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A Leader's Guide to Meditation

Steve Schlafman
Steve Schlafman
15 min read
A Leader's Guide to Meditation
Photo by S Migaj / Unsplash

Table of Contents

“You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.”
—Zen proverb

One steamy afternoon last summer while on a long bike ride, the temperature began to drop and the sky turned black. In the distance, I saw an ominous pack of thunderheads making their way toward me. I pulled up on the side of the road to check the forecast and assess the situation. SEVERE WEATHER ALERT FOR ULSTER COUNTY. TAKE ACTION. At that moment, I became queasy and felt a twisting in my stomach–I was in the middle of the Catskills and fifteen miles from home. With no time to waste, I jumped on my bike and began to pedal like my life depended on it—which it did.

Minutes later, the sky opened up—buckets of rain poured down, thunder reverberated in the thick air, and lightning crashed around me. Not only was I drenched, I was frightened and panicked. My nervous system was in overdrive—my heart rate hit 180 beats per minute and my breathing was shallow. Alone and scared, I was gasping for air. Instead of huddling under a tree and waiting for the storm to pass, I decided to push forward and focus on my breath rather than the chaos around me. I slowed my breathing and counted each inhale and exhale, praying this would calm my nervous system. In a few minutes, my body relaxed and my mind sharpened. I became one with the bike and made it home safely.

This is the power of meditation.

Years before that storm, I was struggling with addiction and focused on pleasure and relief. On a whim, I picked up The Power of NOW, by Ekhart Tolle. I wasn’t sold on “spiritual enlightenment” but I was captivated by the word NOW. Tolle’s words were a mirror that reflected old patterns and conditioning: I had been living completely in the future. I knew something had to change.

When I finished the book, I wasn’t sure where to start. Tolle includes some forms of meditation, and I wondered if meditation was the gateway. I had some preconceived notions from a decade-long yoga practice—it would help me “zen out,” settle my anxiety, and see my thoughts clearly—but I wasn’t sure. I also wondered if meditation could loosen the grip of my addiction, which stunted my emotional development and led me to obsess over the next fix.  

Here’s what was true in that moment: I was tired but willing to try anything to be more present and kick my addiction. Meditation seemed like a low stakes experiment and the obvious path forward.

After mulling it over for a few days, I mustered up the courage to go within, texted a close friend, and asked her if she could introduce me to her meditation teacher.

Just one week later, I was meditating on my own. More than seven years later, meditation is the foundation of my emotional, spiritual, and physical wellbeing.

No other practice has transformed my being and life more. It has helped me focus, manage stress, and amplify my self-awareness. It has helped me observe and be with whatever thoughts and feelings are present. It also transformed how I show up in the world, tune into others and perceive what’s happening around me. There are many other benefits of meditation—I’m discovering and experiencing new ones every day.

Meditation has also transformed how I lead and coach—I’m far more empathetic, intuitive and curious than I was seven years ago. In fact, I wouldn’t be nearly as effective in my job if I didn’t have a daily practice. It has taught me more than I ever thought I could learn about leadership, interpersonal dynamics, integrity, and resiliency.

In this post, I’ll provide an overview of meditation, explain the most common meditation techniques, and describe the benefits. I’ll also unpack how these benefits are relevant to founders and leaders of all kinds. Finally, I’ll provide advice and resources for you to get started.

What Is Meditation?

"Meditation is commonly described as a training of mental attention that awakens us beyond the conditioned mind and habitual thinking, and reveals the nature of reality."
-Tara Brach

Meditation is a practice where an individual uses a variety of techniques—such as focusing on the breath, sensations, thoughts, or specific words—to train attention and awareness, and achieve mental and emotional stability and clarity. John Yates, the author of The Mind Illuminated, writes that meditation is simply “the systematic training of the mind.”

Meditation ascended from Buddhism and Hinduism roots more than 3,000 years when it was developed in India. It found its way to the west in the 18th century and was introduced in the United States in the early 20th century. In the 1960s, interest in meditation surged when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi came west to teach Transcendental Meditation—in the process, he captivated hearts and minds of The Beatles and countless followers.

In the past decade, meditation has exploded in popularity around the world. While I wasn’t able to find the exact number, several places on the web estimate the number of meditators to be between 200 and 500 million. According to the CDC, 14.2% of American adults surveyed in 2017 said they had practiced meditation at least once in the past year. This number was up from 4.1% in 2012.

Even if you haven’t meditated before, I’m confident you’ve had a meditative experience before. How often do you lose yourself working, walking in nature or exercising? When time feels to slip away, when your senses are amplified, and you’re immersed in the task at hand?

While meditative experiences are not the same as meditation, they provide a glimpse into what’s possible. This includes the feeling of losing yourself in nature, being connected to something bigger than yourself, and internalizing your embodied experience.

