Cultivating self-awareness one breath at a time…

 

“[When you meditate]…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… You see so much more than you could see before.  It’s a discipline.  You have to practice it.”  — Steve Jobs as told to Walter Isaacson.

 

In my coaching practice, I teach meditation to individuals and groups across all professions as a tool to increase self-awareness and leadership skills.  In addition to its many physiological benefits –decreasing blood pressure, boosting the immune system and reducing chronic pain – meditation helps us manage stress and increases our focus, concentration and the ability to respond thoughtfully to challenges rather than react blindly.

Because I want to encourage all leaders – and aspiring leaders – to use this tool to tap into these “super-powers”, I’m sharing some FAQ’s to help you jump-start a regular practice.

 

How do I do it?  There are many types of meditation so it’s best to experiment with different ones until you find the one that resonates with you. Click here for descriptions of some of the most popular traditions, including mindfulness, yogic and transcendental.

Some use the repetition of mantras and visualization, but one of the simplest meditation techniques is to focus your attention on your breath.  Here’s how:

  1. Sit in a comfortable seat with both feet on the floor and your spine erect. Think:  shoulders over hips, ears over shoulders.
  2. Close your eyes and relax your forehead, your eyes and eye brows, separate your teeth to release tension in your jaw and relax your shoulders.
  3. Rest your awareness on the rising and falling of the breath in the body, noticing where you feel it most prominently – for example your nostrils, your belly or your chest. Then follow the sensation of an inhale and an exhale, using the breath to anchor your attention into the present moment.
  4. If your mind wanders, which it is bound to do, shepherd your attention back to the next breath, without judgment or comment and continue. Each time your mind spins out into thought, simply bring it back to following the sensation of the next breath. If it’s helpful, you can repeat the word “inhale” on the inhale and “exhale” on the exhale.

 

Don’t become frustrated when your mind wanders.  Simply treat it as an opportunity to exercise your “letting go” muscle and return to your breath.  It’s the practice and discipline of refocusing your attention over and over that changes your mind over time. In his book “10% Happier”,  ABC news anchor and meditation skeptic-turned-advocate Dan Harris calls this a bicep curl for your brain as studies show that the practice builds grey matter in the part of your brain associated with self-awareness and compassion and decreases grey matter in the areas associated with stress.

For how long?  I advise my clients to start with three minutes a day and let it grow organically over time to 20 minutes.  I recommend beginning with three minutes for two reasons:  (a) you want to set yourself up for success with an achievable goal and (b) it’s pretty hard to argue that you don’t have three minutes a day to invest in your well-being and personal growth.

At first for me, sitting still for one minute was torture – not only was my body fidgety, but my mind jumped around like a monkey swinging from tree to tree.  But as I persisted in the practice, I experienced a feeling of calm and equanimity as spaces between my thoughts appeared.  So one minute became three, three became five and eventually I could sit comfortably for 20 minutes in silence.

Remember, consistency is more important than the length of time, so better to do short more frequent sessions than infrequent long ones.

What time of day?  Whatever time you are most apt to do it.  I like the morning because it helps me start the day with focus and clarity.  But if you’re someone who doesn’t have a moment to spare before leaving for work in the morning, that’s not the right time for you.  Instead, try lunchtime or a break during the day, after work or before bed.

Do I have to sit on the floor? No, sitting in a chair with your feet on the ground and your spine erect will yield the same benefit as sitting on the floor cross-legged.  But if you do sit on the floor, be sure to prop yourself up so you can comfortably maintain a long (not rounded) spine by stacking your shoulders over hips and your ears over shoulders.  Lean against a wall, sit up on a pillow, put yoga blocks under your knees for support – whatever is needed to create ease in your body.

Should I do group classes? Taking a group class has many benefits.  First, having a teacher guide you is beneficial for beginners and veteran meditators alike and can help you develop a regular practice.  It is also inspiring and motivating to connect with others on a similar path and provides the opportunity to ask questions and receive feedback.  To choose a class, research studios in your area to understand the type of meditation being taught.

Is there an app for that?  Of course!  Most provide guided meditations along with articles, timers, statistics and metrics for measuring progress.  Among the most popular are Sattva, Headspace, Calm and Mindfulness App.

What about books?  Again, there are many to choose from. One that’s easy to follow and includes a CD with short guided meditations is Sharon Salzberg’s “Real Happiness  The Power of Meditation”.  Salzberg is a co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and a pioneer in bringing Eastern wisdom to the Western world.

 

So now that you have resources and need only commit to three minutes per day to get started, when will you begin this simple, yet profound practice?

As my meditation teacher asks his students with his cheeky sense of humor, “If you can’t be with yourself for three minutes a day, how do you think the rest of us feel about you?”

 

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