Our industry is filled with noise. Sure, aircraft can generate sound at dangerous levels, and anyone who has participated in an air-start procedure knows how loud those stupid things are. However, I also mean metaphorically, as many of us struggle to reduce the noise of our industry. We are “on” more than ever before as stress levels rise to unmanageable levels. There is not enough time in the day; how can we cope?
With proper time management, setting aside a little time each day for meditation will reap instant rewards. Since beginning to meditate early last year, I often find describing the benefits to others challenging to articulate, almost as if meditation is a life hack we were not meant to discover. But the science is undeniable, and practicing mindfulness will put us in a position to handle the next unforeseen challenge that comes our way.
The Sciency Part
The concept of meditation is easy to grasp once we understand our predisposition. Our brains are wired with a survival instinct in the amygdala that is triggered anytime we perceive a threat. This instinct kept our early ancestors alive in the tribal periods of hunters and gatherers and is essentially a recipe for undesirable anxiety today. If a lion is chasing us, this instinct is beneficial. However, when we encounter an “amygdala hijack,” we are more likely to experience:
Worst-case scenario thinking.
A denial of potential threats.
Reduced access to our brain’s creative and analytical parts (tunnel vision).
An impaired ability to empathize, listen and relate to others.
As leaders, the factors are particularly detrimental to our abilities when it matters most. In a challenging situation, we require a clear mind to navigate clear of obstacles on our way to success. Thanks to our ancestors, our minds are wired to do the opposite, requiring us to overcome this challenge within a challenge.
Our brains must be at maximum capacity to weigh the best possible ideas, question our decisions, and tap into our creative brains for an effective solution. Practicing meditation has been shown to:
Calm our amygdala.
Empathetically discern others’ perspectives.
Steve Jobs, a well-known advocate for meditation, describes,
“You start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before.”
Meditation for beginners from a beginner
Luckily, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to meditation. Since our brains are all wired differently, we will all have a different system best suited for us. While I am engaged in a task, silence makes me uncomfortable. I find it extremely difficult to concentrate as my mind wanders off, constantly reeling myself back in. This is a common trait for people with ADHD. However, just shutting off my mind for a few minutes daily is enough to practice mindfulness.
An excellent place to start is to spend a few minutes concentrating on the present. Loss aversion tells us we highlight negative aspects of our past three times more than the good, and the future is generally unknown. Thus, both can be tremendous sources of anxiety. For this reason, concentrating on the present gives us the opposite effect and soothes the mind, reminding us of the elements under our control. A quiet environment for this is essential, which, if you are like me, may be uncomfortable at first. But, over time, the silence will make you more at ease.
There are good habits one can practice to reduce our anxiety levels. For instance, for most, our first instinct is to check our phones to see what we missed. Studies show that waking up to check the news and missed emails will immediately put our brains in a responsive state, sending our brains into battle before we even realize it.
Waking up to calmness and implementing a meditation routine will give our minds the opposite effect, starting each day with a clean sheet. Over time, you will realize you will start each day more prepared with an open mind as if you can feel your capacity rising. Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki, an influential figure promoting meditation in the U.S., calls this “beginner’s mind.” The idea is that when our thoughts quiet down, our minds can interpret the present reality with less judgment or bias.
Another good habit is practicing stepping back from unproductive thought patterns. In the book You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most, a collaboration between Leonard J. Marcus, Joseph M. Henderson, Barry C. Dorn, and Eric J. McNulty, this concept is termed “getting out of the basement” (I want to cover this book in greater detail in the future, it is one of my favorites to date).
When we encounter an unproductive thought pattern, odds are our minds have left the present moment down the rabbit hole of future scenarios. Not only does this not help us in the present moment, but research also estimates that 85% of what we worry about never happens. An excellent way to practice remaining calm when faced with adversity is practicing breathing exercises, reverting to them whenever we encounter a particularly harmful intrusive thought or in times of crisis.
Luckily for us, especially during the pandemic, there has been more of a focus on mindfulness within our culture. Apps like Calm and Headspace are tremendous resources for those looking for a place to start, and plenty of free guided meditations exist on the Internet. This is how I began my mindfulness journey, but I found that even the soothing voice of another person’s voice was enough to distract me. I realized that my best method is shutting off my mind for some time, ideally as long as possible.
Like going to the gym, getting out the door is often the most challenging part. Adopting a new habit may be difficult, especially with meditation primarily being individualistic. I encourage you to set some time aside to at least try it out, and more than once. Odds are, you will stumble upon a new habit with benefits you did not even know existed.