Even as meditation becomes more mainstream, it can still be challenging to figure out how to explain it to colleagues, friends, and (sometimes especially) family. Is it just alone time? Is it like going to the gym? To figure out the best approach, I talked to Headspace employees about what their individual definitions of “meditation” are, how meditation benefited them, as well as how they try to explain meditation to even the most cynical skeptics.
Sure, they work for a Santa Monica-based meditation app company in what GQ U.K. dubbed “the happiest office in the world” so they’re not your average employees in America. And, the company encourages them to take advantage of the 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. meditations held in their common area. But many of these employees joined Headspace because, just like you (and me), they suffered with stress, endless thought cycles, impatience, and fear—and meditation felt like a solution. Here, learn about how individual staff members talk to others about meditation.
What do you say when someone asks, ‘What is meditation?’
“I tell them it’s a simple exercise where you literally just close your eyes and focus on your breathing,” says Joe Ritchey, Agile Coach, who does a 15-minute meditation after he wakes up in the morning. “It allows you to shut down your thoughts and feelings and temporarily remove yourself from your life. Meditation allows you to slow yourself down and cleanse your mindset. After you finish meditation, you should have a fresh mind and ready to take on whatever’s next.” Ritchey has been practicing meditation for nearly two years and said he felt calmer after his first 10-minute meditation, which motivated him to keep practicing and it helped him handle stress better when he was balancing a full-time job and school.
“It’s a short window of time (e.g., 10 minutes) where you are encouraged to focus on what’s happening inside your head,” says Rory Morrin, Director of Brand Strategy, who has been meditating for three years. “The first time you do it, you have this moment of clarity, ‘Wow! I have a crazy amount of thoughts swirling around inside there, all of the time!’ These thoughts are often either dwelling on the past (why on earth did I say that?) or worrying about the future (what if that highly improbable disaster happens?), both of which are usually a waste of time and, more dangerously, leave us feeling anxious, unhappy and distracted. Meditation is an efficient daily workout where you hone your thought-catching skills, allowing you to spend the rest of your day expertly managing and dismissing these thoughts, thus spending more time in the present moment.”
“Meditation to me is giving yourself the ability to turn off autopilot,” says Francois Chartrand, Product Designer, who has been practicing meditation for about four years. “It’s looking inward, taking time for yourself to do absolutely nothing, to be acutely aware of the world inside and around you.”
“Meditation provides the space between a thought and a reaction; it gives you the ability to expand that space, linger in it, and give yourself time to decide how to react, rather than just reacting on impulse,” says Kelton Wright, Managing Editor, who has been meditating for two years.
“For me, meditation is a practice which de-excites the nervous system, gets me to settle into my body, and gives me the space to observe the state of my thoughts, my emotions, and my physical body,” says Nathalie Huynh, Software Engineer, who has been meditating for about a year.
“Meditation has really opened my eyes to the control I have over what is a thought and what is actual reality,” says Ryan Kelly, Creative Producer, who’s been meditating for a year.
“Meditation is simply a window into the mind. It’s a practice that helps us sit in silence and observe our mind as it is in that moment,” says Cillian Morgan, who has been meditating for two years and often does 30-minutes of meditation a day, during work and before returning home. “A lot of our anxieties and neuroses are rooted in overthinking past or future events, which is why a delineated focus on our present can really help to gain perspective on difficult thoughts.”
How has meditation benefited you?
“I’ve seen positive changes in the way I treat myself, my day-to-day interactions with people, and in my relationship,” says Chartrand. “I’m a more caring and present partner. It won’t take long—people around you will start noticing and ask you what your new superpower is.”
“One of the massive benefits for me, personally, is to notice the distance between thought and the present moment, to recognize how powerful thoughts may feel, to catch myself in thought—and retrain my system to come back to the breath and the body,” says Jennifer Azlant, Editorial Assistant, who says she’s been meditating on and off for 15 years, consistently for two.
“In the past, I struggled with stress-related health issues and have found that being mindful a few times throughout the day has positively impacted my ability to deal with stress,” says Rachel Kwan, Growth – Acquisition Marketing Manager, who’s been meditating consistently for one year. “I’ve also noticed increased energy and a more centered feeling throughout the day.”
"I am reminded that feelings come and go like weather: today I might feel sad, but that doesn't mean I am sad and always will be."
“Some benefits I’ve experienced include increased empathy for others—I feel as though I am more accepting and less judgmental which has helped me connect more deeply with others,” says Andrew Coyle, Agile Coach Manager, a meditator for three years. “In my relationship, it’s certainly made me a better listener.” He says that consistent meditation has also improved his focus. “I would like to think [meditation] has allowed me to stay in the moment more often. At the very least, I’m hyper aware of when I’m not in the moment.”
“I’m actually a walking example of meditation working,” says Robert Andrade, Director of Social Media and Audience Engagement. “If you saw me a year ago you would have thought I was crazy and I relied on too much caffeine. It’s the calming nature of meditation [that made a difference]. I was ADHD and always jumping from task to task—meditation was something I needed. I’m a convert. It’s definitely made me more focused. My role at the company is social media which is about reacting, and [meditation] helped slow me down, focus more and not react as much. Now, when something is happening, I ask myself how it plays into what we as Headspace stand for, and make sure I’m not simply reacting,” he says.
