Beginning Meditation – Getting Started 1 – Positions

 

Meditation allows us to directly participate in our lives instead of living life as an afterthought.” ~Stephen Levine

 

In the last couple of posts we presented some thoughts on things to consider prior to beginning meditation.

http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/20/beginning-meditation-1-preliminaries/

http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/21/beginning-meditation-1-preliminaries-2/

Today we will discuss finding a comfortable position for meditation. We’d appreciate hearing comments and suggestions from others. There are many paths!

It is essential for successful meditation that you find a comfortable position that you can maintain throughout the meditation period. It shouldn’t be so comfortable that you’re liable to fall asleep, or so uncomfortable or painful that you can’t relax and pay attention to something else other than the pain or how uncomfortable you are. You should adopt a position that you can sustain comfortably and pain free for the entire duration of your practice. Keep in mind that being a little uncomfortable at the beginning may be OK as you’ll adapt to it and it will get more comfortable as you continue practice. But, don’t endure pain. Back off if it hurts.

Sitting cross legged on a cushion on the floor or a meditation pad (lotus or half-lotus position) can be challenging for many. If you can do it comfortably then this is the position that you should use as it is a highly recommended position for meditation. See http://horakuan.net/zazen/ for descriptions of the various positions. Here is a link to an excellent video entitled “How to Sit For Meditation – Meditation Postures” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlVpirusD0M

But we recommend that you don’t adopt this position initially if it is not comfortable. You can work on it later. But, many people will either not try meditation or stop after only a few sessions because they find this lotus or half-lotus position too challenging or painful. It is more important to meditate comfortably than to adopt an uncomfortable position even one that is highly desirable and recommended.

Another alternative is a kneeling posture. This is the posture that I personally prefer. It is comfortable for me and it leaves my spine straight and my breathing unrestricted. But, everyone has to find the correct on for their body and flexibility. Here is a link to an excellent video entitled “Using a Meditation Bench” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGzE6BQb1xY. Often people find a kneeling posture difficult to maintain and painful to the knees. It, like all meditation postures requires practice. If it’s not comfortable to you initially, then don’t use it. You can experiment with it later.

For initial practice we like to recommend sitting in a chair. This should not be considered as the position that you stay with forever. Rather, it is a simple place to start. Here is a link to an excellent video entitled “Meditation for Beginners -Sitting on a Chair” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgO6erMHHS0

Regardless find a position in which your spine is straight and the head sitting evenly on top of the spine. It should be like there’s a string hung from the ceiling that goes through the top of your head and without bend continues down the spine to the pelvis. The fewer restrictions there are on your breathing the better. So, try to find a position where the back behind your lungs is free and unrestricted. Better yet are positions where there is nothing touching the back. Try to adopt a position with the neck straight above the spine with the chin tucked in slightly to minimize the strain on the neck. But, most importantly, find a position that you can stay in comfortably for the duration of your meditation session.

CMCS

Beginning Meditation 1 – Preliminaries 2

Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.” – Saint Francis de Sales

In yesterday’s post

http://contemplative-studies.org/wp/index.php/2015/07/20/beginning-meditation-1-preliminaries/

we discussed some of the preliminary considerations before initiating a meditation practice. Today, we will discuss some additional considerations. We’d appreciate hearing comments and suggestions from others. There are many paths!

It is important in beginning a meditation practice to set aside a place to meditate. Select a single place to meditate. You can meditate outside of this space, but use it for the majority of your practice. It is possible to meditate anywhere. But, I recommend that to begin with you pick a quiet place where it’s unlikely that you’ll be interrupted. By having a quiet consistent place there are fewer distractions and it becomes easier for your mind to settle.

In you meditation space learning will occur. The objects, sounds, smells and feel of the place become associated with your meditation. Conditioning will happen slowly and unconsciously. If your meditations are pleasant, the stimuli in the space will become associated with that pleasantness such that as soon as you enter the room you begin to feel good and relax. Even the meditative state becomes associated with the space and in this familiar place you more easily quiet the mind and slip into a peaceful state.

