Meditation: It’s Not Just for Enlightenment Anymore

One of the best — and most easily available — ways we can become healthier and happier is through mindfulness and meditation. Every element of well- being is enhanced by the practice of meditation and, indeed, studies have shown that mindfulness and meditation have a measurable positive impact on the other three pillars of the Third Metric — wisdom, wonder, and giving.

When I first heard about mindfulness, I was confused. My mind was already full enough, I thought — I needed to empty it, not focus on it. My conception of the mind was sort of like the household junk drawer — just keep cramming things in and hope it doesn’t jam. Then I read Jon Kabat- Zinn’s writings on mindfulness and it all made sense. “In Asian languages,” he wrote, “the word for ‘mind’ and the word for ‘heart’ are the same word. So when we hear the word ‘mindfulness,’ we have to inwardly also hear ‘heartfulness’ in order to grasp it even as a concept, and especially as a way of being.” In other words, mindfulness is not just about our minds but our whole beings. When we are all mind, things can get rigid. When we are all heart, things can get chaotic. Both lead to stress. But when they work together, the heart leading through empathy, the mind guiding us with focus and attention, we become a harmonious human being. Through mindfulness, I found a practice that helped bring me fully present and in the moment, even in the most hectic of circumstances.

Mark Williams and Danny Penman give a variety of quick and easy ways to practice mindfulness, including what they call “habit breaking.” Each day for a week you choose a habit such as brushing your teeth, drinking your morning coffee, or taking a shower, and simply pay attention to what’s happening while you do it. It’s really not so much habit breaking as habit unmaking — it’s taking something we’ve placed on autopilot and putting it back on the list of things we pay attention to. “The idea,” they write, “is not to make you feel different, but simply to allow a few more moments in the day when you are ‘awake.’ . . . If you notice your mind wandering while you do this, simply notice where it went, then gently escort it back to the present moment.”

I love the image of gently escorting my mind back to the present moment — without any negative judgment that it wandered. It will, no doubt, be a familiar process for anybody who has parented or babysat a toddler, which is not a bad comparison for our modern multitasking minds. As for meditation, it has long been an important part of my life. My mother had actually taught my younger sister, Agapi, and me how to meditate when I was thirteen years old. But although I’ve known its benefits since my teens, finding time for meditation was always a challenge because I was under the impression that I had to “do” meditation. And I didn’t have time for another burdensome thing to “do.” Fortunately, a friend pointed out one day that we don’t “do” meditation; meditation “does” us. That opened the door for me. The only thing to “do” in meditation is nothing. Even writing that I don’t have to “do” one more thing makes me relax.

I’ve found that meditation can actually be done in very short windows of time, even while on the move. We think of ourselves as breathing, but, in reality, we are being breathed. At any time we choose, we can take a moment to bring our attention to the rising and falling of our breath without our conscious interference. I know when I have “connected” because I usually take a spontaneous deep breath, or release a deep sigh. So, in a sense, the engine of mindfulness is always going. To reap the benefits of it, all we have to do is become present and pay attention.

Our breath also has a sacredness about it. Sometimes when I’m giving a talk, I’ll first ask everyone in the room to focus on the rising and falling of their breath for ten seconds. It’s amazing how the room, which moments before hummed with chaotic energy, will suddenly be filled with a stillness, an attentiveness, a sacredness. It’s something quite palpable.

There are many forms of meditation, but whichever form you choose, it’s important to remember that its benefits are only a breath away. And the only price we pay is a few moments of our attention.

My sister, Agapi, has always been a natural on all matters spiritual, and has been my guide throughout our lives, sending books and people my way, nudging my spiritual explorations, calling to wake me up at a hotel in Kalamazoo, Michigan, at five in the morning so I could have time to meditate before another grueling book- tour day began.

When I was growing up, meditation was seen as a cure for just about everything. My mother had convinced us that if we meditated, we would be able to do our homework faster and improve our grades. We knew that meditation made us more peaceful and less upset when things didn’t go our way, but we also realized that it made us happier. And now, science has provided evidence to back this all up. If anything, my mother was underselling the benefits of meditation. Science has caught up to ancient wisdom, and the results are overwhelming and unambiguous.

What study after study shows is that meditation and mindfulness training profoundly affect every aspect of our lives — our bodies, our minds, our physical health, and our emotional and spiritual well- being. It’s not quite the fountain of youth, but it’s pretty close. When you consider all the benefits of meditation — and more are being found every day — it’s not an exaggeration to call meditation a miracle drug.

