During the global pandemic and racialized unrest, we all need pathways to calm, clarity and openheartedness. While it’s natural to feel fear during times of great collective crises, our challenge is that fear easily takes over our lives. Mindfulness and compassion practices can help us find an inner refuge and deepen our loving connection with each other.
Studies show meditation can improve well-being at work and lead to happier, healthier and more productive employees. And more corporate heads are jumping onboard the meditation train. Sharat Sharan, CEO, President & Co-Founder of ON24, a San Francisco-based marketing technology company, touts the advantages of meditation to stay calm because personal health and energy are passed down to your team: “After the great recession, I started meditating and now begin every day with 12 minutes of meditation. That routine has helped me stay mindful, pragmatic and put out positive energy. In the midst of a crisis, you need to personally embody the attitude that you want your team and your own business to demonstrate.”
Psychologist Tara Brach, Ph.D., author of Radical Acceptance and True Refuge and one of the leaders in the world of meditation, agrees. I had the distinct privilege of catching up with Brach to ask her about the benefits of meditation during these extraordinary times whether we’re working from home or in the office.
Bryan Robinson: Let’s talk about the importance of meditation as the world is going through the pandemic and racial injustice.
Tara Brach: Year’s back Omar Bradley, chair of the Joint Chiefs Of Staff said, “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.” When there’s this spike in fear we’re seeing, it’s important that we have a way of being with that fear that allows us to open our hearts. That’s the opportunity of these times—that we can come through it with more compassion, more caring for each other. Meditation helps with that. If we don’t have meditation and we get that spike of fear, we go into reactivity—into fight-flight-freeze. The stats emerging are showing increases in addictive behaviors, domestic abuse, people stockpiling frantically, confusion, depression and so on. Meditation is a way to come back home to a calm refuge inside where we can respond to what’s going on with more intelligence and heart.
Robinson: Yes, our lizard brain fears can run rampant when we’re threatened.
Brach: At times like this, our conditioning is to run away from our vulnerability. If ever there’s a time that we use meditation and the courage to be present with ourselves and to know how to calm ourselves and be real with ourselves and each other, I think that’s the opportunity.
Robinson: For people who might not be familiar with meditation, the idea of taking time out and going within might not strike a cord. What would you say to them?
Brach: Perhaps the handiest way to think about it is we know physical exercise is what we need for a healthy balanced body. Meditation is a mental training that gives us access to our resources like mental clarity, creativity, compassion and empathy. And it takes training but not a huge amount of training. In fact, we know if somebody puts in five or ten minutes a day, there’s a growing momentum of a pathway back home again. We’re working with neural pathways, changing the habitual neural pathways that leave us anxious and reactive and finding pathways that let us access the more recently evolved part of our brain. It doesn’t have to take long, It’s an intentional training, and it has science behind it.
Robinson: So how does meditation help with workplace stress, COVID-19 and all of us who are working remotely from home?
Brach: I think we all have anxiety about failing—performance anxiety, and the workplace is where it gets played out in a way that has high stakes for us. To have tools for how to work with the different emotional reactions that come up at work is critical if we want to function well. When we’re stressed, it triggers our survival mode, the most primitive part of the brain into getting protective, aggressive, defensive and critical. If we have the tools of meditation, when we get triggered we activate the prefrontal cortex—the more recently evolved part of our brain and have access to our executive functioning, rational mind and our heart—our kindness.
Robinson: And that ushers in compassion.
Brach: Exactly right. When we’re in fight-flight-freeze, we don’t have the perspective that includes what others might be going through. It cuts off our empathic capacities. So meditation enables us to look through the eyes of another person. I often use this metaphor for the workplace. You’re out in the woods and see a little dog. You go over to pet it, and it lurches at you with its fangs bared. You get angry but then you see one of its legs is in a trap. Then you shift from being angry to feeling compassion, although you still don’t go near it because it could still bite you. But your heart has shifted. Everyone we meet is struggling hard in some way. Instead of feeling like a victim of others or jumping into blame, if we could pause enough to ask, “How does that person have their leg in a trap?” When a colleague isn’t responsive, not holding up their part or acting snippy, maybe somethings going on at home or they don’t feel well. Or maybe they’re anxious about a deadline. In other words, if we could enlarge our perspective, we can respond in a way that can move the relationship forward. Meditation let’s us pause enough so we can enlarge our perspective.
Robinson: It stops us.
Brach: It requires interrupting a pattern. That’s what meditation does. It interrupts whatever pattern we’re in.
Robinson: So what about someone who ruminates or who has obsessive thoughts? Could you speak to the role meditation plays?
