Train Your Mind, Improve Your Game: Meditation for the 21st-Century Leader
And what if you could radically shorten the length of treatment for a health condition (saving time, resources, and money) by simply meditating? If you have psoriasis, you’re in luck. Two studies employing the MBSR curriculum have addressed this condition. In both cases, both the meditating groups and the control groups, who had moderate to severe psoriasis, received standard light-therapy treatments, but the meditators listened to mindfulness-meditation instructions during their treatments while the control group did not. On average, the meditators needed one-fourth the number of treatments the control group required to heal their psoriasis. When I see data like this and think about spiraling healthcare costs, I get excited thinking that meditation may help us tackle this behemoth.
I’m adding this final potential physiological benefit only because it would be very cool if future studies confirm it. It’s quite possible that meditating slows down the aging process. In examining the thickness of prefrontal cortexes of the long-term meditators (an average of nine years of practice) vs. the non-meditators in the study, Harvard Medical School’s Sara Lazar found that the long-term meditators had less cortical thinning (linked to cognitive decline) than non-meditators their own age. In fact, their cortical thickness was more in line with non-meditators who were in their 20s and 30s. Another study has examined the link between meditation, the generation of telomerase, and the aging process (see footnote at end). I like to think that after all the practice I’ve done, I’ve got the brain of a 26-year-old myself!
So How Do I Do This?
In this installment, I’m going to give you instructions for a practice called a body-scan, which will serve as a good warm-up for the more standard meditation practice that I’ll share in my next article in this series. The body-scan is the foundational practice in the highly effective MBSR curriculum, and it provides a very structured way to begin to cultivate your attention, awareness, and presence. Click here to find two audio files that will guide you through the practice: one that runs 15 for minutes for when you don’t have much time and one that runs for 45 minutes, which you can do when you really want to let go and luxuriate a bit. For this practice, you’re invited to lie down on a very comfortable surface, though if you do so, the risk of falling asleep is quite high! One way to prevent that is to keep your eyes open during the process. You can also do this sitting up. Please choose a time and place to do this such that you won’t be interrupted. I’ll be giving you detailed instructions in the audio files, but essentially, what you’ll be doing is systematically bringing attention to a part of your body, sensing it from the inside to see what’s there to be experienced, then moving your attention to the next body part I mention. You may feel anything: tingling, itching, heat, cold, pain, pleasure, waves of relaxation, or even numbness. All of this is perfectly okay because it’s exactly what’s going on! I invite you to observe what you’re noticing with a spirit of curiosity and allow judgments (“This feeling must be wrong” or “I don’t like this feeling, but I really like this other one”), should they arise, to just pass by in your mind. Through this exercise, we’re training ourselves to notice what is, whatever it is, here and now. When your attention wanders, as it surely will, just gently bring it back to whatever part of the body the recording is guiding you to pay attention to. This way, you’re training yourself to focus.
Practicing Mindfulness Throughout the Day
The body-scan is what I call a “formal” practice—something that you sit or lie down to do for an extended period of time. You can also develop your mindfulness muscle by doing “informal” practices during the course of your day. I already led you through two above—stopping to take a few deep breaths and notice how you feel in your body, and taking a moment to check in with all of your senses. Notice how both of these (and much of what I have to share with you) involves sensing in your body. This is because while your mind may be in the past or future, your body actually resides in the here and now, where you’ll be way more effective and satisfied. I invite you to experiment with these two exercises throughout your day. You may choose to set a timer on your phone or computer—say once an hour—to prompt you to do them. Or stick a Post-It on your monitor or bathroom mirror at home to remind you. Or you may just do them spontaneously when they come to mind. These informal practices are very important. It would be easy to do your 15–20-minute meditation each morning and then go on automatic pilot for the rest of the day, not really integrating what you’re doing in longer practice periods into the rest of daily life, which is where you spend most of your time! You’ll greatly amplify the benefits of formal practice by doing informal practices.