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I started out learning to mediate. Now I meditate to learn

If you need to set an intention to improve your practice, self-directed professional development may be one to consider

The classroom was simply a repurposed boardroom, and the materials were even more basic: some pipe cleaners, some popsicle sticks and glue. 

My elementary school days were long behind me, and I wouldn’t be making crafts with my kids until they were born some 10 years later. No, this was the setting of some professional development training I was given shortly after I became a manager for the first time. 

Gathered into groups of about five, our class — all of us managers at the same company, which had recently acquired our old firm and was now indoctrinating us into their culture — was asked to use the grade-school materials to create an image of the worst boss we’d never had. 

You probably don’t have to have worked as a (mostly likely highly overpaid) management consultant to know what this exercise was all about.

It was meant to loosen us up and have a little fun, thinking through what we felt didn’t work in our careers so far, in order that we could focus on what would work for the next phase of our careers.  

You can also probably predict how we treated this exercise: with a distain bordering on contempt, our eye-rolling kept in check only because we felt the HR people who had hired the consultant were grinning nearby. 

Looking back, I dimly remember some takeaways in that training I was able to use with my staff, but the “bad boss” introductory task looms larger than anything else in my recollection. 

We weren’t really open to it, or the training in general. This might have been because it felt like it had been forced upon us, but there was also the burden — common in so many of these moments — of everything that was going on back at the office. In my case, this included: 

  • The fact the web site I was editing at the time was seeing a decline in the usual volume of traffic
  • An ongoing dispute with someone in our sales department who was trying to force us to do something to please an advertiser, at the cost of our editorial integrity
  • Tension among two of my staff members, probably because I was pretty sure one had an unrequited crush on the other. 

It’s not just that all of this was going on. All through the management training I knew it would still be waiting for me when I got back. In some cases the situation might even have gotten worse because I was not there to do something. 

A lot has changed since that training session. I no longer have a staff. I don’t even have an employer — I work for myself. But most significant, and what I regret now, is that I wasn’t meditating during that chapter of my life.

If I had, I think the results of the training, and my ability to improve as a manager, might have been a lot different. Yours might too.

Me And My Meditation Practice

I’m not going to go into a lot of the details about the early challenges in learning to meditate, which have been well-covered on ThriveGlobal already.

Suffice it to say that I now meditate about 25 minutes a day (I use Insight Timer but am in no way affiliated with it or benefit from saying so), usually without a recorded guide, in a silence punctuated by interval bells. 

My work involves a mixture of writing, editing and consulting to a mixture of clients, from some of the world’s biggest tech companies to some of the smallest and most innovative startups. In any month I may have half a dozen or more projects on the go, including a few one-offs that need to be managed according to a specific schedule. 

This is on top of being a father to three children and the son/son-in-law to two men who are going through significant health challenges.

There’s a lot to think about, in other words, and originally I thought meditation would help see approach it all with some clarity. 

And it did, except that I’ve since realized it does something else as well. 

In order to pursue my work successfully, I need to be in a constant state of learning. Sometimes I need to understand complex subjects like artificial intelligence and blockchain. In other situations I need to able to think like a chief marketing officer, CFO or even the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. 

I know that there are plenty of computer programming courses that could help me master certain aspects of technology. I could enrol in  business management courses in order to have richer conversations with MBA-educated execs. And I may do that eventually, but in the meantime, I meditate. 

As the Washington Post recently reported, teachers everywhere are doing the same thing in grade school already, hoping that meditation will install a sense of calm, help kids handle stress and approach learning with confidence. 

I’ve heard of some companies that offer meditation during lunch hours, meanwhile, and have seen classes behind run smack in the middle of major tech conferences I attend. There are also startups like meditation.live that are using the Slack app marketplace to make it easier for employers and employees to cultivate mindfulness. 

All this is great, but I would suggest that anyone trying to encourage mindfulness at work should consider establishing a stronger connection between meditation and learning as an onramp to professional development. 

Even if your job is going well, I’ve found it can represent one of the biggest sources of distraction during meditation — the thing that requires me to become more conscious of my breathing every six seconds or so. 

A clear head is obviously helpful when you get back to your job, but as a study featured on ScienceDaily last year proved, the process of learning creates new neural patterns.

When you’re trying to learn something that might get you a raise, a promotion or the chance at a second career, you want the cleanest slate possible. 

A Few Mantras For Learning And Development

Another reason to think about meditation prior to any kind of professional development is that you are increasingly on your own.

I’m sure there are many companies that still do group sessions like the one I attended, but my last desk job was with a firm that promoted a “university” of online learning courses I could take by myself.

Now that I’m a gig economy worker, it’s even more apparent that if I can’t really concentrate on what I’m learning, I’m the one who will ultimately lose out. 

I’m not suggesting that you need to add extra meditation sessions to your practice if you already have one, or that it’s the only reason you should start meditating.

I’m suggesting that, as many guides and teachers do, you will mediate more effectively when you have an intention, and learning is a great intention. 

Mantras can help with setting intentions and holding them during a session. I don’t always use them, and I don’t necessarily think they have to be something as direct as “Clear my mind in order to learn.” 

I tend to use simple words like, “Here,” “Now” and “Aware.” These are all easy to remember, easy to repeat, and easy to say without creating a lot of other distracting thoughts, like “I’m about to learn something that might be really hard.”

Whether professional development is being foisted upon you or something you pursue to stay relevant in your industry, learning is an opportunity that deserves a deliberate effort at being present.

You may not mediate with your eyes closed, but if you do it before you take any new kind of training, I’ll bet you’ll see (and experience) things a lot differently. 

Featured image: Photo by Shane Schick

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