It is important to make meditation pleasant. Don’t set it up at a time and place that is uncomfortable or rushed. There are some forms of meditation that suggest that you must endure and withstand discomfort to progress. I don’t subscribe to that notion. Progress occurs more readily when you’re comfortable, relaxed, and relatively pain free. So, decide in advance that you’ll make it pleasant and not make it a physical challenge or an endurance test. If you are uncomfortable or in pain during meditation then you should consider changing something, perhaps shortening the time of meditation or changing your position or posture. We’ll discuss this in a later post.

There are often questions as to whether it is better to meditate in a group (class, sangha) or alone. I find that it’s useful to do both if possible. I recommend that you start off alone and establish the practice. Starting off in a group can be difficult as you’re often immersed with experienced practitioners who will meditate for longer than you’re presently comfortable. A group or class with beginners like yourself could be a good place to start. But, it is often difficult to locate an appropriate one. So, for most people it is best to start off by yourself until you feel comfortable with meditation.

Later finding a meditation group that you can sit with on occasions can be very beneficial. This should not replace your daily practice alone but rather should supplement and support it. When you’re ready the group can be of great assistance in your progress. The support and companionship of others on the same path can be a tremendous help. Interacting with others can reveal that they are struggling with the meditation as much as you are and can make you feel more comfortable with your own experiences. There is also a subtle group pressure that can provide extra motivation to keep you practicing. In addition, there can be great power and energy produced by the group that can subtly, positively, and unconsciously affect your meditation and experience.

A final note in preparation for beginning your meditation practice, it is helpful to begin reading about meditation. Select some good books written by teachers and experienced practitioners and spend a few minutes each day reading. Meditation can produce some unexpected twists and turns and sometimes it can be psychological and physically troubling. Reading prepares you for the journey by learning in advance the kinds of things you might experience. Hearing of others experiences can also be helpful in coming to understand that what you’re experiencing is not unusual but shared with many meditators.

Now you’re ready to begin your meditation.

CMCS

Beginning Meditation 1 – Preliminaries

 

“Meditation is not a means to an end. It is both the means and the end.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

We’ve been asked by a number of people how to begin a contemplative practice. In looking around we’ve found lots of advice but very little that is appropriate for people trying to start on their own. So, we’ll be making several posts with ideas and suggestions for beginners. We’d appreciate hearing comments and suggestions from others. There are many paths!

To begin with take a clear and thoughtful look at what exactly you want to accomplish with meditation. Do you wish to meditate to improve mindfulness, or to improve attention, or to reduce stress, or for spiritual exploration, or to improve relationships, or to improve your health, or to better cope with emotions. There are many reasons to meditate and to be really clear as to what you hope to accomplish is useful. It can help to focus and motivate you.

Once you’ve established for yourself what you want to accomplish realize that patience is required. You will not likely accomplish this goal overnight. It takes a reliable disciplined practice with a willingness to invest time and energy to progress. Be prepared for ups and downs. Meditation practice doesn’t progress linearly. Don’t expect that every day you will get a little better. One day you might improve, the next be much worse, and the next unchanged. Know that this will be the course of development, accept it, and have faith that over time you will improve. It will just be variable day to day.

Even though you’ve clarified a goal, take an open minded attitude. The goal of meditation can change and develop over time. Let it happen. Relax and let the natural course of change occur. One of the key elements in successful progress in meditation is not to try too hard. Don’t try to control or manipulate what you experience. Don’t push yourself too hard. Progress will happen by itself if you relax and let it.

It is very important to establish a regular time each day when you can meditate comfortably without interruptions. I find that early morning is a good time before the business of the day can fill your mind with thoughts and plans and before the need to accomplish tasks becomes dominant and usurps your meditation time. Regardless of the actual time, you should establish a regular time and then defend that time against all other tasks that will vie for it. Make it your special time, a time devoted to you, a time set aside to develop, grow, and nourish yourself. I’ve found that you need to make it a very high priority otherwise other priorities in your life will replace it and before you know you’re no longer meditating consistently.