Types of Meditation

There are a variety of meditations to choose from. Each form focuses on some aspect of body and mind and has its own techniques, practices, and benefits. In my own practice, I began with Transcendental Meditation and now practice a combination of mindfulness, focused attention, yoga, and vipassanā.

Mindfulness Meditation

In mindfulness meditation, you pay attention to the stream of thoughts that pass through your mind or sensations in your body. In each moment, you’re asked to become curious, suspend judgement, and simply note what’s present. This helps build awareness and metacognition (more on this below).

Focused Attention

This involves focusing on an object as a way of staying present and slowing down your inner chatter. These objects, also known as anchors, can include breath, sound, sensation, taste, a visual object, and mantra. When you catch your mind wandering, you acknowledge that you strayed and calmly (and kindly) bring your attention back to the anchor. As the name suggests, this practice sharpens focus and attention.

Moving Meditation

Moving meditation is what the name suggests—a series of deliberate movements that shift consciousness and produce a meditative state. Popular moving meditations include walking, yoga, tai chi, and qi gong. These meditations create a deeper connection and awareness of your body; group movement re-connects you to others, which can have remarkable effects on stress and depression.

Mantra Meditation

This type of meditation instructs you to gently repeat a word, sound, or phrase to clear your mind and even achieve transcendental states. As you repeat the mantra, you experience a profound sense of calm, concentration, and awareness. Transcendental Meditation is the most popular form of mantra meditation.

Body Scan Meditation

This practice, also known as vipassanā (or “insight”), instructs you to scan your body from head to toe and non-judgmentally note any pain, tension or discomfort that’s present. The purpose isn’t to relieve or try to stop these sensations but rather to connect with the body, release tension, and relax. This is a great way to increase awareness of your body and even relax before bedtime.

Loving Kindness Meditation

This meditation, also known as mettā, instructs you to direct words, images, and feelings of love, compassion, and acceptance toward ourselves and others. A common practice of mettā includes imagining someone, really anyone, and then silently repeating, “may you be happy, may you be safe, may you be healthy, may you be free from suffering, may you be at peace.” A regular practice of mettā increases love, self-compassion, empathy, and emotional resilience.  

Visualization Meditation

This technique asks you to actively imagine positive situations, capabilities, interactions, and outcomes. The goal is to tap into your imagination, create new images and see what is possible. Many athletes use visualization to prepare their minds before a big match. Loving Kindness is also a form of visualization. This type of meditation eases anxiety and boosts emotional well-being, performance, and confidence.

The Power of Meditation for Leaders

“To meditate means to go home to yourself. Then you know how to take care of the things that are happening inside you, and you know how to take care of the things that happen around you.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh

Anyone with the motivation, persistence, and patience can realize the benefits of a regular meditation practice. Though meditation is not a panacea, cure-all, or short term fix, regular practice—four to five days a week for 10-20 minutes—has been shown to boost emotional, mental, and physical well-being.

Companies are complex human systems. Running an organization is an emotional and intellectual roller coaster. You need to be sharp in both of those domains. This requires all of the benefits I describe below—awareness, attention, intention, relationships, and empathy. The effects that meditation can have on calming the nervous system and centering you in your body can also help immensely with these high-stress roles; helping you recognize how you are actually feeling in body and mind can help prevent burnout.

For starters, meditation will help you increase your emotional intelligence. The term was first coined in 1990 by researchers John Mayer and Peter Salovey and was later popularized by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence. Mayer defined it as “the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions.” There are a number of aspects of emotional intelligence that are relevant to leadership—self-management, self-awareness, empathy, and emotional literacy.

A founder who's working 60-80 hours a week may not be stopping to process what they’re experiencing or assess what's going on. Slowing down and stopping is important because it gives the task positive network (carrying out tasks) a break and allows the default mode network to work in the background. We tell ourselves we need to work 16 hours a day, but the reality is your brain is synthesizing information and working on problems even when you’re not actively at work—meditation allows the brain to catch up.

That matters because it allows you to make better decisions for your company, your relationships, and your health. Meditation is like waking rest.

Awareness

The first and most obvious benefit of meditation is improved self-awareness and awareness in general. Awareness provides the overall context for conscious experience. This includes our inner experience—thoughts, sensations, and emotions–and our outer experience– sights, sounds, and smells. Meditation helps cultivate metacognition, which is the ability to non-judgmentally monitor and assess your thoughts. This is essential for shifting behaviors, beliefs, and narratives. Over time, you’ll develop the ability to glean important insights into your personality, behaviors, and relationships.

Awareness is an essential skill for leaders. According to research by organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich, 95 percent of people think they’re self-aware, but only 10 to 15 percent actually are. The implications for your organization and employees are real–-lower morale, decreased motivation, higher stress, and increased employee turnover. Additionally, general awareness helps you “read the room” and sense what is happening in meetings and within the organization. Over time as you refine this skill, you’re able to pick up on subtle cues like tone of voice, posture, and much more.

