Meditation is ancient. But a new scientific understanding of its varied benefits could prove revolutionary.
“My initial impression was that this was all just very weird,” admits Dr Michael Gervais. “I just didn’t understand this idea of ‘focusing on my breath’. What did that mean? My breathing seemed just fine to me. And I still didn’t get it until, with a lot of practice, came this very natural sense of calm. Of course, since then, when I was an undergraduate, a whole lot of research has shown what’s going on electrically and chemically in the brain. But then I was just going by experience.”
Gervais is a psychologist and co-founder of Compete to Create, a digital platform business that teaches what he calls mindset training—learning to better control the mind, with a view to better performance. His clients include CEOs and corporations from Microsoft to Boeing, but also artists, musicians and—perhaps more expectedly—Olympians and world-record holders. But that has only come more recently.
“The fact is that 15 years ago attitudes towards practices like meditation and ideas of mindfulness were still right out on the fringe,” he says. “And it’s only within the last six months to a year that the use of these techniques by high performers has almost come to be expected. We’ve gone from a place in which it was considered something a guru would teach you—something essentially spiritual in nature—to a place in which there’s been this hockey stick upwards curve in scientific study. That’s given us a wider view now. And, of course, the link between mental and physical performance is now accepted.”
But while meditation is a fashionable activity—the new yoga, if you like—for most people it remains poorly understood and is widely still considered esoteric. “It’s why, when I was working with the Seattle Seahawks, we were careful to use the word ‘mindfulness’ instead, in part because you can put the word ‘training’ next to it and that appeals to athletes,” laughs Gervais. “Meditation still comes with baggage. But that’s changing dramatically”.
Certainly there remains widespread misunderstanding of the subject. Some think the practice is new—actually it is mentioned in Hindu texts dating back to 3,000BC, long before Buddha found enlightenment through meditation in 588BC. Others that it is an Eastern art, though western traditions of Judaism and Christianity have incorporated meditation. Others that it is strictly religious, whereas, as Albert Tobler, founder of the pioneering meditation coaching organisation London Meditation, explains: “It is also an entirely secular, practical life skill. And, no, as I’m often told, it has nothing to do with Scientology.”
An understanding of what it is at a practical level helps. Mindfulness is not, as many think, learning to clear the mind of all thought—a practical impossibility. Nor, though, is it a power nap. Rather, at its most basic, it is sitting still, stable and alert—with spine and head upright, hands in lap, eyes closed or lowered—breathing steadily in and out of the nose and focusing your attention on one of the many sensations that regular breathing causes in the body.
Yes, a tsunami of other thoughts—from the TV programme you watched last night to what’s for dinner this evening to that report that needs finishing to the birthday card you forgot or the argument you had—will come crashing in unbidden to disturb this focus, because that is what brains do: generate thought. The trick is to let each thought arise as it will and each time—indeed, time and time again—gently push it aside and return the focus to the sensations of the breath: and, later in the session, to simply monitor those thoughts, passing like clouds, rather than zero in on them. Just 15 minutes a day can be beneficial: after all, as practitioners say, the opposite of a wandering mind is a mindful one, and a mind in the present.
Mindfulness is not, as many think, learning to clear the mind of all thought—a practical impossibility. nor, though, is it a power nap. at its most basic, it is sitting still, stable and alert.
As Gervais suggests, it still all sounds a little crazy. “Like all things that are invisible, mindfulness is hard to grasp,” he suggests. “Our brains work in pictures, and we take comfort in the things we can see and touch, and conversely find those we can’t harder to comprehend. But then we can’t see oxygen or gravity either, and we need them both.” Perhaps, as well, mindfulness sounds a little too easy. Try it. It isn’t.
Yet its value is increasingly being found to be deep—and timely too, given a culture increasingly dominated by the ethos that we should be ‘always on’, that’s saturated with random imagery, endless updates and constant interruptions, despite the mistaken belief of many that they are able to divide their attention across many points of focus at the same time.
“There’s this growing sense, I think, that somewhere along the line we all swallowed the wrong pill, and that to be more is to do more, rather than just to be in the present,” says Gervais. “The new currency is attention—everybody wants ours. But if we don’t work on retaining our attention, then we fall prey to the parts of our brain just dedicated to our survival, that’s always busy just looking for danger, for stress points. If we have our attention, we have calm and control and awareness.”
That’s why the infamous San Quentin prison started running meditation courses for its inmates, which has been tracked against decreased recidivism. West Point, the elite US military academy, has taught recruits the techniques too, an idea that is spreading in the training for combat readiness of soldiers in many forces. And it’s being taught to the upper echelons of business—from General Motors to Deutsche Bank, McKinsey, Rio Tinto and Ford—and also in schools, notably those across South America. It’s a tacit recognition perhaps—as so many self-help books attest to as well— that, while readers of this magazine most likely don’t have to worry about food and shelter, nevertheless 21st-century life is stressful.
“CEOs who have also undergone meditation training see their own style of management change for the better,” says Tobler. “They are less authoritative and more coaching in style, which in turn fosters loyalty and shared goals. But much as recent recessions have seen business given a wake-up call that is encouraging it to think about new ways of working, so we’ve all been given a wake- up call that is encouraging us to think about new ways of living.”
