Mind games

Med­i­ta­tion is an­cient. But a new sci­en­tific un­der­stand­ing of its var­ied ben­e­fits could prove rev­o­lu­tion­ary.

Esquire (Singapore) - - Contents - words b y josh sims

Get­ting your ‘om’ on.

“My ini­tial im­pres­sion was that this was all just very weird,” ad­mits Dr Michael Ger­vais. “I just didn’t un­der­stand this idea of ‘fo­cus­ing on my breath’. What did that mean? My breath­ing seemed just fine to me. And I still didn’t get it un­til, with a lot of prac­tice, came this very nat­u­ral sense of calm. Of course, since then, when I was an un­der­grad­u­ate, a whole lot of re­search has shown what’s go­ing on elec­tri­cally and chem­i­cally in the brain. But then I was just go­ing by ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Ger­vais is a psy­chol­o­gist and co-founder of Com­pete to Cre­ate, a dig­i­tal plat­form busi­ness that teaches what he calls mind­set train­ing—learn­ing to bet­ter con­trol the mind, with a view to bet­ter per­for­mance. His clients in­clude CEOs and cor­po­ra­tions from Mi­crosoft to Boe­ing, but also artists, mu­si­cians and—per­haps more ex­pect­edly—Olympians and world-record hold­ers. But that has only come more re­cently.

“The fact is that 15 years ago at­ti­tudes to­wards prac­tices like med­i­ta­tion and ideas of mind­ful­ness were still right out on the fringe,” he says. “And it’s only within the last six months to a year that the use of these tech­niques by high per­form­ers has al­most come to be ex­pected. We’ve gone from a place in which it was con­sid­ered some­thing a guru would teach you—some­thing essen­tially spir­i­tual in na­ture—to a place in which there’s been this hockey stick up­wards curve in sci­en­tific study. That’s given us a wider view now. And, of course, the link between men­tal and phys­i­cal per­for­mance is now ac­cepted.”

But while med­i­ta­tion is a fash­ion­able ac­tiv­ity—the new yoga, if you like—for most peo­ple it re­mains poorly un­der­stood and is widely still con­sid­ered es­o­teric. “It’s why, when I was work­ing with the Seat­tle Sea­hawks, we were care­ful to use the word ‘mind­ful­ness’ in­stead, in part be­cause you can put the word ‘train­ing’ next to it and that ap­peals to ath­letes,” laughs Ger­vais. “Med­i­ta­tion still comes with bag­gage. But that’s chang­ing dra­mat­i­cally”.

Cer­tainly there re­mains wide­spread mis­un­der­stand­ing of the sub­ject. Some think the prac­tice is new—ac­tu­ally it is men­tioned

in Hindu texts dat­ing back to 3,000BC, long be­fore Bud­dha found en­light­en­ment through med­i­ta­tion in 588BC. Oth­ers that it is an Eastern art, though western tra­di­tions of Ju­daism and Chris­tian­ity have in­cor­po­rated med­i­ta­tion. Oth­ers that it is strictly reli­gious, whereas, as Al­bert Tobler, founder of the pi­o­neer­ing med­i­ta­tion coach­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion Lon­don Med­i­ta­tion, ex­plains: “It is also an en­tirely sec­u­lar, prac­ti­cal life skill. And, no, as I’m of­ten told, it has noth­ing to do with Scien­tol­ogy.”

An un­der­stand­ing of what it is at a prac­ti­cal level helps. Mind­ful­ness is not, as many think, learn­ing to clear the mind of all thought—a prac­ti­cal im­pos­si­bil­ity. Nor, though, is it a power nap. Rather, at its most ba­sic, it is sit­ting still, sta­ble and alert—with spine and head up­right, hands in lap, eyes closed or low­ered—breath­ing steadily in and out of the nose and fo­cus­ing your at­ten­tion on one of the many sen­sa­tions that reg­u­lar breath­ing causes in the body.

Yes, a tsunami of other thoughts—from the TV pro­gramme you watched last night to what’s for din­ner this evening to that re­port that needs fin­ish­ing to the birth­day card you for­got or the ar­gu­ment you had—will come crash­ing in un­bid­den to dis­turb this fo­cus, be­cause that is what brains do: gen­er­ate thought. The trick is to let each thought arise as it will and each time—in­deed, time and time again—gen­tly push it aside and re­turn the fo­cus to the sen­sa­tions of the breath: and, later in the ses­sion, to sim­ply mon­i­tor those thoughts, pass­ing like clouds, rather than zero in on them. Just 15 min­utes a day can be ben­e­fi­cial: af­ter all, as prac­ti­tion­ers say, the op­po­site of a wan­der­ing mind is a mind­ful one, and a mind in the present.

