Mindful Growth: Using Meditation To Activate Your Brain To Cultivate Peak Performance In Any Endeavour
On July 24, 2019, over 300 engaged attendees invested a whole day to be at the M2 Success Summit.
Hosted by M2woman’s brother magazine, M2, the Summit featured 14 speakers from a range of industries, including blockchain, gig economy, tech, human performance, AI, wellness and much more.
The following is a talk by news reporter and meditation teacher, Claire Robbie, who spoke at the Summit about her personal journey with meditation and how we can all benefit from the practice.
I’m going to take you back in time to my very first yoga class. It was a Bikram yoga class, which for those of you who aren’t aware of what that is, it’s a 90 minute, very physical sequence of yoga that takes place in 40 degree temperatures. The sequence itself is genius and for a lot of people, Bikram yoga is a gateway into the practices of yoga and mindfulness and meditation. It definitely was for me 15 years ago.
I basically became hooked then and I dabbled with yoga for a couple of years from that moment onwards. I would always feel different after yoga class, I’d feel different than when I did a workout or when I went for a run. I’d have this feeling of peace and I could never really put my finger on how it would make me feel.
A couple of years later, I moved to America and at the time I was excited about going, but a little bit apprehensive. I had a job at the time that I really, really, really loved. I was a reporter for Nightline, so I did the late news on TV Three and I was really passionate about that job. But me and my now ex-husband moved to the United States and over the course of the next three years, I became progressively more and more unhappy to the point where I felt exceptionally miserable.
That feeling was exceptionally confusing to me, because on the surface I felt like I was doing okay. I had a wonderful husband, we owned a couple of houses back in New Zealand, we travelled a lot, we had a really adventurous lifestyle. We ended up getting green cards in the States. I had a job that I really enjoyed, a job that also enabled me to partake in one of my strongest coping mechanisms.
I had developed a pretty intense emotional and social dependency on alcohol and also to that substance that makes its way illegally across the border from Mexico. It was really readily available in the industry that I was working in and in the media industry as well. So all this compounded a state of such internal unrest that I started to have some really, really dark thoughts and I couldn’t really explain it to anyone.
I didn’t want to tell my family because I didn’t want to alarm them. I didn’t really know how to communicate about how I was feeling, I just knew I had to do something about it. There was a point where I felt like I’d hit a wall and this is when I became a walking cliche. I packed up my little silver Prius with my clothes and drove off into the sunset, trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do.
And I kind of jumped from the frying pan into the fire for a few months and became even more lost. My marriage ended, I quit my job, I gave up drinking and partying and I kind of leaped headlong into a clearing.
Fortunately for me at that time, one of my really good friends over in Los Angeles was doing yoga teacher training. The teacher training was on the weekends and the weekends were a dangerous time for me because that was when the old coping mechanisms kicked in and I wanted to go out with my friends and sedate/numb the feelings that I was feeling.
I thought this teacher training will keep me out of mischief. And I don’t think I could be more grateful for that moment in my life because that opened up a world of 5,000 years worth of teachings to me. Teachings and tools and philosophies that I started applying to my life and very quickly started to notice shifts in how I was feeling. The disconnect that I had been feeling started to disappear and I felt like I was finally coming home.
Over the next couple of years, I was fortunate enough to live in Los Angeles, which was the home of some of the best yoga and meditation teachers in the world. Bikram yoga was my gateway to yoga and yoga philosophy. Yoga was my gateway to meditation. I got to study with some of the best teachers who remain my teachers today, because this is an endless journey that I’m upon now. Once you’ve opened the book, it’s very hard to close it.
I spent these couple of years very immersed in the yoga and meditation bubble, learning as much as I could and really feeling these shifts within my physical body, my mental body, my emotional body. Over there, I met the man that very quickly became the father of my child, Jack. Through meeting him, an opportunity came up to go back into the media. We traveled around the world for a year, when our son was six months old, filming a documentary series.
Eventually I came back to New Zealand and here in New Zealand I work in the media. I’m a journalist and I’m a TV presenter and a news producer. I also teach people how to meditate, how to develop a self-sufficient daily practice. I also go into companies and help them implement a meditation culture.
Most of us don’t want to give up earthly pleasures for a life of quiet contemplation. One of the teachers in the lineage that I teach meditated in a cave for 40 years. His disciples would bring him food and he’d get up and go for a walk every now and then, but he sat in that cave and he meditated for 40 years. For most of us, it doesn’t sound particularly appealing, but we still want to get the benefits of the practice and use them in our lives.
I go into companies and I help them create a meditation culture, because meditation is wonderful for the individual. That then that trickles down to the whole also. The images associated with yoga and meditation, peaceful, calm and serene images, are hyper misleading because this is the reality of my meditation practice.
That is how I meditate twice a day and I have done for seven years. In the background, my son was watching Cupcake & Dino and those images of peacefulness and bliss and tranquility, they’re just not attainable when you are a real-life meditator.
