You live a crowded life. We all do. You probably looked at your smartphone before you rolled out of bed. You immediately checked your email, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Maybe you glanced at your phone on your morning commute. Your job demands multitasking, so at work your computer has 25 open tabs — Outlook, Excel, Word, Powerpoint, and on and on and on. As you read this article, the odds are good that you’re also kind of doing something else.
A 2010 study from Harvard found that nearly half our lives is squandered on distraction, with 47 percent of our waking hours spent thinking about something other than what we’re doing in the moment. Is there any cure? New research, thankfully, suggests an antidote for all this digital dizziness: meditation. With the help of cutting-edge brain scans, neuroscientists are now quantifying what Buddhist monks have known for centuries: Meditation has the power to focus, sharpen and even rewire our brains. Our mind is a muscle. Meditation can make it stronger. This, in turn, can make it easier to shake the ADHD. It can boost our productivity. It can make us happier. And in a twist that would make Siddhartha turn in his grave, a growing swath of corporate America — from Google to Ford, SAP to Farmers Insurance — thinks that meditation is a path to higher profits.
The New Science
Dr. Sara Lazar is a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School. While training for the Boston marathon, she injured herself and turned to yoga for recovery. “I started realizing that it was very powerful, that it had some real benefits, so I got interested in how it worked,” she told the Washington Post years later. “The yoga teacher made all sorts of claims, that yoga would increase your compassion and open your heart. And I’d think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m here to stretch.’ But I started noticing that I was calmer. I was better able to handle more difficult situations.”
So Lazar began investigating. Using neuroimaging scanners, her team analyzed the brains of meditators and compared them to the brains of non-meditators. They found that the meditators had more gray matter in their frontal cortex, which is linked to working memory and decision-making. The frontal cortex is what shrinks over time (that’s why we get forgetful as we age), but as Lazar discovered, “In this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.”
“The data shows that there’s a change in the brain,” Lazar tells me over the phone. “It’s not a cure-all, but there’s definitely a change.” Encouraged with that first study, her team conducted a second: They put people who had never meditated on an 8-week course, scanning their brains before and after. Again she found increased gray matter. Other studies have shown similar results.
Meditation can trim stress. In his book, Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out, David Gelles explains the impact of stress on the brain: “The hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped region near the base of the brain, receives the information taken in from our senses,” Gelles writes. “If it determines the situation at hand to be threatening, it activates the amygdala. And when the amygdala is activated, our fight-or-flight response kicks in, pumping cortisol and other hormones through our system, raising our blood pressure, and clouding our judgment. We get angry.”
In other words, a beefier amygdala correlates with higher levels of stress. Lazar’s study showed that after eight weeks of practicing meditation, the amygdala gets smaller, which means we’re less likely to freak out, get angry or overreact to bad news. Lazar points out that it shouldn’t be too surprising that meditation rewires the brain. “There have been numerous studies showing that your brain changes after certain activities,” she says, citing the example of juggling. (It’s also likely that persistent reading, studying or even praying could change the brain.)
“A brain that’s at rest is much more in tune with the world around it. So people who meditate tend to have brains that are very healthy, because they allow the brain to better relax, and do a lot of what we call ‘managerial’ or ‘default’ activities at a variety of times.” Dr. Pierre Balthazard, dean, Sacramento State’s College of Business Administration
Take the case of London cab drivers: To qualify for a cabbie license, the drivers need to memorize “The Knowledge” — a complicated map of the city’s streets. “Learning The Knowledge can take years, and many who study diligently still don’t pass the final exam,” explains Gelles. “Yet there is a discernible difference in the brains of those who have mastered London’s serpentine streets. Several studies have shown that the gray matter of the hippocampus — an area associated with memory and spatial awareness — in accomplished London cabbies is substantially thicker than that of non-cabbies.” Our brains are malleable. They can be pushed, pulled and strengthened. One way to do this is to memorize the streets of London. Another is to meditate.
For most of my life, I naively dismissed meditation as something that only benefits you for the 10 minutes when you’re actually sitting cross-legged and saying “Hhhhhhhoommmmme.” That’s dead-wrong. Those 10 minutes are spent in a hyper-focused type of training, and this training later pays dividends throughout the day — whether you’re playing with your kids or giving a presentation. It has a halo effect that can help free us from the yoke of Twitter, Facebook and multitasking. “Multitasking is a persistent myth. What we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task,” writes Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker. “Two bad things happen as a result: We don’t devote as much attention to any one thing, and we sacrifice the quality of our attention. When we are mindful, some of that attentional flightiness disappears as if of its own accord.”
The brain gets more efficient, paradoxically, when you learn to slow it down. “A brain that’s at rest is much more in tune with the world around it,” says Dr. Pierre Balthazard, dean of Sacramento State’s College of Business Administration, who has an extensive research background in neuroscience and how it applies to business. “So people who meditate tend to have brains that are very healthy, because they allow the brain to better relax, and do a lot of what we call ‘managerial’ or ‘default’ activities at a variety of times.” The brain needs down-time. Meditation gives it that space.
If you think meditation is only for yogis and monks, consider one of the latest converts: the U.S. military. Mindfulness makes better soldiers. As part of a program called Accelerated Learning, the military incorporated breathing, focus and mindfulness techniques — the basic tenets of meditation — to hone the skills of sharpshooters. They strapped sensors onto the shooters’ heads to examine their brainwaves, giving real-time feedback on whether their minds are in alpha or beta range. (Alpha range, which is slower and more focused, is more useful when you’re trying to steady a rifle.) “They found that when soldiers learned how to control their brain range — from going to beta to alpha — they became sharpshooters faster,” says Balthazard. The rate of learning was two to three times faster for those who practiced mindfulness.
