Meditation is a practice that can teach us to enter each moment with wisdom, lightness, and a sense of humor. It is an art of opening and letting go, rather than accumulation or struggle. Then, even within our frustrations and difficulties, a remarkable inner sense of support and perspective can grow.
- A Path With Heart, Jack Kornfield
If you were to walk into the conference room at that moment, you would suddenly point on tiptoes. Silencing your phone, you'd pull a chair across the carpet toward the semi-circle of seeming sleepers.
The moment isn’t long. The meditation lasts ten minutes, max. But ten minutes of silence is a cacophony of quietude for a passel of marketers who make their living cranking out words, sounds, and pictures. We are the ones who fill the void; it’s incongruous to suggest we stem the tide for a moment and just … be.
But here we are, straight-backed and seated, our monkey minds* rattling within, attempting to embody John Lennon’s credo while fighting back the caffeine induced mantra that normally constitutes our morning ritual. This is a business conference, not a spiritual retreat, yet here we are, getting amped for the day's battle, meditating.
At the front of the room, Alan Weiss, founder and CEO of MarketingProfs, holds two tiny Tibetan meditation bells. Dangling them by a suspended ribbon, he swings them together so that the golden sound reverberates softly across the room. Meditation over. We open our eyes.
What just happened here? (And who stole my monkey mind?!)
'We practice mindfulness and meditation so that we know how to respond to the moment,' Allen says. ‘A baseball player who practices batting, practices so that when the moment comes he is ready. Think of that batter in the batting cage: the longer you are in the batting cage, the more you will groove your swing’. Allen smiles as he truncates his teaching, our hour-long session is abbreviated as the world of meditation requires at least weekend retreats and mostly lifelong devotion, but Allen is (to continue the baseball analogy) an old pro. A mindfulness meditation teacher and board member at InsightLA, he is a graduate of Spirit Rock's Dedicated Practioners' Program and leads our class with a suffused sense of humor, eyes crinkling into a knowing smile, acknowledging that we are barely touching the surface of a ‘mind like water’ experience (as David Allen would say).**
Prior to Allen’s class, my experience with mindfulness was, at best, that of a constant quester and also as a poetry and yoga enthusiast (I come by way of Rumi and Ekhart). Reading poetry, I have learned the art of the purposed pause. Practicing yoga, I have learned the importance of breathing for focus and control (pranayama). Though I have come a long way in my own journey of awareness, I still join the class -as I'm sure my fellow attendees do- beleaguered by a career laden with deadlines and also, as a leader, hungry for help to pass along to my team, our stalwart soldiers who bear the brunt of the ‘need it now’ demand that they respond to so admirably. At the periphery of my mind, I am forming the conviction that personal development has never been more important for a 21st century knowledge worker. Caring for oneself -physically, mentally, emotionally- is imperative, a 'non-negotiable' due to the relentless pace of business, the (often) unreal expectations we place on ourselves, and the repercussions of an ‘always on’ lifestyle. My question: How do professionals, in an age of anxiety, thrive amid the chaos of deadlines and demand?
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Twenty-first century life moves at a breakneck pace. The more responsibilities you bear, the more decisions you must make. The endless volley and the accompanying velocity is dizzying, so much so that our rationale becomes eroded by wear. By making hundreds of low-impact decisions daily, our framework for decision-making becomes an impulse rather than a response. This pulsating repetition cuts deep grooves into our human experience and eventually, habit begets lifestyle. This is (one of many reasons) why mindfulness and meditation are crucial. ‘You are balancing out your human tendency to instantaneously react’, Allen smiles.
Equanimity is a word Allen repeats frequently and my monkey hands fumble for my dictionary app, the definition descending on me like a mantra: steadiness of mind under stress. (This monkey-mind could use some of that, I’ll take a Venti please, no room, just straight up, stat). After the session, I visit with Allen about other books he recommends for mindfulness practice. I want to learn more about steadiness of mind under stress (note to friends: this is aspirational, not expectational - no promises). I purchase Jack Kornfield’s A Path With Heart for the plane ride home (a prescient decision judging by the turbulence). Jack writes about the practice of meditation (‘taking the one seat on our own meditation cushion’) as a way to train our minds to handle whatever challenges are thrown our way, or, as my fellow conference attendees know it, preparing for ‘what comes next’:
'When we take the one seat on our own meditation cushion we become our own monastery. We create the compassionate space that allows for the arising of all things: sorrows, loneliness, shames, desire, regret, frustration, happiness. In the monastery of our own sitting meditation, each of us experiences whatever arises again and again as we let go, saying, ‘Ah, this too’ … As we take the one seat we discover our capacity to be unafraid and awake in the midst of life … We may have a fear of accepting all of life, what Zorba the Greek called, ‘The Whole Catastrophe.’ But to take the one seat is to discover that we are unshakable. We discover that we can face life fully, with all its suffering and joy, that our heart is great enough to encompass it all’.
