I don’t know about you, but the ability to stay calm, cool and collected at work (amongst other places) is quite high on my list of things to perfect. It is even more frustrating to be stuck on this and know that who I am is something that can change – my diving taught that irrevocably. Who I was when I started diving and who I am now are so different I can hardly recognise myself in the girl who was soo scared of the world she took three years to even join the underwater club to learn diving.
If you have tried to change your reactions you will know how hard it is. I guess 30 or so years of unconscious practice can be blamed for that, which begs the question, how do you change your wiring ?
Because if you take a stroll down the EQ shelves you will quickly discover that your emotions are chemical reactions and that these are patterned into our brains -the pattern being reinforced every time we experience the trigger and reaction. This in effect means that you can re-pattern you brain and so your reactions, the question is how ?
Meditation seems to be a valid answer and one that even the guru of EQ, Daniel Goleman has explored. Here are some interesting facts and conclusions that I took from his book, The Meditative Mind.
The Basic Premise
- One’s thoughts create one’s emotions. To change the way you react you need to be able to manage the unconscious thoughts that then create the emotional hijack that then ruins your day.
- Meditation works directly with your thoughts and the pattern of your thoughts by retraining your attention, which in turn gives you the mental space to make another choice and practice something else.
- Meditation fosters concentration. This means instead of the normal random and scattered thought stream you actively work on focusing your thoughts by fixing your mind on a single object (the meditation topic) or by practicing detachment from thoughts (mindfulness meditation).
- Meditation is different from other ways of relaxing because it trains and improves you capacity to pay attention (as opposed to letting the mind wander as it will).
- The effects of meditation last beyond the meditation session, making it a highly efficacious method for improving your mental health
Medical Reasons Why you Should Meditate
1) Reduce anxiety and stress
Meditation has been shown to reduce the effects of anxiety and stress (and who doesn’t need that). When you suffer from high anxiety your body fails to stop reacting when the problem is over. This means that you react to ‘normal’ events as if they were crisis.
Each minor happening increases your tension which in turn magnifies the next ordinary event (a deadline, an interview, a doctor’s appointment), into a threat. Because the anxious person’s body stays permanently mobilized it has a lower threat threshold for the next event.
2) Change the Bodies Physiology
Meditation is also beneficial for heart disease and diabetes, lower cholesterol as well as having a positive effect on asthma sufferers.
3) Improve EQ & Communication
Meditation improves empathy, communication skills, listening and social awareness. This improvement is based in the improvement in attention which means that you are better ability to pick up on subtle perceptual cues in the environment and to pay attention to what is going.
A supporting experiment
Two groups of volunteers came into Goleman’s physiology lab. One group comprised meditation teachers who had been meditating for at least 2 years. The other group who were interested in meditation, but how had never practiced it.
The volunteers were then split into two groups, one of which was told to relax for 20 minutes, the other to meditate for 20 min. When a non- meditator was in the ‘meditate’ group, they were given instruction on how.
Ater twenty minutes both groups were shown a short film depicting a series of bloody accidents among workers in a woodworking shop – a standard way of inducing stress for lab studies.
The study found that the meditators (whether or not they were new or experienced) had a unique pattern of reaction to the film. As they watched the film, their systems prepared for the accidents they were about to witness and then, as soon as the accident was over, they recovered more quickly than those of non-meditators. After the film, they were also more relaxed than the non-meditators who still showed signs of tension.
From this (and other experiments) it can be concluded that meditators handle stress in a way that breaks the threat-arousal-threat spiral.
How to Meditate
There are numerous ways to meditate, but they can be broken into two primary themes – you are either focusing on something or you are being mindful.
1) Using Focus to meditate
By focusing on a specific object and practicing holding your attention there, returning to that object when focus is lost the meditator makes the habit of repetition stronger than the his other mental habits. This enables him to then use this ability to focus on a specific thing to focus and practice behavior that he chooses and that will support his goals in an interaction.
The focus can be :
- The breath
- A chant which can be the repetition of a name. mantra or phrase, spoken. It can be silent verbalisation or mental or out-loud.
- An object, picture or specific point in space
2) Mindfulness meditation.
In this meditation practice the meditator is not focusing on something, instead he practices adopting a neutral stance toward whatever comes and goes in his stream of awareness, placing an equal value on whatever arises. He is in effect practicing being an observer rather than being ‘in the action’. The meditator’s reaction is simply to register whatever he observes. If any further comment, judgment or reflection arises in the meditators mind, these are themselves made the focus of ‘bare attention. They are neither repudiated nor pursued, but simply dismissed after being noted.
Practically Applying Meditation
There are two parts to a meditation practice, the first is to introduce it regularly into your day (even if it is for only 15 minutes). The second is to practice using meditation to detach yourself you’re your normal reactions in difficult situations. I have found that a simple mantra (I am calm) works really well at work. When I feel myself starting to react I immediately repeat that to myself, remembering what calm feels like and returning to that state. If that does not work I revert to the traditional meditation of noticing the breath. Does it work, yes, if I remember! So I often start my mantra as I walk in, rather than hoping I remember in the heat of the moment.
Suprisingly, I actually used meditation to overcome my intense fear when diving! Not that I called it meditation. I found that by repeating over and over the Buddhist mantra Ohm Mane Padme Hung, before and during my dive I was able to distract my brain and stay outside of the panic and fear it was experiencing and so get on with the job of diving.
Meditation is not a quick fix, but it is a scientifically proven mechanism that changes the way your brain fires and that affects your emotional response habits. All it takes is 15 minutes a day!