Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. He wrote this story in 2014 for the BBC. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.
A stressed out, unhappy employee is not a productive one
Practice at work: the place I'm already going five days a week and where meditation is needed most
The key is to commit to doing something, otherwise it's not effective
Have you read the latest study about meditation? Probably not, because even as you read this sentence another has likely come out. There is a steady stream of new research and news stories about the benefits of meditation and other mindful breathing practices. As they report, meditation boosts energy, helps with focus, reduces stress and anxiety, increases resilience and possibly, subtly, changes your life and your brain for the better.
Of course, not everyone believes in the power of meditation, but once converted, the big hurdle is making meditation fit into your schedule. Just the thought of cramming another thing into your day is stress-inducing.
Here’s a radical proposal: start your new meditation habit at work. Yup, that work. The office. Busy, stressful, un-meditation-friendly work.
It turns out, the office is actually an ideal place to meditate specifically because of those reasons. To quote one of my favourite films, “The Razor’s Edge,” in which Bill Murray’s character searches for the meaning of life: “It’s easy to be a holy man on top of a mountain.” It’s harder, but more rewarding, to be one in the office.
Not only is work likely one of the major causes of your stress, but it is also a victim of it. A stressed out, unhappy employee is not a productive one. You can counterbalance the negative and even make your office a more peaceful, creative and industrious place with the effect and influence of your meditation practice alone.
Plus, if you’re like me, it’s hard to fit in meditation or anything else in the busy hum of home, especially with a spouse and children and fewer waking hours to spend with them or on other interests. The solution for me was to practice at work: the place I’m already going five days a week and where meditation is needed most.
It doesn’t need to be a big time commitment — 10 to 15 minutes each day is plenty — and even a couple of minutes can be useful. The key is to commit to doing something, otherwise it’s not effective. When I lived in San Francisco my apartment was a few blocks from the city’s famous Zen Center and I would wake most mornings for the pre-dawn sittings. It was formal, strictly following the Buddhist tradition, right down to which foot you used to enter the room. I loved it and miss it, but never picked it back up because it always seemed too hard to replicate on my own. So that was my challenge — to get back into practice without it being a burden or competing with other priorities.
Find a space
The first person I told of my intention to start meditating at work was the office manager.
“This may be an unusual request,” I emailed him, “but I could use your help. I’m looking to find a room in our office without glass, to book for 15 minutes a day, every day. The purpose is to meditate.”
Professional but perhaps a bit puzzled, he walked me through a few options in our open-plan office and its meeting rooms with see-through glass walls. We settled on a seldom-used “green room” for talent when the office does studio production. It was perfect: small, quiet, two chairs, no phone. If it’s booked, my back-ups include a meeting room with glass just on one side (passers-by see only my back) and a nearby anonymising city park. And if I’m really desperate, I always have that last refuge of privacy: the porcelain sanctuary.
Schedule some time
I book 30 minutes every day though I never use the whole time. Sometimes I’m a little late; I always finish early. Sometimes I need to reschedule for later in the day. But if I can make it, I do. Whatever I’m working on can wait another 10 to 15 minutes without dire consequences. Unless you’re an emergency room doctor or caring for young children, the same is probably true at your job. Even if I’m feeling stressed about something I need to get done right away, I always feel better (that is, less stressed) after I breathe.
Keep it simple and easy. Earlier this year, I attended a SXSW talk by Chade-Meng Tan, who teaches mindfulness techniques at Google. He recommended giving yourself a goal of “just one good breath” a day. The idea is that even doing a little bit makes a difference. If you love it, you will naturally and happily increase your practice to as many minutes as you can comfortably sustain.
Whether you have never meditated before, need a refresher or are just getting started there is no shortage of books, articles, apps and free videos and podcasts available. So start there. Those meditators are practically giving it away! I re-booted my practice by trying out the following in the green room:
“Search Inside Yourself” by Chade-Meng Tan. In his book on mindfulness and happiness, Meng offers meditation techniques he introduced at Google that range from basic to one (my personal favorite) that asks you to visualize yourself as a force multiplier for goodness, as if you are (my words) some kind of Buddhist superhero.
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Stop, Breathe & Think. This app has a growing library of meditations. These all start the same, which is repetitive, and the narrator’s voice so soothing it threatened to put me to sleep. But guided meditations can be useful for beginners and the app tracks your progress, as if you were going to a transcendental gym.
“The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hahn. The renowned pacifist Buddhist monk has written many volumes, but this classic has a whole chapter of meditations, some as little as 10 breaths long. The narration contains others, so it’s worth reading the entire short book.
“One Moment Meditation” by Martin Boroson. This guide starts with the premise that all you need is one minute. Short chapters help you optimize that minute and learn to take it with you wherever you go. And when you get good at that, it reduces that power minute to a power moment.
Please share your favorite practices or sources and let’s encourage everyone meditating in every office, everywhere.