Meditation For MBAs: Train Your Mind, Improve Your Game — Part III

by on September 11th, 2012

In the first two articles in this series, I outlined the physical and mental benefits of meditation, explaining how the practice will help you better navigate the MBA-application process and become a better leader.

I’ve saved perhaps the best for last: the “touchy feely” benefits of meditation, which I contend are more important than you may think. While highly educated, hard-driving business professionals often hold “hard” skills—such as financial modeling, statistics, research, and strategy—in greater esteem than emotionally oriented “soft” skills such as listening, empathizing, and working with conflict, the truth is that EQ (emotional intelligence) competency is highly correlated with professional success at the top.[i]

According to USC’s leadership expert Warren Bennis, “In the fields I have studied, emotional intelligence is much more powerful than IQ in determining who emerges as a leader. IQ is a threshold competence. You need it, but it doesn’t make you a star. Emotional Intelligence can.” [ii] Daniel Goleman, who made EQ a household term, has noted, “High IQ makes you a brilliant financial analyst; adding high EQ makes you CEO.” [iii]

If you honestly reflect on your own experience, I bet you’ll find this to be true. What has really made the difference when you’ve tried to achieve great things in concert with and through other people? Probably not your pivot-table expertise, turbo macros, or elegant coding skills! And recruiters concur. “Interpersonal communication and other so-called soft skills are what corporate recruiters crave most but find most elusive in M.B.A. graduates,” says the Wall Street Journal in a recent article. “The major business schools produce graduates with analytical horsepower and solid command of the basics—finance, marketing and strategy. But soft skills such as communication, leadership and a team mentality sometimes receive cursory treatment.”

According to Peter Salovey of Yale University and John Mayer of the University of New Hampshire, who first coined the term “emotional intelligence,” EQ “involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.” Goleman has outlined five distinct EQ competencies: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. In studying the research on meditation performed in the last decade in particular, I see substantial evidence that this form of mind training can rewire the brain in ways that can help develop these competencies. Thanks to what scientists refer to as “neuroplasticity,” our brains can change well beyond childhood; we can actually modify the “internal hardware” we use to interact with our world. In this article, I’ll be highlighting research related to meditation’s effects on self-awareness, emotional regulation and the generation of positive emotions, conflict management, and empathy.

What Is Going on in Here?

Self-awareness is the foundation of EQ as it allows us to clearly see what we are feeling, thinking, and doing. Scientists such as Harvard’s Sara Lazar have found that structures of the brain related to self-awareness such as the insula are thicker (and therefore more functional) in long-term meditation practitioners, and participants in a number of studies have reported greater post-study self-awareness after engaging in meditation training. Rather than being on automatic pilot, when we’re awake to what’s going on inside and outside us, we have the chance to slow things down and make choices about how we respond to our circumstances. Responding skillfully is way more likely if we can regulate our emotions. When we’re able to self-regulate, we can take ourselves from a highly activated emotional state (very angry, very sad, or very frightened, and very likely to do something rash and ill considered) back to a state of emotional equilibrium and mental objectivity, perhaps in a matter of minutes or hours rather than in a matter of hours or days or weeks. As we develop greater emotional self-mastery, we’re better able to handle the inevitable bumps in our relationships, and we have greater resilience because it’s easier to bounce back from emotionally triggering setbacks. The research suggests that meditation strengthens the capacity to self-regulate.

Studying the effects of observing and labeling thoughts and feelings (part of the meditation instructions I provided in the second article in this series), UCLA’s Matthew Lieberman and his colleagues have found that this practice promotes more neural connections between our more highly developed prefrontal cortex (executive brain functions) and more primitive areas of our brain that are tied to emotional arousal and the survival instinct, the amygdala in particular. The result: the dampening of the limbic region of the brain, which allows us to chill more easily and quickly. In a 2009 study, researchers found that compared to a non-meditating control group, participants in a eight-week MBSR training saw a decrease in grey-matter density (and therefore function) of their amygdala. Finally, in a University of Oregon study performed in 2010, scientists tracked the brain activity of those involved in a meditation training program vs. those doing relaxation practices; the former group showed significantly more brain activity in the region of the brain that has to do with regulating conflict. Imagine what it would be like to have a disagreement with someone and yet find it easier to remain calm, objective, and engaged with him or her. This is something you can learn to do.

