“Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum…” Oh, excuse me, I was just meditating. On the jewel in the lotus. It’s an excellent Tibetan mantra.
Does this sound like New Age gobbledygook to you? If so, I can’t blame you. Many hundreds of thousands of words have been written about meditation, and a good number of them are so detached from the realm of business reality that HR people, managers, or employee trainers can be forgiven a certain amount of eye-rolling.
But what if there were actual neuroscience behind meditation, science that established the technique not only as a legitimate form of employee training, but also as an effective foundation for other kinds of training? You’d take it more seriously then, wouldn’t you?
The science behind it
Well, as it turns out, there is such science.
In a study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers at Emory University in Atlanta looked at the “mind-wandering” phenomenon among 14 participants who were asked to carry out tasks requiring sustained attention. At some point, all participants realized that their minds were wandering, and “pulled themselves back” to the task at hand. But according to the researchers, the study’s results suggest that the more training participants had previously had in focused-attention meditation, the better and faster they were able to re-concentrate themselves.
In other words, meditation can help people — employees — focus better on whatever task they’re undertaking, including the task of absorbing training on business-critical topics.
Wow. Maybe you should apologize for interrupting me in the middle of my mantra when you came in. And maybe meditation is a magic key that can unlock many of your training problems and issues.
Let’s not go overboard. There are problems associated with meditation. It has — rightly or wrongly — acquired a cult-like image in the minds of some. The version(s) of spirituality with which it is associated could potentially offend some employees who cherish other forms of spirituality. And some people may simply be unwilling to engage in an exercise that they feel is alien or uncomfortable — physically or mentally.
But with all that said, it’s pretty clear that there are benefits to be had from training willing employees in techniques of focused meditation. (One popular technique, known as mindfulness, is concentrating on one thing, such as your breathing or your posture. Repeating mantras can also be used. You can meditate while seated, or walking.)
According to Wendy Hasenkamp, the lead author of the Emory study, areas of the brain known as the “default mode network” are at work when our minds wander. Default mode thinking tends to be the internal, self-referential kind where we worry about what somebody said to us that morning, chew ourselves up about our weight, or fantasize about that girl/guy in the next cubicle.
If we have work to do, other brain regions, which Hasenkamp calls the “executive brain network,” eventually take over and redirect our attention to the thing we’re supposed to be paying attention to.
Hasenkamp sums up what’s happening this way: “Looking at activity in these brain networks this way suggests that when you catch your mind wandering, you are going through a process of recognizing, and shifting out of, default mode processing by engaging numerous attention networks. Understanding the way the brain alternates between focused and distracted states has implications for a wide variety of everyday tasks. For example, when your mind wandered off in that meeting, it might help to know you’re slipping into default mode — and you can deliberately bring yourself back to the moment. That’s an ability that can improve with training.”
So employees can be taught, through meditation, to pay better and more consistent attention. As a trainer, isn’t that an outcome you’d like to attain? And we haven’t even mentioned the stress-reduction and wellness benefits that employees can reap from practicing meditation.
Here are a few resources on meditation that you could consult:
OK, now that we’re done with that, where was I? “Om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum…”
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