As Ger­vais sug­gests, it still all sounds a lit­tle crazy. “Like all things that are in­vis­i­ble, mind­ful­ness is hard to grasp,” he sug­gests. “Our brains work in pic­tures, and we take com­fort in the things we can see and touch, and con­versely find those we can’t harder to com­pre­hend. But then we can’t see oxy­gen or grav­ity ei­ther, and we need them both.” Per­haps, as well, mind­ful­ness sounds a lit­tle too easy. Try it. It isn’t.

Yet its value is in­creas­ingly be­ing found to be deep—and timely too, given a cul­ture in­creas­ingly dom­i­nated by the ethos that we should be ‘al­ways on’, that’s sat­u­rated with ran­dom im­agery, end­less up­dates and con­stant in­ter­rup­tions, de­spite the mis­taken be­lief of many that they are able to di­vide their at­ten­tion across many points of fo­cus at the same time.

“There’s this grow­ing sense, I think, that some­where along the line we all swal­lowed the wrong pill, and that to be more is to do more, rather than just to be in the present,” says Ger­vais. “The new cur­rency is at­ten­tion—ev­ery­body wants ours. But if we don’t work on re­tain­ing our at­ten­tion, then we fall prey to the parts of our brain just ded­i­cated to our sur­vival, that’s al­ways busy just looking for dan­ger, for stress points. If we have our at­ten­tion, we have calm and con­trol and aware­ness.”

That’s why the in­fa­mous San Quentin prison started run­ning med­i­ta­tion cour­ses for its in­mates, which has been tracked against de­creased re­cidi­vism. West Point, the elite US mil­i­tary academy, has taught re­cruits the tech­niques too, an idea that is spread­ing in the train­ing for com­bat readi­ness of sol­diers in many forces. And it’s be­ing taught to the up­per ech­e­lons of busi­ness—from Gen­eral Mo­tors to Deutsche Bank, McKin­sey, Rio Tinto and Ford—and also in schools, no­tably those across South Amer­ica. It’s a tacit recog­ni­tion per­haps—as so many self-help books at­test to as well— that, while read­ers of this mag­a­zine most likely don’t have to worry about food and shel­ter, nev­er­the­less 21st-cen­tury life is stress­ful.

“CEOs who have also un­der­gone med­i­ta­tion train­ing see their own style of man­age­ment change for the bet­ter,” says Tobler. “They are less authoritative and more coach­ing in style, which in turn fos­ters loy­alty and shared goals. But much as re­cent re­ces­sions have seen busi­ness given a wake-up call that is en­cour­ag­ing it to think about new ways of work­ing, so we’ve all been given a wakeup call that is en­cour­ag­ing us to think about new ways of liv­ing.”

Sit­ting down and breath­ing deeply might well calm any­one down. But does the prac­tice of mind­ful­ness, med­i­ta­tion or fo­cused breath­ing—call it what you will—ac­tu­ally work? The re­search sug­gests most def­i­nitely yes. The ear­li­est stud­ies, con­ducted dur­ing the late ’60s in the US, found that med­i­ta­tors’ heart rates low­ered by three beats a minute, that they used some 17 per­cent less oxy­gen and their brains pro­duced more theta waves. These are pro­duced dur­ing deep re­lax­ation, typ­i­cally shortly be­fore fall­ing asleep, and de­ac­ti­vate the sen­sory pro­cess­ing part of the brain. They are also pro­duced dur­ing the most in­tense times of lu­cid cre­ativ­ity.

Later MRI scan-based stud­ies have shown that med­i­ta­tion shifts ac­tiv­ity in the pre-frontal cortex—the brain’s most de­vel­oped part, re­spon­si­ble for rea­son­ing and self-aware­ness—from the right to the left hemi­spheres. Why is this rel­e­vant? Peo­ple who are left hemi­sphere-ori­ented have been found to be typ­i­cally more pos­i­tive and emo­tion­ally bal­anced than those who are right­sided. In­creased at­ten­tion span and im­proved mem­ory may also be ben­e­fits of med­i­ta­tion, ac­cord­ing to a 2006 Mas­sachusetts Gen­eral Hospi­tal study.

