Much is being written about the impacts of meditation on our well-being, especially in the high-stress, high-stakes lifestyles many of us lead.  The data says we’re all too distracted – according to an article in the Harvard gazette, “Research shows that people spend almost 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing.”  It’s no wonder, the requirements of life are staggering in any given day.  Just think about what we have to process and balance: incredibly demanding jobs, devices and apps all competing for our attention, 24/7 (bad) news feeds and the ever-increasing number of decisions our complex world requires of us.  We have so much choice, the options for our consumption are almost limitless. Just trying to select what to eat for lunch at the Cheesecake Factory can create decision fatigue!

What then is the cost of distraction?  Primarily, a distracted mind is an unproductive mind.  In fact, according to a study by Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab, the constant interruption of our brains we call multi-tasking actually makes us dumber, less productive and ultimately emotionally and physically unhealthy.  As you’ve probably experienced, when we attempt to focus on multiple things at once our stress levels go up, we’re less able to link our thoughts and emotions (sometimes referred to as emotional intelligence), and we often miss the triggers that spark curiosity, creativity, interest and inspiration.  The result is an over-worked, under-productive and unhappy mind.

With so much being said about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness training, I became curious about the real-life application of the practice and if it could counteract the downside of our distracted minds.  To take us on his personal journey – I’m interviewing a former client who has been practicing meditation; working towards living a more mindful life, inside and outside the office.  Ramsey Robertson shares his experiences first hand, the lessons he’s learned as he’s worked at the executive level of oil and gas companies in various roles responsible for leading and developing health, safety and environmental practices that keep employees safe and the environment unharmed in an inherently risky industry.

Neill: First, it seems like there may be some confusion between ‘mindfulness’ and ‘meditation’. So we’re on the same page, what do you see as the difference?  Can you have one without the other?

Ramsey: Simply put, mindfulness is a result, meditation is a tool. Being in a mindful state means you are aware of what is in you (body and mind) and around you in any present moment.  It is having the ability to control and objectively see the flood of thoughts that many of us experience in our fast-paced world and push them away, so they don’t control us, and we can be focused on “right now”.

Meditation at its core is a tool used to put your mind and body in a calm, relaxed state that allows for your mind to be open to a host of benefits. You can definitely practice meditation without getting into mindfulness (which alone has many benefits) but to my knowledge, it is very difficult to get into a mindful state without using meditation.  At least until the practice becomes so ingrained that you can put yourself in that state at will.

Neill: When did you first learn about meditation and how long have you been practicing?  Do you use a particular technique?

Ramsey: I have known about meditation for many years but always associated it with chanting monks or hippies from the 60’s!  I was introduced to the science and practical benefits of it a little over 6 months ago and have been practicing regularly ever since.  As for technique, I am aware of several different “defined” techniques, but upon learning about them I decided for me it was best to keep it simple. All seem to use breathing as a core component so I started out using guided meditations you can find on YouTube.

Neill: What benefits have you experienced from meditation?  How has meditation made you better at your work? Your life?

Ramsey: That is a tough one, from a holistic perspective I am less stressed and much more in control of my thoughts and emotions.  I can’t think of any part of my work or my life that it hasn’t improved.  Simply being able to relax, recharge and be focused has made me more effective at anything I do at work or home.

I want to be cautious though to not portray this as some magic cure-all for everything difficult in life, or imply my life is lived in a constant state of bliss.  Just like with exercise, this is a practice you have to be disciplined enough to do regularly and continuously improve on to gain the most benefit.  Exercising the mind, like the body, isn’t easy.  Everyone will suffer setbacks at some point.  The key is to learn from them, keep going, and get right back on track.

Neill: What does science tell us about the benefits of meditation?

Ramsey:  Many benefits that have been measured by science and the data is just getting richer with more studies being done every day.  Just recently, The Harvard Business Review highlighted the benefits meditation can have for business leaders.  Even more recently, the New York Times published an articleabout a new study that was done which showed significant differences in the brains of those who practiced meditation and those who didn’t – specifically, and this is a quote from the article itself, “There was more activity, or communication, among the portions of their (the study’s participants) brains that process stress-related reactions and other areas related to focus and calm.”

Studies are also finding we can continue to “shape” and grow our brains in positive ways, well into old age.  There are many sources (this article and this article) that do a far better job than I could at explaining the benefits, backed up by real research.

Neill: What are the challenges?  With all of today’s distractions, how do you find the time during your day?

Ramsey: You called out the biggest challenges in your question, distractions and finding time.  Personally, to overcome this I set aside a dedicated time and place I can be undisturbed for 15 minutes.  It could be in my car (not while driving please!) or any quiet, private place.  I practice in my office by getting to work a little earlier and closing my door.  However one chooses to do it, treat meditation as a routine part of the day and you will have more focus, clear thinking and productive time, which will then free up more time.

