The Ultimate Newbie’s Guide To Meditating At Work

SUMMARY POINTS

> Meditation can improve your ability to handle stress
> Failing at meditation is actually a positive sign of success
> Start with simple breathing meditations to build skills

Your email inbox is a crazy mess of opened and half-read messages, unopened priority ones, old archived ones from months ago that are still important and new ones that keep piling on top.

The voice-mail light on your phone is blinking again. Who knows how many long-winded messages you have waiting for you there.

Your boss is asking for yet another last-minute urgent task that needs to get done and you’re still working on the one from yesterday.

The cliche of having lots of plates spinning in the air is all too true for you. You’ve got so many overlapping projects that are “in progress” that you can’t seem to devote any real focus to one project.

Things on the home front aren’t calm either.

Challenges with family demands, home issues, debts up to your eyeballs, relationship tensions, etc. are another whole world of stress that you can’t escape.

And through all of this, your mind is racing around trying to keep up while also berating you on things from last week or even years ago and stressing you out about the future and life in general.

It’s a miracle that you’re even able to think straight for a few minutes.

Living life like this on a daily basis is a quick road to burn-out or worse.

Constant high stress is a real mental and physical killer. If it’s not managed correctly and consistently, it can bring us down fast.

You wish that the Dalai Lama, the top honcho Buddhist monk, could just magically appear in your office, place his hands on your head and spiritually cleanse your mind of all stresses - forever.

Unfortunately, that ain’t happening.

However, the good news is that there is a way that we can literally heal ourselves and improve our resilience to stress without pills, doctor visits, counseling, etc. for zero dollars - totally free.

​It’s called meditation (cue the moans and groans).

We know that you’ve got some preconceived notions about meditation, but put those on hold for now as you read this article.

Let’s run through a primer about meditation and then, we’ll dive into how we can make this work for you in your office.

Proven Benefits Of Meditation

Meditation has been around for several thousand years. We’re talking like 1,500 BC folks. While there isn’t an official point in history where we can pinpoint when meditation actually began, many historians point to ancient Hindu times.

During those times, there was no interest in measuring and testing meditation and even if there was, the technology didn’t exist to do so. It was just something they did.

Fast forward to more recent times, meditation saw a surge in popularity during the hippie years of the 1960’s and 70’s, then reinvented itself in a new-age format in the 1980’s and then died off for a couple of decades.

During those decades, meditation was only seen as quackery and nothing the scientific community deemed as worthy to study.

Today, meditation has come back into mainstream culture as “mindfulness meditation” where the aim is to clear your mind and focus on being in the present moment.

Unlike the past, we now have actual scientific data backing and proving the benefits of meditation. Now, there are lots of studies and research projects that look deeply into how meditation can impacts our brains.

One of the most highly cited is this study from Harvard Medical School. It was the first of its kind to scientifically document how meditation positively impacts the brain.

This is also around the time when the medical community understood that our brains can rewire itself and make new neurological connections - kinda like in the same way our sore muscles can rebuild themselves after working out.

It’s called neuroplasticity - the brain’s ability to restructure itself by making new connections and reshaping itself.

During the Harvard study, sixteen normal everyday people meditated for 30 minutes a day over an eight week period. The researchers performed MRI scans of their brains both before and after the eight week period.

When comparing the brain scans, researchers discovered two key findings:

1. Increased brain gray matter in the hippocampus - the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory, actually got thicker.

(Credit: Brain Made Simple)

2. Decreased brain gray matter in the amygdala - this part of our brain, responsible for our fear, stress and anxiety responses, actually shrunk in size.

(Credit: Brain Made Simple)

One word: fucking ahh-mazing (okay, two words).

Meditation actually maximized the good and minimized the bad. In particular, it reduced the brain’s stress response.

Meaning, it improved the brain’s ability to manage stress better. It didn’t get triggered by stress as much.

Wow...just plain wow.

There are a ton of other studies like this covering how meditation can positively influence our mind, outlook, emotions and even our health. And, most of them have compelling data to back up their claims.

We’re not going to go over them in detail here. The point here is that we now have strong proof that this shit works for real.

What Meditation Is & Isn’t About

Even though the idea of meditation is now widely popular, a lot of people still have a stereotype of meditators.