First, let’s look at physical health. It’s hard to overstate what meditation can do for us here, and the medical uses for it are just beginning to be explored. “Science — the same reductionistic science that is used to evaluate various drugs and medical procedures — has proven that your mind can heal your body,” Herbert Benson and William Proctor write in their book Relaxation Revolution. Indeed, the authors recommend that mind- body science be considered as the third primary treatment option in medicine, right along with surgery and drugs. They write how meditation can impact nausea, diabetes, asthma, skin reactions, ulcers, cough, congestive heart failure, dizziness, postoperative swelling, and anxiety: “Because all health conditions have some stress component.” The authors conclude, “It is no overstatement to say that virtually every single health problem and disease can be improved with a mind- body approach.”

It’s the Swiss army knife of medical tools, for conditions both small and large. A study funded by the National Institutes of Health showed a 23 percent decrease in mortality in people who meditated versus those who did not, a 30 percent decrease in death due to cardiovascular problems, and a significant decrease in cancer mortality. “This effect is equivalent to discovering an entirely new class of drugs (but without the inevitable side effects),” observe Mark Williams and Danny Penman. Another study found that meditation increased levels of antibodies to the flu vaccine, and the practice was also found to decrease the severity and length of colds, while researchers at Wake Forest University found that meditation lowered pain intensity.

How does it do all this? It’s not about just distracting us from pain and stress; it literally changes us at the genetic level. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Harvard Medical School found that the relaxation response — the state of calm produced by meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises — actually switched on genes that are related to augmenting our immune system, reducing inflammation, and fi ghting a range of conditions from arthritis to high blood pressure to diabetes. So with all these results, it’s no surprise that, according to another study, meditation correlates to reduced yearly medical costs.

It also physically changes our brains. One study found that meditation can actually increase the thickness of the prefrontal cortex region of the brain and slow the thinning that occurs there as we age, impacting cognitive functions such as sensory and emotional processing. Dr. Richard Davidson, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin and a leading scholar on the impact of contemplative practices on the brain, used magnetic resonance imaging machines (MRIs) to study the brain activity of Tibetan monks. The studies, as Davidson put it, have illuminated for the first time the “further reaches of human plasticity and transformation.” He calls meditation mental training: “What we found is that the trained mind, or brain, is physically different from the untrained one.” And when our brain is changed, so is the way in which we experience the world. “Meditation is not just blissing out under a mango tree,” says French Buddhist monk and molecular geneticist Matthieu Ricard. “It completely changes your brain and therefore changes what you are.”

And this automatically changes how you respond to what is happening in your life, your level of stress, and your ability to tap into your wisdom when making decisions. “You don’t learn to sail in stormy seas,” Ricard says. “You go to a secluded place, not to avoid the world, but to avoid distractions until you build your strength and you can deal with anything. You don’t box Muhammad Ali on day one.”

And the building of your strength, equanimity, and wisdom is actually very tangible and measurable, which is how Matthieu Ricard earned the moniker “the happiest man in the world.” After placing more than 250 sensors on Ricard’s skull, Richard Davidson found that Ricard exhibited gamma wave levels (high- frequency brain waves) “never before reported in the neuroscience literature,” indicative of an atypically high capacity for happiness and reduced tendency toward negative thoughts and feelings. As Ricard explains, “Pleasure depends very much on circumstances . . . and also it’s something that basically doesn’t radiate to others. . . . Happiness is a way of being that gives you the resources to deal with the ups and downs of life, that pervades all the emotional states including sadness.”

Meditation can also have profound effects on a host of other psychological conditions. Researchers at UCLA found that mindfulness and meditation helped lower feelings of loneliness among the elderly, while researchers from the University of Michigan documented that military veterans experienced lowered levels of post- traumatic stress disorder after mindfulness training. Meditation has also been found to reduce depression among pregnant women and teens. And it’s not just about reducing negative emotions; it’s also about boosting positive ones. A study led by University of North Carolina professor Barbara L. Fredrickson found that meditation increased “positive emotions, including love, joy, gratitude, contentment, hope, pride, interest, amusement”; it also resulted in “increases in a variety of personal resources, including mindful attention, self-acceptance, positive relations with others, and good physical health.” A study of patients with a history of depression at the University of Cambridge found that mindfulness- based cognitive therapy lowered the risk of depression relapse in participants who had experienced three or more episodes from 78 to 36 percent.