I Feel Good

I’ve just described how meditation can help us effectively deal with challenging emotions, but scientists have also been validating the experience of centuries of meditators: meditation also generates positive emotions such as joy and gratitude. Richard Davidson, PhD, who established University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, is one such researcher.

In studying both long-term meditators—including power meditator Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, dubbed The Happiest Man in the World—and newbies from the life-sciences-research company Promega who participated in an eight-week meditation training, Davidson found that the long-term meditators demonstrated significantly more activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with positive emotions. University of North Carolina’s Barbara Frederickson has studied positive emotions in depth, discovering their ancillary benefits. She has determined that in addition to their feeling good, positive emotions can counteract negative emotions, fuel resilience, build resources, broaden thinking, and trigger an upward spiral that increases overall functioning and well-being. Moreover, she has proposed that emotions are contagious and a leader’s emotions are the most contagious; consequently, it behooves you to be generating positive emotions as often as you can!

Wondering if there was a way for people to experience more positive emotions without their having to depend on external circumstances turning out just the right way, Frederickson discovered and then tested the results of a practice called loving/kindness meditation (instructions below). The study participants—employees of Compuware Corporation—engaged in a seven-week loving/kindness-meditation training. Compared to the non-meditating control group, the meditators reported experiencing more positive emotions, as well as greater mindful attention, self-acceptance, positive relations with others, sense of environmental mastery and purpose in life, ego resilience, and physical health. What’s not to love about that?

I Feel You

We all know how good it feels when someone really understands what we’re going through, what we’re feeling, and what our situation looks like from our perspective. When we’re seen in this way, we feel a greater sense of connection, support, and possibility, which can help us persevere through rough times and inspire us to do our best. It’s no surprise then that leadership-development experts have been increasingly encouraging leaders to become more empathetic in the workplace. Leaders who take the time to connect with their employees in this way can better identify the challenges or issues that may be holding employees back and provide them with what they need to succeed. They can also deepen these relationships and foster greater trust, which leads to greater collaboration and improved productivity. You’ve probably been in circumstances in which you have cognitively tried to get into someone’s shoes—perhaps through visualizing yourself in the same circumstance—but it can sometimes be harder to feel someone else’s feelings, which is how we can connect more deeply with and better understand others.

A number of research studies have suggested that meditation enhances our ability to feel and empathize with others. As part of the 2007 Shamatha Project, scientists tracked the emotional responses of the participants to films depicting human suffering and violence. Compared to the non-meditating control group, the meditators demonstrated greater sadness in response to the suffering depicted while simultaneously exhibiting greater openness to what they were experiencing. They could feel others’ suffering without shutting down to it. When observing long-term power meditators who were engaged in a compassion-generating meditation practice while listening to the sounds of people suffering, Davidson found that they registered more activity in the parts of the brain associated with feeling pain in oneself and others, maternal love, and planned actions than the newbie control group. It was as though in the face of others’ suffering, these meditators were readying themselves to go provide help. Interestingly, the degree of brain activity was strongly correlated with the amount of cumulative practice. For both the experienced and new meditators in the study, the region of the brain that differentiates self from others quieted during meditation, suggesting that both groups felt less separate from and more attuned with those to whom they were listening. It’s also been shown that we can become more empathetic if we do practices such as the body-scan, which I outlined in the first article in this series. This meditation engages the part of the brain where our internal map of the body resides, and scientists have discovered that this part of the brain is also associated with having empathy for others.[iv] In effect, the more we’re willing to feel our own experience, the more we’re able to feel others’.

Lovingkindness Meditation

In the previous installment in this series, I provided instructions for working directly with your mind to cultivate greater focus, calm, and objectivity. I now want to introduce you to a heart-centered contemplative practice known as lovingkindness meditation, which Frederickson studied in her research. While this practice also helps you train your attention and become more aware of unconscious mental and emotional habits, it also helps open your heart toward yourself and others. This helps raise your EQ by cultivating greater self-acceptance, emotional regulation, and empathy. Plus, it can feel good to do!