We often think of meditators as “a little out there” and not really part of mainstream culture. They wear loose fitting robes, sit cross-legged, chant weird sounds, ring tiny bells, burn incense, get energy from crystals, etc.

This is the common stereotype and while some elements of this are true to varying degrees, it’s not how most regular people meditate.

Yes, some of the real die-hard meditators will go the extra mile and get all the accessories and trinkets to enhance their “practice” but in reality, none of those things really matter much.

Today’s modern meditators are normal everyday people just like us. They have day jobs, have families and have many of the same stresses and anxieties that we do.

Do they wear tie-dye shirts and Birkenstocks?

Nope.

Do they dress in monk’s robes?

Absolutely not.

They’re normal people that are trying get through life too. Their minds are just as jammed packed with worries, issues, concerns, problems, etc.

If there’s one person that helps to demystify the stereotype of meditators, it’s Dan Harris, the ABC News anchor. Harris has become somewhat of an unofficial spokesman for modern meditation.

His short 4 minute explanation of the meditation stereotypes sums up things really well. He also dispels a few of the biggest misconceptions about meditating too.

VIDEO: What Do We Have All Wrong About Meditation?
YOUTUBE: Happify
LENGTH: 4:10

Summary points:
> Meditation can rewire your brain for more happiness, calm and less stress
> Meditation isn’t just for hippies and weirdos, it’s becoming mainstream
> Meditation is about managing the voice in our heads

A lot of people think that meditation is all about emptying our mind of all thoughts and feelings and drifting into some transcendental state of being.

That’s a big misconception.

Maybe if you’re a Buddhist monk, then achieving spiritual oneness with the universe is part of the deal.

But, you’re not a monk and neither are 99.99% of the people on Earth.

We’re all running around in this crazy world trying to survive and make it. Nobody really has any free time to speak of and even if they did, trying to sit quietly and not think about anything is nearly impossible.

Yet despite this, more and more people are starting to take a few minutes out of their hectic day to do some simple meditations as a way to offset their building stress and calm their minds just a little bit. 

Manage Your Mind’s Inner Voice With “Mindfulness”

Every single one of us on this planet, no matter the age, ethnicity, background, culture, etc. have the gift of a mind that can think with self-awareness.

And for better and worse, our minds know this. It’s almost like our mind is a totally separate person in our heads.

The person is the “inner voice” in our heads that tells us that it’s okay to sulk in bed for 5 more minutes, that everything in life is shitty right now or that it’s okay to have one more piece of cake etc.

The mind is a very powerful thing. It can do incredible things to lift us up and unfortunately, also bring us down. Too often, it’s the latter.

For a lot of us, our mind is constantly working against us.

A great example is our working lives.

The piles of unanswered emails, nightmare bosses, juggling multiple projects, asshole co-workers, executive presentations, etc. are just a few of the many things at work that triggers our mind to open the floodgates of cortisol, otherwise known as the stress hormone.

Are any of these work issues truly life-threatening to justify this fight-or-flight response?

Nope.

But our minds think otherwise and treat like it is a life or death situation and just dump a bunch of cortisol into our system.

When there isn’t a stressful event happening in the current moment, our minds find something else to stress about. It’s evil that way.

It’ll dig into the past to stir shit up and put it in our face. It could be that idiot driver that cut you off last week or that incident way back in high school that still pisses you off to this day.

Then, when it’s done pulling issues and problems from the past, it’ll switch it up and start developing fearful thoughts about the future and put it front and center of our attention.

You’ll be working on a Powerpoint, then all of a sudden, your mind is like, “Hey, this presentation sucks. You’re gonna blow it. Then, you’ll get fired, become homeless and bankrupt with nowhere to go.”

WTF, right?

Our minds can be unrelenting downers to us. But it’s designed to be like that - to keep us safe from danger by remembering past issues and projecting into the future for any and all possible threats.

Sometimes, our mind is on our side and supporting us positively and other times, it’s fighting us every step of the way.

We have to learn how to see things for what they really are and be wise about how to manage that inner voice in our head.

The key to this is being aware or “mindful” of what’s going on with that inner voice in our heads.

Dan Harris defines the term “mindfulness” perfectly as this…

“Mindfulness is the ability to know what’s happening in your head, at any given moment, without getting carried away by it.”

