Meditation For MBAs: Train Your Mind, Improve Your Game — Part III

I Feel Good

I’ve just described how meditation can help us effectively deal with challenging emotions, but scientists have also been validating the experience of centuries of meditators: meditation also generates positive emotions such as joy and gratitude. Richard Davidson, PhD, who established University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, is one such researcher. In studying both long-term meditators—including power meditator Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, dubbed The Happiest Man in the World—and newbies from the life-sciences-research company Promega who participated in an eight-week meditation training, Davidson found that the long-term meditators demonstrated significantly more activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with positive emotions. University of North Carolina’s Barbara Frederickson has studied positive emotions in depth, discovering their ancillary benefits. She has determined that in addition to their feeling good, positive emotions can counteract negative emotions, fuel resilience, build resources, broaden thinking, and trigger an upward spiral that increases overall functioning and well-being. Moreover, she has proposed that emotions are contagious and a leader’s emotions are the most contagious; consequently, it behooves you to be generating positive emotions as often as you can! Wondering if there was a way for people to experience more positive emotions without their having to depend on external circumstances turning out just the right way, Frederickson discovered and then tested the results of a practice called loving/kindness meditation (instructions below). The study participants—employees of Compuware Corporation—engaged in a seven-week loving/kindness-meditation training. Compared to the non-meditating control group, the meditators reported experiencing more positive emotions, as well as greater mindful attention, self-acceptance, positive relations with others, sense of environmental mastery and purpose in life, ego resilience, and physical health. What’s not to love about that?

I Feel You

We all know how good it feels when someone really understands what we’re going through, what we’re feeling, and what our situation looks like from our perspective. When we’re seen in this way, we feel a greater sense of connection, support, and possibility, which can help us persevere through rough times and inspire us to do our best. It’s no surprise then that leadership-development experts have been increasingly encouraging leaders to become more empathetic in the workplace. Leaders who take the time to connect with their employees in this way can better identify the challenges or issues that may be holding employees back and provide them with what they need to succeed. They can also deepen these relationships and foster greater trust, which leads to greater collaboration and improved productivity. You’ve probably been in circumstances in which you have cognitively tried to get into someone’s shoes—perhaps through visualizing yourself in the same circumstance—but it can sometimes be harder to feel someone else’s feelings, which is how we can connect more deeply with and better understand others.

A number of research studies have suggested that meditation enhances our ability to feel and empathize with others. As part of the 2007 Shamatha Project, scientists tracked the emotional responses of the participants to films depicting human suffering and violence. Compared to the non-meditating control group, the meditators demonstrated greater sadness in response to the suffering depicted while simultaneously exhibiting greater openness to what they were experiencing. They could feel others’ suffering without shutting down to it. When observing long-term power meditators who were engaged in a compassion-generating meditation practice while listening to the sounds of people suffering, Davidson found that they registered more activity in the parts of the brain associated with feeling pain in oneself and others, maternal love, and planned actions than the newbie control group. It was as though in the face of others’ suffering, these meditators were readying themselves to go provide help. Interestingly, the degree of brain activity was strongly correlated with the amount of cumulative practice. For both the experienced and new meditators in the study, the region of the brain that differentiates self from others quieted during meditation, suggesting that both groups felt less separate from and more attuned with those to whom they were listening. It’s also been shown that we can become more empathetic if we do practices such as the body-scan, which I outlined in the first article in this series. This meditation engages the part of the brain where our internal map of the body resides, and scientists have discovered that this part of the brain is also associated with having empathy for others.[iv] In effect, the more we’re willing to feel our own experience, the more we’re able to feel others’.

Lovingkindness Meditation

In the previous installment in this series, I provided instructions for working directly with your mind to cultivate greater focus, calm, and objectivity. I now want to introduce you to a heart-centered contemplative practice known as lovingkindness meditation, which Frederickson studied in her research. While this practice also helps you train your attention and become more aware of unconscious mental and emotional habits, it also helps open your heart toward yourself and others. This helps raise your EQ by cultivating greater self-acceptance, emotional regulation, and empathy. Plus, it can feel good to do!

Lovingkindness is a natural quality to which we all have access—essentially the wish for others to be happy. I’m not talking about something sentimental or sappy; rather, I’m pointing to a very authentic sense of caring and connection. To get a feel for this, close your eyes for a moment and bring to mind someone who makes you feel happy when you think of him or her. Babies and pets often evoke this feeling, but you might also think of a best friend, a teacher, a benefactor of some sort, or even someone you’ve read about toward whom you have friendly, well-wishing feelings. Notice what it feels like in your body when you imagine this person or pet before you. You might feel a sensation in your heart, perhaps some warmth; or you may notice some relaxation; or you may find yourself smiling. This is the feeling of lovingkindness. While we’re all born with the capacity to extend lovingkindness, this can become obscured due to past hurts, stress, and speediness. The good news is that there’s a practice we can do soften our hearts and cultivate more of this quality. You can listen to detailed instructions here.

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