To be human is both a blessing and a curse. We’ve got these big brains, constantly buzzing with thoughts of innovation and love and hunger, which allow us an awareness of ourselves and our universe that few other animals seem to possess. Unfortunately, this idea engine in our skulls can be rather difficult to turn off at times. The mind races through so many thoughts in a day, or an hour, or even 10 minutes, that a person could be driven mad from the onslaught. These incessant thoughts cause stress, which can wreak havoc on a person’s personal and work life.
The numbers are clear: for many Americans, work is laden with stress. According to statistics cited by the CDC, up to 40 percent of American workers consider their job “very or extremely stressful,” and work-related stress is noted as one of the biggest causes of health problems in the average worker, above family or financial problems. Simply put, workers today are more stressed than ever before, and they need ways to cope.
As it turns out, there’s a way to calm the angry ocean of the mind that many of us may have written off or never considered: it’s called Zen meditation, and it’s becoming a big part of daily life at companies around the country.
Buddhism, a traditional Indian philosophy in which the ultimate goal is the enlightenment of the individual practitioner, has two major sects: Mahayana and Theravada. A third, less-practiced branch, called Vajrayana, is often considered to be a part of Mahayana. Mahayana is the most commonly practiced school of thought, with over half of all Buddhists following its teachings. Zen Buddhism is a school of Mahayana that was developed by the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty some 1,200 years ago. For Mahayana Buddhists, the emphasis of their spiritual practice is not placed on knowledge of sutras, or sacred teachings, but on knowledge of themselves. As such, meditation, or Zen, is the most important tool for most Buddhists as it allows them to look deep within themselves to gain a greater understanding of the world around them and, ideally, attain enlightenment.
Enlightenment is a lofty goal, however. For most, developing a greater sense of empathy and self acceptance is enough. Among certain ranks of Google employees, these things are part of a collective end-goal referred to as “emotional intelligence.” Based off of a combination of Buddhist and psychological teachings, Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” mindfulness courses have become a hit within the company, even spawning a best-selling book. Created by Google employee Chade Meng-Tan, the program is meant to teach Google employees, who, like millions of other people, often find themselves overwhelmed by their workload and disconnected from their fellow employees, to be more mindful of not only their own thoughts but of those of the people around them as well.
Many of those who have taken the course sing its praises, saying that it has helped them to become better people in one way or another. While Google was an early adopter of mindfulness teachings for their employees, they’re certainly not the only company that utilizes it or preaches its usefulness. Steve Jobs, for example, was a well-known practitioner of Zen Buddhism, and it may very well have affected his design process. Jobs’ company, Apple, along with other companies like Nike, AOL, and HBO, all offer mindfulness classes and relaxation rooms to allow employees to briefly slip away from the stresses of life at work and do some mental maintenance.
While these businesses are implementing meditation as a form of stress relief at work, they are mostly huge corporations that have the resources to spare on things like in-office spiritual guides and relaxation rooms. Ideally, these practices would be utilized by businesses big and small because stress isn’t reserved for employees at Fortune 500 companies.
Fortunately for the anxiety-ridden among us, taking a little time to practice mindfulness is rather easy and costs nothing. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Monique Velacour detailed a work-related meditation that is meant to develop your “relational agility,” or how you handle people at work who stress you out. When negative feelings about a particular coworker arise, Velacour encouraged the reader to take 10 minutes to perform a “loving-kindness” meditation. During this time, the practitioner must at first focus on breathing, then transition into self-reflection; they must show compassion to themselves, giving well wishes, as love for oneself is crucial to being able to love others.
The next step is to focus on a loved one, wishing the same health and happiness on them, which should be easy enough. The tough part comes when it’s time to wish those same things on someone for which the participant has negative feelings. Velacour encourages the reader to remind themselves that this other person has hopes, fears, and issues just like themselves. The goal of the exercise is to end the session having good will towards those who may be bothersome at times, to essentially let empathy for them dissuade the meditator from lashing out. This practice has the potential to create life-altering effects for whoever partakes in it, and the best part about it is that all it requires is a quiet space and 10 minutes.
Velacour’s suggestion is just one of many different meditations, each with a different goal regarding its effect on the practitioner. While they may sound silly to the skeptics out there, they are notably effective. These meditations are indicative of the power of the human mind to stop and reflect on itself, and in some cases, will itself to change an innate behavior. Achieving the final results of meditation takes intense concentration and discipline, but they are attainable to anyone who is willing to dedicate the time and energy to bettering themselves and, in turn, the people around them.
So, the next time you’re at work and confronted with a teetering mountain of paperwork or a sneering coworker, take some time for yourself. Find a quiet place and a pillow, sit down, and focus on your breathing. Don’t fight your thoughts, but rather, acknowledge them and then put them to the side. Repeat a mantra to help you empathize with your rude coworker, or find peace within yourself to get through that paperwork. With a little effort, you just may find yourself to be the happiest and most enlightened person in your office.
Feature photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.