two parts:

In Part I, I answer some common questions about meditation and mindfulness (M&M), as well as go into some fun brain science facts. I find that when people are informed about the inner-workings of the mind/brain/body, it is much easier to then understand why M&M is so successful at dramatically changing the way we live and work.

In Part II, I get into a few different types of meditations, as well as other practical tools and exercises to help you lead a more mindful life.

Ok, let’s get to it!

Part I: The Basics

* What is meditation and mindfulness?

Meditation is defined in different ways, depending on the tradition. To me, it is simply the practice of observing the mind and/or whatever comes up within you. The Tibetan word for meditation — Gom — is a great indicator of what the practice is. “Gom” is roughly translated to “becoming familiar with…” Meditation then is the drawing of awareness inward.

Mindfulness simply means that you are fully aware of something in the present moment and engage with that “something” without judgment or resistance. For example, when you brush your teeth, you can become mindful by concentrating your attention and thoughts on the task at hand (brushing your teeth), instead of the more common state of daydreaming while performing such mundane tasks.

* Why should I practice meditation and live mindfully?

To answer this question fully, first we need to take a detour into brain science and discover how the brain/mind works. Once we get a better feel for how brain circuitries fire, how our minds think and what we perceive as the self, then the “why should I practice M&M” will become apparent.

I rely heavily on three specific books when explaining brain science in this section. They are amazing reads and I recommend them to anyone who wants to learn more deeply about the biochemical processes and evolutionary components of the brain:

  1. “Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom”, by psychologist Rick Hanson
  2. “My Stroke Of Insight”, by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor
  3. “Waking Up: A Guide To Spirituality Without Religion”, by philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris

Fun facts about the mind/brain/body

  • The brain has 100 Billion neurons (brain cells) and each one of them has 5,000 connections (synapses) to other neurons.
Left: A 3D image of a neuron. Right: The connection (synapse) between two neurons.
  • Each neuron fires 5–50 times in a second!
  • The firing of a neuron constitutes “information”.
  • Your brain moves information around like your heart moves blood.
  • All that “information” is what is called mind and most of it operates outside your everyday awareness.
  • To get a better picture of the beauty, speed, and complexity of neuronal connections, take a look at this image of neurons firing!
Link: http://i.imgur.com/IS81LLY.gif
  • It’s not scientifically known yet whether it’s the brain that makes mind or if instead, it’s the mind that uses the brain.
  • The brain has two hemispheres that process and perceive information in distinct ways. The Left hemisphere specializes in linguistics, logic, and sequential processing. It is here that we develop an image of a self as a distinct, separated being from everyone else. The Right hemisphere is responsible for visual-spacial processing and does not experience time as linear. To the right hemisphere, only the present moment exists and it is full of vibrancy.
  • Our brains evolved by relying heavily on a specific survival strategy: avoiding threats (staying away from sticks!) and approaching opportunities (chasing carrots!).
  • From an evolutionary standpoint, avoiding threats became more powerful and important in keeping you alive on the Serengeti! In other words, the brain evolved to prioritize the sight of a lion more than the pleasure of reaching for some honey in a tree.
  • So the brain circuitry has a strong “negativity bias”. It’s primed to see and constantly look for bad news.
  • The brain detects negative information faster than it does positive information.
  • The inherent negativity bias can make us suffer because it a) generates a baseline level of anxiety and b) intensifies emotions like anger and fear.
  • The negativity bias also highlights past losses or failures and exaggerates future issues.
  • Over the past 3 million years, the human brain has tripled in size and we’ve become better at “simulating” potential future scenarios. This suggests that simulations may have been important in the survival of our species.
  • But today, our mental simulations do a lot more than help us survive. They can create a lot of suffering because we keep replaying painful/negative memories.
  • “Suffering” is embodied because it activates the threat systems of the body, especially the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), which is responsible for the “fight or flight” response.
  • The SNS is one wing of the larger Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and has as its counterbalance, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).
  • The PNS is the system of calm, peaceful action. It is responsible for ongoing, steady-state activity. This system is the normal baseline of equilibrium of the body, while the SNS is meant to be used in spikes or threats, such as running away from danger.
  • The SNS, when activated, triggers powerful biochemical changes in the body, such as: a release in cortisol (a stress hormone), epinephrine (increases your heart rate), and norepinephrine (shunts blood to large muscles).
  • If the SNS stays activated for long periods of time, you begin to “embody” suffering, mainly due to the effects of cortisol: it suppresses the immune system and decreases the production of dopamine (the enjoyment/pleasure neurotransmitter) and serotonin (the main neurotransmitter responsible for good mood).
  • The PNS quiets the mind and is involved in contemplation and feelings of peace.
  • The PNS and SNS work together and mild SNS activation is important for enthusiasm and excitement. But the key word here is “mild”. The SNS should only be used in quick spikes (such as when running away from danger) and in ongoing mild activation.
  • What “stress” means is that we are maximally activating the SNS in very long periods of time, living with this system as our baseline state, instead of the PNS.
  • Many people think that human memory functions like a digital camera (information is stored forever unaltered) but it’s actually more like a play (changes every time it’s recalled). And how each memory changes, depends on the emotional/mental state you are in when you remember it. This molding of memories is called “reconsolidation”. (Source: http://bit.ly/1QA3gJ7)
  • You can remove the emotional charge of a memory by adding positive emotions/positive actions (like a hug) to the memory as soon as it’s recalled.
  • Because of the negativity bias of the brain, it takes conscious effort (at least initially) to counteract that tendency with positivity. But eventually it pays off because you mold brain circuitry over time.
  • By decreasing the negativity bias, you automatically decrease an overly active SNS and increase the activation of the PNS.
  • The longer something is held in awareness and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more it will be reinforced by neurons.
  • Mental activity has a much bigger effect on the ANS (PNS + SNS) than on any other system in the body.
  • Having the SNS constantly activated means you cannot learn or be open to new things.
  • The brain is primed to constantly seek out stimuli. It also tends to pass over “neutral” stimuli, in favor of “pleasant” or “unpleasant” stimuli.
  • Focusing on feelings of joy and bliss cause a release of dopamine and help you concentrate attention and improve memory.
  • The brain has specialized neurons, called “mirror neurons”, which fire to try and mimic the emotional/mental state of someone in your proximity. How amazing is that? Your brain literally tries to experience what the other person is experiencing (what is termed empathy). This means that your mental state directly affects those around you. Talk about responsibility!
  • The single greatest source of suffering is the sense of self or ego because it’s ultimately illusory:
“At some point in life, we all ask the same question: who am I? And no one really knows the answer. The self is a slippery subject — especially when it’s the subject that is regarding itself as an object…But there is no subject inherent in subjectivity; in advanced meditation practices, one finds a bare awareness without a subject…Awareness requires subjectivity, but it does not require a subject.” Rick Hanson, PhD
  • The self is continuously changing. In fact, some areas of the brain associated with the sense of “self” (the prefrontal cortex, for example) update information 5–8 times a second! Talk about changing quickly!
  • The sense of self need not be rejected to clinged to: it can simply be observed without judgment. A good way to start releasing the mental simulations about self is to practice generosity and humility at every chance.

Now that we’ve finished our detour into brain science, let’s answer the “why M&M?” question in 2 sentences:

1. M&M are the best tools to decrease SNS activity and help the brain/mind/body return to a baseline of PNS activity.

2. M&M bring you into a state of peace, centeredness, and equilibrium, where you can work more productively and live life with joy, happiness, and bliss!

* What are some other benefits of M&M?

Aside from the information I shared above, here are some other scientifically based benefits of M&M:

  • Meditation trains your brain in sustained attention. Meditation is like training for a marathon…of attention!
  • Meditation decreases the size of an area of the brain known as the amygdala (involved in the SNS activation) so people stop feeling fear.
  • Mindfulness meditation increases the size of the pre-frontal cortex (responsible for higher-level thinking and concentration). So you can focus your attention more! (Source: http://bit.ly/1jhCL2u)
  • M&M improves “divergent thinking” (thinking that generates many new ideas)
  • Mindfulness helps you filter out other distracting mental processes while you concentrate on a task.
  • Regular meditators can focus and stay on task longer than non-meditators.
  • Meditators are less stress out and anxious (the reasons were discussed above)
  • In married couples, meditation improves communication within the couple. (Source: http://bit.ly/1xLYeR0)

* What are the top myths about meditation?