Fur­ther stud­ies have also sug­gested that mind­ful­ness may not only re­duce psy­cho­log­i­cal stress—al­le­vi­at­ing de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety, lone­li­ness, panic dis­or­ders—but can im­prove phys­i­cal health too, as in, for ex­am­ple, the man­age­ment of chronic pain or in the re­liev­ing of symp­toms that stress can ex­ac­er­bate, the likes of der­mati­tis and ir­ri­ta­ble bowel syn­drome. Other stud­ies have even linked mind­ful­ness with longevity: a 2012 Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia study found that peo­ple with a greater propen­sity to mind wan­der­ing have shorter caps, called telom­eres, at the end of their chro­mo­somes com­pared with those more an­chored in the present; shorter telom­eres are as­so­ci­ated with a shorter life­span for an or­gan­ism.

While fur­ther study will be re­quired to un­der­stand the mech­a­nisms that con­nect a more present mind with im­proved

mind­ful­ness is n ot, as many think , learnin g to clear the mind of all thought—a prac­ti­cal im­pos­si­bil­ity. n or, though, is it a po wer n ap. a t it s most ba­sic, it is sit­tin g s till, s table and aler t.

men­tal and phys­i­cal health, the ben­e­fits are nonethe­less ap­peal­ing to any­body; but, nat­u­rally, a wan­der­ing mind is the last thing an ath­lete in par­tic­u­lar needs. Small won­der then that any num­ber of big-name ath­letes have spo­ken of their use of mind­ful­ness tech­niques, in­clud­ing basketball le­gend Kobe Bryant. Ger­vais has worked with Olympic gold medal-win­ning vol­ley­ball play­ers Misty May-Tay­lor and Kerri Walsh. Golfers Cristie Kerr and Vi­jay Singh med­i­tate—Singh took to Twit­ter to ask for ad­vice from his fol­low­ers—while Tiger Woods blamed his much-re­ported fall from grace, pro­fes­sion­ally and pri­vately, in part on tem­po­rar­ily quit­ting med­i­ta­tion. Olympic diver Tom Da­ley has de­scribed how he does 10 min­utes of mind­ful­ness prac­tice ev­ery morn­ing—“I use that in com­pe­ti­tion and in ev­ery day life”—and at­tributes an im­proved con­sis­tency to it. Like­wise cy­clist Laura Trott says it en­abled her to “only think about what you’re do­ing in that very mo­ment and not al­low your mind to run away with wor­ries about past events and those in the future”. NFL star Ricky Wil­liams made med­i­ta­tion so much a part of his train­ing that he went on to teach it at the lo­cal univer­sity. “[It] is my pas­sion,” he’s said. “I think a lot of peo­ple are so used to be­ing stressed, they don’t re­alise they’re stressed. And I was one of those peo­ple.”

Teams do it too. This year Nike part­nered with Headspace, a pop­u­lar mind­ful­ness app—one of many now help­ing to spread mind­ful­ness—to help train its own spon­sored ath­letes with programmes used just be­fore an event. The NBA’s Chicago Bulls has worked with renowned med­i­ta­tion trainer Ge­orge Mum­ford, while the New York Knicks started mind­ful­ness train­ing in 2014, led by for­mer team pres­i­dent Phil Jack­son, nick­named the ‘ zen mas­ter of hoops’ for his Eastern phi­los­o­phy-based methods. The Michi­gan basketball team’s coach John Beilein in­tro­duced his squad to med­i­ta­tion two years be­fore that. “We med­i­tate through­out the year,” Beilein has said, “and we try to teach [the play­ers] some things about how to re­lax. [Med­i­ta­tion] is im­por­tant if ath­letes are go­ing to see them­selves in pos­i­tive [sit­u­a­tions].”

You’ll no­tice that these en­thu­si­asts are nearly al­ways Amer­i­can—thanks, since the ’60s, to a tra­di­tion of in­ter­est in what are per­ceived to be Eastern prac­tices, the up­take in mind­ful­ness by pro­fes­sion­als in the US is said by some to be a decade ahead of the rest of the world.