Corporations are finding the same thing. Steve Jobs was an early adopter (because of course) and Silicon Valley is following suit. Google, once again ahead of the curve, offers “mindful lunches” (silent meals with the occasional prayer bell), a class called Managing Your Energy, and their flagship meditation course, Search Inside Yourself. Over 3,000 employees have enrolled. A typical class might begin with the instructor asking them to “imagine the goodness of everyone on the planet, and to visualize that goodness as a glowing white light.”
Search Inside Yourself was launched by Chade Meng-Tan, an engineer and Google employee No. 107. The class, which links mindfulness to greater emotional intelligence, was so successful that it spun off as its own entity whose clients have included Ford, SAP and LinkedIn. “Greater complexity outside requires greater clarity inside,” reads the company’s mission statement. “Effective leadership isn’t about just checking off more tasks. It’s defined by how well we use our minds and interact with others. We need flexibility and clear purpose in the face of complexity. We need balance, insight and the ability to inspire others.” Or, more bluntly, as Meng told Wired, “Every company knows that if their people have EI, they’re gonna make a shitload of money.”
What happens in Silicon Valley never stays in Silicon Valley, so places like the World Economic Forum, Comcast and Goldman Sachs have embraced the lucrative potential of meditation. Even Cheerios is mindful. “Every building on General Mills’ campus now had a meditation room, where workers could slip in for a moment of silence before a tough meeting or presentation,” observes Gelles in Mindful Work. “After a 7-week course, General Mills employees felt more comfortable being themselves in the office and felt as if they were making better contributions to the team. They were more likely to give their full attention to a conversation, and less likely to let their minds wander. They took more time to prioritize their tasks each day and were more efficient in rooting out unproductive activities.” It might even cut costs. After Aetna implemented its mindfulness program, Gelles notes that “it has saved about $2,000 per employee in healthcare costs and gained about $3,000 per employee in productivity.”
“There’s nothing touchy-feely about increased profits,” argues another corporate-meditation enthusiast, Arianna Huffington, cofounder and editor in chief of The Huffington Post. “This is a tough economy. Stress reduction and mindfulness don’t just make us happier and healthier, they’re a proven competitive advantage for any business that wants one.”
How to do it
So how do you get started? As with everything else in life, there’s an app for that. A cottage industry of smartphone apps — Headspace, Calm, Insight — are coaxing users to be more mindful, offering guided meditations that are geared for newbies like me. I chose Headspace. (I’m not alone: The app has been downloaded more than 3 million times, and the app’s founder, a British monk-turned-entrepreneur named Andy Puddicombe, recently fetched a splashy New Yorker profile.) Instantly I saw the appeal. Puddicombe chats in a soothing, non-monky, non-new-agey English accent, gently instructing you to breathe in, breathe out and, “When you find your mind wandering, which is totally normal, just gennnntly reel it back in.”
What happens in Silicon Valley never stays in Silicon Valley, so places like the World Economic Forum, Comcast and Goldman Sachs have embraced the lucrative potential of meditation. Even Cheerios is mindful.
I feel good when I listen to Andy. I trust him. I begin to see why the Headspace customer reviews say things like, “Headspace has changed my life” and “I can’t imagine living without it.” Each session is a manageable 10 minutes, and I dutifully made it through the first week — the first 10 sessions are free — then grimaced when I saw the price: about $100 for an annual subscription. The cost seems to polarize the mindfulness community, with some arguing that it’s a fair ask (“the best $8 you’ll spend all month”), and others saying that meditation should never have a price tag. “Andy is a double-digit millionaire,” one Reddit user bristles. “He’s a marketing specialist, and his product is 5,000 years old.”
Lazar, for one, counsels against a DIY approach. “My No. 1 recommendation is to work with a human,” she says. “There have been books for decades and there are recordings you can purchase. But it’s essential to work with a teacher you can talk to.” Why is that so important? “Invariably, you run into problems. For example, I’ve had phone calls with people who tell me, ‘I’m in a very advanced state,’ and they’ve been only meditating for two months and they think they’re a monk. It’s easy to get lost.”
I found myself lost on a recent trip to Dharamshala, India — just footsteps from the home of the Dalai Lama. I listened to Buddhist monks chant. I visited temples. (If you can’t meditate at a temple, you can’t meditate anywhere.) Eventually I found a large boulder that overlooked a river, sat down, closed my eyes and tried to listen to my breath. Feel the boulder. Feel the cool wind. Listen to the river. There was only one problem: I missed Andy. I craved Headspace. A world away from the internet, I had no way to download today’s 10-minute session, so, as I sat by the most picturesque river in the universe, I was stressed that I couldn’t de-stress. As Lazar had warned me, without a human voice or any guidance, it’s easy to get lost.
Eventually I got back to the U.S., ponied up for the subscription to Headspace and got back on the wagon. The results? I can’t report that it changed my life — I’m still early in the game, so I won’t fake any epiphanies. Recently, though, as I walked down a crowded street, for just a few seconds, I had a strange sensation. I am walking south. The wind is cool. I am here, in this moment. I felt present. I no longer felt an itch to check my phone. My mind felt clear.
Then I got distracted by something, snapped a photo and uploaded it to Instagram.
To learn how to meditate, check out our 10-step guide.