Brach: If we’re anxious, we’re going to be caught in thoughts. The way we try to solve our problems is by circling thoughts. It doesn’t help, but this is what we do. One of the central trainings in meditation is learning the skill of recognizing “thinking as thinking” and having the choice to come back to some present-moment sensory experience. The most common is the breath. Or it might be sounds, the feelings in the body in the sitting posture or a set of words. That gives enough of a perspective that “thinking is thinking” so we don’t have to believe our thoughts. The biggest gift that comes from meditation for many people that really changes their lives is, “I don’t have to believe my thoughts. I’m not my thoughts.” With obsessive thinking, if there’s a possibility of noticing them and telling your anxious thinking mind, “Thank you for trying to protect me, but just in this moment I’m okay.” Then go right back to what’s actually here, and we start finding a refuge inside. Neuroscience shows that emotions such as fear and anger have a life of about 1.5 minutes, yet the reason they lock in is because we keep perpetuating them with our thoughts. So getting the knack of being able to notice the thinking and come back to the present-moment can shift our entire emotional experience.
Robinson: And that brings in the concept of neuroplasticity.
Brach: We know that the brain is plastic. Let’s say you have a pattern of getting anxious about performing, going into circling thoughts, and because of the thoughts and anxiety, making a lot of mistakes. That pattern is grooved in the brain. If you can begin to notice, “Okay, this is an anxious thought,” then take a few deep breaths and come back into the body, in those moments of interrupting that pattern you’re beginning to introduce a new neural pathway. With practice, you can change the whole pattern of anxious thinking and living to one where you have much more stillness, calm and perspective.
Robinson: Could you walk through the RAIN meditation process?
Brach: The R of rain is to recognize; the A of rain is to allow what’s there; the I of rain is to investigate; and the N of rain is to nurture or bring compassion to what’s there. By way of example, I worked with a woman in a new job where she was highly qualified but intimidated by the CEO who was short-tempered and brusque. She would go to weekly meetings and feel anxious and not able to bring forth all she had to offer. We trained in RAIN. Before she went into the meeting, she would recognize how anxious she was and mentally whisper the word “anxious.” If you note the emotion, it activates the prefrontal cortex and calms down or reduces the strength of the limbic system. The A of rain is allow, which doesn’t mean I like this. It means I’m willing to pause and let it be here, not judge or fix it. The I of rain is investigate—somatic, not cognitive. You find where it’s living. For this woman it was a squeezing, twisting in the chest. I often encourage people to put their hand where they feel it to bring attention to it. So instead of running away, you’re investigating and staying with the experience. For her, the fear needed to be accepted that it was there. The N of rain is to nurture. She let the hand on the heart be a comforting, loving touch, and she sent the message to her fear that this belongs. And it’s okay. That gave her more space, and she did that before each of the weekly meetings. She was able to develop a pathway back to her natural intelligence and clarity that was being covered over by her anxiety.
Robinson: How does meditation help with self-judgment?
Brach: I recognized the trance of unworthiness in myself in my twenties. I realized there could be no freedom unless I could accept myself just as I was. I’ve been working on bringing compassion and mindfulness to self-judgment for a long time. The first thing for people to know is that it’s utterly pervasive in our culture. We’re given all these standards. In order to be an acceptable, lovable person you need to look this way, act this way and have this kind of intelligence to be successful. Every one of us can spend many moments feeling as if we’re falling short of the standard. The first step of waking up from the trance of unworthiness is simply recognizing, “Oh wow, this is a pervasive pattern in this body and mind of thoughts and feelings.” And to get that it’s not just me; it’s all of us. Making a commitment in advance for self-compassion makes a difference, knowing in our intuitive wisdom, we can be more of the person we know is possible when we get in the habit of self-kindness.
Robinson: How does meditation help us react to a boss or colleague who is attacking us or upset with us?
Brach: The inner practice that can give us the most strength, intelligence and empowerment is the U-turn—shifting our attention from “Oh, that bad, attacking, aggressive boss”—from what they’re doing wrong to what’s going on inside when this is happening. We might feel anger back at them. Then we find out what’s under the anger which is probably fear or hurt, so we feel that. In other words, be honest with what comes out and nurture that with self-compassion before we respond to the person. If we respond right when we’re triggered, we’ll perpetuate a cycle of hostility and reactivity. But if we make the U-turn, get in touch with ourselves and bring self-nurturing, we respond from our whole resources with a lot more strength, clarity, intelligence and compassion.Usually when people are acting out, something is going on in them. And we’ll see how they have a leg in a trap.
Tara Brach joins Resiliency 2020 on Zoom September 10, 2020. You can register for the free live-streaming webinar at resiliency2020.com.