Meditate to be better than a goldfish

originally published on Financial Times MBA Blog on June 6, 2016

by: Laura Melina Loeven, MBA 2015-16

As part of my MBA degree at Nanyang Business School, I sought relief from my stressful student life by joining a meditation and leadership workshop with Laurence Freeman.

Laurence Freeman

Father Freeman is a Benedictine monk who became famous for practising meditation with Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister of Singapore between 1959 and 1990. Meditation describes themental discipline that helps individuals to discover their inner consciousness and to develop spiritual energy. It can also promote relaxation and calm a distracted mind.

I was there because I wanted to deal with issues caused by my frenzied lifestyle: insomnia, coffee addiction, hair loss, you name it.

In the first lesson I discovered the average person’s attention span is incredibly short. Since the digital revolution, most people can only focus for just eight seconds. This is even less than a goldfish, which has an attention span of nine seconds.

It seems the human race needs to relearn attentiveness and break some of its unhealthy habits. Dividing our precious attention between the virtual and real world, television ads, phones and all other distractions of daily life, we have lost the ability to just sit and be in the moment.

At the time of the workshop, I was an MBA student close to graduation, I confess that I felt unable to just “be” in the present, but rather contemplate the next move. Simply being, not doing anything, poses a seemingly insurmountable challenge to the self-titled workaholics.

The downsides of multitasking are obvious — we pick up only 20 to 30 per cent of the information available. We can waste valuable time and resources by overthinking merely for the sake of thinking about something — a mental activity which serves no purpose.

In his soothing voice, Fr Freeman outlined his strategy for dealing with stress: meditation which provides a moment of silence in a noisy world. This has the power to reduce anxiety, increase productivity and improve human relationships, Fr Freeman explained.

But where do I find the time to meditate in my jam-packed schedule?

Fr Freeman’s response was simple: you never have time, you make time. Stress is a choice, and most of us choose to be stressed, because this simply is what everybody else does. Throughout the day, we volunteer immediate attention to every small agitation in our environment, and hence become creators of our own misery.

‘The downsides of multitasking are obvious — we pick up only 20 to 30 per cent of the information available’

However, meditation corrects this tendency towards distraction, and resets our busy minds. It is certainly no coincidence that meditation and medication start with the same prefix “med-”, Greek for care and attention.

Under instruction, I sat with my eyes closed, back straight, hands folded on my lap, and soundlessly recited a mantra. Pretty soon I discovered just how difficult it is to focus for 10 minutes.

My first steps into the world of meditation became an incredible journey of discovery and self-reflection. Taking baby steps on the long walk to peace, kindness, joy, patience, self control and many more big words, I discovered how difficult it is to just focus for 10 minutes straight. My mind wandered again and again, and seemed to resist stubbornly any effort to empty my brain’s Ram.

After two days of practising meditation, I left the workshop feeling deeply impressed with the world of imagination and inner peace that opens up to those who regularly meditate, but at the same time I am utterly ashamed of my inability to shut down. However, I also felt much calmer.

Yet, drawn in by the science of meditation and its positive impact on the mind and the work of successful leaders, I vowed to practise regularly — and made a promise to beat the goldfish in the discipline of attention.

Today, I still get distracted during meditation, but I appreciate that taking this regular time out allows me to relax and withstand stressful situations.

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