We recently learned that Business Insider program director Arden Pennell is an avid meditator.
Since we’ve heard of all the amazing ways meditation can change your life — some CEOs swear by it — we asked Arden if she’d be willing to share how she has the discipline to meditate every morning for 45 minutes, and what it does for her productivity at the office.
She says meditation can be tough — and even gruelling or simply boring — but she’ll never start a day without it.
Below is a lightly-edited transcript of our conversation:
ON WHY MEDITATION IS BETTER THAN NETWORKING
It’s interesting because people are always telling young people that the best thing you can do for your career is go network with people, promote yourself, ask for raises. There are all kinds of different tips and we do slideshows like that all the time on Business Insider. But the most valuable thing that I have done in my career to date is have a meditation practice.
One of the things that’s happening in meditation is that you’re literally conditioning your brain, so you can think of it as a workout. You know how you go to the gym and you lift weights and you work on your biceps or thighs? When you meditate you actually work on strengthening the front parts of your brain. You’re getting the parts of your brain to talk to each other and communicate better. And brain waves show that. So one of the things that it does is that it increases your ability to concentrate when there is a lot of noise around. And it also allows you to stay focused and grounded even when a lot of craziness is happening.
ON HOW MEDITATION LANDED HER A JOB AT BUSINESS INSIDER
I’d just done this meditation retreat in the winter of 2010 that was 12 hours of meditation and no talking, no phone, no email, no reading, no writing, not even eye contact. You just switch off walking and sitting, walking and sitting. They’re not going to whip you with a stick if you cheat, but I didn’t. It was called “LovingKindness” meditation. So I spent 96 hours cultivating the quality of lovingkindness in my nervous system. This was at Insight Meditation Society, which is in Barre, Massachusetts. It’s one of the first centres founded in the U.S in the 1970s. On the trip that I went on, there were 100 of us and a long wait list.
I had this one moment on retreat — where you become hyper-aware of your mind, of all bullshit we are always thinking all the time; there’s nothing to distract you. So I’m standing in line for lunch thinking, “If I take a double serving of this lasagna, how is that going to look?” And then I had this moment where I thought, “You know, it doesn’t really matter what they think of me. I just want them to be happy.”
And it was this profound moment where the mind-state went from insecurity to fear to just wanting the people around me to be well and to be happy. It went from relating to other people as people that could judge me or I had to be anxious around, to just feeling more warm towards them. In New York City alone, just getting on the subway and coming to work, you have 100 or 1,000 moments or split seconds where you look at someone and they look at you — and you think of how they’re judging you. Or you move out of the way of someone or get annoyed that someone’s in your way.
After the retreat, my brother sent me a link about some conference online, put on by Mike Arrington, who I already knew because I was working in California and met him and he’d offered me a job and I turned it down. He had written some posting that I really liked. And it was very snarky, very typical of Mike Arrington. Normally I might have been hesitant to reach out because Mike has a very strong personality and it might be intimidating. But I was in this “no-fear” state. So I thought, “Oh this is so cool, I’m going to email him and tell him that I appreciate that he wrote this.” So I did, and that started more of an exchange.
When I got back to California, we hung out and got coffee a few times. And then at some point he said he was doing a conference Disrupt, and I should really work on it. And it was like he was pitching me on it. Then they brought me in to do it.
It was so funny because TechCrunch at that point was this huge brand and I didn’t even realise how big it was for the whole Silicon Valley community. I wasn’t an avid software enthusiast. It was a kingmaker in Silicon Valley for Mike to write about your startup. Then you could get all kinds of traction. Helping them launch Disrupt helped me launch my career, because people were impressed that I did that for TechCrunch. Julie Hansen came calling shortly thereafter and wanted me to come and help Business Insider with an event too, which became the first IGNITION event in 2010. But none of this would have happened if I hadn’t gone and sat in the woods for 96 hours and reached out to Mike Arrington about an article that I liked. There are a bunch of moments like that in my career that I look back on and see that they trace back to a particular attitude that I can relate to meditation practice.
ON HOW TO FOCUS WHILE MEDITATING
One of the metaphors that we like in meditation is, it’s like staring at your thumb for 40 minutes. You see everything else. It’s not like you only see your thumb. But you’re able to stay here and let all the other stuff be there without getting drawn in by it. People often say it’s like let your thoughts pass through your mind like clouds through the sky. You don’t get drawn in or carried along and distracted. That’s tough because today we have a culture of distractions and all of Business Insider is built to capitalise on the culture of distraction.
ON WHY SHE STARTED MEDITATING
I started meditating in the fall of 2005. At the time I was a senior in college. I had read about Buddhism in high school and remember thinking it would be great to not be attached to things. But for a while it never happened. Then for some reason I picked up this book senior year and it was by a Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.