Meditation may be a wonder drug, but it does need to be regularly refilled. To get all these benefits, we need to make it a part of our everyday lives. Happiness and well- being are not just magical traits that some are blessed with and others not. Richard Davidson has come to view “happiness not as a trait but as a skill, like tennis. . . . If you want to be a good tennis player, you can’t just pick up a racket — you have to practice,” he said. “We can actually practice to enhance our well- being. Every strand of scientific evidence points in that direction. It’s no different than learning to play the violin or play golf. When you practice, you get better at it.” And trust me, it’s much easier than mastering the violin or becoming a golf pro. Davidson found “remarkable results with practitioners who did fifty thousand rounds of meditation, but also with three weeks of twenty minutes a day, which, of course, is more applicable to our modern times.”

While meditation may be a solitary activity that involves a certain inward focus, it also increases our ability to connect with others, actually making us more compassionate. Scientists from Harvard and Northeastern Universities found that meditation “made people willing to act virtuous — to help another who was suffering — even in the face of a norm not to do so.”

And meditation boosts our creativity. “Ideas are like fish,” wrote director and longtime meditator David Lynch in his book Catching the Big Fish. “If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper. Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.”

Steve Jobs, a lifelong practitioner of meditation, af- fi rmed the connection between meditation and creativity: “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things — that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before.”

Meditation can help us not only focus, but also refocus after being distracted — which is an increasingly common peril of our technology- besieged lives. Giuseppe Pagnoni, a neuroscientist at Emory University, found that, after an interruption, the minds of participants who meditated were able to return to what they had been focusing on faster than non-meditators. “The regular practice of meditation may enhance the capacity to limit the influence of distracting thoughts,” he said. This is especially valuable for those who feel like their days have become a noisy, beeping, blinking obstacle course of distracting thoughts.

No wonder mindfulness and meditation are being increasingly adopted by corporations and institutions throughout the world. The Bank of England has offered meditation sessions for its staff as well as the option to enroll in a self- funded six- week meditation course. And in the military, while the United States Marine Corps is experimenting with a Mind Fitness Training program, the David Lynch Foundation’s Operation Warrior Wellness has helped bring meditation to veterans and armed service personnel and their families, leading to a substantial decrease in PTSD and depression symptoms.

No longer is meditation seen as some sort of New Age escape from the world. It’s increasingly seen for what it is: a practice that helps us be in the world in a way that is more productive, more engaged, healthier, and less stressful. The list of public figures “outing” themselves as meditators is growing longer every day. It includes Ford chairman Bill Ford, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, Twitter cofounder Evan Williams, ABC host George Stephanopoulos, New York Times columnist and CNBC anchor Andrew Ross Sorkin, Jerry Seinfeld, Kenneth Branagh, Oprah Winfrey, whose twenty- one- day Meditation Experience program with Deepak Chopra has had nearly two million participants in more than two hundred countries, and Rupert Murdoch, who, in April 2013, tweeted: “Trying to learn transcendental meditation. Everyone recommends, not that easy to get started, but said to improve everything!” As Bob Roth, the executive director of the David Lynch Foundation, who has taught meditation to many corporate leaders, recently told me, “I’ve been doing this for forty years and in the past year there has been a dramatic change in the perception of meditation.”

Lena Dunham, the creator and star of Girls, has been meditating since she was nine years old when she was diagnosed with an obsessive- compulsive disorder. She jokes that she comes “from a line of neurotic Jewish women who need Transcendental Meditation more than anyone,” and describes how calming meditation is when it feels like her world is “spinning quickly” around her: “Meditation gathers me up for the day and makes me feel organized and happy and capable of facing the challenges of the world, both internal and external.”

Padmasree Warrior, the chief technology officer of Cisco, calls meditation “a reboot for your brain and your soul.” She meditates every night and spends her Saturdays doing a digital detox. Warrior drew on her meditation practice to manage twenty- two thousand employees in her previous role as Cisco’s head of engineering.

It’s hard to think of anything else that is simultaneously so simple and so powerful. It’s a vital tool not just for us as individuals, but collectively, as well. “Vanquishing infectious disease has left us living with chronic diseases of lifestyle and aging,” says Matthieu Ricard, “leading to the possibility that healthcare can focus on increasing human flourishing by putting the person’s well- being — body, mind and spirit — at the center, empowering them for optimal life.”

For those who still think of meditation and mindfulness as exotic imports, it’s important to recognize that our Western traditions of prayer and contemplation, and the Stoic philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome, fulfi ll the same purpose as the Eastern practice of meditation. According to Taoist philosophy, “Rest is prior to motion and stillness prior to action.” And every Christian tradition incorporates some equivalent form of mindfulness.

In the sixth century, Saint Benedict established the tradition of Lectio Divina (“divine reading”), a four- part practice of reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation.