Another challenge comes with trying to force the process.  As a “Type A” guy, I have had to combat the desire to become really good at this right away, achieving, at least, the basic outcomes of a relaxed mind and body, every single time!  Add to that my ultimate goal of getting into a truly mindful state, and it can cause frustration that can lead to giving up.  I have learned to simply stop a session if things aren’t “working” and reminding myself I can try again later.  A big part of meditation is having an open mind, letting go of control and just letting things come to you.  All help to create the type of environment our brains need to realize the full benefits.

The people that benefit the most are those that have this openness and practice this because they truly want balance, health and wellbeing; physically, mentally and spiritually.

Neill: What do you say to the skeptics who believe meditation is just another fad, that prescription drugs or a good psychiatrist are the only real solutions to stress, anxiety, depression or being happy?

Ramsey: I would say what do you have to lose by trying it?  It is free and there are no side effects.  Listen, there are those that believe big pharmaceutical companies are constantly making new pills and pushing doctors to prescribe them with a minimum of clinical standards. Modern medicine for treating mental disorders is a good thing for those with debilitating symptoms; I know it has saved lives and improved the quality of life for many. I would never recommend someone stop taking a medication and start meditating without consulting with their doctor.

That said, we are the most medicated country in the world, especially with psychotropic drugs.  Yet surveys on happiness show overall we are not getting any happier, and in some cases, there is an overall downward trend.  Meditation has been around for many centuries in various forms and could be a good complement to medication. In some cases, depending on the severity, stress, anxiety and/or depression can be effectively addressed using meditation alone.  Each of us is unique in our different circumstances, so I can speak only from my own experience. Meditation is a no-lose proposition with incredible potential benefits and zero risk. I am not sure why anyone wouldn’t want to, at least, give it a try.   If you’re a skeptic, I suggest you read this articlewritten by a skeptic turned meditation champion.

Neill: What do you say to those who think meditation is for the weak-minded or ‘soft’, that you just need to suck it up and deal with what life throws at you – that no amount of sitting and meditating is going to really do anything?

Ramsey: Everyone is entitled to their opinion.  The people I know with that attitude are train-wrecks on the inside.  Look, I said before that meditation and mindfulness are not magic and shouldn’t be viewed as a cure-all or key to a trouble free life.  However, as scientists discover common characteristics in the human brain, it is logical to assume such a proven practice can play a big role in overall wellness.  Lastly, I believe it takes a strong mind to explore change and deal with emotions in a new way.  Meditation isn’t easy and requires discipline, commitment and openness.  None of those are characteristics of a weak mind, even Fortune 500 executives have discovered the power of meditation and mindfulness.

Neill: What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out practicing meditation?

Ramsey:  First, do some self-study on it to a point where you know what to expect and have a solid idea of what you want to accomplish.  Next, start using some of the numerous free resources out there, especially on YouTube. Start with guided meditations and experiment until you find some you like the most.  Do your best to establish a daily routine and start with short ones to get used to the methods.  Don’t try to force things and don’t give up if you can’t get your mind and body in a relaxed state right away.  We are wired to resist change so don’t give in to feelings of failure or futility.  Remember this is for you and is a journey of discovery.  It should never feel like “work” and it’s important to celebrate each step forward.

Neill:  Do you have any favorite resources that have guided you on along your meditation practice?

Ramsey: Definitely.  I like to read and so I sought out studies and articles on the subject just using Google. HBR just published a great article on practicing mindfulness throughout the work day .  A friend who is a coach directed me to a YouTube channel called TheHonestGuys.  I enjoy their guided meditations because of the accent of the person doing the voiceover.  It’s those kinds of little things that can make a big difference and requires a little trial and error.  There are lot’s of other good resources on YouTube, some even explain or teach more about meditation and mindfulness.  Again, start small with short exercises focused on simple breathing and relaxation, until getting to a truly relaxed state comes easy.  How you move on from there will be an individual decision based on your goals and life factors.  Explore the many apps that are out there for some ideas.

Neill:  In closing, it seems that meditation is a big part of your life and how you deal with the challenges that come your way.  Are you working toward something greater, meaning, is meditation a means to an end for you?  Or, do you view meditation as something you just ‘do’ – say like eating or breathing?

Ramsey: I’m working towards a goal of being more mindful – all the time, not just when meditating. Meditation is a tool – remember, it’s like exercising the brain.  I’m working to teach myself the ability to constantly be present in the moment – to turn off all the distractions and be able to focus singularly on what is happening now.  I want to be able to keep my attention on the moment – to shut out all the noise the brain creates by processing the past, analyzing what might happen in the future, then making misguided judgments and assessments based on faulty analysis of things I can’t control.  Instead, I want to experience the peace and freedom that comes from being more thoughtful and more intentional about dealing with what is in front of me today. Being mindful of what is around me today, what I can change or affect, that is the path to greater effectiveness.