Let’s face it. Stress can be debilitating, and the constant stress you experience at work affects your health and overall well-being.
The workplace today is competitive. You are, no doubt, required to do more work than ever before, and it’s a struggle to stay afloat, deal with job pressure and differentiate yourself as a valued contributor. I’m sure there are days that you say to yourself, "How can I keep up with everyday life? I’m exhausted and I’ve lost my motivation to succeed. My body is tired, and there seems to be no zen saying to help me find the hope I need."
If you have always been ambitious, this lack of energy and drive can be disheartening. It takes more and more energy to dig deep and find the desire to compete. You may wonder why it’s challenging to complete what you have always considered a simple task or project. Where did your "old self" go? The overachiever who was able to overcome any obstacle in life to succeed? Where did that energy and motivation go? The answer: stress wiped it out.
But there's good news: there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There is a way to deal with stress without quitting your job. There is a practical way to renew your energy and ambition. That way is meditation.
How do you meditate properly? To begin the practice of Zen meditation, you don't need to memorize every Buddha teaching, what the cosmic mudra is or know where CloudWater Zendo is. Many people think of Buddhist monks as silent, peacefully praying and meditating in the mountains of Tibet. Yet, the practice of Zen meditation predated Buddha and has been around for over 5,000 years. Though its origins are spiritual in nature, Zen meditation has evolved into a more secular form that most people practice today. The most traditional form is called mindfulness meditation or focused attention as opposed to Buddhism or Zen Buddhism.
With mindfulness practice, you focus on one specific thought in order to be present in the moment. This typically means concentrating on the flow of your breath without consideration to other thoughts. And it doesn't just have to be the breath, you can focus your mind on any single thought, word or mantra to help you find your Zen center.
In a study by the University of Washington Seattle, HR workers who underwent an 8-week mindfulness meditation training course were found to be more focused and have a less negative attitude towards work than a trial group that participated in a general relaxation training course. In addition, scientists at UCLA studied the brain before and after an individual with a "beginner mind" started a zen practice. They discovered that zen meditation strengthens the brain by reinforcing the connection between brain cells. Scientists suspect that this gyrification is responsible for improving the abilities to process information, to make decisions, to form memories and also to improve attention.
A regular meditation practice re-energizes and trains your brain to support both your performance and productivity. You don't need to be a Zen master to test out how the practice of meditation can work for you. Whether you experiment with a meditation class or try to find enlightenment with a Zen teacher elsewhere, here are seven other ways meditation benefits you at work:
Think about how many times your mind wanders during the course of a day or even an hour. You’ve scheduled some dedicated time to work on a project and just can’t turn off your brain. You’re thinking about what you have to do after work, festering about a negative comment from a colleague, what you’re going to make for dinner and so much more. It's endless chatter! Before you know it, your scheduled time for the project has lapsed and you didn’t complete it.
Perhaps the most significant benefit of meditation is its ability to improve attention. As many a Zen monk will tell you, stress causes a lack of ability to concentrate. Under stress, your brain jumps from thought to thought and is difficult to control. Meditation trains the brain to be mindful and present. You become aware when your brain wanders and learn to pull it back and ignore the distractions.
Can you think beyond your to-do list? When was the last time you had the focus and attention to prioritize your time and create a short or long-term plan for yourself? Along with the increased focus from meditation comes more clarity. With this clarity, it becomes much easier to envision how to work more efficiently, thereby improving your productivity and performance.
Remember when it was easier for you to develop new ideas and solve problems? Were you once the go-to person for out-of-the-box approaches and now have trouble just thinking straight? Stress hinders our ability to innovate and brainstorm new ideas. The creative juices just don’t flow when we are overwhelmed and distracted. Meditation increases the blood circulation to the brain and energizes the right side of the brain responsible for your creativity. The next time you need to be creative, try a quick five-minute zazen meditation where you're sitting. You'll find your Zen center and feel ready to come up with new ideas.
Do you notice that your memory isn’t what it used to be? Don't worry, it’s not early dementia! Stress distracts you and makes it difficult to draw from your memory bank. There’s way too much noise and chatter in the brain when it’s stressed. Meditation quiets the mind.
A stressed and distracted brain drains your energy; Zen meditation is the perfect antidote this lack of energy. To start, take a deep breath and use that breath to regulate the tempo you're breathing at. It beats any energy drink and the side effects are all positive!
To find that new dose of energy, consider a literary guide instead of an in-person one. The Lankavatara Sutra is an excellent choice (and classic Zen Buddhist book) that can help you find your center. For a time, it was the premiere piece of literature for those seeking out the Eightfold Path. As it guided those in the past, it can guide you in the present.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that when you’re stressed you lose your patience quickly and have no tolerance when your direct reports or colleagues miss deadlines or commitments. Everyone annoys you. You snap at them and then feel some remorse because of your lack of control and understanding. Using a meditation technique helps you increase your empathy and makes you a better team player. Improving your ability to work with the team has a positive impact on your performance and productivity.
The more stressed you are, the more negative you become about your job, your colleagues and your company. It truly becomes difficult to see anything positive about your life and career. This negativity can become a downward spiral that leads to actual depression. Meditation changes all that. With increased mindfulness, you can push aside negative thoughts and focus on what’s important.
Even in a difficult work situation, meditation helps you become more productive and assists in defining a clear path for yourself and your career. That positivity will be your new mindset and future challenges will be put in perspective. That’s a true recipe for success.
Bonnie Marcus, M.Ed, is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker focused on women's advancement in the workplace. A former corporate executive and CEO, Bonnie is the author of The Politics of Promotion: How High Achieving Women Get Ahead and Stay Ahead, and co-author of Lost Leaders in the Pipeline: Capitalizing on Women's Ambition to Offset the Future Leadership Shortage.