The actual amount of time you meditate or set aside is less important that the regularity of the practice. Start off with just a small amount of time, say 5 minutes. It’s relatively easy to set aside this much time and the notion of sitting quietly for only five minutes is not particularly challenging or intimidating for most people. Increasing the time you spend meditating should be an expectation, but increase it at your own pace. Increase it as you feel comfortable and feel that it would be enjoyable and beneficial. If it is difficult to complete the entire time allotted then reduce it so that you’re comfortable. It is important that you don’t make meditation a chore. Rather it should be an enjoyable refuge that refreshes and energizes you.

The preliminaries for initiating a meditation practice will be continued in another post tomorrow.

CMCS

Spirituality, Mindfulness and the Brain

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.” ― Carl Sagan

Mindfulness training has been shown to alter the brain in profound ways. It activates certain areas of the nervous system and if practiced for a period of time it will alter the brain structurally, increasing the size and connectivity of some areas. These significant changes will be reviewed in an upcomiong post.

 There has also been research into how spirituality and spiritual experiences affect the nervous system. There has been, however, very little study of brain activity during spiritual practice. As a result it is unclear the extent that spiritual and mindfulness practices affect similar or different brain areas.

In today’s Research News article “How similar are the changes in neural activity resulting from mindfulness practice in contrast to spiritual practice?”

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1054499387907320/?type=1&theater

Barnby and colleagues summarize the research on brain activation produced by the practices of mindfulness, spirituality, or both. In this research spiritual practice was defined as focusing on an internal and external sense of connection to a higher entity, or embodiment.

They find that mindfulness practice that is either secular or spiritual or both increase the activity, size, and connectivity of the prefrontal cortex. This area has been associated with executive function including planning, complex thinking, and decision making, all of which improve with mindfulness practice. It is also associated with the regulation of emotions and responses to emotions. These are again traits associated with mindfulness practice. So, regardless of whether the practice is secular or spiritual these same benefits accrue in parallel with similar patterns of brain activation.

In contrast mindfulness practice that is secular produces varying changes in the parietal lobe while spiritual practice tends to reduce parietal lobe activity. The parietal lobe has been implicated in producing a sense of self as distinct from the environment and others. Hence, spiritual practice, by focusing on powers outside of the self, tends to reduce self-referential thinking. Spiritual practitioners think more about a deity than of themselves. This is reflected both in self-reports and behavior and also in their brains.

So, engage in spiritual and mindfulness practices and reap their benefits.

CMCS

Control Thinking and Feeling with Mindfulness

In a number of posts we’ve presented evidence and discussed the very positive effects of mindfulness on thinking, emotions, health and general well-being. The accumulated evidence makes a compelling case that mindfulness has a myriad of positive effects promoting physical and mental well-being.

It has also been demonstrated with neuroimaging studies that mindfulness training produces enlargement and increased connectivity of the frontal lobes of the brain. This area of the cortex has long been known to underlie executive function and emotional regulation. Executive function regulates cognitive processes, including attention, working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution. Emotional regulation involves regulation of our experience of emotions, fully experiencing them yet preventing them from spiraling out of control and adversely affecting behavioral responses to the emotions.

It can be speculated that the effectiveness of mindfulness in promoting well-being results from the changes in the frontal lobes producing higher levels of executive function and emotional regulation and theses in turn produce the positive effects of mindfulness. In today’s Research News article “Trait Mindfulness in Relation to Emotional Self-Regulation and Executive Function.”

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1054045994619326/?type=1&theater

Lyvers and colleagues address this very question. They measured indicators of frontal lobe function; prefrontal cortex dysfunction, impulsivity, and alexithymia and correlate them to a measure of trait mindfulness. They find that the higher the mindfulness the lower the levels of prefrontal cortex dysfunction, impulsivity, and alexithymia, clearly suggesting that mindfulness is associated with heightened frontal lobe function.

Prefrontal cortex dysfunction indicates an impairment of attention and planning, impulsivity indicates impairments in controlling and restraining behavior, while alexithymia indicates an inability to identify and describe emotions, lack of emotional awareness, and difficulty with social attachment and interpersonal relationships. In other words, these are measures of the problems that arise with impaired executive function and emotion regulation.