“I don’t have enough time to meditate.”

Ok, I’m going to be direct here: yes you do! The truth is, we make time for what we decide to prioritize. It’s that simple.

And look at it this way: one meditation session can take as little as 5 minutes. You can do that, right?

“You have to silence your mind completely in order to meditate.”

Not true. In fact, the probability that you will ever be able to completely silence that machine between your ears is I’d say…1% (I just made that number up!). It’s the nature of the mind to think as it’s the nature of the heart to beat.

The skill in meditation is to simple observe all the mental activity as it comes up, without judgment or getting involved in the mental drama. As Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches: just observe thoughts like you would clouds floating in the sky.

“Meditation is too difficult.”

The only “difficulty” you may encounter initially is learning how to observe the thoughts without getting involved in them. But I seriously don’t even call that a difficulty because it’s a skill you can learn within a few sessions.

“It takes years of practice to feel the benefits of meditation.”

Not true at all! While there are some benefits of meditation that take more time (like changing the size of certain brain regions!), most of the benefits are actually immediate.

After just one session you can feel calmer, less anxious, more centered.

Ok, we’ve covered a lot of ground already! Now, let’s really get into mindfulness and meditation mode!

Part II: M&M tools, practices, and exercises

Mindfulness

1- The Seat Of Awareness. To start training in M&M, simply get used to observing your mental activities and neural circuitry without judgment. Buddhists call this “equanimity”, which means you give everything space to exist within the vast realm of your mind and simply observe thoughts form/pass without getting caught up in any of it.

Every time your brain circuitry tries to force you to judge something “good” or “bad”, just remember the image of not grasping at anything in life and mentally repeat:

“I’m letting this go.”

2- In the NOW. As much as possible, try to focus and refocus on the present moment. If you happen to catch yourself thinking about something that has nothing to do with what is in front of you, take a deep breath and bring yourself back into the present moment. If you’re brushing your teeth, think about brushing your teeth; if you’re completing a project at work, think about that project only.

3- Scan & Relax. This exercise involves directing the power of your awareness all throughout your body. Start at your feet, and as you bring your awareness up your legs, start relaxing any areas you feel are tight. When you do encounter an area that is tight, hold your attention on that area longer and visualize it relaxing.

This is a powerful mindfulness exercise because you’re teaching your mind to focus attention at will. Being mindful means you command the power of your own attention.

4- Buddha Breathing. In this simple exercise, you’re going to use the power of your diaphragm (a large breathing muscle) to take a very deep breath. In a seated position, with your spine straight, hold your hand 2–3 inches away from your stomach. As you inhale, let your belly fall out into your hand. Your stomach should be sticking out like…a Buddha belly!

Repeat as many times as you want. This type of breathing can be a little hard initially, especially if you’re used to constantly sucking your stomach in!

5- Empty The Tank. This is another breathing exercise but this time, you’re focusing on the exhale. Sit in a meditation position (crossed-leg) and take a nice deep breath. As you begin to exhale, contract your abdominals and force the air out, as you fold your torso down over your legs. By the end of the exhale, your face should almost be touching the floor in front of you (if you’re flexible enough!).

Forced exhalation is a great way to activate the PNS because it is this system that is responsible for exhalation (while SNS governs inhalation).

6- Imagery. Using imagery is a great way to activate the right hemisphere of the brain (responsible for image processing) and thereby decrease mental chatter, which is created by the left hemisphere (where language centers are located).

You can use the power of imagery in many ways but here are some simple tips:

  • Choose a computer screensaver that is a picture of nature or some other soothing image. Every time that you feel stress or anxiety while at your computer, take a deep breath and look at the image for at least 1 min. Imagine yourself in that scene and what it would feel like.
  • Watch a short nature video with nature sounds, like this one:

7- Super-Slow Movement. I like using very slow movements (the foundation of Tai Chi and Qigong) to train my attention. You can use whatever body movements you want, as long as you make an effort to complete the movement in no less than 20 seconds.

