Jim and I were catching up as it had been a few years since we worked together. He is the founder and former CEO of Benetech, a Silicon Valley non-profit that has had far-reaching social impact through software for social good. He had been introduced to mindfulness and meditation through his participation in The Wellbeing Project and it stuck. When I asked him about it, he said, “Meditation? Oh, it’s that thing that keeps me from digesting my stomach lining on a daily basis.” Best explanation ever.
I won’t drown you in data about it. There is growing and compelling scientific evidence of health and well-being benefits from a regular practice of mindfulness and meditation. You can google it and geek out.
Sam Harris puts it best in Don’t Meditate Because It’s Good For You, paraphrased from his Waking Up app:
Our relationship to thought is perhaps the most important relationship we have to anything. We are always meditating on something. Our attention is always bound up in something. We are what we pay attention to — building habits, desires, worries and expectations, and prejudices and insights. Mindfulness is just the ability to notice this process with clarity and prioritize. To choose what we pay attention to.
For example, let’s say you pick up your phone to check your email, and at that moment, your five-year-old daughter starts telling you a story. You could be so lost in your thoughts about your email, that you could find the urge to respond to it so compelling that you don’t even notice that your daughter is talking to you. Or you could only notice in a way that rebuffs her so she feels terrible. That’s how most people live their lives, even those with a regular meditation practice. But, the more you train in this practice, the more degrees of freedom you’ll find in situations like this.
You can notice, for instance, that your daughter’s trying to get your attention, and that giving her your attention is in competition with your urge to check this email. And when actual mindfulness comes online, you can feel the urge to check your email as a pattern of energy in your body and simply let it go. That is, you can actually break the link between the feeling and the behavioral imperative it seems to communicate. It’s true that one way to get rid of this feeling is to check your email, but another is simply to let go of it. And only mindfulness allows you to do the latter. Then you can direct your attention to the five year old who is standing in front of you. It might be the only story she tells you that day. You can be aware of that and can feel the poignancy. And in that moment you can further ingrain this new habit of noticing and choosing.
Other than laughter, which truly is the best medicine, nothing in my life has helped me feel better or be better. My clients second that for themselves. When I begin a workshop by asking participants to close their eyes and breathe deeply and slowly in and out for a few cycles, I expect some eye rolling or feigned participation. Instead, after this simple exercise, there is a collective I-want-more-of-that sigh of disbelief in the room. Scientists, engineers, meditation eye-rollers, you name it.
Benetech is a non-profit located in the heart of Silicon Valley developing software for social good. Founded by Jim Fruchterman, guided by their Seven Truths, and fueled by a team of mission-driven, dedicated long-termers, Benetech has made the kind of contribution that makes a real difference in people’s lives and the world through programs in education, human rights, environment, and poverty. Last year, Jim, a MacArthur fellow among other honors, turned the CEO reigns over to Betsy Beauman, and didn’t skip a beat, founding Tech Matters, with the goal of working on large scale social problems through the smart use of software and data.
Sunday Morning Reflection
New to meditation and mindfulness? There’s an app for that. In fact, there is well over a thousand of them. Most used among my clients: Headspace, Calm, and Breethe. If that’s too much of a commitment, simply close your eyes and take a deep breath, expanding your belly. Pause. Exhale slowly to the count of five. Repeat four times.* How’d that feel?
Already have a practice? Where do you want to take it?
Sunday Morning: 102