As many of my regular readers know, I enjoy researching and writing about the neuroscientific benefits of meditation. Daniel Goleman, author of the 1995 classic "Emotional Intelligence," explains that: "Whenever we get so upset we say or do something we later regret (and who doesn't now and then?), that's a sure sign that our amygdala — the brain's radar for danger, and the trigger for the fight-or-flight response — has hijacked the brain's executive centers in the prefrontal cortex."
While the neuroscience behind the “hijacked” brain is fairly complex, the main idea is that once emotions get triggered, and chemical reactions in the brain and body get unleashed, it becomes difficult to regain our composure and a sense of calm. You can never gain control by moving faster -- you need to do the opposite, in fact.
I tend to be an emotional person, which is great for my creativity but often can be a challenge in my relationships. Slowing down means I'm at my most empathetic and helpful. Meditation has been be a tool for maintaining and restoring calm in my life (my wife Darci meditates daily too, by the way, and we sometimes meditate together).
Meditation Fosters Self-Awareness
Meditation, or at least the Vapassana meditation I do, promotes better self-awareness, which has positive ripple effects on your entire life. The most creative, socially connected people are deeply tuned into their own emotions, using emotions as important information, but not always acting upon emotional impulses. You can choose when to act or when not act upon emotions (and therein freedom resides). Slowing down gives me the power to decide what emotions are worth digging into and which are best left behind. Taking time to observe your emotions from a certain distance is a kind of magic we all have access to, if we chose to develop that magic through meditating.
Self-awareness means having a clear perception of your personality, competencies, strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation, and emotions. It allows me to slow down, stop and think, to better understand myself and other people, and their perceptions of me and mine of them. Once I'm grounded in self-awareness, people's judgments have less sting and influence over me, so meditation fosters my integrity too, allowing me to forgive, change, or seek to "correct" the perceptions of others.
How Meditation Works in the Brain
Research from both Daniel Goleman and meditation expert/Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard (they co-wrote a book together) shows the benefits of meditation in building self-awareness. Not only can meditation have impacts on brain functioning, but, according to research by Ricard, meditation “[p]ractitioners also experience beneficial psychological effects: they react faster to stimuli and are less prone to various forms of stress.” They see, listen, and feel.
Meditation can focus attention, helping people develop a clearer sense of what’s happening around (and inside) them from moment to moment. In a fast-moving world filled with complex emotions that can overwhelm (have you watched CNN in the last 2 years?), meditation can be a tool for slowing down and focusing on what’s most important -- which are key relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. So often, we are so stressed that we fail to see others, to hear them, to have compassion for them (or ourselves).
There are multiple types of meditation, but in its simplest form (Vipassana), meditation asks practitioners to focus on their breath. You don’t need to buy expensive equipment or use any technology at all. All you need is a quiet spot and a place to sit down for a few minutes while you close your eyes and give attention to your breathing. I meditate everywhere, even on the subway.
Just keep the focus on your breathing. When thoughts or emotions intervene (“did I send that email?”), you can recognize them, but continue returning the focus to your breathing.
Leigh Stringer, author of “The Healthy Workplace,” likens meditation to a workout for the mind’s muscles. “Instead of trying to do ten things at once, which is normal for many people, meditation requires that we focus on only one thing at a time, and with full concentration -- focusing on our breathing.” To better understand yourself, others, and the world, slow down your mind and focus.
So as the stress mounts this Holiday season, consider taking a meditation break to restore your sense of equanimity. I do it a lot during the Holidays, and it makes me merrier and better able to say "no" to that second glass of high-calorie eggnog. How do you stay calm during the Holidays?