The movements that I use most in my own practice are the static squat and balancing on one leg.

As you hold the movement, pull the power of your attention to the muscles being used. The more you focus on the movements, the less your mind will think. Try it!

8- Changing The Past…In Your Brain At Least. This is an exercise of “memory reconsolidation”, which I discussed above.

When your mind recalls a painful or upsetting memory, at that very moment, focus the power of your awareness on positive emotion/positive action. Try to hold the positivity in awareness along with the memory for as long as 20 seconds. Repeat the recalling at least once more that day (frequency makes reconsolidation “stick”).

For example, when a negative memory comes up, put your hand on your heart (positive action) and say “everything is ok” (elicits compassion).

Meditation

Of all the types of meditation available, I’ve come to rely on 6 specific forms.

I’ve listed them here in order of complexity. If you simply want to stick to the basics of meditation and not get too esoteric, then the first 5 forms will be for you. If you’re interested in getting into more metaphysical meditations, then try out the last form (energy meditation).

But before I detail the specific meditations, I’d like to offer some general tips on the practice

  1. I use the 6 types of meditation interchangeably, depending on how I feel like meditating on any given day. Varying the types you use will help keep meditation fresh in your daily life and prevent boredom from creeping in.
  2. If you are completely new to meditation, start small and simple. Give yourself 5 minutes for the first session and see how you feel. The next day, do 10 minutes and then 20 minutes, etc. I started my meditation practice with only 5 minutes, once a day, and worked myself up to 1 hour, twice a day (my current practice).
  3. Try to meditate as soon as you get up in the morning. That’s a good way of establishing a great daily practice. Some meditation teachers recommend against meditating before bedtime because it may interfere with your ability to fall asleep. Yet, I have not found that to be the case in my own practice. I meditate once in the morning and once before bedtime. But you can play around with the timing of your meditation so it best fits your daily schedule.
  4. If you can, always meditate in a seated, cross-legged position (the traditional “lotus” pose). This helps keep your spine completely straight, which is tremendously important — especially when you get to the “energy meditations” that I detail below. Don’t be surprised if your back or legs become sore after your initial sessions. This is totally normal as you are training your spinal muscles to remain in a biomechanically correct posture. If you are unable to sit in the lotus position, try sitting in a chair or lying down. Just remember the rule: your spine must be straight.
  5. Place a folded towel or firm pillow under your butt, as this helps in maintaining the lotus position (especially if you are doing a long meditation session).
  6. Start every meditation session in the same way: get comfortable, close your eyes, and begin with some basic breathing observation (or use the breathing exercises I discussed above).
  7. If you want to time yourself, make sure your timer is set on vibrate and not sound, so you don’t jolt yourself out of a meditation!
Now to the 6 types of meditation I use most frequently.

1- Traditional Mindfulness Meditation

This type of meditation means that you simply sit with your eyes closed and observe your thoughts and/or the sensations in your body (like breathing) without judgment. This is how I started meditating but I realize it is often the most difficult for people to stick to. 
 
 The most common feedback I get from clients about mindfulness meditation is that it’s “boring” or “unsettling to listen to ALL my thoughts in silence”. But for you it may be different. Try it out and see how you feel to just be in silence, observing your internal environment.

Turning your attention inward is a wonderful way of activating the PNS because it is this system that is responsible for internal equilibrium.

Traditional meditation is also a great way to sensitize the brain to “neutral” stimuli since it removes the preferred tendency of the brain to constantly be looking for “pleasant” and “unpleasant” stimuli in the environment. By using meditation to focus the mind on something “neutral” (not good or bad), you’re rewiring brain circuitry to feel more comfortable in “stillness”, instead of “seeking” mode.

2- Contemplative/Visual Meditation

This type of meditation involves observing with your eyes open. I love to practice this meditation in nature: maybe on a beach or in a forest. The main focus of this meditation is to observe things around you without labeling them or mentally narrating what your eyes are seeing. Now what exactly do I mean by no “narration”? 
 
 For example, if you are meditating in a forest and you see a beautiful tree, you take in that sight without mentally saying “Oh, look at that tree! It’s so amazing and big and beautiful. It reminds me of a tree I had in the front yard of my home growing up.” Do you see? Mental narration. 
 
