How often do you wonder where the morning went? Maybe the day, week, month, even years?
So much of our time slips through our fingers because we can’t focus. It is a very human problem that is amplified by today’s electronics and ever-present noisy distractions. We can’t do the work that’s necessary for our success and even pay attention to the people who are necessary for our happiness.
No wonder more people are considering mindfulness as an ancient way to connect with our attention and focus. We have heard about it for years, but the science is catching up and showing that mindfulness training actually restructures the brain to increase focus and calm. And we all can use a big dose of both.
This has been an area of study for Daniel Goleman, a professor, researcher and author who has been focused on brain and behavioral science for more than 40 years. He is most associated with his book Emotional Intelligence and his work on the subject.
Goleman’s latest book, which he wrote with researcher Richard J. Davidson, is Altered Traits, examining the scientific research into meditation. He has been studying and practicing the subject since the 1970s, when he spent two years in India as a Harvard University graduate student.
In this discussion with Publisher Paul Feldman, Goleman reveals not only what the science says about meditation but also how mindfulness helps insurance agents and financial advisors be better sellers.
FELDMAN: Many people are skeptical about meditation and the benefits of it. You are a scientist, and you’ve been studying this since the early ’70s. What would you say to the skeptics?
GOLEMAN: I can understand the skepticism. It’s not something that is native to this culture. It comes from Asia. The idea that you can even train the mind is an import.
We put a lot of energy into physical fitness. We put zero energy into mental fitness training. And meditation or mindfulness, in essence, are mental fitness workouts.
When I first got into this in the ’70s at Harvard, my faculty advisors were extremely skeptical. There was nothing then in psychological science to support this. Brain science didn’t even really exist then. It was very rudimentary.
But when I did my dissertation, there were three articles on this in the peer-reviewed literature. Now there are more than 6,000. So the data supporting this is extremely strong.
When I wrote the book Altered Traits with the neuroscientist Richard Davidson, who is at University of Wisconsin, we sorted through the 6,000 and identified the 60 strongest findings. That 1 percent is what the book is about.
And it supports, very strongly, the notion that mindfulness enhances focus enormously. It makes you better able to concentrate. Your mind wanders less. You can sustain that focus as needed.
It also, interestingly, makes you calmer. You’re less emotionally reactive. So this means you can think more clearly, make better decisions in the moment.
FELDMAN: Many of our readers, like many Americans, are Type A’s who would say they don’t have time for meditation and don’t see the value. But there is clearly value, so how do you get that across to people?
GOLEMAN: Language is very important. In those cases, I probably wouldn’t use the word mindfulness. I would say focus. And I would say there is new science showing that focus helps you in whatever this person is doing.
FELDMAN: Through your research, you have scientifically proven that mindfulness training can actually change the brain’s circuitry. How does that work?
GOLEMAN: The training affects circuits between the prefrontal cortex, controlling executive function, and the amygdala, which is a radar for threat and the emotional circuitry of the brain.
But another thing — it’s very important for anyone in the insurance field or financial advisors, which essentially is our relationship businesses. It’s very important for them to understand the empathy. It trains a completely different set of neural circuits.
There are three kinds of empathy. The first is cognitive empathy, understanding how the other person thinks. This is really important because it means you can put things in terms they will understand. It makes for effective communication.
The second kind, and this is a different set of neural circuits, is emotional empathy, which means you feel with that person. It happens instantaneously, but it means to know where they’re going emotionally, which makes your message doubly powerful.
But I think the third kind of empathy is the most important for finance and insurance. That’s called empathic concern — for me to actually care about people and they feel cared about. This is what creates trust in a relationship. This is what creates rapport. It’s when you have that kind of chemistry that things go best in any communication, particularly in insurance and in giving financial advice.
FELDMAN: Your book Altered Traits is not just about meditating. It’s about creating lasting change. But everyone wants a quick fix.
GOLEMAN: So the best analogy is cardiovascular fitness. If you go to the gym once and you work out as strongly as you can, and you never go again, you’re not going to get cardiovascular fitness. Cardiovascular fitness is an ongoing trait of your biology.
It’s the same with mindfulness. If you do it now and then and then stop, nothing much is going to happen. But if you do it in a daily dose, just like you go to the gym several times a week, you’re going to find that slowly the brain changes. The sharpening of attention and the calming of emotional reactivity become traits.
That’s who you are not just when you’re doing mindfulness but in your daily life. We call this a dose-response relationship in medicine. Dose-response means the more you do, the better the benefits. That seems to hold across the board for every outcome of meditation. The longer someone has been a regular meditator, the stronger the benefits become.
