In this opinion piece published on the Wharton school website, Payal Sheth, a global marketing manager at the Boston Consulting Group, explains how an ancient meditation technique helped change the way she thinks and engages with people.
Yes, you read that right. Silent meditation. One might ask: Isn’t it obvious that you are almost always silent when you meditate? Yes, but what I mean by silent meditation is the technique referred to as Vipassana (which means to see things the way they are), one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. I learned it over a 10-day course at Igatpuri in Western India, among the world’s largest meditation centers and the main center of Vipassana’s rapidly growing global community of practitioners. Participants in the course stay silent for 10 days. They do not utter a word (unless there is an emergency); make no gestures or facial expressions; and they commit to spending 10 to 12 hours a day meditating between 5 a.m. and 8 p.m. (with a few breaks in between).
Imagine a day without your phone or an internet connection; a day when you don’t communicate with another person or say a single word. A day without anyone you know around you. Now multiply that by 10. That is a Vipassana meditation course. It is by far the toughest thing I have done in my life. I believe it is one of my most significant achievements.
The effects of Vipassana are life-long, in my opinion. You do not see a change in your personality on the 11th day when you walk out of the center. But over the months and years that follow, the change can be dramatic, depending on your practice. You begin to notice an internal shift, a shift only you can feel at first, and then at some point the world begins to take notice, as more and more scientific evidence now reveals.
How meditation changes your brain
The advent of MRIs and other brain-scanning techniques have allowed neuroscientists to peer directly into meditators’ brains to see the impact. For example, neuroscientists have learned that meditation strengthens the brain by reinforcing the connections between brain cells. A 2012 UCLA study showed that people who meditate exhibit higher levels of gyrification — the so-called folding of the cerebral cortex as a result of growth — which, in turn, may allow the brain to process information faster. Scientists suspect that gyrification is responsible for making the brain better at processing information, making decisions, forming memories and improving attention.
Indeed, as much of the research shows, meditation causes the brain to undergo physical changes, many of which are beneficial. Other studies, for example, have shown that meditation is linked to cortical thickness, which can result in decreased sensitivity to pain. Neuroscientists have also used MRIs to compare the brains of meditators with non-meditators. The structural differences observed led the scientists to speculate that certain benefits, like improved cognitive, emotional and immune responses, can be tied to this growth and its positive effects on breathing and heart rate.
Linked to positive emotions
The integrity of gray matter, which is a major player in the central nervous system, certainly appears to benefit. Meditation has been linked to more positive emotions, the retention of emotional stability and more mindful behavior (heightened focus during day-to-day living).
“Imagine a day without your phone or an internet connection; a day when you don’t communicate with another person or say a single word.”
In addition to these benefits, which health professionals at several universities continue to study, my experience is that meditation offers personal benefits. I enrolled in the Vipassana course just before I was to start working as head of marketing for the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in India. And I can say with conviction that this technique has brought about meaningful change in the way I think, operate and engage with people. Here are some lessons I have learned, which continue to help me succeed at work.
The fundamental premise of Vipassana meditation is acceptance. It teaches us to see and accept things as they are, instead of how we want them to be. This means that no matter how magical or miserable a situation may seem, we accept it as it is. We confront it in all honesty. We don’t cling to it, hoping things will never change, nor do we long for a rushed demise.
Unlike other forms of meditation that help identify and stop certain thought patterns, or calm the mind using chants and visuals, Vipassana trains practitioners to focus the mind on observing the most subtle physical sensations. It is believed that these sensations are the root cause and the trigger of our thoughts and emotional reactions. By recognizing these sensations at their conception, instead of letting them develop and take us over, we can change our thought patterns to minimize agony and lead a more joyful life.
Applying this principle in my work has made life so much more peaceful. I was often in a race to improve work situations or manage people’s egos. Sometimes I would get bogged down by difficult relationships with colleagues. Acknowledging and accepting that nothing lasts forever makes me view life in a different way. I no longer stay grouchy for days. I try to complain less and constantly remind myself of the impermanence of situations.