 The mind loves to narrate our world to us. But this narration or labeling takes you away from the present moment and clouds your ability to take in that new sight as a completely unique moment. If you’re thinking about the tree you had when you grew up, are you really experiencing the present tree you may be looking at now?

Another type of visual meditation is to draw your attention to something that is “boring” or “neutral” for the brain: like a white wall. As discussed above, sensitizing the brain to neutral stimuli counters the evolutionary tendency of the brain to constantly seek out “pleasant” or “unpleasant”.

3- Mantra Meditation

This type of meditation involves the constant repetition of a sound or word, mentally or out loud. The words I use most for mantra meditations are “OM” and “So Hum” (meaning “I am that”).

These two words are in Sanskrit and have no specific meaning. The reason it’s helpful to repeat words that don’t have a meaning is that the brain cannot then form images or scenarios (thinking) around them. For example, if I repeated “dog” over and over again during a meditation, my mind would immediately take me to my big beautiful Great Dane, named Xena. By using OM or So Hum…there’s nothing for my mind to hold onto!

Vocalizing your mantras out loud causes the activation of the PNS because our vocal cords are governed by a nerve called the “vagus nerve” (which is part of the calming PNS). Each time your vocal cords vibrate, you’ll feel more and more relaxed!

Here’s one of my favorite mantra meditation audio tracks, if you want to “OM” along with it:

If you want to repeat the mantras mentally instead, this has a different effect: mental repetitions focus the power of your attention on the specific sound, instead of on a million other thoughts.

4- Meditation With Binaural Beats

Binaural beats is a sound technology where one speaker emits a certain frequency and the other speaker emits a slightly different one. When you listen to this type of audio with earphones, your brain picks up on the slight difference and makes a brainwave that is in the middle. This is called “brainwave entrainment”.

You can listen to audio tracks that aim to produce certain types of brainwaves like alpha waves (the wave of meditation).

Here are some examples of binaural tracks that I use regularly to induce a meditative state:

For more on binaural beats and brainwave entrainment, click here and here.

5- Visualization Meditation

Here, you are going to practice using the simulating power of your brain to visualize something with your physical eyes closed. The skill of visualization is remarkable when it comes to inner transformation. But it can be a challenge for some people to learn initially.
 
 I remember when I first tried to visualize a scene with my eyes closed. All I could see was…nothing! Pitch black! It took quite a bit of practice and patience for me to start “seeing” with my mind and constructing elaborate visions in my head.
 
 There are many visualization meditations out there but I enjoy the visualization meditations by Lisa Nichols. Here’s an example:

The key to a great visualization meditation is not only the visual simulation or scene you can imagine in your mind, but it’s also the positive emotions you can generate. The more your body generates emotions like love, joy, compassion…the more the meditations will have an immediate effect on your brain/mind circuitry.

6- Energy Meditation

Energy meditation is a specific type of visualization meditation that focuses on moving energy (usually visualized as a bright white light) around your body. Below are the three I use most frequently:
 
 a) Chakra Meditation. Close your eyes and visualize each of your 7 main chakras (energy centers of the body), with each corresponding color. Here’s a great picture of the chakras to help you start visualizing them:

Photo Credit: http://bit.ly/1S4Bqdy

b) Aura Meditation. In this session, you are going to visualize an energy field (aura) around your body. Close your eyes and begin to visualize a glow radiating from your body. Some people prefer to visualize the aura in the form of a light “shield” or “bubble” around their bodies. This light can come in various colors so try not to force the visualization of a specific color. It’s more important to simply “see” the glow or light hovering a couple of inches off of your physical body.

c) Moving Energy Up The Spine. In this meditation, you’re visualizing energy coming up from the floor, into the tip of your spine, and then slowly making its way up the spine until it reaches your head. Hold the visualization of your entire head filled with light.

This is a very invigorating meditation!

Wow…we made it to the end!

I hope this guide is helpful on your journey toward inner peace, happiness, joy, and a successful professional career!

For any questions or feedback, connect with me at: www.christina-lopes.com

If you’d like to download the PDF version of this guide, click here: