Last fall, I was working out of a coffee shop on the Upper West Side in Manhattan that had no WiFi and like most long days on-the-go in New York City, my cell phone battery died. With no available outlet to charge it, I sipped on my latte and got started on a project that didn’t require Internet. It was the most productive four hours I’d had in months. There were no incoming emails, no social media notifications and no text messages to distract me.
With smart phones always nearby, we make ourselves accessible to anyone at any time. When we’re interrupted by incoming messages, we’re forced to switch gears, a time suck that wreaks havoc on our productivity. Following my unplugged afternoon at the coffee shop, I became more conscious of disconnecting as much as possible while I worked through tasks. I closed out of my browsers, turned off my phone notifications and even paused my Gmail Inbox so that emails wouldn’t come through.
This helped, but what I found was that regardless of everything I was turning off I couldn’t seem to shut down my mind. Technology and competing work, school and life responsibilities had trained my brain to be in a constant state of multitasking. I had a hard time keeping my attention on the task at hand as my mind wandered to other things – my to do list, what I was going to make for dinner, who I had to email, the phone call I needed to return. For someone who had no trouble focusing in high school, college and the early part of my career, I found this incredibly frustrating.
In an effort to regain the focus I’d lost, I turned to and committed to meditation. In many ways, the technology that has provided new and innovative means to connect us, has also drained us. This never ending accessibility that blurs work and life, keeps our mind in constant motion and we never really give it a break. Just like our phones, computers and gadgets, our brains need the opportunity to power down and reboot. And the simple practice of meditation allows us to do just that.
At a fundamental level, meditation is a practice of concentrated focus. The focus is put on a sound, object, visualization, breath, movement or attention itself in order to increase awareness of the present moment, promote relaxation and enhance personal and spiritual growth. To be honest, although the concept of meditation had always interested me, I was skeptical of the actual practice. It seemed vague, hard to understand and when I did try to sit still for a few minutes and quiet my thoughts, I found it difficult and frustrating.
But I hadn’t really understood meditation, its purpose and how it actually works when I first tried it a few years ago. As meditation has become more and more mainstream, its countless benefits are touted by celebrities, athletes, artists, healthcare professionals and business executive alike. Research has shown that meditation changes the structure and function of our brains by increasing grey matter, thickening the cerebral cortex, reducing reactivity of the amygdala and increasing certain activity in the prefontal cortex.
Essentially, when you meditate, you strengthen the mind “muscles” that allow different parts of the brain to communicate with one another so that you process information and regulate emotions better. What does that mean for us? A whole host of physical, mental and emotional benefits that play important roles in our careers, athletic performance and health.
Athletic Performance: Sports psychologists for professional and Olympic level teams of all disciplines use meditative techniques with their athletes and many individuals speak to their own practice and how it helps them with training and competition. Meditation helps create a positive mindset, manage anxiety and emotions effectively and maintain concentration, mental skills that all contribute to success in sports. Athletes who can relax are better able to handle stressful situations in competition and mental imagery and visualization techniques help settle self-doubt while preparing for and during performances.
Health: The benefits of meditation clearly demonstrate the incredible mind-body connection. On a physical level, it lowers blood pressure, can heal psoriasis, improves sleep, strengthens the immune system and leads to greater physical resilience. On a psychological level, it reduces stress, anxiety and depression which in turn can help lower the risk for chronic disease. The most important lifestyle choice you can make in regard to your physical, mental and emotional health may in fact be meditation. Because in order to make any improvement to your diet, your sleep or your physical activity, you must first be mindful about it.
Career: I’ve worked in corporate America in the financial services sector as well as in the start-up world in the health and wellness industry. Both organizations had designated rooms for meditation – a “contemplation room” and a “zen room”, respectively. Many large corporations are starting to provide spaces, programs or guided practices for their employees because of the scientific evidence pointing towards more productive and healthier employees. Meditation improves focus and increases attention span while training the body and mind to “get in the flow” faster. Employees who meditate often have higher levels of emotional intelligence, a key factor in career success and now a measure that hiring managers consider greatly when interviewing candidates.
Meditation strengthens our mindfulness muscles by providing us the time to become aware of our thoughts and our feelings. This awareness brings a greater appreciation for life and greater intention to what we do each day. Meditation gives us the opportunity to be more reflective and less reactive. It allows the space to focus on the positives and to change our mindset to one of acceptance and gratitude. It helps us to find some calm and peace, grounding us when everything around us is crazy. It conditions our brains in a way that cultivates love, kindness, warmth, and connectedness, ultimately improving our own life, our relationships and the lives around us.
And perhaps the best part of meditating is that anyone can do it. Anyone can reap the benefits and they can do it anywhere and at any time. There may be different styles, different tools you use and you may meditate at a different time each day but it is, in the broadest sense, the single most universal choice we can make to improve our overall health and well-being.
I now meditate ten minutes a day with a guided app (ironically, on my phone) that focuses on mindfulness meditation. While my goal was increased focus and attention, what I’ve discovered is that meditation and the simple act of powering down for a few minutes each day may actually be the best thing you can do for nearly every aspect of your life.
Meg Costello is a member of the WSF Digital Contributor Team.
The content provided for this article has been approved by the Women’s Sports Foundation.