Lyvers and colleagues further show that mindfulness is inversely related to negative moods, depression, anxiety and stress scores. This suggests that mindfulness improves well-being by promoting frontal lobe activity. This results in improved executive function and thereby improves attention and ability to analyze experience and realistically plan for the future, improving our ability to effectively deal with whatever experience we’re having.

The facilitated frontal lobe activity also produces improved emotion regulation with its consequent facilitation of the ability to identify and regulate emotions. Hence, all other factors being equal, negative moods are experienced less often or less intensely and responded to more appropriately compared to someone who has low levels of that emotion regulation.

So, practice mindfulness and improve your frontal lobe function and general well-being.

CMCS

Aging Healthily – Yoga and Cellular Aging

Aging is inevitable. We can’t stop it or reverse the aging process. But, it is becoming more apparent that life-style changes can slow down the process and allow us to live longer and healthier lives.

The genes govern cellular processes in our bodies. One of the most fundamental of these processes is cell replication. Our bodies are constantly turning over cells. Dying cells or damaged are replaced by new cells. The cells turn over at different rates but most cells in the body are lost and replaced between every few days to every few months. Needless to say were constantly renewing ourselves.

As we age the tail of the DNA molecule called the telomere shortens. When it gets very short cells have a more and more difficult time reproducing and become more likely to produce defective cells. On a cellular basis this is what produces aging. There is an enzyme in the body called telomerase that helps to prevent shortening of the telomere. So, processes that increase telomerase activity tend to slow the aging process.

Previous research has shown that an intensive meditation practice can increase telomerase activity and slow telomere shortening. These results suggested that meditation could slow aging and increase life span. It’s been anecdotally reported for years that people who practice yoga  tend to live long lives. There has, however, not been any systematic empirical evidence obtained to confirm or deny these anecdotes.

In today’s Research News article “Telomerase activity and cellular aging might be positively modified by a yoga-based lifestyle intervention.”

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Kumar and colleagues produce evidence from a single case study that yoga practice increases telomerase activity. In addition they show that markers of oxidative stress, another indicator of aging, are reduced with yoga practice.

These are very exciting findings that must be interpreted cautiously since they are from a single case. But, should they be seen in controlled future investigation could suggest that yoga practice, like meditation, can slow cellular aging and perhaps increase longevity. It should be emphasized that the yoga practice used by Kumar and colleagues included meditation. It remains to future research to identify if the observed effects are due to the postures, or to breath control in yoga or to the meditation component or all three.

So, practice yoga and age slowly and healthily.

CMCS

Keep it Simple Stupid

That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.” – Steve Jobs

A sage once said “you can never be free as long as you own anything.” It’s another way of saying that the more complex our lives, the less real freedom we have. We are constrained by owning a house, a car, jewelry, anything. The house requires attention and upkeep, the car requires maintenance, jewelry requires a safe and insurance. No matter what possession you might have, it doesn’t liberate, it shackles.

Work, family, friends, hobbies all add to the constraints. They fill our days and clutter our minds. Most are good things that are necessary for a full life. But, it’s important to recognize the compromise we’re making. In order to have these things we have to sacrifice our freedom. We have to preoccupy our thoughts. We have to invest our limited time and energies.

Our political beliefs, our laws and social mores, and even our religious/spiritual practices constrain us. They point in particular directions, limiting the available choices. As important as these things are they keep us on a straight and narrow path disallowing a great deal of personal expression and variety of action.

One solution is to simply abandon everything and become a hermit and move into a cabin in the woods like Thoreau. Another is to become a monk or nun. But for most of us these “solutions’ are not “solutions’ at all. We’d be miserable or we’d starve to death and we know it. For most of us these “solutions” are simply not feasible. So what are we to do to simplify and obtain greater freedom.

