Meditation and mindfulness: Why they matter

There’s been some buzz this week surrounding a recent study from a Canadian group that showed a trend toward preservation of telomere length with participation in mindfulness meditation in breast cancer patients.  For those who are less familiar with telomeres and why we want long telomeres, think of them as the helmet at the end of your strands of DNA.  The more robust this helmet is, the better protected your DNA is from bad events.  Shortened telomeres have been associated with heart disease, diabetes, worse cancer prognoses…in short, most of the health scourges of the modern Western world.

So now we have health reasons why meditation might be good for us, in addition to the previous evidence that meditation makes our brains “stronger, more plastic, and younger.”  Meditation appears to make us more compassionate, by increasing our attentiveness or increasing our understanding of the interconnectedness of beings (or both).  Long-term meditation practice definitely changes both the structure and function of the brain, though the specifics of alterations in neural connections have yet to be defined.

But why, oh why, am I writing about mindfulness and meditation here on my professional blog?  Because mindfulness is relevant to how we function in leadership roles, and it helps us do our best work by allowing us to be more present. Taking “breaks,” even if they are brief, from our usual pattern of checking email while answering phone calls in between OR cases and worrying about being out of milk and who will pick the kids up from school and what will we wear to the holiday party this weekend and did anyone feed the dog and where IS my passport anyway?- provides us with a true biological reset.  See, just reading that list of things that many of us flip through in about that length of time naturally was just exhausting!

I’m busy.  You’re busy.  We’re all busy.  I get that.  But what if setting aside 5 minutes really does improve our compassion, enhance our leadership, make our brain more plastic, and maybe even improve our health?

It seems to me that the real question is why you wouldn’t set aside 5 minutes with those kinds of high-stakes rewards.  There’s nothing tricky about it and you don’t need to go shopping for any special equipment.  So, set your timer on your iPhone for 5 minutes.  Take a seat, and sit up straight.  Then just observe your breath in…and out…and in…and out…and put those thoughts about the dog and carpool and passport on the shelf when they intrude and go back to focusing on your breathing.  If you’re normal, your thoughts will wander.  That’s not failure, it’s just normal “monkey mind.”  Success is realizing you’ve wandered off, and coming back to your breath, time and again.

Really don’t have 5 minutes?  Take 3 or 6 deep breaths and give them your undivided attention.

Or have the Timeful app find the time for you, schedule it in, then check it off.

Now go.  Sit.  Breathe.  Get rid of the holiday madness just like that.


Edited to add:

First, an interesting tidbit from the HBR makes me question if mindfulness needs to part of our training about implicit bias (or if we simply institute mindfulness training and see if things change…)

And if you are looking for resources for meditation and mindfulness, the Headspace app and website are great, especially if you’re a novice.  If you’ve tried it out a bit and want access to some amazing teachers over the next six days, this Mindful New Year resource is FREE!  Susan Piver, who is one of the hosts for mindful new year, is a wonderful meditation instructor who has been pivotal for my own practice- and in her practice videos her cats occasionally make cameo appearances.