“The most immediate effect I experienced was that I generally became much less anxious,” says Alex Pompliano, Editor, who has practiced meditation for two years. “My mind seemed to always be going down dark paths that were not rooted in reality but rather projection and worry. I simply wasn’t being present. An effect that took me more time to notice was that I’d become less reactive to stressful situations. My body no longer became flooded with panic when I was given bad news or made aware of some potentially awful, looming situation. It’s wild how your body acclimates once you train your mind to let negativity pass by while not reacting to it if it’s out of your control.”
“First and foremost, meditation is the reason I can get on airplanes,” says Wright. “I used to have crippling panic attacks, and my meditation practice has given me the ability to really hone in on my triggers and to better listen to what my body is actually saying (that I’m scared) rather than what it’s yelling (that I’m dying.) In addition to that, since beginning a practice, I eat better, I feel better, and overall, I’m just happier with where I am. Being more present and more mindful has brought me a lot of easy joy.”
“If there’s ever discussion involving differences of opinion, I find myself being a lot less reactive than I used to be and so that’s the biggest thing it’s helped me with day-to-day,” says Morrin. “It’s also really helped me sleep and just leave situations behind me very quickly,” he says, further explaining that he tends to do a 10-minute meditation in his car after work, before walking in the door at home to his wife and nine-month-old baby.
“When I’m feeling stressed or anxious, I recall the way I feel during meditation and I’m (hopefully) able to get back to my calmest, quiet state of mind,” says Ken Seeno, Product Designer, who dabbled in meditation six years ago but has been practicing with Headspace for four months. “I have a vivid imagination, and I can sit and think about something for hours; meditation helps me to realize that those are just thoughts in my mind that come and go— they aren’t real. In reality, it’s my decision whether or not I want to listen to whatever thought pops into my head. I am reminded that feelings come and go like weather: today I might feel sad, but that doesn’t mean I am sad and always will be. Feelings change, the clouds clear away and before you know it you are back to normal! Meditation helps with this process immensely.”
“Meditation allows me to take time to step back and nourish myself,” says Mallory Norton, Senior Producer, who started meditating over 12 years ago. “I was very much the type to go, go, go and do, do, do, a type-A personality that felt if I wasn’t doing anything I wasn’t being productive. Meditation flipped that on its head. I saw the benefit of ‘doing nothing’ and learned that I was more productive and centered the rest of the day [when I meditated]. I used to be a constant worrier. One of the biggest benefits meditation has had for me is to witness my thoughts and know that they are not me or true,” she says.
How do you respond when someone says, “I tried meditation and it didn’t work”?
Andrade says he’s gotten into a lot of conversations with Uber drivers and passengers about meditation and when he encounters someone who’s skeptic about it, he’ll give them his business card with a month free code. “I encourage them to try Headspace and tell them, ‘If you try it for two weeks … and if you’re not feeling anything, that’s OK.’ If they reach out to me and say they’re enjoying it, I hook them up with another two months. I’ve never gotten a call or response saying it didn’t help. Someone might say, ‘Maybe it’s not for me but I can see how it works for other people,’” he says.
“Expecting a clear mind from meditating a couple of times is like expecting to lose 10 pounds because you went running a couple of times—it doesn’t work like that,” says Wright. “Meditation isn’t a pill or a massage, it’s a practice, something you train at to see the benefits. And just like exercise, even when there are short-term benefits, it’s the long-term benefits that make it truly worthwhile.”
“Learning meditation is no different than riding a bike or learning a new language, it may not be natural practice where you quickly master it,” says Ritchey. “It takes practice and you have to have a long-term commitment to become better at it and start feeling its benefits.”
“There are so many different ways to practice meditation, and even within a particular school of practice, each person has their own way of relating to it and their own way of receiving instruction,” says Huynh. “I find it so important to keep this in mind when I encounter difficulties in my practice or cognitive dissonance with new techniques that I’m learning. It helps me make space for curiosity instead of leading me to judge either myself for not being a “good meditator” or the practice for “not working.” With this mindset I find that the techniques that work for me end up, somewhat organically, sticking around to build the foundation for a rich and consistent practice.”
“[Practicing meditation] is like playing an instrument; you might be able to hold the instrument and produce sound at first, but you probably won’t be able to play a song until you’ve practiced it a lot,” says Seeno. “After weeks, months and even years of practice, picking up that instrument and playing a song will be like second nature; you won’t even remember not being able to do it. But it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes training, and energy, and really wanting to be able to play in order to get there. Step by step. It’s a long, slow process—not something that happens overnight. It won’t ‘happen’ unless you are interested and invested in the process, the journey.”
“I tell people that while you can experience some benefits in 10 minutes a day for 10 days, I needed to practice for longer in order to experience more of the benefits,” says Norton. “Sometimes when you try to quiet the mind, it gets louder. Meditation can be humbling and not necessarily rewarding at first. Sometimes, people assume that in order to meditate it has to be quiet or you should be in nature. It’s about being present with how you’re feeling then and there and if that means you’re in a parking lot and there are noises and alarms, you can be present even if your circumstances aren’t perfect,” she says.
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The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.