Five scientifically proven reasons why you should meditate

Former barrister, trainer and mindfulness coach Neil Seligman digests the 2012 statistics from LawCare along with recent scientific discoveries on the benefits of presence, mindfulness and meditation.

I practised for eight years at the civil bar with a busy predominantly personal injury practice. I thought I had created a fairly good balance between life and work but was surprised when I took my sabbatical in 2009 (which led to my career transition) that I was struck with intense headaches, dizziness and even an enormous boil on the side of my head. I was advised that my symptoms resulted from my system being overloaded with adrenaline and stress hormones which now had nothing, or much less, to do.

The interesting thing to me was that I would not have said that I was particularly stressed. The way I was operating (intensely practical, lots of lists, always on the go) seemed to me and felt entirely ‘normal’. However, what I experienced, led me to understand more personally that there is a cost to this type of frenetic activity (which I came to refer to as my ‘manic list energy’) and far from it being normal, it is dangerous.

LawCare have just released their 2012 statistics which show that they helped 378 lawyers in 2012 to deal with issues ranging from stress, depression and addiction. 69 per cent of the calls received by the helpline cited stress as the main issue.

Here are the key stressors taken from the freshly released 2012 LawCare statistics:

  • Workload – 28 per cent
  • Financial problems – 19 per cent
  • Disciplinary issues – 14 per cent
  • Bullying – 14 per cent
  • Ethical issues – 8 per cent
  • Redundancy – 7 per cent
  • Relationship problems – 6 per cent

How to cope with stress?

If we are becoming more stressed as a profession and more prone to stress-related breakdown and disease, we need to bring the level of craft, excellence and professionalism that we offer our clients in our work to our personal wellbeing and self-development. To that end, a practice of stillness (meditation) is fundamental. Here’s the science:

1. Meditation reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke

Whilst a certain amount of stress can be motivating and engaging, a lifetime driven by extraordinary levels of cortisol will have consequences. Mental or physical breakdown, addiction, frustration, anger and bitterness are all consequences of mental overwhelm:

The latest study into the long assumed physical benefits of meditation has shown the strongest link yet between a regular practice of meditation and better physical health.

“The main finding [of our research] is that, added on top of usual medical care, intervention with a mind-body technique (here transcendental meditation) can have a major effect on cardiovascular events,” says Robert Schneider, lead author on the study published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes.

2. Long-term meditators are able to process information faster

Much of your life is spent reading into the next case. Speedy and accurate assimilation of complex facts and documents is the hallmark of a lawyer worth their salt. Meditation can help you become even faster and leave you with more free time:

Researchers at UCLA studied the brains of people who had meditated for years comparing them with those who never meditated or who only did it for a short period of time. They took MRI scans of 100 people, half meditators and half non-meditators. They were fascinated to find that long-time meditators showed higher levels of gyrification (a folding of the cerebral cortex that may be associated with faster information processing). In a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in February 2012, they shared that, the more years a person had been meditating, the more gyrification their MRIs revealed.  

3. People who practice certain forms of meditation are more creative

In practice I often heard the theory that being a lawyer is entirely uncreative but I have to say I disagree. Creativity includes both of these vital skills: problem-solving and idea-generation. The way through your case, the phrase that will persuade your client, identifying the point that your colleagues missed, all involve the creative capacities of the brain:

Researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands looked at the way two types of meditation, focused-attention (for example, focusing on your breath) and open-monitoring (where participants focus on both the internal and external) affected two types of creative thinking: the ability to generate new ideas and solutions to problems. In a study published in April 2012 in Frontiers in Cognition, they revealed that those who practiced open-monitoring meditation performed better than non-meditators at tasks related to coming up with new ideas.

4. Meditators are less distracted and less stressed during multi-tasking

You field client enquiries, work around your supervisor, prep your presentation, communicate with your colleagues and surf your inbox, often all at the same time. For most lawyers, multi-tasking is the norm:

A computer scientist at the University of Washington teamed up with a neuroscientist at the University of Arizona to test whether meditation can help professionals stay focused and calm. The pair recruited 45 human resources managers and gave a third of them eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training, a third of them eight weeks of body relaxation training and a third of them no training at all. All the groups were given a stressful multi-tasking test before and after the eight weeks. In a study published in the Proceedings of Graphics Interface in May 2012, they showed that the meditation group reported less stress as they performed the multi-tasking test than both of the other groups.

This study has further obvious implications for burnout and breakdown.

5. Meditation: an antidote to addiction?

A drink at the bar is one thing, but how many of us have, at one time or another, relied on some addictive substance or behaviour to get us through the week? Even if it does not affect you personally, you have probably seen the effects of addiction on colleagues at work. Work itself can also become an addiction, so can email, social media and even exercise.

The body of evidence for the power of meditation in addiction treatment and prevention is growing. One 2007 study showed that individuals who participated in meditative practices during recovery gained higher levels of coping skills, as well as a heightened awareness of substance-abuse triggers.

Addiction could cost you lost days or even your career. Meditation offers the prospect of addressing some of the root cause. Prevention is indeed better than cure.

A daily practice?

So the science now supports much of what many always assumed to be true about meditation. Do you need another reason? Well, the world is becoming more conscious. Professionals are being challenged in new ways. Here’s how some of the corporates are responding to the challenge of a conscious future for business:

At General Mills in Minneapolis, Janice Marturano, deputy general counsel at the multinational has founded a program of meditation, yoga and mindfulness, “It’s about training our minds to be more focused, to see with clarity, to have spaciousness for creativity and to feel connected. That compassion to ourselves, to everyone around us, our colleagues, customers, that’s what the training of mindfulness is really about.”

William George, a current Goldman Sachs board member agrees, “The main business case for meditation is that if you’re fully present on the job, you will be more effective as a leader, you will make better decisions and you will work better with other people, I tend to live a very busy life. This keeps me focused on what’s important.”

What keeps you focused on what’s important to you and well enough to do it…?

Since my departure from the bar in 2009, I have rebuilt my life and career from the ground up. The central foundation of my life is now personal wellbeing and authenticity. For me this means that mindfulness, presence, relaxation, exercise and nutrition now share equal status with my career. This has taken a massive shift in awareness and a lot of hard work. The cost of failing to prioritise wellbeing however, may have proved to be far more challenging. So remember…

‘A daily practice of meditation can transform a life…’

By Neil Seligman, director, The Conscious Professional