The Quakers built their belief system almost entirely around what are, in effect, the principles of mindfulness. Believing that the light of God is in everyone, Quakers structure their services, called “meetings,” around silence. There is no leader or minister, and members usually arrange themselves in a circle, facing one another, to emphasize the collective spirit and lack of hierarchy. Meetings, which are open to everybody of any faith, begin with silence, which continues until someone feels moved to speak. But the silence isn’t interstitial or an intermission — it’s the main show. It allows all those present to access their own inner light, and be nourished by the collective silence of the group.

“If pressed to say what they are actually doing in a meeting for worship,” wrote Richard Allen, professor at the University of South Wales, “many Quakers would probably say that they are waiting — waiting in their utmost hearts for the touch of something beyond their everyday selves. Some would call it ‘listening to the quiet voice of God’ — without trying to define the word.”

In the 1970s, Basil Pennington, a Trappist monk, developed a practice called the “centering prayer.” It entails four steps: 1. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, relax, and quiet yourself. Be in love and faith to God. 2. Choose a sacred word that best supports your sincere intention to be in the Lord’s presence and open to His divine action within you (for example, “Jesus,” “Lord,” “God,” “Savior,” “Abba,” “Divine,” “Shalom,” “Spirit,” “Love”). 3. Let that word be gently present as your symbol of your sincere intention to be in the Lord’s presence and open to His divine action within you. 4. Whenever you become aware of anything (thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images, associations), simply return to your sacred word, your anchor.

It’s remarkable how similar the pathways that connect us with our own being are: the symbols and the mantras differ, but the essence and the truth remain through the ages and across many different continents, religions, and psychological practices.

Catholicism includes the rosary, a prayer devoted to Mary, but also a practice about contemplation deepening through ritualistic repetition. Prayer beads are used as a method of releasing the mind by giving the fi ngers a physical focus.

Prayer beads are also used in many other traditions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, in which they’re used to recite the ninety- nine names of Allah as part of the Tasbih of Fatima prayer. As the Prophet Muhammad himself said, “One hour’s meditation on the work of the Creator is better than seventy years of prayer.”

Sufism, a mystical tradition of Sunni Islam, emphasizes inner enlightenment and love as the pathways to ultimate truth. It also gave birth to the whirling dervishes, who perform a ritual dance as an offering, a meditation, and an expression of the love of the divine.

Judaism also has a long mystical tradition that emphasizes inner wisdom and enlightenment. The twelfth century Kabbalah talks about using meditative practices to “descend to the end of the world,” and thus transcend our external selves and deepen our engagement with the divine.

Torah coach Frumma Rosenberg- Gottlieb wrote about leaving her farm in the mountains of Colorado and moving to New York to study the Torah (while also demonstrating that heightened spirituality doesn’t always involve moving from the big city to the mountains). “As I became more sophisticated in my understanding of Torah,” she writes, “I realized that mindfulness and a peaceful, balanced soul is indeed an objective in Jewish life, and that the tools for attaining it are subtly woven into the tapestry of Torah knowledge. I learned, for example, that the Hebrew word ‘shalom’ implies not just peace, but also completion, perfection, wholeness. We bless one another with peace; our daily prayers culminate in a request for peace.” She also notes that meditation in Judaism goes way back, all the way to Abraham’s son Isaac, who, as Genesis 24 tells us, “went out to meditate in the field toward evening” as he awaited his bride- to- be, Rebecca.

So no matter what tradition you follow — or if you follow no tradition — there is some form of meditation and mindfulness that can be integrated into your life.

And if you want to enjoy the benefits of mindfulness but don’t want to start with meditation, prayer, or contemplation, just go fly- fishing. In fact, I have friends who have said to me, “My meditation is running,” or “skydiving” or “gardening.” But can you create that state of mind at will without having to put on your running shoes, open your parachute, get out your trowel, or cast your fishing rod in the water? The point is to find some regular activity that trains your mind to be still, fully present, and connected with yourself. Just do it regularly and integrate the bene- fi ts into your everyday life. And, of course, throw the fish back — mindfulness shouldn’t be about coming home with a trophy to mount above the fireplace.

In her forthcoming book, Mindful London, Tessa Watt, a mindfulness teacher and consultant, writes about incorporating mindful reminders into our city lives. Here are three of my favorites, which we can adopt wherever we find ourselves — whether in a frantic metropolis or an idyllic village: “Use the famous British queue — at the bus stop, post office, or shop — as a chance to slow down and practice mindfulness. Instead of letting the frequent wailing of sirens irritate us, we could use the sound to remind us to take a pause and notice the moment. At the traffic crossing, instead of being impatient for the green man, appreciate how the red man gives us a chance to stop, breathe and look around.”

Excerpt from Thrive pp. 38–53