Just Do It. Sit There.
Ari Blum, Catlyst Real Estate
December 10, 2019
As Evergreen leaders, I would guess that many of us set pretty high expectations for ourselves—in business and in our personal lives. I know I do – often to the point of being harder on myself than is productive. I am generally trying to get a lot done and, justified or not, I often feel like I need to do more just to keep up.
I was introduced to meditation in college by a happenstance flyer advertising a lecture by a visiting Japanese monk. I decided to give it a try. Since that time, I have found that meditation offers a way to practice pausing just a moment more before saying or doing the next thing. At my best, I can experience some of my thoughts and emotions without letting them immediately drive my actions. My goal is to meditate each workday, and the practice continues to help me find clarity and reduce stress.
While it may seem counterintuitive (meditation sounds like a something that happens very much in your head) the practice allows me to focus on acting and doing rather than ruminating. My practice is most informed by the Japanese Zen approach to mediation, which in my understanding is focused on paying attention to my breath and my body (rather than on a mantra or a visualization, for instance). I have found that this seemingly simple commitment to sitting for a few moments each morning before I go to work –just breathing in and out—is a ritual that positively informs my day.
As a side note, I don’t consider myself a Buddhist. I don’t find a conflict between this practice and my religious beliefs. Rather, I view it as a tool that enhances the way I approach life more generally, including my own religion.
In my personal practice, I sit first thing in the morning, before I look at my phone or do any type of work. While I would ideally sit for twenty minutes or more, often that is just not possible given the varied demands of a job and a family and perhaps a late wake-up or two. The commitment I’ve made to myself is that I will sit every workday for at least one minute. Often, I sit for more, but every day I know I can find at least sixty seconds. For me, this acts as a kind of placeholder, and it has helped me stay committed to the routine. Sitting on a meditation cushion, or some days just on the edge of the bed, I count my breaths, breathing evenly in and out ten times. Then I repeat. Most days I set a timer, some days it’s just 10 breaths (one minute) and I need to go. That’s it. It’s just sitting, breathing in and out, and doing my best to observe what's happening as I do that.
Many people think they are not good at meditation because their thoughts wander. The truth is, everyone’s thoughts wander—it’s just what thoughts do. The question is, when you notice that you are thinking about that upcoming meeting or the way you spoke to your employee yesterday, can you make the choice to let that thought rest, and bring your attention back to your breath or your body? Even if just for a moment. The thoughts will come again—they always do. It’s primarily a matter of returning when you notice.
While the focus on breath may seem a lesson in concentration and focus, the gift, for me, is the practice in letting the thoughts go. I think most of us operate in this almost ceaseless chain of thoughts and reaction, but if we can practice letting those thought-chains rest before we take action, perhaps that action can be more proactive and more intentional.
Though I’m not always aware when it happens, I know that this practice is translated into my workday. For instance, I may have an interaction with someone who says something that makes me feel an emotion and triggers a chain of thoughts, which, in turn, trigger a reaction. If I am able to observe and recognize that process and intentionally drop that chain of thoughts, I have created a bit of space to gain perspective. I can step back, for just a moment, and recognize the pattern. Instead of reacting, I can gain control of those thoughts. I can manage them instead of letting them manage me.
As a leader in my company, I think this ability to pause and take intentional action is a benefit. We can all get caught up in the frenetic pace of our roles—responding to emails and customers and internal issues—and can find ourselves surfing the wave of reactivity. To the extent that meditation can help me notice thoughts, sit with them, and avoid reacting, it can be a powerful tool. If someone comes into my office with a fire to put out, maybe I’m a little less likely to catch that fire. Instead of reacting right away to put it out, I might be able to wait a beat and then empower that person to put it out themselves. Note that this is not about sitting back and doing nothing. Rather, it’s about accessing the clarity to intentionally make effective decisions. I believe it allows for a more agile approach to the demands of business.
If you are interested in the science and psychology behind meditation from a Western point of view, I recommend Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright. If you are interested in the Eastern, spiritual basis of this practice, I suggest Zen Mind Beginner Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki. Like many mind-body practices, meditation can be a tool to help you engage more effectively as a leader and provide you space for reflection. It’s not a panacea, but, in my life, the simple act of sitting still and breathing in and out continues to offer welcome benefit.
Ari Blum is President of Catalyst Real Estate.