Attention

As Yates describes in The Mind Illuminated, attention singles out some small part of awareness in order to analyze and interpret it. In other words, this is our ability to hone in on an object, such as this paragraph, and remain fixed on it for a period of time. Specific types of meditation, such as mindfulness, cultivate the ability to sharpen your attention by tuning into your breathing, sensations, or specific thoughts and then letting go of whatever arises. Repeating this over and over builds your attentional capacity.

This skill relates to leaders in many ways—the ability to focus on data, concentrate when processing email, be fully attentive in conversations, and determine the right course of action. With 1,000 things flying at you every day, being able to devote your undivided attention and focus on a single task is critical. When we are absent minded and lack focus, we miss important details and information that could be the difference between success and failure.

This table from The Mind Illuminated provides an excellent comparison of awareness and attention. As you can see, there are evolutionary and survival benefits to both of these skills.

Intention

There is a quote often attributed to Viktor Frankl, which describes the power of meditation well: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” Meditation increases the capacity of this space, allowing us to slow down and carefully observe our thoughts, sensations, and emotions. And when we are able to observe, we can begin to choose how we want to move forward. That space is awareness and intention. Without it, we’re reactive (responding to stimuli immediately and on impulse) and run by outdated programs (patterns of thought and behavior that do not serve our present) whether we realize it or not.

A former coach used to tell me, “Reacting gives away your power. Responding with intention gives you power.” In high stress and chaotic situations, it’s easy to react and fly by the seat of your pants. Meditation helps cultivate self-management which helps you shift from reactivity to intentionality. When you’re unable to manage yourself, you may say things you regret, make hasty decisions, and get caught in a cognitive emotive loop.

The body and nervous system

Meditation and intentional breathing can calm the autonomic nervous system, which regulates the body’s stress response, digestion, and heart rate. Just 10-20 minutes of focused breathing has shown to reduce stress and inflammation. It can be a powerful physical and emotional reset. Additionally, some forms of seated meditation such as vipassanā (body scanning) and moving meditations such as tai chi, enable us to connect to our bodies and tap into its intelligence.

How many times in your life have you said: “I could feel it in my gut”? Whether you realized it at the time, that was your Body Intelligence (BQ). This intelligence is just as important for leaders as IQ and EQ. When leaders slow down, go into their bodies, they’re able to tap into the billions of neurons below the neck—with practice, body awareness can help you accurately assess threats (real and imagined) that might be clouding your cognitive function, tune into and adjust your level of energy and stress, unblock creative problem solving, and much more. Believe it or not, the brain response (prefrontal cortex) is slower than the body response, which happens at a subconscious level. Leaders who are able to tune into their bodies have more information at their disposal and at a speed advantage.

Interrelationships

Meditation also helps you see connections and interrelationships. Thich Nhat Hanh, a famous Vietnamese monk, coined the term “interbeing,” a concept summed up well here:  “existence is a vast nexus of causes and conditions, constantly changing, and everything is interconnected to everything else.” Some forms of meditation teach you to meditate on interrelationships. This practice loosens the grip of the ego and teaches us that we depend on many things and events beyond our conscious control.  

Every company and leader operates in a complex web of interdependencies. As I said earlier, companies are complex human systems. That’s why understanding interrelationships inside and outside the organization is essential for every leader. This includes encouraging teamwork, respecting diversity of skills and experience, promoting a “win-win” philosophy, and investing in stakeholder management. Understanding interdependencies is also critical for strategic planning.

Empathy and kindness

Meditation also helps you cultivate greater interpersonal awareness so you can sense what others are feeling and tune into how you react to certain people. Equally as important, you’ll begin to notice how people react to what you say and how you behave. In these and other ways, all forms of meditation can build empathy, gratitude, and love. Several forms of meditation, such as Loving Kindness Meditation, specifically cultivate these feelings.

The workforce is becoming more dynamic and diverse. Empathy and compassion are no longer nice-to-haves—they are necessary for building great companies that might even do some good in the world. Tuning into what your employees are experiencing is an essential leadership quality and leadership superpower. Emotional literacy is also critical—the ability to recognize and label your emotions, and understand and manage them so they don’t overwhelm or get the better of you. Emotions are helpful. They’re not bad. But it’s important to know what they’re trying to tell you. This is critical in a work environment.

Nuggets of Wisdom For You

“The thing about meditation is you become more and more you.”
-David Lynch

I’ve heard just about every excuse and story from leaders when it comes to meditation. “I have ADD and I can’t sit still. I can’t stop my thoughts and calm my mind. I don’t want to be with my thoughts and emotions. This feels like a giant waste of time. I’ve tried this before and it doesn’t work for me. Running is my meditation. I used Headspace for a few weeks but then gave up. I wasn’t feeling any benefits. It’s too noisy in my apartment. I don’t know where to start. I don’t have the time.”

