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Originally published Sunday, December 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Job a mind-set with meditation

Millions of Americans are seeking a respite from the breakneck pace of modern life. Meditation groups have sprung up in law offices, insurance companies and other workplaces...

Newhouse News Service

Imagine an executive who moves his telephone to the far side of his office. It takes an extra five seconds to answer every call. Must be an unproductive fellow, right?

Not according to Jonathan Foust, who teaches meditation at the World Bank and other Washington, D.C., venues.

Foust encourages his students to pause during the rush of daily life, to return to the calm place they find in meditation. With a renewed focus, they can actually be more productive — better at pri-oritizing work and managing distractions.

When the executive rises from his chair to get the phone, he steals a sliver of time to clear his mind.

"When you slow down, what is most important will come to the surface," said Foust, warning that this takes time to master. "These practices are like swimming upstream, because you're encountering not only your own conditioning but the culture. This culture does not want to slow down."

Millions of Americans are swimming alongside Foust's students, seeking a respite from the breakneck pace of modern life. Meditation groups have sprung up in law offices, insurance companies and other workplaces, without the stereotypical trappings of incense and crystals.

Employers find that meditation classes not only boost productivity, they save money by reducing employees' stress levels.

In Pittsburgh, health-insurance company Highmark offers a group relaxation class and provides Internet access to an audio routine called "de-stress at your desk."

"Stress can have a long-term impact on the health of your employees, productivity and the bottom line," said Lisa Scholar, Highmark's manager of employee preventive health. "We can't really leave work with all the technology available. If it's not your computer and checking your voice mail, it's the BlackBerry."

At the Cleveland Clinic's Center for Integrative Medicine, every staff meeting begins with a group meditation.

"It's a lot different than the transcendental meditation that we hippies grew up with," said Tanya Edwards, the center's director. The goal is "to try to put yourself in a quasi-meditative state all the time."

Scientific studies show that meditation reduces blood pressure, boosts the immune system and helps people manage pain associated with chronic disease. Long-term meditation actually changes the physical brain, in ways some researchers say may increase attention span and improve memory.

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"We have a society that's so used to popping a pill for every little ailment," said Beverly Singh, director of the Atma Center in Cleveland. "Meditation and yoga can really benefit those people. The only side effect of meditation is being calmer and clearer."

Common thread

Since the 1960s, when meditation established a foothold in U.S. popular culture, a variety of schools have blossomed: Vipassana or mindfulness, Zen, Shambhala, Dzogchen, Tibetan, nondual and mantra.

The common thread is a regular practice of sitting quietly and bringing your mind's attention to a single point. If you can fully inhabit the present moment, without dwelling on the past or planning for the future, you can let go of anxiety and stress.

The core elements of all meditation are an upright posture, an object of meditation, and "what you do with the mind," said Paul ReFalo, director of the Portland (Ore.) Shambhala Center.

There are many possible focus points: your breathing, a word, the physical sensations in your hands, a sound, or the motion of your steps in walking. As your mind naturally wanders and you gently bring it back to the object of meditation, you begin to notice the direction your thoughts want to take and you develop mental discipline.

"It's very much like exercising for the body or practicing a musical instrument," ReFalo said. "We want to teach techniques that are able to provide you enough emotional or mental room around the subject that you can begin to relate to it directly."

Through regular meditation, your mind develops the necessary flexibility and strength to handle everyday challenges such as an unpleasant colleague, a difficult client or an overscheduled day.

"It's helped me focus better and not be reactive," said Cheri Bennett, manager of health promotion and communications at the World Bank. "What we do physically to our body is tremendous, the amount of stress and anger we hold."

Mindfulness

The World Bank's three weekly workplace meditation classes attract more senior-level executives compared with other wellness programs offered, because they're under a lot of stress, Bennett said.

Experienced practitioners call on their training to bring themselves back to the meditative state when needed.

"You can have a moment of mindfulness at any time in a busy day," said Lama Surya Das, a Cambridge, Mass., teacher of Buddhism. "Even in a meeting where someone's yelling at you, you can take a moment before replying."

The pattern "breathe, relax, focus, center and smile" can bring you to that moment, said Das, who wrote "Awakening the Buddha Within."

Hurricane Katrina

For some employees, stress is more than project deadlines or e-mail overload.

New Orleans rescue workers and counselors struggling with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina relied on meditation training by Stanley Davis, outreach director at AHAM Meditation Retreat and Training Center in Asheboro, N.C. Beginning in November 2005, Davis spent five months in the city offering meditation workshops or simply guiding someone through the technique on the stoop of a storefront or hotel.

"The whole point in the beginning was to provide a space where people could have a respite from all the chaos, all the mental and emotional stuff that was happening, to share with them a way to disconnect, to still that chattering mind," Davis said.

His team returned in October 2006 and plans to go back in early 2008, continuing to work with counselors, teachers, FEMA workers and the general public. The center also provides guided meditations on DVD and offers a free Sunday night meditation over the phone.

"Meditation is not anything spooky, it's very natural and normal," Davis said. "It's tuning into that place we've all experienced, where we feel a sense of wholeness and completeness and inner joy."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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