Watch this short video animation. This time Harris explains what “mindfulness” is in more everyday terms in less than 3 minutes.

VIDEO: Why Mindfulness Is the New Superpower
YOUTUBE: Happify
LENGTH: 2:43

Summary points:
> Mindfulness is being able to recognize your mind’s thoughts
> Learning to “respond” instead of “react” to stressors is a superpower
> Meditation is what will help you get this superpower

This mindfulness superpower is what helps us manage the inner narrator in our heads. It sees this inner voice almost as if it’s like another person in our head - not in the schizophrenic kinda way, but more like a separate thought entity if that makes any sense.

In order to develop this superpower skill, it all begins with your decision to give meditation an honest try. And, the best way to begin is to start small. 

Starting Small & Failing Often

Starting with the most basic exercise or step is the best way to learn anything new.

It’s like how infants learn how to walk. First, they learn how to pull themselves up and stand, then freely balance and eventually get one foot in front of the other to begin walking.

But their journey is a tough one.

On average, 12 to 19-month-old babies learning how to walk will fall down about 17 times per hour. So, while they’re awake for 3-4 hours and trying to walk, that’s a total of 68 times that they’ll lose the battle with gravity.

But, the baby doesn’t give up. It keeps pulling itself up and trying again. We all went through this even though none of us remember it.

Let’s put this into more relatable terms for us as adults.

If you’ve ever had the joy (ahem, pain) of learning how to ski or snowboard, you know exactly what constant failure feels like, both literally and figuratively.

Eventually, you get the hang of it and you’re able to swoosh down the snow-covered slope or paint that picture, hit that golf ball, pass that exam, etc.

Failure is normal. It is a necessary part of the process. Without it, you can’t learn.

And, when you do make it, all those failures were worth it to gain that new skill and all the joy it brings.

This failure principle is what you need to keep in mind when learning how to meditate.

We’re not planning to turn you into a meditation guru or expert. We just want to get you started and make you a casual daily meditator.

Getting started is the hardest part. Introducing a new habit into your existing daily pattern of life can be a challenge.

It’s like a locomotive pulling a long train of cargo containers. It takes enormous energy and power to break the standstill and get moving. Tons more fuel is spent getting up to speed than maintaining it.

It’s the same with meditation - it’s hard to get started, but once you get going, it’s easier to keep going.

We’ll be starting with the baby step of an elemental meditation method. We’re starting easy and small, really small.

Getting small easy wins under our belt will start the momentum.

Basic Meditation 101 

(Credit: Caleb Roenigk via Flickr)

The early stages of learning how to meditate are filled with frustration and failures. But, here’s the good news. Failing and trying again is part of the process and it’s actually a good thing that will make you better.

Read that last sentence again, twice more - slowly.

The main goals/steps of meditation are
1) Staying In The Present Moment
2) Recognizing Your Thoughts
3) Repeating The Process


It’s all about calming your mind by continually redirecting its focus to the current moment, being in “the now” or “being in the present” and brushing off everything else - not thinking about past worries or future anxieties.

This is supremely difficult to do.

Why?

Because our minds are friggin' evil. They have a million things it’s thinking, worrying, wondering, planning and fighting about from the past and making up new ones in the future.

We are human and our minds think. Or as famous quote by the seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes goes, “I think, therefore I am.”

Using Breath To “Stay In The Present Moment”

Since none of us are “spiritually enlightened,” we need to have something for our mind to latch onto to keep it in the “present moment” and not let it go too far off track.

Our minds can be a hyped up chaotic mess of random thoughts. If we don’t give it something to focus on, it will scramble around and find something to put on center stage.

So, we use our breathing as the focal point and anchor. Breathing meditations are a very common and easy way to get started.

The great thing about using our breathing as an element for meditation is that it’s truly an activity that is “in the present.” You can’t breathe in the past and you can’t breathe in the future. You can only breathe right here and right now, in the present moment.

The other nice benefit is that it’s a meditation tool that’s free and always with you, no matter what. So, you can meditate anywhere and anytime.

Plus, there’s no monthly membership required, no specialized equipment or accessories. All you really need is a few minutes. 

Breathing Meditation Exercise

The breathing mediation is, without question, the most fundamental and most popular meditation method that’s out there today.

It’s very easy to understand and follow but can be very difficult to do in the early stages.