Sitting down and breathing deeply might well calm anyone down. But does the practice of mindfulness, meditation or focused breathing—call it what you will—actually work? The research suggests most definitely yes. The earliest studies, conducted during the late ’60s in the US, found that meditators’ heart rates lowered by three beats a minute, that they used some 17 percent less oxygen and their brains produced more theta waves. These are produced during deep relaxation, typically shortly before falling asleep, and deactivate the sensory processing part of the brain. They are also produced during the most intense times of lucid creativity.
Later MRI scan-based studies have shown that meditation shifts activity in the pre-frontal cortex—the brain’s most developed part, responsible for reasoning and self-awareness—from the right to the left hemispheres. Why is this relevant? People who are left hemisphere-oriented have been found to be typically more positive and emotionally balanced than those who are right- sided. Increased attention span and improved memory may also be benefits of meditation, according to a 2006 Massachusetts General Hospital study.
Further studies have also suggested that mindfulness may not only reduce psychological stress—alleviating depression, anxiety, loneliness, panic disorders—but can improve physical health too, as in, for example, the management of chronic pain or in the relieving of symptoms that stress can exacerbate, the likes of dermatitis and irritable bowel syndrome. Other studies have even linked mindfulness with longevity: a 2012 University of California study found that people with a greater propensity to mind wandering have shorter caps, called telomeres, at the end of their chromosomes compared with those more anchored in the present; shorter telomeres are associated with a shorter lifespan for an organism.
While further study will be required to understand the mechanisms that connect a more present mind with improved mental and physical health, the benefits are nonetheless appealing to anybody; but, naturally, a wandering mind is the last thing an athlete in particular needs. Small wonder then that any number of big-name athletes have spoken of their use of mindfulness techniques, including basketball legend Kobe Bryant. Gervais has worked with Olympic gold medal-winning volleyball players Misty May-Taylor and Kerri Walsh. Golfers Cristie Kerr and Vijay Singh meditate—Singh took to Twitter to ask for advice from his followers—while Tiger Woods blamed his much-reported fall from grace, professionally and privately, in part on temporarily quitting meditation. Olympic diver Tom Daley has described how he does 10 minutes of mindfulness practice every morning—“I use that in competition and in every day life”—and attributes an improved consistency to it. Likewise cyclist Laura Trott says it enabled her to “only think about what you’re doing in that very moment and not allow your mind to run away with worries about past events and those in the future”. NFL star Ricky Williams made meditation so much a part of his training that he went on to teach it at the local university. “[It] is my passion,” he’s said. “I think a lot of people are so used to being stressed, they don’t realise they’re stressed. And I was one of those people.”
Tiger Woods blamed his much-reported fall from grace, professionally and privately, in part on temporarily quitting meditation.
Teams do it too. This year Nike partnered with Headspace, a popular mindfulness app—one of many now helping to spread mindfulness—to help train its own sponsored athletes with programmes used just before an event. The NBA’s Chicago Bulls has worked with renowned meditation trainer George Mumford, while the New York Knicks started mindfulness training in 2014, led by former team president Phil Jackson, nicknamed the ‘zen master of hoops’ for his Eastern philosophy-based methods. The Michigan basketball team’s coach John Beilein introduced his squad to meditation two years before that. “We meditate throughout the year,” Beilein has said, “and we try to teach [the players] some things about how to relax. [Meditation] is important if athletes are going to see themselves in positive [situations].”
You’ll notice that these enthusiasts are nearly always American—thanks, since the ’60s, to a tradition of interest in what are perceived to be Eastern practices, the uptake in mindfulness by professionals in the US is said by some to be a decade ahead of the rest of the world.
“There’s an appreciation among elite athletes here that they need their mental game as much as their physical game and especially because competition is that much more intense now,” argues Nate Last, a performance psychology consultant with Mental Grit, a US-based organisation. “The idea of training the mind has become that much more legitimate, given scientific study, that much more understandable and less ethereal. It certainly doesn’t work for all athletes and many aren’t interested— it’s very different to the physicality of their world, that desire to push iron harder or go faster. I find it best to get them young— they tend to understand more easily the importance of being in of mindfulness for people with minimal time and cost? We’re working with the Department of Defense, studying with soldiers who don’t have the time to undergo, say, 40 hours of meditation training and we’re finding very direct instruction—more didactic, with no assistance—works well and may be the best way to help form new habits around the practice.”
Certainly the power of mindfulness goes well beyond the potential to shoot the next hoop or break the next record. At the moment we’re scratching the surface of practice and understanding alike. Indeed, the full potential of mindfulness and meditation is only now being uncovered. The coming decades may bring an understanding of how to train the human mind akin to recent decades’ understanding of how to train the body—through targeted exercises and advanced nutrition. The medium- to long-term consequences could be revolutionary in terms of public health, in terms perhaps of national, even global well-being. As Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement, once commented, while he could glimpse the furthest levels of growth in human potential, he had absolutely no idea what it would be like to be living in a world where everyone was actually living in that mode—such was its profundity.
“Given that people’s minds wander 50 percent of the time, integrating mindfulness into our lives could have a huge impact on decision-making, on general happiness,” says Jha. “We do need to think of it in the same way we think about physical training. People spend hours in gyms. It’s dominant in our culture. But then there’s a 40-year lead in scientific evidence that physical exercise is good for you. When we catch up with our understanding of how mindfulness is good for you too, that situation will change.”
This article was originally published in the June/July issue of Esquire Singapore.