Still, very few of these executive stuck with it, because they struggled to find the time (“I did my meditation for two weeks, then work got really busy and I fell off the bandwagon”) or because after a while they felt their practice “wasn’t working” or that “my mind was just too busy to quiet down.”
A lot has been said about the importance of mindfulness and how to practice it in the workplace, but the advice doesn’t always address how to develop a sustainable practice over time. I’ve identified four actions that can help.
Find a CommunityThe popularity of meditation apps in the past decade has given rise to the idea that meditation should be practiced individually. And most executives I work with these days started their meditation practice by themselves, often following instructions in an app. The greatest advantage of this trend is accessibility: Anyone can take up meditating with a few clicks on their phone, on their own time.
But for millennia, meditation has largely been practiced in communities. In Buddhism, they’re called sanghas. Such groups provide two main benefits. First, there’s accountability, because the group meets at a particular date and time. Second, there’s social support in the form of inspiration through others’ progress and the understanding that the challenges you face are shared by others.
Most executives I know who have established a regular meditation practice have found and sustained some form of community. For some, these are traditional communities, such as the local Vipassana or Zen center (which is where I found my community). Others have found or created communities within their professional organizations, such as Chade-Meng Tan’s group at Google. Some communities work across organizations, such as the Mindful on Wall Street initiative, founded by executives from Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, DWS, Goldman Sachs, and the Ford Foundation. Several hundred bankers join the group’s weekly meditations via conference call. Alice Kim, an executive director at Morgan Stanley and one of the founders, explains, “I have found there is something about the gathering of a like-minded group with a shared intention that allows individuals to find quietude and spaciousness very quickly.”
Commit to a Non-Negotiable Time for PracticeSitting in a community provides structure to ensure that you practice regularly. Establishing a reliable time for your personal practice is also critical. Patrick, a managing director at a global investment bank, did so right after his introductory course to meditation. He informed his team that 3:00 PM would be his daily meditation time, during which he was not to be interrupted, and blocked the time off on his calendar. Every afternoon he closes his office door and meditates for 20 minutes. He’s told me that the fact that his office has glass windows has strengthened his resolve in some ways: His team can see him meditating and has come to expect the sight of their boss sitting quietly by himself on a daily basis.
Work with an InstructorAs with most skills, in order to reach a certain level of mastery, it helps to work with a teacher. You might be able to teach yourself the basics of golf or piano, but you’ll improve faster if you have a coach who observes your swing or a teacher who explains how to read music and gives you personalized feedback. The same is true for meditation. After a few weeks or months of practice, you may encounter all kinds of possible derailers: physical pain from sitting still (possibly in the wrong posture) or unpleasant thoughts and emotions that you don’t know how to deal with. You may feel you’re not making progress and be tempted to stop. An experienced meditation teacher can help you through this critical time by providing feedback and direction.
Currently, there is no universally recognized certification for mindfulness meditation teachers (although there have been attempts to create one). Some self-proclaimed teachers have only a few months of training under their belts — not nearly enough to be helpful in the long run. Look for organizations that have been around for a while, such as some of the larger Zen or Vipassana schools. Most of them operate on a nonprofit basis, and their teachers have gone through rigorous training, often for decades. If you prefer to stay away from more traditional schools, organizations such as Search Inside Yourself, initiated at Google, and the University of Massachusetts’s MBSR program train and certify teachers globally. However, the length of experience and the training of teachers vary, so ask around and be sure to do your research.
Let Go of Expectations of Linear ProgressWe all carry expectations for our meditation practice. Otherwise, why would we make time to sit down in the first place? We want to feel refreshed afterwards, less stressed, more focused, and less irritable. Unfortunately, as every executive with a regular meditation practice has told me, not every meditation session feels that way. Sometimes our minds have a hard time quieting down. Sometimes giving them the space to roam freely only dials up the volume on irritating memories or thoughts. The key is to understand that progress may not always feel linear, or even how we expect progress to feel. With a physical workout, you may be sore and exhausted afterwards, but you know it will strengthen your muscles in the long run. The mental workout of meditating may at times leave you unsatisfied or thinking that it isn‘t “working.” Instead, see those times as signs that you are on the right track. Your mind is learning the process of quieting down, and your “workout” is creating some mental soreness. If you keep it up, it will strengthen your mental muscles in the long run.
Consistent practice is essential. You have to do it, and you have to do it regularly — including when you don’t feel like it, so that over time your easily distractable mind learns to rest in open awareness, without constantly attaching to the next thought that comes by.
I have found the four factors to be like pillars, holding my practice up. In moments when I was tempted to drop my daily meditation because I was too busy or tired, knowing that I would see my teacher boosted my motivation and resolve. When I got attached to notions of linear progress, sharing my struggles at my local Zen center helped me laugh. Of course, there will be times when you will falter with one of the pillars, but if you’ve established all four, the others can continue to support and sustain your practice.
Matthias Birk, PhD has been practicing meditation for over two decades, and has taught meditation and leadership to hundreds of executives at Columbia Business School, NYU, and companies, such as Goldman Sachs and McKinsey & Company.