Executive Resilience: Brain Training with Meditation

Have you ever said something you wished you hadn’t? It flies out and before you know it you’ve got a fire to deal with. It happens often enough. Some people are good at mopping up. Others not.

Some people bounce back from skirmishes faster than others. Others hold on to things they’ve said or wished they hadn’t said, and replay them obsessively in their heads. How quickly you can recover from anger and stress has to do with how resilient your brain is.

I caught an article by Daniel Goleman on Harvard Business Review blog on resilience and the brain. It seems that some of us recuperate more quickly from anger and stress. But the big news for me is that you can improve your brain’s resilience through meditation. Yeah, I know, and I’m not sure I’m ready to cross my legs in the lotus position either. But bear with me…

This isn’t the first time I’ve read about meditation and the effect on the brain for busy executives. I’m seeing more about it in books and articles. If you know me, you know I’m not the kind of guy that does yoga, eats sprouts and burns incense. Still, I’m curious. Especially when I read about mindfulness training and meditation studies on US Army soldiers and hard-nosed executives…

Here is the key piece from Goleman’s article:

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, found that when we’re distressed, there’s heightened activity on the right side of the prefrontal area. Each of us has a characteristic level of left/right activity that predicts our daily mood range — if we’re tilted to the right, more upsets; if to the left, quicker recovery from distress of all kinds.

To tackle this in the workplace, Davidson teamed with the CEO of a high-pressure, 24/7, biotech startup and Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn offered the employees at the biotech outfit instruction in mindfulness, an attention-training method that teaches the brain to register anything happening in the present moment with full focus — but without reacting.

The instructions are simple:

  1. Find a quiet, private place where you can be undistracted for a few minutes — for instance, close your office door and mute your phone.
  2. Sit comfortably, with your back straight but relaxed.
  3. Focus your awareness on your breath, staying attentive to the sensations of the inhalation and exhalation, and start again on the next breath.
  4. Do not judge your breathing or try to change it in any way.
  5. See anything else that comes to mind as a distraction — thoughts, sounds, whatever — let them go and return your attention to your breath.

After eight weeks, and an average 30 minutes a day of practicing mindfulness, the employees had shifted their ratio from tilted toward the stressed-out right side to the resilient left side. What’s more, they said they remembered what they loved about their work — they got in touch with what had brought them energy in the first place.

To get the full benefit, a daily practice of 20 to 30 minutes works best; think of it like a mental exercise routine. It can be very helpful to have guided instructions, but the key is to find a slot for it in your daily routine. (There are even instructions for using a long drive as your practice session.)

Mindfulness has been steadily gaining credence among hard-nosed executives. There are several centers where mindfulness instruction has been tailored for businesspeople, from tony resorts like Miraval to programs in mindful leadership at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. Google University has been offering a course on mindfulness to employees for years.

I’ve read other studies that showed as little at 10 minutes of relaxed breathing helps improve the brain’s ability to focus and restore a sense of well-being.

What do you think about this? Unrealistic? I keep an open mind about things if they’ve proven to work for others. If one can learn to meditate during commute time, why not?

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