For the past year or so, at the start of every executive coaching session, I invite my coachee to join me in closing our eyes and taking three easy breaths. The purpose of this 15 second prelude to our conversation is to disconnect from whatever we were just doing before we joined the session, and to center ourselves in the here and now.
If any of you are tempted to roll your eyes here, let me explain the simple logic. You cannot breathe in the past and you cannot breathe in the future. So simply shifting your focus to counting your breaths in real time is an easy point of entry to the present moment.
What is astonishing is the difference these 15 seconds make. Often the coachee will spontaneously blurt out ‘Wow I needed that!’ ‘That was great.’ ‘That’s better’, ‘I should do this all the time.’
Sometimes I ask, ‘What is the difference for you?’ The response, from both women and men, inevitably includes words such as ‘calmer’ ‘more relaxed’ ‘better balance’ and ‘ready to start.’
If it only takes 15 seconds to get this result, can you imagine the impact of carving out a little more time on a daily basis for sitting quietly and focusing on your breathing? Yet what is commonly referred to as ‘meditation’ is curiously elusive for many career professionals. So let’s review the benefits of this untapped resource which offers a tangible difference in our performance and well-being.
For starters, meditation costs nothing, doesn’t require any equipment, can be done almost anywhere at any time of day and doesn’t involve any special training. All you need is a place to sit where you won’t be disturbed, i.e. a closed door and a phone on ‘silent’.
Connect with yourself before connecting with others
The primary benefit of daily meditation is the framework it provides for engaging in your day through deliberate, conscious choices. This quiet ‘check-in’ with yourself at the start of your day, is an invitation to acknowledge what you are feeling and thinking about the day’s bundle of commitments and responsibilities. It also provides a reflective moment to connect the dots of what it all means for you in the bigger picture. The long-term benefits of regularly taking time for this inner ‘self-scan’ is like an insurance policy for our most constant companion, the one reflected back to us when we look in the mirror. As the comedian George Carlin remarked, ‘The only person who is with us our entire lives, is ourselves.’
This time spent on inward focus (anywhere from 5 to 30 minutes) gives us an edge of having first connected with ourselves, before stepping over the threshold to our workday, where we connect with others. This ‘edge’ translates to a stronger presence, clearer thinking, enhanced productivity and creative problem-solving – especially when the going gets tough.
The alternative is functioning on automatic pilot. Going through the motions of what you believe you should be doing, because of what a dreaded future will look like if you don’t. You might enjoy some of your activities and even look forward to them. Regardless of whether you anticipate your day with anxiety or joy, meditation adds value by enabling you to prepare, reflect and choose an intention for how you will ‘show up’ on the day.
Another built-in feature of meditation is agency. Choosing to withdraw from the demands of our environment for a specific timeframe every day reinforces our sense of autonomy. It’s an act of resistance to what often feels like relentless pressure to perform or get things done. It’s a reminder that no matter how much we feel beholden to the responsibilities of our jobs, our families and our communities, we are still the bosses of ourselves.
You can meditate sitting on a chair, or on a cushion on the floor. It’s important that your back is supported, so you might try adding a cushion or two against the back of the chair or the wall. If you are using a chair, make sure your feet are flat on the floor. Eliminate all distractions in the room by closing the door and setting all phone or computer messages to silent. If you are new to meditation start with 5 minutes. With time you might want to lengthen the session in 5-minute increments. After some years of experimentation, I have settled on a 20-minute session, and I use a timer. Remember, the length of the meditation session is not what matters, it’s the repetition (ideally) as a daily practice that makes a difference.
Meditation Basics: Counting your breaths
The red thread through the entire meditation session is counting your breaths (inhalation + exhalation) up to 10 and then starting over. When your mind starts to wander with other thoughts (which will inevitably happen) imagine those thoughts being encased in a bubble and floating away.
Even if all you do is count your breaths, the meditation session will calm you down. The science behind this is simple and elegant. When you inhale you activate your bodies accelerator, the sympathetic nervous system. This is correlated with alertness and action, and in the extreme our fight-or-flight responses. Exhalation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, putting on the brakes, slowing down the heart and relaxing muscles. Balancing inhalation and exhalation are the keys to making sure your body’s accelerator and brake system are working harmoniously together. When we are stressed, this balance gets out of whack: it’s like driving your car with one foot giving full gas while the other is slamming on the brakes. Meditation relaxes the body by reducing stress hormones, cooling down you’re your metabolism. When things slow down, you are more aware of what is happening
A Structured Meditation Session
While there are many types of meditation that have evolved over centuries, I practice what I call a ‘Structured Meditation’. I follow a 7-step process, guiding me to consider certain questions or use visualizations to boost my readiness for the day. While I am sharing a format that I have discovered for myself, I invite you to customize the process – adapting the questions, shuffling the order of steps, etc. in any way that works for you.
The key is to observe and accept whatever emerges, without judgment.
Why is this last step important? Because normally our conscious mind only has access to 10% of what is going on inside of us. The other 90% is in our unconscious, but nonetheless has a strong influence on how we perceive, behave and feel throughout the day. When we sit quietly with ourselves through meditation, the gates to the unconscious start to open, heightening our awareness about our own drives, needs and inner resources as well as our stumbling blocks.
When you are ready to end your meditation session, either from an internal or external timer, just gently open your eyes, take a moment to reconnect with your surroundings - and voila! You are ready for your day.
Meditation practice is one of the most cost-effective and high ROI forms of self-care. Nonetheless, it remains undervalued as a resource for high performing professionals. To those remaining sceptics who believe that they just don’t have enough time or discipline for meditation practice, I leave you with a quote from Deepak Chopra M.D., a world renown researcher on the intersection of science and spirituality:
‘It isn’t successful habits that get (you) to the top. It’s being centered, aware and secure.’
While I have shared both meditation basics and a more detailed structure for a meditation session here, I invite you to start slowly with an open and curious mind. Even if it's just stopping what ever you are doing, closing your eyes and takeing three easy breaths, just pause and notice the difference..............
*For those who are interested in exploring chakra’s (the Indian tradition describing energy points in your body) and chanting as a support resource, there are several websites which provide information on this practice, for example https://evolutionvt.com/chanting-the-chakra/
This article is the second in a series highlighting one of the 8 areas of focus: Self-care Practice, on the Female Leadership Wheel™ a unique coaching tool I developed to help women identify areas for leadership growth.
Check out my previous article on Negotiation Skills.
Author: Lisa Ross-Marcus is a leadership coach and intercultural consultant. Her primary focus is empowering women to lead in organizations or as founders of their own enterprises.