Our culture, our lifestyles, and or work preclude any meaningful simplification. So, how do we keep it simple. One simple solution is contemplative practice. Meditation, yoga, contemplative prayer, tai chi are all basically methods to simplify experience. What could be simpler than meditation, sitting quietly paying attention to only the present moment. What could be simpler than yoga, adopting positions mindfully and observing your breath and bodily sensations in the present moment. What could be simpler than contemplative prayer, concentrated attention in the present moment on a deity. What could be simpler than tai chi, paying attention in the present moment to very slow movements and balance.

Just focusing on the present moment by itself is the great simplifier. It excludes the vast body of memories that we call the past where the roots of much of our complexity reside. It excludes the future and all the complex planning, worry and fears involved. Present moment awareness is the essence of simplicity.

A wonderful aspect of contemplative practice is that the beautiful simplicity carries over from the practice into our everyday lives. We begin to approach all aspects of our life with greater simplicity. We start to look at it as a present moment experience rather than something with containing a myriad of associated meanings, interpretations, judgments, and history. We can learn to strip that all away and just see it as it is.

We can learn to bring that simplicity to our emotional lives, simply experiencing our feelings in real time. We can strip away all of the rumination, fear and anxiety about our emotions and just experience them as they are. How simple!

So, engage in contemplative practice and “keep it simple stupid”, in the face of the complexity of the modern world.

CMCS

As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.” ― Henry David Thoreau

Aging Healthily – Sleeping better with Mindful Movement Practice

Sleep is that golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” – Thomas Dekker

As the quote implies sleep is important to our health and wellbeing. We are able to deal effectively with occasional sleep loss, but when the loss is chronic over a period of time, the sleep loss can markedly impair our health. It can lead to serious conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. It can also weaken the immune system, making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases.

Chronic sleep loss also affects us psychologically. It tends to impair our mood and our ability to control our emotions. Sleep loss impairs our cognitive ability and memory and even our sex lives. It can make us more accident prone and increase chronic pain levels. Needless to say, getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis is important.

Unfortunately as we age it becomes more and more difficult to get that good night’s sleep. Although the need for sleep doesn’t change with age sleep patterns change.  Older people have a more difficult time falling asleep and staying asleep, waking up several times during the night, and waking early in the morning. In addition, there is less deep sleep, so we don’t feel as rested. Insomnia is much higher in older adults affecting as many as 44%.

A safe and effective means for improving sleep in the elderly is important for the health and wellbeing of this vulnerable population. As a result the news that a simple, safe, ancient practice of mindful movement, including tai chi and qigong, may help improve sleep in the elderly is exciting. In today’s Research News article “The Effect of a Meditative Movement Intervention on Quality of Sleep in the Elderly: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”

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Wu and colleagues summarized the research on mindful movement and sleep in the elderly and found that a three times per week practice significantly improved sleep quality in older adults.

In an upcoming post “Age Healthily – Tai Chi” tai chi practice was shown to help to slow cognitive decline with aging. These findings may be linked to the current findings as sleep loss is known to be associated with cognitive decline.

So, practice tai chi or qigong and age healthily by sleeping better

CMCS

 

Mindfully Improve Psychological Wellbeing

Meditation, focusing, and CBT all have been shown to be effective treatments for a number of psychological problems. In previous research Sugiura and colleagues identified five factors in common to meditation, focusing, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), refraining from catastrophic thinking, self-observation, logical objectivity, detached coping, and acceptance. This raises the questions as to whether these common factors may be responsible for the common clinical outcomes, and which of these common factors is most important for each of a variety of disorders.

In today’s Research News article “Common Factors of Meditation, Focusing, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Longitudinal Relation of Self-Report Measures to Worry, Depressive, and Obsessive-Compulsive Symptoms Among Nonclinical Students.”

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http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4432024/

Sugiura and colleagues pursue these questions with a sample of undergraduate students.

They found that the greater the detached coping the lower the levels of obsessive-compulsive (OCD) symptoms. Detached coping emphasizes detachment and distancing from external conditions. This is exactly what mindfulness training is supposed to do, to allow us to see things objectively as they are. This suggests that mindfulness training is effective against obsessive-compulsive symptoms through its development of the skill of detached coping. Similarly, it was found that the greater the detached coping the lower the levels of depressive symptoms. This suggests that mindfulness training is effective against depression by allowing the individual to look at their situation more objectively, with detachment, and as a result not respond to it as something to feel bad about.