Here’s a quick run-down of how to do a breathing meditation:

1) Sit comfortably in your chair, your back is straight but relaxed 

2) Place your hands on your lap or chair armrests 

3) Close your eyes and breathe slowly 

4) Focus your mind’s attention to the sensation of each inhale and exhale 

5) When your mind jumps to a thought…
   a) Acknowledge the thought
   b) Put a label on that thought
   c) Let the thought fade away
   d) Go back to breathing 

6) Continue this process for 1-5 minutes

For step #4, pick a place where the sensation of breathing is easy to lock onto. It could be the tip of your nose, inside your throat or lungs, stomach, wherever.

For step #5, let’s break it down and explain things a bit more.

During a breathing meditation, you’ll quickly see that it’s really hard, if not impossible, to keep your mind focused on breathing. It wants to think about thousands of other things and will do so regardless.

Your mind is like a hyped-up terrier dog. It races around everywhere digging up shit, tearing up the ground, pulling and yanking on all sorts of stuff etc.

Your terrier mind scrambles around in your head looking for things to lock its jaws onto and bring it back to you.

So for example, it could be that it decided to fetch the thought of an argument from years ago that really pissed you off.

At this point, you accept that thought and acknowledge it by saying, “Okay, that’s an argument with Jennifer from a long time ago.”

Then, mentally give it a generic label like “old argument” and let it sit there in your head - don’t respond or react to it. Just kind of ignore it.

Labeling or noting thoughts is a way for you to mentally separate yourself from your mind.

This short 1.5 minute video from Headspace provides additional clarity on labeling or as they call it, “noting” method as a way to separate ourselves from our thoughts. Labeling and noting are essentially the same thing.

VIDEO: Headspace | Meditation | The Noting technique
YOUTUBE: Headspace
LENGTH: 1:31

Summary points:
> Noting is a way to identify random thoughts
> Noting a thought feels like you’ve dealt with it and can move on
> Put a note on random incoming thoughts then, let it fade away
> Then, return your focus to breathing

Your terrier mind is going to hop up and down with random thoughts to grab and hold your attention for as long as it can.

But at some point, what will happen is that your terrier mind sees that you’re not interested in any of the thoughts because you’re just like “whatevs” about it in a nonchalant kind of way.

Eventually, your terrier mind gives up and the thought begins to fade away.

It’s at this point that you tell your mind, “Let’s get back to focusing on the sensation of breathing.”

Do you see what just happened here?

You’ve become aware of your own thoughts. You’re seeing them from a much higher level.

You can see thoughts appearing and disappearing but you’re not reacting to them or being trapped by them. You’re letting them freely come and go.

So when (not if) your mind shoots off onto another thought, let it happen. Don’t try to hold it back. It may feel like a failure, but in reality, each failure is actually a small win.

Meditation is *not* about forcing your mind into submission and blocking it from wandering off and clinging onto other distractions or thoughts.

Instead, meditation is about becoming aware of your thoughts.

It’s allowing your mind to wander off and seeing what it drags back. Then, acknowledging that random thought and then, bringing your mind’s focus back to the breathing.

When you do this back-n-forth volley with your mind, you’re actually building up your “meditation muscles” much like lifting weights at the gym.

So see? Failure is a good thing here.

Actually, come to think of it, it’s not really failing but more like strengthening. Yeah, that’s a better word.

Here’s a quick mini-meditation session led by Sharon Salzberg, a renowned meditation expert and pioneer in mindfulness, with a short intro and final comments from Harris.

VIDEO: Meditation for Beginners
YOUTUBE: Happify
LENGTH: 6:37

Summary points:
> Meditation is free, simple and can be done anywhere, anytime
> Focus on the feeling of your breathing
> Notice when you get lost then start over
> Each time you start over it’s a win

That last point is an important one we can’t stress enough.

Every time your mind loses its focus on breathing and jumps to some other thought and you start over again, it’s a success.

Every time you reset your mind and bring it back, you’ve won. You’ve just done another bicep curl for your mind.

If you can’t or don’t want close your eyes at your desk...or need more of a visually-based guidance, here’s a soundless graphical animation that we created that could work for you.

Having a visual reference for your mind to latch onto in addition to focusing on the sensation of breathing can be that extra little something to keep your mind occupied.