FELDMAN: Meditating is difficult for a lot of people, including me, because the mind jumps from thought to thought. How do you overcome this?
GOLEMAN: When you start to focus your mind, the thing you notice is you can’t. Your mind wanders all the time.
And many people think, “I can do this.” Actually, that’s a good sign. It means that you’re looking inside for the first time.
You’re starting to develop what’s called meta-awareness, which means you’re being aware of your thoughts and feelings, not just run by them, which is the standard way of living.
This gives you more internal choice, but it doesn’t happen right at the outset.
At the outset, you’re going to notice how mad and crazy you are. They use a metaphor of a wild monkey jumping from branch to branch in Asia. That’s the way our minds are every day. We just don’t notice it.
So, once you meditate, when you try to manage your attention, you see it for the first time. Many people say, “Well, I can’t do it,” and stop. But actually, you should keep going.
FELDMAN: That’s the hard thing. I’ve started and stopped doing this many times out of frustration. I’ve gotten apps, and I even had a personal coach who did training in my office. The benefits that I felt from that and I’ve seen are amazing. And yet, I don’t do it regularly. How do you make time to do it?
GOLEMAN: The next challenge is what are your priorities in the day? We all know we should work out. I’m going to add to that that we should do some mental fitness exercise, too. Why leave it just physical?
Particularly in the game you’re in, because mental sharpness, focus, a good, positive emotional set and empathy, turning into the person you’re with, the client, are absolutely essential. I would say that this should be a part of the normal routine for people in your field because it enhances the fundamental skills you need.
FELDMAN: I find it fascinating how well this research ties into your work with emotional intelligence and your book Focus, which is critical to anyone who sells, runs or owns a business.
GOLEMAN: There was data collected at American Express back when they had a financial advisors unit that showed that people who are more emotionally intelligent did better as financial advisors. When I look at that in terms of what we’re talking about, there are two halves to emotional intelligence.
One is self-management, which means self-awareness and handling yourself, motivating yourself. The second is relationships, which start with empathy and then go into things like being able to influence people or persuade them.
I would say that the meditation I described, the mindfulness that helps you focus and maintain a good emotional state, and then the empathy training, which by the way, is different than mindfulness. It’s a cousin of mindfulness.
In this, you cultivate an attitude of kindness or caring about people — people who have been kind to you, your family, people you love and care about. Then you extend it to strangers and beyond; finally, to everyone.
That turns out to strengthen the circuitry for empathic concern so that you more naturally and spontaneously feel that you care about the well-being of the person you’re with.
It’s absolutely foundational to have the people you’re with, your clients, feel you care about them and you’re going to find the best match for their needs.
Research I’m familiar with on star salespeople shows they see themselves as advisors to their clients. They might give up a sale that is not really best for the client, which is pretty radical. But what it says is that they have such a close relationship with that person, who reciprocally trusts them and sees them as an advisor. The advisor would sacrifice a bit in order to be sure that person got the best thing.
And what advisors are doing, it probably means finding the best fit for the person. But doing it in a way where the person actually feels cared about. Not just, “Oh, I’m going to get a commission,” but “this person is going to be happy with what they’re getting.”
That is a fundamental foundation in emotional intelligence skills that you need for the business.
FELDMAN: It took me a while in meditation to understand that the term “practice” actually means something — you are always practicing. There isn’t necessarily an endpoint.
GOLEMAN: The point is not that you feel a particular way during your practice sessions. Like, “Oh, I feel great. I’m relaxed. In bliss.” It’s about doing the work, which is watching your breath, and then when your mind wanders, bringing it back.
It’s very much like going to the gym and working out. It’s not that you necessarily are going to feel great. You may feel like, “Oh, man, I would rather not be doing this.” But you keep doing it because you know that the benefit is going to be good.
It may be hard, as you say. The idea is that it doesn’t matter what it feels like while you are doing it, but do you do it. There is a saying — the very best meditation is the one you will do.
FELDMAN: Another thing I had to learn was to bring my attention back gently. I was kind of yelling at myself — “You will never get this right” and “There you go again” — kind of thing.
GOLEMAN: Well, actually, that voice, that yelling, is something that you drop and bring your mind back from. It’s just another distraction, that judgment.
And, by the way, people who are very good at their game are often perfectionists, meaning they push themselves to get it right and focus on what could be better, not how well they did.
That’s a very dangerous attitude to bring to your own focusing session because it means you’re going to be yelling at yourself every time your mind wanders, which is inevitable. So another thing to watch for and not be swayed by is your own judgments.
