Not long ago, the thought of bringing meditation into a corporate environment would have seemed ridiculous. But these days, meditation has gone mainstream. Given the high costs of stress, and the proven benefits of meditation for stress reduction, there is no way to ignore its usefulness. Thinking about meditation as just a relaxation technique, however, seriously underestimates its value. True, much of the literature about meditation-referring to stillness, calm and peace-does suggest relaxation. And yes, traditionally, meditation training took place in quiet environments-monasteries far removed from the hubbub of life.
But meditation can also be useful in more dynamic ways. Meditation can help you do more than slow down your racing thoughts-it can help you think quicker. It can help you adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. It can be a key tool in promoting resilience. Without doubt, stress reduction improves resilience. This is because chronic stress can cause a whole set of problems-including depression, burnout, exhaustion and insomnia-that inhibit resilience. Chronic stress can decrease reaction times and diminish cognitive processing, leading to costly errors and missed opportunities.
So, yes, simply by reducing chronic stress using relaxation techniques, you can improve resilience. But meditation offers a benefit that is even more dramatic. And this is because the goal of meditation training is more than achieving a state of relaxation-more even than finding peace of mind. The goal of meditation training is to help you wake up. Indeed, many meditators consciously seek just that-the awakened state of mind known as enlightenment. (Enlightenment is just the ultimate experience of waking up, a light-bulb moment par excellence.) The problem is that, in the modern world, these two states of mind-relaxed and wakeful-seem to be so very different.
Because of our cultural expectations around relaxation and wakefulness, it is hard to imagine being both relaxed and wide-awake at the same time. In the modern world, “relaxation” can only be experienced far away from the stresses and strains of ordinary life-and certainly not found at work. Indeed, when the media serves up images of people meditating-or relaxing in any way-it shows us perfect bodies, sitting in perfect yoga postures, in perfectly serene, idyllic locations. One suspects that a Pina Colada is not far away.
These idealized and exaggerated images of relaxation make it hard for us to understand how meditation, when considered a form of relaxation, could be useful in the crunch of everyday life, at those times when you really need to wake up and be more engaged. When you are pressed for time, worried about meeting your targets, struggling to stay ahead of the competition, or just trying to get back on your game, the promise of relaxation, by whatever means, seems not only far away but of questionable value. The relaxation that comes from the practice of meditation, however, is not the result of separating from your ordinary life. It is the result of learning how to be more at peace with your ordinary life.
Through meditation, you learn how to quiet your overactive mind, letting go of endless rehashing of the past or fantasizing about the future. You make peace with what is here right now. And deal with it in a relaxed way. In other words, this kind of relaxation does not come about because you have worked hard for many years and can now live out your retirement relaxing in the Caribbean. It springs forth because you are able to accept and work with what is actually happening now. At the other extreme in our culture is the idea of “wakefulness.” Nowadays, to be “awake” suggests being turbo-charged. It means being super-caffeinated and open for business 24/7.
This extreme, overcharged kind of wakefulness is very hard to reconcile with relaxation-just ask an insomniac. The wakefulness that comes from meditation, however, is not like being pumped with adrenalin. It is wakeful in the sense that you can see what is happening clearly and can respond appropriately. In other words, because you are not projecting your own history or fantasies onto the present moment, you can see what is really going on. You are awake to what is and can deal with it. This kind of wakefulness helps you to be present and engaged with what needs to be done; whether that is dealing with a challenging meeting, a traffic jam, a difficult conversation or an intimidating sales pitch.
This kind of wakefulness also helps you be more adaptable to changing circumstances. Yes, meditation does involve taking a step back from the fast flow of life. But this doesn’t have to take a lot of time, and doesn’t need a special place. In other words, you don’t have to join a monastery or go to a weekend spa in order to realize some benefits from finding calm within yourself. It only takes a moment. But in this moment, you can get some perspective on your situation.
You can also get some perspective on how your state of mind is being affected by-and is having an effect on-that situation.Knowing how to pause in this way means that you are less likely to react impulsively. It enables you to respond appropriately. You are more relaxed, alert, and aware-more able to see what is really happening. You can engage more consciously. You can make better choices. You can assess what really needs to be done. And if you have been thrown by circumstances, you can find your balance again. The relaxed wakefulness that you can cultivate through meditation practice will probably make you more productive, but not necessarily because you go faster but because you work smarter. You will probably make fewer mistakes, listen better, focus better and collaborate better.
Through the practice of meditation, you can also become awake to possibility. This is because being truly awake to the present moment involves clearing your mind, and in clearing your mind, you will develop the ability to be open-minded. This open-mindedness that is extremely useful for creative thinking. You are then more likely to recognize underlying patterns, imagine new configurations, and spot possibilities that other people may miss. This means that meditation can be extremely helpful for brainstorming, product development and problem solving. In other words, it is beneficial not just for resilience, but for innovation.
In a competitive environment, with a constant threat of disruption, there may be only one sure way in which to stay resilient. That is by having the ability to step back momentarily to find a trusted refuge within–a place of peace that is truly stable. The ability to find this state of peace empowers you to wait patiently when things around you are uncertain, and others are getting anxious. It helps you see what’s happening clearly and assess the right time for action. And when the time is right, it gives you the inner resources from which to make your move