Why Zen?

Recently I picked up the practice of Zen meditation. The way it works is you go to a room with a group of other people, pick out a cushion and when the bell chimes, you all sit and stare at a wall in silence for a half an hour.

When I told my wife how it works she said, “That sounds unbelievably boring.” My mother had an even harder time with it and asked, “Why would anyone do that?”

It’s a reasonable question – why does a group of people stare at a wall in silence? I’d say Zen meditation has three benefits – regular meditation will improve your:

1. Focus
2. Patience
3. Emotional Awareness

First I want to review how Zen meditation works. It’s pretty simple really. You sit on a comfortable cushion and focus on your breathing. You count “one” on the inhale and “two” on the exhale. Then you count “three” on the inhale, “four” on the exhale – all the way up to ten before starting over again. If you lose count, you start on “one” again.

All this fixation on breathing is key to improving your focus, the first benefit of regular Zen meditation. Paying attention to something as simple as breathing teaches you to be in the moment and not be distracted. When you sit in this state for a half an hour, you become acutely aware of what the Buddhists refer to as “monkey mind.”

What’s monkey mind? Monkey mind is when your attention starts drifting and you start making grocery lists in your head. It’s what you do when you have insomnia or aren’t listening to a speech. Some of you may be doing this right now. Monkey mind is when our brain acts like a monkey – jumping aimlessly from thought to thought.

While you are meditating, you are going to experience a lot of monkey mind. What Zen teaches you is to identify it when it happens. You stop and think, “Ah, that’s monkey mind” and you focus all your attention on your breathing – counting “one” on the inhale and “two” on the exhale. By focusing on your breath, you learn to keep you mind still and focused.

This increased focus can help you a lot in your career. A big concept in our modern workplace is the importance of multi-tasking. Unfortunately, multi-tasking is just a way of doing a lot of tasks very poorly. Ever see someone type an email while talking on their cell phone? The results are unimpressive – the email is incoherent and the phone call conversation is boring.

Zen meditation reminds us to stay focused. Our society is filled with constant distractions and we often willfully give in to them. Zen allows you to focus on the moment and be absorbed by the task at hand and do it well.

This is the same approach used by a lot by professional athletes. Are any of you familiar with Phil Jackson, the coach of the Chicago Bulls and later the LA Lakers? Jackson was a big proponent of Zen meditation for his players. He felt it gave them the focus they needed to win. Considering he won championships coaching Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, it seems to have worked out fairly well.

The second benefit of Zen – patience – is related to the first. Zen meditation teaches you to be patient. Sometimes when I’m meditating I start getting anxious. I’ll think, “Man, I’ve been sitting here awhile. When is this going to end?” and want to sneak a peek at my watch. When these thoughts creep into my head, I let them go and focus, again, on my breathing. Think of patience as a muscle and meditation is the workout that strengthens it.

This benefit has had a huge effect on my life. For one, commuting to work is much less stressful. When I’m stuck in a traffic jam, I don’t get upset about something I can’t control. I don’t rage at the drivers around me. Instead of raging, I look to being flexible. I look to solve the problem at hand rather than rage about things I have no control over.

This increased patience has also made me a much better parent and teacher. I have two small daughters, age five and two. There are times when I’m watching them struggle with something and every inch of me wants to step in and do it for them to speed things along. Zen has taught me to hold back and let them work it out themselves. This is a win-win; my daughters learn something new and I get to do less work.

Which brings me to the last benefit – increased emotional awareness. Zen allows you to disengage from your emotions and see them for what they are – momentary states of consciousness. The typical emotion last 90 seconds. If you can refrain from acting on your emotions for a minute and a half, you should be good.

Recently I got upset with a co-worker. He said something that angered me. Instead of reacting, I realized, “Anger. I’m experiencing anger right now” and instead of making a scene, I walked away. By identifying the emotion, I got a lot more effective at handling it. That co-worker eventually was let go. Turns out his co-workers handled anger a lot better than he did.

I hope I’ve convinced you to give Zen a try. Who among us wouldn’t want to be more focused, patient and calm? It doesn’t require a half a hour, give it a try for 1-2 minutes a day.

I remember the story of the man who taught Zen meditation to convicted criminals. All these prisoners eventually stopped doing it. When he asked why, they gave the same reason – they “couldn’t find the time.” I encourage you to make the time, give it a shot and experience these three benefits for yourself.

What to Do?

I studied journalism in college. My senior year in 1994, one of my classes had special guest speaker – a senior editor from the Boston Globe. This was a big deal for us kids. He got our attention in a big hurry with his first sentence, “Get out of journalism, newspapers are dead meat.”

He then broke out a handheld device. It was a small machine that ran the current newspaper headlines. This device may seem trivial today in our age of iPhones and tablets but remember this was eighteen years ago. He held it up for all of us to see, “This is how people in the future are going to get their news.”

This was a serious wakeup for me. It basically destroyed my dream of working for the New York Times. In fact, the more I learned about journalism, the more I didn’t like it. In journalism the hours were long, the deadlines tight, pay was low and sometimes people shot you. And now it was apparent the industry itself was in a state of decline. I realized this profession I had prepared to do for four years was not for me.

So, what to do? Remember this was 1994, the year Netscape Navigator was launched. And I remember very clearly seeing the cover of Time magazine featuring Marc Andreessen. In the photo, he was posing on a throne wearing jeans in bare feet. The headline proclaimed him a young millionaire and I thought, “What’s this internet all about?”

I then transformed myself into all things internet. I took a couple of intro to computers classes and read all I could about the industry. I picked up a book called “The Whole Internet” that probably contained as many pages as the internet did in 1994.

I also started hanging out with computer people and picked up their language. One thing journalism taught me is to never be afraid to ask dumb questions. You can learn a lot by asking questions and listening to the answer.

All this re-tooling of my skills paid off at a dinner party a few years later. The guy I sat down next to asked me what I did and I said I was looking for a job. I asked him what he did and he said, “I work for a man named Omar who owns a plane. You seem like a nice fellow, we’re hiring if you are interested.” I was.

It turned out the company Omar-who-owns-a-plane owned was a small startup in Harvard Square. It was a small outfit, I was the eighth employee in a company where half the workforce had a PhD from Harvard. Early on I had dinner with the CEO and he said, “This is a great opportunity. I hope you seize it.” I did. I threw myself headlong into work. Doing so, I laid the foundation of skills I would use for the entire length of my career to the present day.

From there, my career took off like a rocket. The startup was acquired by Yahoo and eight of us moved to California. This was August of 1998. Somehow I had wound up working for the marquee company of the internet era. I couldn’t believe my good luck. In 1999, I bought a house and got engaged. In 2000, I got married. And in 2001, after the dot-coms went bust, we headed back east.

Since then I’ve done a lot of things. I’m married with a house and two young daughters. I picked up rowing and rowed in the Head of the Charles. I now row competitively on the ocean. I climbed Mount Rainier and Mount Kilimanjaro. I’ve worked for a presidential campaign and for Bob Vila, the TV home improvement guy. Awhile ago I took a class in Russian for fun and it landed me my current job at a software company based in Moscow.

It’s been an interesting run. But I always think back to that moment back in 1995 when I graduated from college. Graduating with a degree in journalism just as newspapers were beginning to die was a real moment of crisis for me. All I could think was, “Oh my God, what am I going to do now?” Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize crisis is just opportunity in a different form.