The reality of my workplace meditation is in the disabled toilets at TVNZ, sitting on a manky old bathmat. That’s where I meditate a lot when I’m at work, in the disabled toilets with the doors banging around me, the toilets flushing, trying not to breathe too deeply. We do have a wellness room, which I use a lot as well and if I can’t meditate in either of those places, I’ll go down into my car and I will meditate there, because I have experienced the benefits of the practice firsthand over the last decade or so, consistently meditating for twice a day for seven years. It’s a non-negotiable part of my life.
Meditation is such an experiential process and practice that you have to do it to experience what I’m about to talk about. Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson have been studying meditation for the last 50 years and their book, Altered Traits, is potentially the only book that has real data. These guys have devoted hours and hours and hours of time measuring the minds of people who meditate; a heck of a lot of monks, people who have thousands and thousands of hours of meditation under their belts. If you are really interested, I highly recommend this book because this has some of the proof and the science that backs up all the woo woo hippy dippy stuff.
The thing is, to experience the benefits of meditation practice, you have to meditate consistently. If you’re meditating once in a while with your Headspace app, you might immediately after that notice some differences in how you’re feeling, your heart rate, your adrenaline levels, but they don’t become lasting traits.
It’s when we meditate consistently for an extended period of time, I’m talking years, that because of neuroplasticity, the brain actually starts to change. These are some of the things that I have experienced with my practice:
Greater emotional awareness and control; it doesn’t mean that I feel less or that I actually have the ability to stop my emotions. It means that I’m less and less afraid of my emotions and feeling them.
Greater self-awareness, better memory, better ability to focus, stronger immunity. More alpha brainwaves, the meditative brain waves, the frequency of nature. It’s a calmer, more in-the-flow state.
Another thing is deeper empathy and the desire to act on that empathy, because it’s all very well and good feeling compassion and empathy for someone or a situation, but it’s pretty redundant if we’re not going to do anything about that feeling.
The brain is a very complicated piece of machinery and there are a couple of networks that I want to touch upon. I have to massively oversimplify here because I could talk about this for hours, but there’s a part of the brain called the default mode network. This is the part of our brain responsible for rumination, pontification, it’s what we might call the monkey mind. It’s the part of us that organises and plans and it’s also the part of us that regrets and wishes we’d done something differently. The default mode network lives in the future and the past and the star of the default mode network is us. There’s a deep sense of me, me, me, me, me. What could I have said? What could I have done? How can I make this better? What do I need to do?
It’s an exhausting state to consistently be in. When the default mode network is activated, there’s higher levels of cortisol, adrenaline, more psychological stress, depression, anxiety. Fundamentally, this state is a place of fear, fear of the unknown or a fear of things that we can’t do anything about.
I co-parent with the father of my child and my son’s about to go on a three week trip to Poland with his dad because his dad’s from Poland originally. The catastrophising that happens as a mother when my default mode network goes into overdrive is pretty intense to observe.
There is a way for us to short circuit this default mode network and that is using a part of the brain that we call the task positive network, because the task positive network and the default mode network are mutually exclusive. When one’s activated, the other one is not activated.
The task positive network is the part of the brain that becomes present and focuses and becomes aware of what’s happening right now. When we meditate and become present to our breath, when we listen to the sounds around us, when we observe the feelings and sensations in our body, we actually become present to the moment that we’re in.
Instead of this default mode network loop of sensation feeding thought and thought feeding sensation, that turns into catastrophising or, if prolonged, a state of anxiety or depression. It’s really hard to get out of. When we activate the task positive network, we start to short circuit that loop. I just want you to think about what you were doing in that meditation.
Hopefully for most of you when you meditate, the mind would wander off and then you’d remember, ‘Oh, hang on, she said to remember what’s happening in the body.’ Different words might trigger different thought patterns, they might be what we call positive or negative thought patterns. You also might’ve noticed different sensations in the body.
If you do it for 20 minutes, you will eventually, as the mind kept being pulled back into the present moment and the task positive network activated, you would have experienced a drop in cortisol, a drop in adrenaline. After about 10, 15 minutes, the hormones that make you feel more relaxed, more content, more joyful, like dopamine, serotonin and melatonin, start to become elevated as the body relaxes into the moment.
One of the most important things about meditation is that we don’t fight the thoughts. We never fight the thoughts. We’re trying to create an unconditional place for the emotions to arise and the thoughts to finish their momentum, because trying to stop a thought is like standing in front of a boulder. That boulder needs to run down the hill and peter out on its own accord. When we become present to the thoughts, eventually the momentum of those thoughts peters out.
Same thing with the emotions. Emotions are a really cool part of us that we are fricking terrified of. There’s very good reasons for that. There’s a whole lot of survival reasons for why we’re terrified of our emotions, especially emotions that make us feel uncomfortable and vulnerable. Humans are the most helpless of all animals, pretty much until we are quite old.
We rely really heavily on the society, the adults around us to take care of us. We learned from a very, very young age what behaviour means that we will be accepted and what behaviour means that we might start feeling a little isolated and ostracised. From a young age, our behaviour starts to be modified and over the years this develops into our personality.