FELDMAN: How does meditation affect your memory and ability to learn?
GOLEMAN: Actually, that’s another scientific finding — memory and learning improve. The study was at the University of California, where students were assigned mindfulness to focus the mind and enhance memory.
Then it turned out they got much higher scores on the graduate school entrance exam. So that’s just proof that it helps you learn as well as remember. The two are inextricably related. Your ability to be completely present improves.
I know you can’t imagine in the beginning that you will want to do a day of meditation. But more experienced practitioners will do that on retreat. When you do that much meditation, your inflammatory genes go quiet throughout your body. That lowers inflammation, which, as you probably know, is cause for everything from diabetes and arthritis to cancer and heart disease. So, a lot of benefits show up the more you do it.
FELDMAN: Openness is a key component of emotional intelligence, which was something that you described when you worked with the Dalai Lama and the other Tibetan monks you studied.
GOLEMAN: The Dalai Lama embodies a kind of natural emotional intelligence that I really admire. I would like to have that someday, but I don’t know if I will.
One thing that’s very interesting about him is that when you’re with him, you feel good and you feel that he cares about you. Those are very positive qualities for anyone, but they also are critically good qualities in the folks you are writing for.
FELDMAN: Did you do any MRIs or any other tests on him?
GOLEMAN: No, he’s never been studied that way. It would be poor etiquette to ask him, although he is always interested in the research.
But we have done brain studies of people who have done almost as much lifetime practice as him. We calculate that he has probably done more than 100,000 lifetime hours of meditation.
He gets up at 3:30 every morning and does five hours of spiritual practice. I don’t know exactly what he does, but I’m sure there was a lot of meditation in there. He goes to bed at 7 p.m., by the way. Don’t try this at home, kids. You’ve got to have a different routine.
He’s probably the person that I know with the most meditation practice over the course of their life. He is in his 80s now. But we’ve done research with someone who is at 62,000 hours, and we found really spectacular differences.
FELDMAN: Did he and the other monks you studied possess similar traits?
GOLEMAN: Yes. Very present, very caring and very positive. The classical literature says that’s what happens. So in a way, it’s no surprise. It was predicted millennia ago. On the other hand, science now seems to be bearing it out.
One of the things we found with people in this category was really never seen before by brain science. That’s the gamma finding. Gamma usually shows up in our brain’s EEG [electroencephalogram, a test that records the electrical signals of the brain].
A gamma wave appears when we have creative insight, such as when we solve a problem or when we have a particularly vivid memory. It lasts about a quarter or half second. But in these yogis, we found there was a lot of gamma in the brainwave when they weren’t doing anything in particular. That’s never been seen in neuroscience.
FELDMAN: Do gamma waves relate to emotional intelligence?
GOLEMAN: Well, I think that the gamma probably relates to openness. When we asked the yogis about it, they say it’s the sense of being prepared for anything, ready for everything, completely open and flexible and adaptable.
It is shown in research done by my colleague Richard Boyatzis, who is a professor in the business school at Case Western Reserve. He and I developed the emotional intelligence instrument ESCI [emotional and social competence inventory], which is for developing these kinds of emotional intelligence abilities.
Richard was doing longitudinal research with the ESCI using his MBA students. We found that the one competence that predicted this career success in life satisfaction was adaptability, which is the same thing we’re talking about with the yogis.
The more adaptable you are, the more flexible, the more ready for whatever comes along, the easier things are for you, the better life goes. And I would say I’m sure it is true in sales and financial advice. You don’t know what the person is going to bring to you, but you have to be ready for anything.
FELDMAN: People imagine they have to meditate for an hour. How much time should they do it?
GOLEMAN: It could be five to 10 minutes. Then you can make it longer gradually as you are comfortable. Keep challenging yourself.
FELDMAN: Of course, even just 10 minutes could be a challenge.
GOLEMAN: Well, that’s what we were talking about. You see how much your mind wanders. But every time it wanders, it’s an opportunity to bring it back if you spot it.
The idea is not that for five or 10 minutes that you’re going to be perfectly still and concentrate on your breath. It’s that every time your mind wanders, you’re going to bring it back. That’s the action. That’s what strengthens the circuitry.
FELDMAN: That strong circuitry leads to strong focus. Which is key to being a great leader, a great connector or, for that matter, being highly successful in life.
GOLEMAN: Well, we’ve been talking about business, but the brain does not distinguish between your teenager and your direct report. The benefits accrue across your life, and you carry them with you wherever you go.