Worrying is also effectively reduced by mindfulness. The mechanism appears to be more complicated than that for OCD or depressive symptoms. It was found that the greater the level of refraining from catastrophic thinking the lower the levels of worrying, while the greater the level of self-observation the stronger the levels of worrying. Refraining from catastrophic thinking reflects the skills necessary to detach from and to suspend negative thinking, which frequently involves a fear of a future negative outcome, a worry. Mindfulness, by focusing on the present rather than the future interferes with worrying about the future and thus can be an effective antidote to worry.

Finally, Self-observation constitutes engagement in self-focus with curiosity and openness. Surprisingly it was associated with increased worrying. It appears that self-observation activates negatives beliefs about worrying. This suggests that it produces a worrying about worrying that increases worry.

So, it appears that the factors in common to meditation, focusing, and CBT of refraining from catastrophic thinking, self-observation, and detached coping are also associated with the symptoms common to psychological problems. But, that different factors are involved with different issues. This suggests that the three treatments may be effective by invoking common intermediaries for various disorders.

So, practice mindfulness and improve your psychological wellbeing.

CMCS

Work Smarter with Meditation

It has become very trendy for business to incorporate meditation into the workday to help improve productivity. In fact, Google offers “Search Inside Yourself” classes to teach mindfulness at work. But, although there is a lot of anecdotal evidence of meditation improving work performance, there is actually very little systematic research on its effectiveness.

In today’s Research News article “The Association between Meditation Practice and Job Performance: A Cross-Sectional Study”

https://www.facebook.com/ContemplativeStudiesCenter/photos/a.628903887133541.1073741828.627681673922429/1051648664859059/?type=1&theater

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4449168/

Shiba and colleagues take an empirical look at whether meditation improves job performance. They found that meditation practice was associated with better job performance, job satisfaction, and work engagement.

It should be noted that the study was correlational and as such does not show a causal connection. A controlled trial with manipulation of meditation is needed. Regardless, this is an important first step and suggests that meditation practice is associated with improved performance at work. This raises the question as to what does meditation do to facilitate work performance.

The most obvious possible mechanism is stress reduction. In the modern business environment stress is ever present. Stress can impair performance by decreasing the ability to concentrate, by increasing fatigue and nervousness, and by reducing wellness. Under high levels of stress people are more emotional and less rational in their behavior. Meditation has been well established to significantly reduce stress by altering both physiological and psychological responses to stress. Meditation doesn’t change the external sources of stress. Rather it improves job performance by reducing our responses to stressors.

But meditation does much more that can positively affect work. It can reduce the individual’s responsivity to “sunk costs.” People have a tendency to respond not only too what is appropriate for the present conditions but also tend to overly consider how much they have already invested in the situation, “sunk costs.” This can lead to decisions that are overly reliant upon past history rather than what is right for the present situation. Meditation by focusing the individual on the present moment can thus produce better decisions.

Meditation has been shown to improve emotional intelligence. It makes us better at understanding and responding to emotions. In other words it makes us smarter regarding our emotions. This can be a great asset in a job making the individual less apt to make rash emotional decisions and more likely to factor in but not be overly influenced by emotions.

Meditation has been shown to increase creativity. Hence, in a work environment the individual is more likely to come up with out-of-the-box solutions to problems. The individual can look at more alternative solutions and evaluate which are most likely to work the best.

Finally, meditation has been shown to improve concentration. Meditation is a practice in controlling and focusing attention. This practice pays off in increased ability to concentrate on a problem. This can improve job productivity by keeping the individual more “on task.” The ability to concentrate also improves memory by excluding inappropriate intrusive memories. This can allow for better use of information from past decisions to inform current decisions.

Hence meditation produces multiple effects that can positively affect job performance.

So meditate and work smarter.

CMCS