You can use this great little video at your desk or on-the-go with your smartphone.

Give this an honest try. It’s just a minute and half short.

VIDEO: Breathing Meditation Timer 1 Round
YOUTUBE: Cubicle Therapy
LENGTH: 1:34

If you need even more ways to meditate at work, check out this article on incognito meditations at work. There are a bunch more ideas there.

Okay, getting back to this.

Every single person that is learning to meditate will struggle. This is completely normal and if you don’t experience any type of struggle, then you’re a meditation prodigy. Come see us, we need your help.

For the rest of us beginners, we’ll often lose focus, feel jittery or uncomfortable, get sleepy, become distracted or bored and generally have a hard time with keeping our minds in the present.

The good news is that meditation gets easier the more we consistently do it.

Meditation requires consistency because the positive effects can be better felt over time and repetition much like picking up any new skill.

Meditate for 5 Minutes Or Less To Start

A few select people will find it easy to meditate for more than 5 minutes. However, for most people starting out as beginners, meditating for more than 5 minutes can be somewhat mentally tedious. It’ll take time to build up the mental strength to do longer sessions.

We suggest that you start small with sessions that are 5 minutes or less. Then, as you get better, you can increase the duration in 5 minute chunks to whatever fits into your lifestyle the best.

If you can only do one minute to start - that’s perfectly fine. The ultra-short session works to your benefit since it can be done easily throughout your day.

Option 1: Follow Your Natural Flow
You don’t necessarily have to time yourself when meditating. So much of our world is bound by deadlines, schedules, goals, targets, etc.

Just close your eyes and breathe slowly and allow your mind to relax. Do this for however long you can but don’t push yourself.

Go with the flow and when you feel like you’re done, just open your eyes.

Option 2: Use A Timer Or Guide
If you feel that a timer can be helpful for you to maintain minimums lengths, use the timer on your phone. Set your phone on vibrate and then the set timer for however many minutes you want.

If you need more of a visual reference, bookmark and use these animated breathing videos that we developed.

Tie It To A Daily Activity & Slowly Build Up

Introducing and integrating a new skill and habit into your life isn’t always easy. Especially, when you feel like there’s absolutely zero time in your day.

Here’s the good news - it can be done in as little as a single minute. Everyone has a minute in their day to do some basic meditation. There are no excuses for this one.

A one minute session before or after meetings, conference calls, emails, etc. are all perfect little spots to get a quick mental breather in.

But to really have a successful start and develop it into a new ongoing habit, you must tie in meditation into one of your normal daily tasks that happens at the same time everyday.

Here are some daily “always happens” activities you could attach a one minute meditation to:
- Sitting on edge of bed upon waking up or just before sleeping
- In the car, before leaving or upon arriving
- At your desk, with your morning coffee
- Right before or after lunch
- After an email session
- Sitting on the toilet at work
- During your bus or train commute
- Before or after a meeting or call
- Mid-morning or mid-afternoon peak stress time
- As part of your end of day ritual to disconnect from work

Experiment and try tying meditation to various normal everyday tasks and see which one works best for you.

Each one minute session you complete that’s part of an existing daily task or activity will turn meditation into a normal thing you do without even thinking about it. It just happens - like putting on your seatbelt before driving.

When it becomes second nature to you, that’s when you can up your game and start doing dedicated scheduled meditation sessions that are much longer. 

Where To Meditate At Work

(Credit: Michael Krigsman via Flickr)

Meditating at work is a great way to dial down stress throughout the day.

The office is really an ideal place because we spend the majority of our day there and it’s where a lot of our stresses come from.

Trying to meditate at home in the mornings or evenings isn’t as easy. The time available during those hours are more compressed with other priorities.

The office is where we have the most chances for these quick mini mental breaks between tasks, calls, meetings, emails, etc. These short meditations allow us to easily chip away our mounting levels of stress.

However, if you can find a few minutes at home to meditate, that’s fantastic. If you can combine a few minutes at home and at work, you’ll really be lightening your mental stress load fast.

The great thing about meditation is that you can do it anytime and anywhere that’s convenient for you, whether it’s at work, home or elsewhere.