“There’s an ap­pre­ci­a­tion among elite ath­letes here that they need their men­tal game as much as their phys­i­cal game and es­pe­cially be­cause com­pe­ti­tion is that much more in­tense now,” ar­gues Nate Last, a per­for­mance psy­chol­ogy con­sul­tant with Men­tal Grit, a US-based or­gan­i­sa­tion. “The idea of train­ing the mind has be­come that much more le­git­i­mate, given sci­en­tific study, that much more un­der­stand­able and less ethe­real. It cer­tainly doesn’t work for all ath­letes and many aren’t in­ter­ested— it’s very dif­fer­ent to the phys­i­cal­ity of their world, that de­sire to push iron harder or go faster. I find it best to get them young— they tend to un­der­stand more eas­ily the im­por­tance of be­ing in the present mo­ment, and that through mind­ful­ness you can find a sense of ac­cep­tance too—that it’s ok to have a bad thought about your­self be­cause it’s just another thought that will pass on your way to where you want to go.”

“We know at­ten­tion is com­pro­mised by stress, and train­ing that made us more re­sis­tant to that would clearly be use­ful—we found that only mind­ful­ness pro­tected one’s at­ten­tion,” says Amishi Jha, Univer­sity of Mi­ami as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of the Con­tem­pla­tive Neu­ro­science for the Mind­ful­ness Re­search and Prac­tice Ini­tia­tive. Last year, her lat­est spe­cialised study re­vealed an in­trigu­ing dis­tinc­tion in favour of mind­ful­ness in par­tic­u­lar. It asked whether men­tal tough­ness and re­silience can be trained in col­le­giate Amer­i­can foot­ball play­ers and found that greater prac­tice in mind­ful­ness—but not in a matched re­lax­ation train­ing pro­gramme (mus­cle re­lax­ation ex­er­cises, guided im­agery, lis­ten­ing to sooth­ing mu­sic and the like)—led to more sta­ble at­ten­tion and fewer at­ten­tion lapses dur­ing play.

“You have to look at what the prac­tice of mind­ful­ness is guid­ing you to do—and the ba­sic act of mon­i­tor­ing your at­ten­tion is a men­tal push-up for a spe­cific cog­ni­tive skill,” she adds. “So my in­ter­est now is very prac­ti­cal: how do we max­imise the help of mind­ful­ness for peo­ple with min­i­mal time and cost? We’re work­ing with the Depart­ment of De­fense, study­ing with sol­diers who don’t have the time to un­dergo, say, 40 hours of med­i­ta­tion train­ing and we’re find­ing very di­rect in­struc­tion—more di­dac­tic, with no as­sis­tance—works well and may be the best way to help form new habits around the prac­tice.”

Cer­tainly the power of mind­ful­ness goes well be­yond the po­ten­tial to shoot the next hoop or break the next record. At the mo­ment we’re scratch­ing the sur­face of prac­tice and un­der­stand­ing alike. In­deed, the full po­ten­tial of mind­ful­ness and med­i­ta­tion is only now be­ing un­cov­ered. The com­ing decades may bring an un­der­stand­ing of how to train the hu­man mind akin to re­cent decades’ un­der­stand­ing of how to train the body—through tar­geted ex­er­cises and ad­vanced nutri­tion. The medium- to long-term con­se­quences could be rev­o­lu­tion­ary in terms of pub­lic health, in terms per­haps of na­tional, even global well-be­ing. As Ma­har­ishi Ma­hesh Yogi, the founder of the Tran­scen­den­tal Med­i­ta­tion move­ment, once com­mented, while he could glimpse the fur­thest lev­els of growth in hu­man po­ten­tial, he had ab­so­lutely no idea what it would be like to be liv­ing in a world where ev­ery­one was ac­tu­ally liv­ing in that mode—such was its pro­fun­dity.

“Given that peo­ple’s minds wan­der 50 per­cent of the time, in­te­grat­ing mind­ful­ness into our lives could have a huge im­pact on de­ci­sion-mak­ing, on gen­eral hap­pi­ness,” says Jha. “We do need to think of it in the same way we think about phys­i­cal train­ing. Peo­ple spend hours in gyms. It’s dom­i­nant in our cul­ture. But then there’s a 40-year lead in sci­en­tific ev­i­dence that phys­i­cal ex­er­cise is good for you. When we catch up with our un­der­stand­ing of how mind­ful­ness is good for you too, that sit­u­a­tion will change.”

tiger w oods blamed his much-re­por ted f all from grace, pro­fes­sion­ally and priv ately, in p art on tem­po­rar­ily quit­ting med­i­ta­tion.

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