The unconscious part of us – this is both terrifying and liberating at the same time – we’re governed by this 95 percent, this great hulking part of the iceberg is actually governing the majority of our decisions and behaviours and how we find ourselves in the relationships we end up in, the work situations, however we ended up right here right now. 95 percent of us has fundamentally been guiding the ship. The unconscious is all about comparison, because it’s so deeply part of the survival mechanism.
We create this ego around us that is obsessed with comparison. It’s obsessed with competition because if they have something, it means I have less – the animal part of us. Then also with this survival mechanism of not wanting to feel vulnerable or scared, we start to suppress emotion and those emotions that we don’t want to feel, create behaviours that start to govern our lives – our coping mechanisms.
One of my teachers has this really cool analogy and he likens it to being born in Alaska and wearing a big full-length puffer jacket. At the beginning of your life, you live in Alaska and that puffer jacket keeps you alive, keeps you warm, but then you moved to Hawaii. You’ve gotten so used to this puffer jacket, you don’t even know you’re wearing it. In Hawaii, this puffer jacket that kept you alive in Alaska, is now making you exceptionally uncomfortable, potentially even sick, and might even kill you in Hawaii. But because it’s part of who you are, because you’ve had it on for so long, you don’t even know that you can take it off.
When we start to meditate, it’s not even that we’re wearing one puffer jacket. We’re all wearing hundreds, thousands of little puffer jackets, little protective mechanisms that keep us in these patterns of behaviour that no longer serve us. They keep us limited in our beliefs about ourselves. They keep us shut off to all these different possibilities that haven’t even crossed our minds.
When we meditate, we start to take off the little puffer jackets and we don’t even know we’re doing it. How? By sitting in the emotions that once upon a time felt uncomfortable, fundamentally. We sit with these emotions and maybe for the first time in our lives, we don’t run from them.
We don’t hide from them. We don’t try and numb them with alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping, unhealthy relationships, over achieving. We start to feel these emotions and when we can fully feel them and when we can fully accept them, they start to shift. Situations that used to make us feel really uncomfortable that we would avoid unconsciously at all costs, we reframe. We can approach these situations with a much calmer and quite different mindset.
The most relaxed person in the room is the most successful. Our ideas of success are very much conditioned by how we were brought up, the people who brought us up, the society we live in. I know that for me over the years, my idea of success has completely reframed because I know that when I’m the most relaxed version of myself, I’m the most powerful and the most flexible.
I’m the most adaptable and the most creative version of myself as well. When you’re in a constant state of fight or flight, and a lot of us do live in this perpetual state of our stress-reactive state being activated, we’re not the very best versions of ourselves. We’re not the very best business people. We’re not the very best parents. We’re not the very best partners that we know we can be.
Another amazing thing with meditation is every time you sit and you create this unconditional space for yourself to let the feelings be felt, to let the thoughts come and go, there’s a profound amount of stress that releases from the nervous system. It’s something that the scientists that I mentioned before have measured in cancer patients and in business people.
It’s really quite phenomenal the amount of stress that releases from the nervous system, as well as that beautiful effect of unravelling the unconscious, the blocks that might be stopping us from doing things that we really want to do, but potentially we’re too scared to do. It also has that wonderful effect of short-circuiting the default mode network. We’re no longer in these condition states of thinking that we’ve been trapped in for a really long time. New possibilities, new thoughts open up for us.
For me, success involves a lot of these feelings now. Not external things for me – contentment, openness, connection, joy, compassion, passion, intuition. As we relax more and more into the flow of life, this beautiful thing happens where we just trust the flow of life more and more, even when things are going horribly wrong.
That’s the trust piece. You’ve got to trust that no matter what happens, you’re going to be okay. I’m not going to be the Dalai Lama. I’m not going to be Anderson Cooper. I’m not going to be Jacinda Ardern. I’m not going to be Russell Brand – all people I really admire and think are amazing. I’m not going to be them because I’m not them. I popped out this version of me, my parents gave me a name and at the end of the day, I can only be the very best version of me.
I think that’s what meditation has done for me the most. It’s helped ease the comparisons. It’s helped ease the coping mechanisms and I’ve relaxed more into the flow of life. And if anything, I just want you to understand that if you do start to meditate consistently, then at the end of the day, meditation will make you the very, very, very best version of you.
What would you say to people that are a bit skeptical about meditation?
What I’ve learned is you can’t force it. You absolutely cannot force it. There’ll be some of you who might see this as a little sign that potentially you want to learn. I bought my brother who lives in Sydney a pass to a postural yoga studio and he never went once. I remember being like, ‘For goodness sake, just get along to that yoga studio.’ But it’s not for him. I don’t do gift vouchers for my courses because there’s so many husbands that think their wives need to meditate or wives that think their husbands need to meditate and that just doesn’t work either.
You have to want to do it of your own volition. That being said, one of the things that I love teaching people about is how the ego loves to self-sabotage us and why that happens. The more you become aware of that loud, annoying voice in your head that tells you to push the snooze button instead of going to the gym, or my egos tells me that I need to tidy my room before I meditate.
I now know to ignore that and I sit and I do my practice and it’s become just like anything you practice, you get better at. Just even becoming aware of the nature of what’s going on in your head is exceptionally helpful.
Images by Tez Mercer