One of the first pages said, “Life is full of suffering but you don’t have to suffer.” You don’t have to embrace your suffering. That’s not all life is; there’s a lot else, too. And that just touched me because I was a very unhappy person. That very same day I started meditation practice sitting on the floor of my dorm room. It took me like two years to even sit regularly and then once I did, there was this one practice that I was doing with this group where you hold your breath, count to 10, and then when you get to 10 you start over from one, to help you settle, focus and follow your breath to trick your mind into concentrating. If you don’t get to 10, you’re supposed to start over from one. When you notice you’re distracted, thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch, or some book you read, and then think, “Oh, I’m supposed to be here meditating,” you just go back to one. And it took me more than a year to get to 10.
A lot of people get discouraged about meditation because they like the idea of it, but then [feel like] they’re “failing” at it because they just come face to face with the quality of distraction. But that’s just like a quality of the mind, the way this table is hard or this tissue is soft.
ON HOW MEDITATION GETS HER THROUGH THE WORK DAY
It’s tough particularly in this office because the quality of mind that Business Insider is asking you to cultivate is to be constantly watching what’s happening and to be reading all the news feeds, all the time.
I get distracted, too, but one of the things that meditation teaches is muscle memory, repetition. You sit on the cushion so many times, your body and nervous system start to learn the practice, noticing when you’re distracted, and dropping it, taking a breath and coming back. And so if you’ve done that so many times it becomes easier to access even in the flow of life. So it’s training, like going to the gym. It trains the brain to notice when you’re getting distracted. Meditation creates more decision space around everyday tasks.
ON HER MORNING ROUTINE
The first thing I do when I get up at 7 AM is sit on the meditation cushion for 45 minutes and I have an app on my iPhone called “Zen Timer.” I do that because I don’t like to have to look at my watch, even though I know what 45 minutes feels like by now. It stills feels like a distraction having to worry about time.
I switch off between a kind of meditation that’s called “mindfulness,” where I’m using my breath as an anchor for my attention and paying attention to my breath. The thing about mindfulness is that we’re not just focusing on the breath for the sake of the breath — it’s also a way of noticing what’s happening in the mind.
There have been times when I’ve had a really busy week and a lot has been going on and I’ll sit down on the cushion and then I’ll just start crying and I’ll realise that I’m so sad about this one thing, but I had no space to grieve, no space to think about it; I was zipping from one thing to the other all week. One of my meditation teachers likened it to a washing machine. You put the laundry in, maybe all the water comes out grey and the laundry comes out clean. It gives you space to experience what is happening too.
Other days I do a practice called “heavenly abodes meditation.” Being in these mind states is like being in a five-star hotel. I also practice lovingkindness, sympathetic joy, compassion and equanimity.
ON WHY MEDITATION FIGHTS INSECURITY
Meditation is always gratifying, but that’s why I love the gym metaphor. Sometimes you have a shitty workout. You run on the treadmill, and your knees hurt or you’re waiting for the bench for a long time. Whatever it is, you keep going back because you know it will have a better impact in the long run.
The reason that people want instant gratification is that we’re trained to watch ourselves out of the corner of one eye to see if we’re doing well enough and if we’re achieving enough. I find it’s driven by insecurity. That uncertainty that “we didn’t do something right” is so uncomfortable. So many people don’t want to be alone with their thoughts.
In meditation, emotions are like phenomenons, sort of like weather. You’ll think, “anger is arising, let me decide on my reaction.” You don’t associate with it too closely. Over time, the capacity to choose how to respond develops. I have more space in conflicts to choose how to respond with friends, family, co-workers.
WHAT LIFE WOULD BE LIKE WITHOUT MEDITATION
I wouldn’t have the same self-awareness. It’s not like people are born so self aware. It took years to cultivate. It takes training. It’s not intelligence; it’s not reading books. It’s doing it. It’s something the nervous system develops over time. I’d probably put a lot more [interpretation] into my emotions if I didn’t. Nowadays I can do something like have a bad day, and then go home and decide to [relax] and cook something nice, whereas if I didn’t have meditation, I might dwell on the different components of my bad day. I do a lot less internal storytelling about emotions. We live in such a future-oriented culture and we’re trained to always be thinking about the future so sometimes it’s really hard to feel like this is the real moment.
You don’t have to identify as Buddhist to meditate, just like you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to play for a team or go to the gym. A lot of meditation teachers say to sit for 5 minutes a day and see how it works. And they say do it before the day begins, right when you wake up. And have a space in your house where you go to do it. Those things support the feeling of having time for meditation. It’s important to be gentle with yourself about your progress.
Meditation is a word like exercise. If someone says exercise, there are 3,000 ways you could do it. A very simple type of meditation for beginners is mindfulness, which is watching your breath. Find your own way and what works for you.
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