Lovingkindness is a natural quality to which we all have access—essentially the wish for others to be happy. I’m not talking about something sentimental or sappy; rather, I’m pointing to a very authentic sense of caring and connection. To get a feel for this, close your eyes for a moment and bring to mind someone who makes you feel happy when you think of him or her. Babies and pets often evoke this feeling, but you might also think of a best friend, a teacher, a benefactor of some sort, or even someone you’ve read about toward whom you have friendly, well-wishing feelings. Notice what it feels like in your body when you imagine this person or pet before you. You might feel a sensation in your heart, perhaps some warmth; or you may notice some relaxation; or you may find yourself smiling. This is the feeling of lovingkindness. While we’re all born with the capacity to extend lovingkindness, this can become obscured due to past hurts, stress, and speediness. The good news is that there’s a practice we can do soften our hearts and cultivate more of this quality. You can listen to detailed instructions here.

Essentially, you’ll choose someone to whom you’d like to send lovingkindness. It may be the person or pet you just imagined, or you may choose someone else. Start with someone with whom your relationship is easy and open. You’ll imagine seeing or feeling this person in front of you and will silently send the following phrases from your heart to them, feeling what it’s like to say them to your recipient and sensing what the impact is on him or her.

May you be safe.

May you be happy.

May you be healthy.

May you live with ease.

Take time to internally say and send the feeling behind each phrase. Notice what you feel in your body as you send each one. You may find that some phrases are easy to send and some are hard—or maybe all of them are hard to do, that you’re just not feelin’ it. If it’s hard, that’s okay. Stick with the practice nonetheless. In so doing, you’re both becoming conscious of where your heart may be a bit closed and you’re planting seeds that will sprout later. As with mindfulness meditation, you want to be in relationship to what is, as it is. If your heart feels closed, notice that as kindly and gently as you can. And as with mindfulness meditation, you have an anchor for your attention—in this case the phrases. If your mind wanders off, just return to repeating the phrases and sending the intention behind them to the recipient.

You can repeat these phrases to this same person for the duration of your practice session, or you can change the recipient of your well wishes after a few rounds of the phrases. While the traditional teaching suggests sending lovingkindness to oneself first, many meditation teachers have found that Westerners can be hard on themselves and it can be easier to “moisten” the heart by sending lovingkindness to someone to whom our hearts are quite open and then proceed to ourselves. So if you’d like to change recipients, you’re next! Imagine yourself facing yourself in your mind’s eye, or tune in to your body as you send the following phrases to yourself:

May I be safe.

May I be happy.

May I be healthy.

May I live with ease.

Notice what you experience as you send and receive the phrases. You might feel touched, joyful, uncomfortable, angry, unloving, full of grief, mechanical, or any other number of feelings. Everything is allowed.

As you do this practice, you may find some phrases spontaneously arise for you that you’d like to use. I recently decided to incorporate the phrase “May you/I feel connected, loved, and supported” into my practice. At the same time, try not to make the practice too complex and have dozens of phrases from which to choose. In sum, feel free to be creative and use what has meaning for you, but don’t go overboard with it!

Some people find they can get a lot of mileage and heart opening by doing the lovingkindness practice for just themselves for months at a time. This may be just what the doctor ordered. You may also want to experiment with extending lovingkindness in more challenging situations. You might pick a neutral person next, someone for whom you have no emotional connection or charge. This might be someone who lives in your apartment building, a guy at the gym, or one of the baristas at your favorite café. You might also try sending lovingkindness to someone with whom you are having some relationship challenges. Believe me, this can be hard to do! A super-advanced practice is to send it to someone you find really difficult or downright dislike. Through sending lovingkindness to “difficult” people, I’ve often been able to shift my attitude at least a little bit toward them. Finally, if you’re feeling really big hearted some days, wish that all beings may be safe, happy, and healthy. It feels really good!

If in a particular sitting period you find it really too hard to send lovingkindness to yourself or others, repeat this phrase and observe what happens inside you:

For whatever it is I am feeling right now, may I hold this too with kindness.

You may choose to do a sitting practice consisting entirely of lovingkindness meditation, or you may do mindfulness meditation and precede or follow it with a few minutes of lovingkindness meditation. You can also practice lovingkindness meditation “on the spot.” Sometimes when I’m walking down the street, I’ll look at the passersby and silently send a phrase to each one of them. When I do this, it often feels as if I’m sending people anonymous presents, which I find delightful.