In terms of places to meditate at work, here are some of the spots at the office where we’ve taken a few minutes for a bit of mental downtime to breathe and relax:

1) Your Desk
This is the easiest and most obvious place to meditate at work. You’re already seated. It’s just a matter of closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing.

If closing your eyes isn’t really doable at your desk, then try these open eye meditations instead.

If your cubicle neighborhood is noisy, it can be a bit difficult to concentrate. If so, it’s time to put on those headphones and mask those noises or try one of the other options below.

2) Empty Conference Room
During lunch hour, most conference rooms are empty. This is an opportune moment for some quiet time when everybody is having lunch.

Try booking a small conference room for yourself and maybe even your work BFF. Have him or her read this article too - a meditation buddy helps.

3) On The Toilet
When Mother Nature calls and you’re in the bathroom, stick around for another minute and just breathe and relax (stay off the smartphone).

Yes, the occasional toilet flush can be a bit distracting, but it’s not that bad. The porcelain palace can be your interruption-free zone.

4) Outside The Office
If the weather isn’t too bad out, get outside and find a nice spot to sit and relax. Maybe, it’s the outdoor patio, a grassy spot under a tree, a bench, etc.

A breathing meditation along with some fresh air can be exactly what you need.

5) Nearby Park
This is along the same lines as the one above. However, for some of us, our office doesn’t really have any ideal spots outside to sit quietly or have too much foot and vehicle traffic.

Check Google maps and if there’s a park nearby, within 5 minutes walk or drive, consider using that spot during your lunch break. It’ll be a great way to get out of the office for some fresh air, eat lunch and then, do a short meditation.

6) Your Car
Your car just isn’t for commuting anymore. It can also be your personal meditation space. If you can sneak out of the office for 10-15 minutes, head back to your car and enjoy the silence.

7) While Walking
We’re big proponents of taking walking breaks during the workday. It’s great stress relief.

Make it a “walking meditation” by focusing your mind’s attention to your breathing, the sounds of your footsteps, the birds chirping - basically, anything that your mind can focus on during the walk.

8) Lunch Or Break Room
Outside of lunchtime, the lunchroom is usually pretty empty. Try out this spot in the morning or mid-afternoon. You might find it to be a good quiet spot.

The break room can also be a possible spot as well. The issue is that people do stop by periodically throughout the day to get coffee, tea and snacks. So, see what the foot traffic is like ahead of time.

9) HR Interview Room
Ask your HR department if there’s a dedicated interview room. Many HR departments usually have at least one.

See if you can use the room for a short meditation session. Unless there’s a scheduled interview or conference call, it shouldn’t be an issue. Plus, most HR folks know about the benefits of meditation and may even join you.

10) Vacant Office
If there’s an empty unassigned office, you can easily walk in, close the door and sit in silence for a few minutes.

Or, if you know that one of the managers is out of the office on vacation or business, you can also sit in the guest chair do the same.

11) IT Server Room
This spot is a bit “out there” in terms of acceptance. But, if you’re the type of person that can relax to the sounds of an airplane cabin, laundromat or anywhere that “hums,” then your company’s computer server room could be an option.

It’s best to get the IT manager’s blessing before giving this a try. The server room can be a sensitive area as it controls the company’s network and sometimes, it’s an off-limits area.

12) Company Gym
Does your company have a fitness center on-site? If so, it’ll be empty during working hours. You can hop in there for 5 minutes and quietly sit and breathe.

Get Started & Begin Easing Your Stress

Mindfulness and meditation are not about being positive all the time or becoming a non-reactive sedated human.

It’s about taking the edge off - wiping away the excess stress to bring things down to a more manageable level. We need a bit of stress in our lives. It’s a good thing because it helps us get “
in the zone” and get shit done.

However, when stress exceeds our capability and capacity for extended duration, it’s really harmful to our health, sanity and well-being.

Meditation is a way to keep stress overload in check and helps build our mental superpower to fend off excess stress and ride life’s bumpy road of curves, ups and downs.

You’re never gonna be perfect at this. We’re never gonna be perfect at this. Nobody will ever be perfect at this - even the Dalai Lama keeps “practicing” meditation to this day.

But by doing a little every day, you get a little better from where you were yesterday and you’ll get a little better tomorrow. The goodness will continue to build.

So, get going to keep on going. You can do it.

Feel Better,
[Cubicle|Therapy]