Daily meditation seems an antidote to the chaos of the daily grind but it is neither antidote nor palliative, it is, as Alan suggested, a practice. It is not an esoteric 'removal from' but a practical 'preparation for'. This puzzled westerner understood: if it is a practice then there must be an upcoming game. Maezumi Roshi wrote that 'practice is like regular exercise, which builds strength, gracefulness, and self-confidence to meet the situations we all face every day.'
A few other thoughts from our morning session that enlightened** me:
- When meditating, instead of ‘expectations’ think ‘aspirations’. (Sounds like a solid general-purpose maxim for life).
- Most people spend their time in the past or the future - rehashing and rehousing stories. They are leaning forward (planning, preparing, and full of anxiety about the future) or leaning backward (hate my boss, hate my co-worker, why didn’t I go to Paris, why did I ever make that terrible decision). They are rarely in the present moment, this present mindfulness is why meditation is thought of as the ‘art of awakening’ (Kornfield).
- Negative bias: for most of us, negative is velcro and positive is teflon. Negative comments stick to us; positive ones don’t, ‘one person says something nasty to you and all positive disappears, one ugly look or comment and it ruins your day’.
- AWAKE: knowing what is happening right now, OPEN: allowing what is happening right now to be - ‘letting be’, KIND: responding with self-compassion to whatever arises.
Mindfulness is ‘the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts, and sensations occurring in the present moment, which can be trained by meditational practices derived from Buddhist anapanasati’ (Wikipedia).
Standing before his seated practitioners, Allen answers the skeptic within all of us: ‘Do I need to be mindful 24/7? No! Most of the time when I walk around here,' he gestures toward the conference halls, ‘I’m not mindful, thank god. The batter doesn’t carry a bat around and swing it whenever he wants, mindfulness is a tool to learn how to deal with things, to know when and how to use the bat when you need it’.
In the words of novelist and naturalist Peter Matthiessen, meditation is ‘to realize one’s existence in the beauty and clarity of this present moment’. Mindfulness, to a marketer who is interested in being prepared for what comes next, is first about being able to ‘rest in the present’. That might seem inharmonious to professionals girding themselves for the future until we learn with Meister Eckhart that ‘what we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action’.
In Jack Kornfield’s introduction to A Path with Heart, he uses the phrase ‘perennial gratefulness’. My meditation cap doffed to the team at MarketingProfs, I smile a ‘thank you’. Thank you for being bold enough to schedule a mindful meditation class in the middle of a business conference, for risking personal development alongside professional training, and to Allen for passing along his life’s passion to a bunch of beleaguered marketers. Thank you for (always) assisting us with both your mind-expanding and your mindful (mind-full?) conferences, a genuinely heartfelt passion for both profession and professional.
Using Jack’s vernacular, I have a feeling I’ll be perennially grateful.
Further Reading (author recommendations are based on a conversation Allen and I had after the class and are from those who follow his tradition, the Theravada Buddhist tradition):
- Mindful USC
- Jack Kornfield: Meditation for Beginners / The Wise Heart / Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are
- Joseph Goldstein: Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening / Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom
- Harvard Business Review: 'Mindfulness Helps You Become A Better Leader'
*’Monkey minds’ is not an insult; it’s a buddhist term describing the unsettled, restless, capricious, whimsical, fanciful, inconstant, confused, indecisive, and uncontrollable headspace we occupy (most of the time).
**My apologies to Allen if I confused his comments or terms with Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, or any other ‘ism. If there is an error in thought, the fault lies in the ignorance of this student, not the erudition of the teacher, misunderstandings and misinterpretations are mine; I’m a marketer, not a miracle worker. ;-)
The phrase in the title of this post, ‘You Must Be Present to Win’, is lifted from Jack Kornfield.
I can freely tie myself up without a rope. This talent is in the realm of antimagic and many people have it. On a dawn walk despite the creek, birds and forest I have to get through the used part, the murky fluid of rehearsals and resentments, but then they drain away and I’m finally where I already am, smack-dab in the middle of each step, the air you can taste, the evening primrose that startled by my visit doesn’t turn away.
- Excerpted from the poem 'Modern Times' by Jim Harrison in Saving Daylight