Informal Practice for Developing EQ

One way we can enhance our EQ is through improving our ability to listen and attune to others. This week I invite you to experiment with the practice “Listen Like a Sponge” (adapted from How to Train a Wild Elephant and Other Adventures in Mindfulness). When you’re having a conversation with someone, see if you can listen like a sponge. Completely soak up what the other person is saying, without jumping ahead to formulate a response before he or she has finished. Be like a big ear. If you find it hard to consider doing this in all of your conversations, pick a few conversations or a few people with whom you would like to practice this.

For example, it might be easier to do this practice for the first time while hanging out with a friend rather than jumping into doing it with a teammate in the face of a high-pressure deadline. Then again, that might be the perfect moment to give it a try. What will become most obvious as you start this practice are all of the things that prevent you from being able to listen fully. This is natural. Perhaps you panic that you won’t get a chance to say what you need to say or you fear you won’t remember to share that thought you just had that’s going to make you look so brilliant. Maybe you notice a lot of judgmental thoughts coming up. Maybe you feel really bored, or you check out and realize you have no idea what this person just said. Just as with sitting meditation, you can notice these things (“Hmm, that’s interesting”), not get caught up with them, and come back to your anchor—listening to the other person like a sponge. If you do this practice over time, notice what happens to your ability to listen and check out what happens in your relationships with those to whom you have so closely listened.

How to Approach Practice

If you choose to engage in the practices I’ve laid out in this series, I suggest incorporating the following principles to make your experience most fruitful.

  • Learning-lab mentality. I’ve already suggested regarding practice as a learning lab, bringing a sense of curiosity and wonder to what you’re doing. Give yourself a lot of space to try out these practices and use whatever arises as a learning opportunity rather than evaluate your experience as a success or failure.
  • Discipline. As with many undertakings, you need to practice regularly if you want to realize the benefits. This means sitting on days when you just don’t feel like it, even if just for five minutes, and sticking with the practice even if you experience phases in which you aren’t enjoying sitting or aren’t sure if anything beneficial is happening. We’ve spent years developing our mental, emotional, and physical wiring; it’ll take consistent practice over time for it to shift.
  • Beginner’s mind. After you’ve been practicing for awhile, it can be easy to fall into a groove of thinking that you know it all, that you’ve got this down, and your meditation practice can become stale as a result. Better to sit with what’s known as beginner’s mind. Each time you sit and each time you hear or read instructions or teachings, assume the disposition of a beginner. In truth, each experience you have is completely brand new and worthy of being met fully and freshly. Being willing to directly experience and relate to yourself and your world, and being gently honest about what you’re observing—whether you like it or not—is fundamental.
  • Letting go. As I’ve noted, you’ll be learning to let go, including letting go of striving to get any particular outcome, but you’ll be doing this in an uplifted and dignified rather than collapsed or sloppy manner.
  • Humor. Consider humor as an ally. If you’re getting tight or serious during your practice, kindly chuckle at yourself.
  • Remembering the body. The body is our primary link to the present moment because it exists in the present moment!
  • Feedback and further instruction. As with any endeavor, it’s important to get feedback and pointers so you can refine and grow in your practice. Some people also find that participating in a meditation class with others accelerates and deepens their process. Accordingly, do feel free to contact me regarding coaching, classes, or guidance about where to get instruction and coaching in your area.

“Loving, kindness and compassion are the basis for wise, powerful, sometimes gentle, and sometimes fierce actions that can really make a difference—in our own lives and those of others.” — Sharon Salzberg:

If you’re interested in learning more about meditation and other facets of conscious leadership, visit my Cultivating Conscious Leaders website. I’ll be sharing more regarding scientific findings and other news about contemplative practice, offering exercises and experiments you can do, pointing to resources, and creating a community for mutual learning and exploration in the realm of conscious leadership.

Deborah Knox is a Stanford MBA and CEO of Insight AdmissionsHaving meditated for the past 20 years, she has become intimately familiar with the benefits and challenges of practice, particularly for Type-A personalities.Devoted to the study of leadership excellence, Deborah has also served as a researcher and editor on numerous book projects for best-selling management author Jim Collins. Recognizing the immense benefits contemplative practices such as meditation could have in the field of leadership development, Deborah has studied numerous practices from the wisdom traditions, and has participated in the secularly oriented Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Teacher Training taught by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD.

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