You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes a day, unless you are too busy; then you should sit for an hour.
– Old Zen Saying
Meditation is a practice that teaches you to be mindful of the world around you, mindful of your body and soul, and mindful of the present moment. Being aware of the world around you, and especially your own mind, is surprisingly difficult. Like waste in a Lean environment, the majority of the thoughts in your head are repetitive and not useful, and the noise can drown out real insight. But once you become more aware of your thoughts and the patterns of those thoughts, you will be able to exert more control over yourself. Meditation is the act, mindfulness is the state it creates.
By focusing inward, you become aware of your self-doubt, self-criticism, and rationalization. Over time, you learn to recognize whether those thoughts are valid. This is why methods to focus inward, including meditation, are used extensively by mental health professionals. Meditation can even cause a physiological response, with some research showing that it leads to a reduction in age-related brain deterioration. A 2012 Harvard study in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience showed that “meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress.“ A 2011 Yale study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science showed that “experienced meditators seem to switch off areas of the brain associated with wandering thoughts, anxiety, and some psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.”
As Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan described in a recent Harvard Business Review article, many companies, including Google, Aetna, General Mills, Intel, and Target, recognize the power of mindful meditation to reduce stress, deprogram multitasking tendencies, and improve focus. After practicing meditation for a month, a group of Intel employees reported a twenty percent decrease in stress, a thirty percent increase in overall happiness and well-being, and a twenty percent increase in new ideas, the ability to focus, and the quality of work relationships.
To start a meditation practice, pick a time of the day when you will not be disturbed or distracted. I personally prefer to meditate right after I get up, before breakfast and definitely before I check email or read the paper. (If you put it off, you will never get to it—trust me.) Some people find it beneficial to engage in brief exercise or yoga to release energy so the mind is better prepared for meditation. (In fact, this purpose was one of the of origins of yoga.)
Find a quiet location with few distractions—for me, it is a corner of my downstairs office. Traditional meditation starts by sitting cross-legged on a zafu (small cushion) but this is not a requirement. Whether you sit on a chair or a cushion, it is important to be upright with your body balanced. I prefer to face the wall to further reduce distractions, and I use a timer app on my iPad so I won’t be distracted by wanting to check the clock.
Rest your hands in your lap and look downward, with your eyes opened and focused downward a few feet away. Keeping your eyes open helps you remain present, but if you need to initially close your eyes to remove distractions, go ahead. Focusing on an object, such as a candle or a tree out the window, can also help remove distractions. Take a slow, deep breath and feel it enter, then exit, the lungs. Count each breath.
Acknowledge and accept the thoughts that will inevitably enter your head, then cast them aside by refocusing on your breathing. You will be surprised at how difficult it is to even count to ten without having an extraneous thought. After a little practice, you will learn to enjoy the simple breathing, the serenity it creates, and the joy of realizing that breathing means you are alive
Initially, do this for just two or three minutes, eventually working up to ten or fifteen. When you find you can regularly count ten breaths without distraction, stop counting and just count in, out, in, out, 1, 2, 1, 2. Otherwise you will get too caught up in the counting itself.
After a week or a month, if you are comfortably counting breaths, add some concentration to the practice. As you breathe in, consciously follow the breath from your mouth to the depths of your lungs, and then do the reverse as you exhale. Take several seconds to inhale and exhale, deliberately being conscious and aware of how the air feels. Feel the breath oxygenate your blood, notice how your heartbeat changes, feel the breath take the turn at the top of your throat. As before, if your mind wanders, recognize the thoughts, dispatch them, and return your focus to your breath.
Once you can effortlessly count breaths and focus on how breathing changes your body for twenty or thirty minutes, the next step is to add whole-body awareness. As you breathe in and out, focus on the top of your body and work your way down, following the breath. Be aware of each itch and each pain, and identify their exact location. What do you feel when you mentally explore the itch instead of scratching? When you reach the tips of your toes, work your way back up. Over time you’ll be amazed at how you can feel sensations you never felt before, how itches can move, and how you begin to recognize the wonder that is your body. You will also learn how you can remove muscle tension and stress just by recognizing it.
When I began to include whole-body awareness in my meditation, it took me well over a month to work up to just fifteen minutes. As you reach that point, you will notice a significant improvement in serenity and calmness, which will help reinforce your practice by offsetting the effort it initially takes. My current daily meditation is twenty-five minutes. If I’m stressed, I force myself to meditate for an hour, although I still cannot keep my mind clear for that length of time.
A couple times a week I will also do kinhin, or walking meditation, on the beach near our house. Although kinhin is technically used as a walking break between periods of sitting meditation, I find it to be a break from my daily routine and a powerful bonding time with nature. Walking meditation is very similar to sitting meditation except that you take one step per breath, still focusing on your breathing, thoughts, and body. I also enjoy doing it barefoot to add additional sensory inputs and a closer sense of connection to the Earth.
Walking, unfortunately, is often looked down on in the West. Even the term “pedestrian” is often used as a synonym for “limited in scope.” However, walking—especially purposeless walking—can stimulate creativity. Some of history’s greats, such as C.S. Lewis, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Friedrich Nietzsche, Virginia Wolfe, and Henry David Thoreau have been stimulated by walking. The key is to walk, free of distractions, with no audiobooks, music, or even companions. Just you and the world around you.
Meditation is the easiest way to calm the mind and become more in touch with the present reality. Try it for a few days and take note of how you feel, of how your thoughts change. You will notice yourself becoming more perceptive, calm, and present in personal and professional situations. This is why many organizations, sports teams, and health professionals are encouraging their team members to meditate. The benefits of meditation far outweigh the cost of the time it takes to perform it.
(Note: Though it is an important part of Zen, meditation is not in itself religious. It is neither prayer nor contemplation. However, it can augment those activities when combined with them. For more tips on how to meditate, visit the online resources section at the back of this book.)