The brain-friendly benefits of meditation go far beyond calming you down. (Photo: Getty Images)
Is it possible to meditate without losing your hustle? It’s a question that has racked my brain since I first tried meditation six years ago. I like the calm that meditation brings, but I have this fear that fully committing to a full-on practice will turn me into a docile, blissed-out do-nothing.
But here’s the thing: I work at Yahoo Health, so I know the research strongly supports the benefits of meditation. What’s the point in resisting any longer? Since I don’t have the funds for one-on-one instruction at the moment, I turned to the crew of people who are democratizing the practice — meditation devotees-slash-app creators Lynne Goldberg (OMG I Can Meditate) and Dan Harris (10% Happier) and founders of meditation companies Suze Yalof Schwartz (Unplug) and Dina Kaplan (the Path) — for their takes.
It wasn’t until after I’d interviewed all these trailblazers that I realized that they alone are proof enough. Meditation hasn’t dulled their drive — it has actually given them a leg up in their careers by boosting their mental health and happiness. Here’s why you should try:
It won’t silence the voice in your head, but it will change your relationship with it
This is one of my main concerns — I credit that ball-busting voice in my head with pushing me further, motivating me to work harder. What if silencing my inner critic kills my mojo? Not to worry, says Harris, an ABC news broadcaster who wrote the bestseller 10% Happier and just launched the 10% Happier: Meditation for Skeptics app. “You’re not going to silence the voice in your head unless you are (a) enlightened or (b) dead. I’ve been doing this for six years, and the voice in my head is just as much of an a**hole as it was when I started.” Phew.
Instead, Harris says, it’s about taking that voice in your head less seriously. “Understand that not all the suggestions are connected to reality. The voice in your head is not going to go away, but you will have a different relationship with it, in which you learn how to respond wisely to things rather than reacting blindly,” he explains. “That is a superpower that makes you much more effective and much less of a jerk and much easier to live with, and boosts your edge in a world where most people are completely blinded.”
It helps you pause before reacting emotionally — and, eventually, stops you from reacting at all
Ever said something to your boss or a coworker that you later regretted? Meditation, experts say, can help tame that need to snap back after feeling provoked. Yalof Schwartz, a former fashion expert turned entrepreneur (she founded Unplug in Santa Monica, Calif.), puts it like this: “Instead of shooting out an email you’ll regret, [meditation] makes you pause, it makes you mindful — proactive instead of reactive. A CEO takes a second to breathe and saves a million dollars.”
Meditation helps you gain clarity and perspective and can even improve your memory, says Goldberg, whose OMG I Can Meditate app has grown its subscriber base by 2,000 percent in the past six months. “You can pause and you’re not so reactive, so it helps with business decisions.” Plus, says Harris, it’ll help you stay focused on the task at hand. “We live in an info blitzkrieg, where we’re inundated with texts and tweets and whatever, and focusing on your breath and starting over is like a bicep curl for your brain that teaches you how to stay focused,” he explains.
Plus, meditating will help you develop mindfulness, a trendy buzzword that Harris describes as “the ability to know what’s happening in your head in any given moment without getting carried away by it.” Honing mindfulness, he says, “immediately lowers your emotional reactivity, especially to the voice in your head that’s saying terrible things to you, like, eat the 18th cookie, or check your email in the middle of a conversation with another human being, or lose your temper in front of your boss.” Instead of instinctively taking that internal chatter as truth, he explains, you’ll learn how to acknowledge it and stay the path. “Lowered emotional reactivity makes you much more effective in the workplace. When everyone else is losing their sh**, at least 10 percent of the time you’re able to hold yourself together.”
It clears space for new ideas
Meditation can help you make space, both in your brain and in your life, by helping you see which thoughts are important and which are just repetitive worries. “Your brain is a lot like your inbox,” Yalof Schwartz explains. “You have a lot of messages. A lot of them are spam and can be sent to delete immediately. When you have thoughts and you can drag them to the delete folder, you create more time for yourself.” That time to think, she explains, means more time for creativity and new, breakthrough ideas.
“I think people are afraid of their brain changing,” says Kaplan, whose company, the Path, hosts meditation events. “What they don’t realize is that because you have a lot of noise in your head, when you start training your mind, that internal chatter — the noise in your head — starts to die down. You have more room to input data.” That new data may mean new ideas at work or the realization that you don’t like what you’re doing and it’s time to switch it up.
It helps you read people differently
With that new space, your other senses will begin to develop as well. “What you notice immediately when you take up a meditation practice is that you start to see more things — you start to smell more things, hear more things,” Kaplan explains. “You also start to pick up all the nonverbal signals people are giving you, which is so helpful in business and life. It gives you an edge.”
It can make you a stronger person
If you pride yourself on your strength both in the office and out, know this: Meditation won’t make you any more of a pushover. “It’s not a bubble bath that puts you in this state of imperturbability and permanent relaxation,” says Harris. “It’s really more like exercise for your brain, where you’re sitting and focusing on one thing for a period of time — usually it’s your breath. And you start again when you’ve gotten lost, and you start again, and again, and again, and again. And that takes grit and perseverance that’s applicable to your everyday life.”
It helps you to be more efficient
According to most of the experts I spoke with, not having enough time to meditate is one of the first excuses people give as to why they can’t meditate. But the funny thing is, Kaplan tells me, “Meditation gives you time. On the days I meditate, I’m 90 percent more efficient. “
It can make you happier — but not complacent
“I think there’s this idea that if people get too happy, they’ll lose their drive, but that is to mistake happiness with complacency,” says Harris. “Meditation makes you happy because it allows you to enjoy what’s happening now and to be more resilient in the face of obstacles. But happiness, in my view, isn’t sitting back and eating a pint of ice cream. Happiness is achieving things and not being an a**hole about it. And all of those things are really helped by meditation.”