Sound familiar?

I’ll be honest. Meditation isn’t easy—sitting with your thoughts, emotions, and sensations every day is challenging even for a seasoned practitioner like myself. Walking this path requires courage and commitment because the barriers, while perceived, are real.

That said, if I can meditate, so can you. I was diagnosed with ADD early in life. When I was young my mother would say that I had the shpilkes, a Yiddish term for nervous energy, anxiousness, and restlessness. Before I learned to meditate I told myself that I was incapable of sitting still.

Meditation is simpler and harder than most people realize, but it’s not impossible. If you can achieve a “meditative” state then you can meditate. In other words, I believe that anyone—YES YOU—can cultivate and enjoy the fruits of a long-term practice.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned over the years that I wish I had known when I was just starting out. They might serve you on your journey.

  1. Start small: Begin with 5 to 10 minutes and build from there.
  2. Pick a consistent time to practice: Mornings and evenings have worked best for me.
  3. Meditation is a practice: You get a “do over” every moment.
  4. Trust the process: It takes time to cultivate a practice and experience the benefits.
  5. You practice on your cushion for when you’re off the cushion.
  6. Let go of expectations: There’s no “right” or “perfect” way to meditate.
  7. Choose an anchor you are comfortable with: When confused or frustrated, simply return to your constant.
  8. Be easy on yourself: Some days on the cushion will suck and others will be delightful!
  9. The goal of meditation is not to stop your thoughts but rather to be with them.
  10. Look forward to and celebrate when your mind wanders.
  11. Find friends, a teacher, or a community to practice with and share experiences.
  12. Welcome whatever arises: A constant flood of thoughts, sensations, and emotions is part of the human experience.

The learning never stops. It’s like peeling back an endless onion. The deeper I go the more I realize there’s more to learn about my self, my consciousness, and my emotions, and identity, consciousness, and emotion in general. In fact, I learn something new every time I take the cushion.

Finally, if you’ve experienced trauma at some point in your life, it might not be safe to practice meditation without proper guidance and instruction. You may want to consult a healthcare professional before starting a practice. Meditation can never replace therapy.

How to Get Started

“​​One of my meditation teachers said that the most important moment in your meditation practice is the moment you sit down to do it. Because right then you’re saying to yourself that you believe in change, you believe in caring for yourself, and you’re making it real. You’re not just holding some value like mindfulness or compassion in the abstract, but really making it real.”
—Sharon Salzberg, meditation teacher

Many leaders and friends tell me they’d like to try meditation but aren’t sure where to start. I’ve collected a treasure trove of resources over the years that can help with just that. Here are some of my favorites when you’re ready to dip your toe in the water.

3 Books:

3 Apps:

3 Talks:

You can start meditating at any time by simply taking a deep breath and asking yourself:

  • What am I aware of at this moment?
  • How am I reacting to what’s present?
  • What is a kind, wise and gentle response?

My Invitation To You

If you’ve been “meditation curious” and have been looking for a nudge, here is my invitation: try a daily meditation for ten minutes over the next week. If you prefer to use an app to guide you, I recommend The Waking Up App, but you can also try a simple mindfulness meditation such as this one.

  1. Find a spot: Choose a place that’s quiet and comfortable.
  2. Set a timer: Begin with 5-10 minutes.
  3. Take your seat: Sit comfortably cross-legged or in a chair with both feet on the floor.
  4. Tune into the breath: Begin to follow the sensations of your inhale and your exhale.
  5. Notice mind wandering: When your mind has wandered, simply and easefully come back to your breath.
  6. Be kind: Don’t judge or beat yourself up when your mind wanders—this is a practice!
  7. Express gratitude: When you’re finished, slowly lift your head, open your eyes, take in your surroundings, and thank yourself.
  8. You have this! Let's recap: Get comfortable, follow your breath, notice when the mind wanders, kindly come back to breath, rinse and repeat.

All that said, I’m not asking you to consider and adopt a life-long practice—just ten minutes a day for one week. That’s it. See for yourself what meditation is and isn’t. You might be surprised by what you learn about the practice, and your mind, body, and emotions.

Don’t hesitate to email or tweet at me if I can provide support or answer any questions. As I’m sure you can tell, I’m passionate about this topic and I’d be honored to help you get started. I’d also love to hear about your experience if you’re willing to share. What have you learned about yourself? What surprised you? What frustrated you? Where’s your edge? What do you think about meditation now?

It’s time to get started. Good luck on your journey, on and off the cushion.

May you be safe.
May you be healthy.
May you be happy.
May you live without suffering.
May you live in peace.
Meditation

Steve Schlafman Twitter

Exec coach. Writer. Student of Change.