A Meditation On Meditation: Behavioral Flexibility and Success

As an undergraduate I worked for a man who was, if nothing else, compelling. Tall and trim, with a bushy handlebar mustache, slicked back hair, and a propensity for pulling out and smoking an e-cigarette in the middle of lab meetings, my adviser could often be heard shouting expletives at his computer from down the hall. I quite liked him. These, of course, were not his only defining character traits. Like many in academia, he was also a workaholic. His frenzied yelling could be heard in the psychology department from the crack of dawn until late at night. I remember distinctly a meeting with him during which the subject of meditation came up. I had been feeling an overwhelming amount of stress in the course of conducting experiments for my senior thesis and had mentioned that I was contemplating beginning the practice. He, puffing on his e-cigarette, mentioned that his ex-wife had started meditating quite some time ago and had encouraged him to start as well. He scoffed at the suggestion. “I need to think MORE, not less,” he said. Our meeting continued typically – he, his feet planted firmly on his desk, his candor and rough attitude obscuring whether or not he valued my ideas or even liked me. The issue was tabled.
Indeed, to those thoroughly entrenched in the mires of work, the thought of periodically stepping away and taking a moment to clear the cognitive docket seems counterintuitive. What advantage could making an active effort to not think possibly confer when so many jobs, tasks, and hobbies require your full attentional capabilities? I understood my adviser’s dismissal of the practice, but the evidence does not agree with him. Anecdotal evidence from my peers notwithstanding, a wide body of literature from the early 1970s onward suggests that practicing meditation yields increased job satisfaction, better performance, improved relationships with supervisors and coworkers, and multiple measures of stress and employee development. These measures include reduced physiological arousal as measured by skin conductance, decreased trait anxiety, job tension, insomnia, fatigue, and cigarette and alcohol use. These are just a selected few examples to support this point, but the pattern is clear – the benefits of meditation are extensive and well-documented. Furthermore, while meditation is often touted for its effects on stress, the benefits it confers to productivity are meaningful as well.

Why then is the practice derided by those who could profit the most toward achieving their goals of maximizing productivity? There is some evidence to suggest that those who have found success undergo behavioral crystallization. If studying in a particular manner has yielded good grades in the past, it is likely to continue to provide success in the future. However, as demands evolve, many must then overcome their own behavioral inclinations to adapt to these changing conditions. Given my past adviser was a man who worked tirelessly and continuously toward a successful career as an academic, adopting a new behavior that ran counter to all of the behavior that had conferred to him his success was wholly illogical. It was a perspective I understood, but found troubling. From such a perspective, one might be inclined automatically to reject novel strategies, tricks, heuristics, and behaviors that could confer even more success. Meditation is just a single example of such behavioral experimentation. The tendency to settling on a practice or behavior that proves sufficient toward the accomplishment of any particular end has meaningful clinical implications. Many maladaptive behavioral traits are products not of habit, and can be corrected through the adoption and implementation of strategies that run counter to them. Of course, when in the throes of your own established behavioral repertoire, it can be hard to see that it is not working. Presently, I don’t aim to provide any answers to this issue. It is, rather, a meditation of sorts on the topic of behavioral flexibility. While sitting peacefully with an inward focus may not be the strategy that will improve your life, it is my belief that we can all benefit from reflection and willingness to adjust and experiment with our strategies.

Goldsmith, M. (2008). What got you here won’t get you there: How successful people become even more successful. Profile Books.

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(4), 822.