Respond, don’t react
By learning to step back and observe, you learn the art of responding rather than reacting. I had suffered from being reactive all through my life. As someone with a type-A personality, I gave a lot of importance to instant reaction. But that meant not giving myself time to think, reflect, introspect, and then act. I learned the process referred to as “response” only after meditating for more than 100 hours during the course.
“Reflecting on some of these traits has made me, I hope, a better people manager and a more rational individual.”
I remember during my pre-Vipassana days that I would immediately lose my temper if someone in my team did not meet a deadline or something did not go as planned. While sitting cross-legged on the floor in Vipassana for three consecutive hours, I now think about how quick I was to draw conclusions without giving someone an opportunity to explain. Reflecting on some of these traits has made me, I hope, a better people manager and a more rational individual.
I once read that one of the key strengths of a successful leader is the ability to be decisive and see things clearly, even when one’s judgment is clouded by multiple concerns. In today’s fast-paced environment, it is essential to make decisions quickly.
At BCG, whether you are a newly hired communications manager or an experienced marketing director, you have the creative freedom to introduce new ideas and implement innovations. To apply this creativity, one needs the ability to think clearly, strategize, and execute effectively. Vipassana meditation made me more observant and sharp and has enabled me to see things as they are.
Over the years, I have seen a tremendous improvement in the way I make decisions and the clarity with which my mind can think.
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“Silence can be so powerful,” is something I had only heard. “Less is more,” is something I had only read. Ten days of not speaking a word was unimaginable for an immensely talkative person like me. That’s exactly what made the challenge of maintaining silence more attractive. I was determined to complete this course because I thought it was practically impossible to do so. It is during the silent meditation hours that it dawned on me that effective communication isn’t about the number of words we speak. Instead, it is about the way we articulate our thoughts.
As a global marketing professional, I have always needed to be an effective communicator. This skill is especially critical in a leading consulting firm, where I have to communicate with colleagues whom I consider to be among the world’s most intelligent minds and be able to forge strong relationships with people across many cultures and languages. I consider this skill to be my core strength, and meditation has helped me sharpen it.
Vipassana meditation, for me, was both an eye-opener and a rude shock. I experienced the most minimalistic form of lifestyle I could have ever have imagined for myself, with no soft bed to sleep on; no air conditioning during the scorching summer heat; a room with spiders and webs; a very simple diet comprising fruits and vegetables; and no form of alcohol, artificial sugars, or any such addictions.
Vipassana keeps me grounded even when I travel first class to some of the most exotic destinations in the world. It reminds me to count my blessings while dining at Michelin star restaurants or spending a week at the most luxurious hotels around the globe. It is a constant reflection of how nothing in this world is permanent, or anything to get hung up on. It’s just causes and conditions doing what they do, manifesting through the body.
Going into Vipassana, I had strong opinions about relationships, morality, routine and personal choices. Walking away on day 11, I felt detached from so many of the preconceptions upon which I had built my identity. But it didn’t feel like a loss. Rather, it felt like a new beginning.
Start with just one minute
For anyone who wants to start taking the first steps along the journey that I have been on, I have a few suggestions. Vipassana can seem intimidating at first and therefore my suggestion is to start small. Devoting one minute a day, every day for a week, could be a good way to begin and you can then gradually progress as you gain more experience.
Meditators generally begin their practice by focusing their attention on their breath. I remember the first time I sat to meditate, all my mind did was wander and think of every possible thing in the world, except my breath. That, in fact, is very normal. The basic idea is simple. Every time your mind begins to shift its focus away from your breath and you get lost in thought, you simply — and gently — bring your attention back to your breath. And then you repeat this again and again until your meditation timer rings.
All you need to start meditating is a mat to sit on and a timer and you are good to go.
Why wait for the right time? Try it now.
Republished with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.