Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
A few weeks ago, I shared some information from the latest Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) report on “Mental Health in America: A 2022 Workplace Report”. One of the statistics from the report indicated that 88% of participants felt offering mental health resources can increase productivity.
I know that organizations are very focused on productivity right now, which means they should be focused on employee mental health and wellbeing. But I’ll also admit, wellbeing is a very broad term that could mean many things and not the same thing to everyone.
So, when my friend and colleague Dani Fankhauser shared some information about her upcoming workshop on “Meditation for People Who Can’t Sit Still”, I thought this might be an opportunity to share something about a component of wellbeing – meditation. Dani and I have known each other for years and worked on several projects together, so she’s a trusted source on the topic. Thankfully, she was open to my idea for an interview.
Dani, thanks for being here. Let’s start with a definition. What is meditation? And why is it beneficial?
[Fankhauser] Meditation is reprogramming your nervous system. I’m a longtime yoga teacher who avoided meditation for years, so I like to use an analogy. In yoga, I’d tell students to find the sensation in a pose, and remain there until it got comfortable, then go deeper. We’re looking for the moment where you feel something but it’s not quite pain, and then to just breathe easy with the tension. When you practice yoga regularly, you find issues in daily life come up, like bad traffic or missing your train, and you instinctively start breathing easy like it’s a tough yoga pose. You’ve trained your mind.
Meditation is like that, but without the pose. What’s the absolutely most challenging ‘pose’ for the mind? To be still.
Many people think a still mind is the starting point of meditation, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. That’s a very advanced meditation and it takes years to achieve! The outcome of a meditation practice is that you move through daily life, and nothing triggers you, not perceived snubs, or overt insults.
- You can watch the news without getting thrown into wallowing despair, which means you’re able to take positive actions for your community and the world at large.
- When you sit down to work, you’re clear of worries about whether you fed the dog or what’s going to happen to your friend’s ex who has cancer.
We don’t even realize, most of the time, how much of a load we are carrying in our brain, things that are out of our power to fix. We work much more productively when we set it all down. Meditation trains us to do that.
How is meditation different from mindfulness?
[Fankhauser] Mindfulness is a larger category that includes meditation. Other mindfulness practices include yoga, singing in a group, walking in nature, and martial arts. Many activities we already do can be mindful—for me, running comes to mind, also repetitive tasks like washing dishes. One of the easiest ways to get into meditation is to identify your favorite activities that already clear your mind and do more.
One caveat is that taking in content, like scrolling social media or watching TV, may feel like it clears your mind but it’s shoving more ideas and stressors into your mind. It’s the opposite of mindfulness. It pushes down your own thoughts, replaces them with something else, and is actually adding to that psychic load that mindfulness wants to clear.
Mental health has become a huge topic recently. Can meditation be an effective part of mental health?
[Fankhauser] Many therapists, including the two who I’ve worked with personally, use meditation as part of the talk therapy process. The basis of psychotherapy is that the unhealthy behaviors we want to shed are linked to memories stored in our unconscious. Meditation helps to bring these to the surface, much faster, so they can be released – kind of a psychological scalpel.
Outside of traditional therapy, there is a growing breed of meditation apps that offer meditations for specific mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, but also more specific needs, like for wedding stress or morning gratitude. These apps make mental health care more accessible, like traffic lanes that keep us centered so our issues don’t spiral and disrupt our lives.
One of the reasons that I wanted to chat is because of your workshop, Meditation for People Who Can’t Sit Still. Tell us a little bit about it.
[Fankhauser] Before teaching meditation, I was an author and startup founder. Like many ambitious people, my mind was running 24/7 with ideas and I had a massive appetite for everything I wanted to accomplish. One of these projects was writing a novel. But, despite seeing the characters and the whole plot in my head, I was frozen when I tried to put it on paper. Meditation helped me cut through the noise of my self-doubt to write. I saw a pattern between the writing issues and challenges I had as a startup founder and employee.
My own early attempts at meditation failed, and it often felt like a waste of time, when I already had so much to do. The meditation techniques that worked for me are more obscure – breathwork, vocal toning, something called yoga nidra that involves lying down in the most comfortable position possible. These methods also give your mind something to anchor onto versus throwing you off the deep end and telling you to just stop thinking (which in yoga terms is like telling beginners to simply glide up into a headstand!).
I knew that ambitious leaders and creatives were missing out on the clarity and productivity that meditation can provide. I created the workshop to teach the absolute most fun meditation formats that quickly demonstrate the benefits – so much you actually want to come back and do it again.
You mentioned online apps earlier and I noticed that your workshop is offered both in-person and online. We hear a lot about technology being bad for us. Is online meditation effective? What are the advantages and possible downsides?
[Fankhauser] My workshop is designed for teams so there is also a group element. Meditation absolutely works online, which makes it incredibly accessible. The benefit of doing it in person is the accountability. When your colleague is sitting next to you meditating, you’re less likely to think, I could be finishing those emails right now. There’s peer pressure because you’re doing this together.
And as a bonus, it works both ways. The entire group helps each other focus simply with their presence. With the boost of focus, it’s like becoming an advanced meditator without hundreds of hours of practice. The benefits of a clear mind come to you. I love having teams practice together because afterwards there is also a sense of a shared experience and camaraderie.
This happens online, too, but it’s less tangible. Meditation online is like watching your favorite band on YouTube versus seeing them play live.
Speaking of the group format, can you elaborate on the advantages to building a meditation practice with the people that you work with?
[Fankhauser] In today’s workplace, we hold ourselves to a high standard. We want to do good work, and we want our colleagues to know that we’re putting in the time and effort. It can feel shameful to take time for ourselves. Meditation often is put under this umbrella of a personal practice, something extra or frilly.
The truth is meditation can turn an hour-long task into a twenty-minute task. Work is more efficient and fulfilling when your full mind is engaged. I’m sure everyone reading this has returned to work after a lovely weekend and found they were more productive.
Meditation can also completely dissolve months of time wasted doing the wrong projects. When you and your team sit in meetings with your full focus, able to listen without emotions driving reactions, you can align on the best path forward. So much of work today is about collaborating, and it’s presence-based, not time-based. Meditation trains us to perform at our full capacity and the result is that good work requires less effort.
The group workshop also includes a discussion at the end. Participants share how the experience felt for them. This makes the wide array of meditation benefits more concrete. The group also bonds through a non-work topic that’s known to magnify compassion.
Last question. I can see people not being able to “sit still” for a variety of reasons – work, home, family, etc. How do you suggest to someone that carving out the time for meditation is valuable?
[Fankhauser] We have many very good reasons for not wanting to sit still. The first step is acknowledging this. If I were to ‘guilt’ myself into meditation, I wouldn’t actually be clearing my mind. I would be filling it with anger – that’s the opposite of what I want to do! I would receive none of the benefits. It’s important to define a ‘why’ that is self-affirming.
While many studies show that meditation boosts our vital signs by lowering heart rate and blood pressure, I always tell people that they need to see the benefits for themselves. How we spend our time is so personal. Let meditation prove its worth to you with firsthand experience. That’s also why I like to teach a variety of methods, because each one resonates slightly differently with each of us.
The most effective times to meditate are right when we wake up or right before we go to sleep, because it sort of builds onto the sleep cycle, which already does the work of clearing our minds and sorting memories. Five or ten minutes at either of those times is a good experiment. Then, write down how it felt. Any little impact on your mood or well-being is like a reward. The reward is what wires our brain to create a habit.
I also recommend finding a meditation recording of about five minutes that you can listen to at your desk or wherever you are in those moments you’re hit with a stress trigger. I have one on the free app Insight Timer called Vibe Shift. It can very quickly change your mood, and a one-degree route adjustment puts you in a completely different place by the end of the day. Meditation, really, gives us back the reins of our lives, so we are not a victim of our circumstances, but able to choose the state of being we want at any time.
I want to extend a huge thanks to Dani for sharing her experiences and knowledge with us. And if you want to learn more about meditation, check out her workshop on Meditation for People Who Can’t Sit Still. As a human resources professional, having conversations about mental health and wellbeing can be a little intimidating. We might be saying to ourselves, “What if I say the wrong thing?” or “I’m in no position to help others because I need to get some help for myself.” That’s why we need to have more resources available and more conversations. So, we can as Dani mentions become more aware of the load that our brains are carrying.
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby while exploring the islands of Hawaii28