By Judith Toy
Business women, get “on the peace train.” At Google, Target and General Mills, folks have this in common: they meditate. And women – specifically women entrepreneurs — meditate more. In a Baylor University study in 2011, researchers found that 37% of female entrepreneurs meditate, making them more than twice as likely as the average American adult to engage in this practice. I am one of the 37 percent.
While the idea of mindfulness originates in the serious practice of meditation, the Wall Street Journal reports that lo and behold, it works for executives who are not looking for a spiritual fix, but simply want to clear their heads and become aware of reactive emotions that can lead to bad decisions. I have been an entrepreneur looking for a business to happen since the age of nine, when I started a series of backyard carnivals to benefit polio research. At age eleven, I ran a backyard pre-school for the neighborhood kids. As a young mother, I held down as many as five part-time jobs at a time, what I called “putting the pieces together” – lay reader for a high school English Department, tutor for a sight-impaired student in French pronunciation, editor for the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation, babysitter for a local family, and copy writer for a candle business. With no real training in business, I went on to become a member of the Chamber of Commerce’s Women in Business Advisory Board, to aid women with public relations for their small businesses as a trouble shooter. At the peak of my PR career, my husband and I founded a home-based public relations firm where I was making a thousand dollars a day to go into corporations and train middle managers in promotional letter writing. Was I calm about this? No. In fact, when I went out the door of the corporation at the end of the day on my high heels in my three-piece suit, I felt like an inmate at the moment of her release. Freedom! Working for others always seemed like jail to me.
I found the corporate atmosphere stifling and abusive. During those heady times, while raising two girls, I am sorry to say I smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, powered by five chain-smoked cigarettes first thing in the morning, for a buzz facilitated by several cups of kick-butt coffee. In my spare time I wrote and published poems and magazine articles. While writing, I was known to have three lit cigarettes in nearby ashtrays at one time. That’s how conscious I was about what I was doing.
Then I had a transformation, and I learned about mindfulness. I am still what you might call active, but thank goodness I am conscious. And not smoking. I meditate every morning, now for 21 years. I stop frequently to breathe and enjoy the moment. I stay awake, thus have complete awareness of what I am doing at any given moment. I know what is happening around me. And guess what? I amnot the only one who has changed; I am merely a reflection of my culture. Women entrepreneurs are meditating. The corporate world is in the process of letting mindfulness into its work day. I know one executive who keeps a couch in her office, and stops for 15 minutes to half an hour to sit on her couch, darken the room, light a candle and meditate in the middle of her business day. Her colleagues are drawn to the peace of her office. They stop by to sit down and just breathe for a moment in the place of refuge she has created. She has an effect on the whole office ambience.
The Wall Street Journal reports that business schools have also begun teaching mindfulness. At IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland, leadership professor Ben Bryant teaches his executive education students how to concentrate on their breathing, to become aware of sounds and sensations which he says can help them center themselves at the office or in a meeting.
“Hard core meditators [read those who are precious about it] are horrified that this word is being used in business,” he said. “They think meditation was never meant to be instrumental in making money.” Yet Bryant believes it does any CEO worth her salt good to slow down and clear her mind for the executive task at hand. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has led mindfulness retreats for lawmakers on Capital Hill, for actors in Hollywood, for prison inmates, Vietnam vets, groups of Israelis and Palestinians, and for women and men in law enforcement.
One need not commit an hour a day. Small breathing breaks can make all the difference. One mindfulness teacher, when flustered, walks into a quiet room and touches her index finger with her thumb while breathing in and breathing out; then she touches her middle finger with her thumb, doing the same exercise with the ring and pinky fingers. Four mindful breaths. She calls it Instant Nirvana.
As a woman entrepreneur, you keep a constant running To Do list in your head, thoughts of what just happened and what’s next, which can hopelessly muddle the mind and stress the body. My calendar used to be so cluttered with appointments that it looked like the crammed-to-the-ceiling chaos of a hoarder’s garage. Now I try to stick with one appointment a day. With mindfulness training — there are countless groups in the Asheville area that train people in mindfulness — you step up to the plate of the moment. In the past few years, I have trained death row lawyers, doctors and nurses at Mission Hospital, inmates at men’s and women’s prisons, the families of death row inmates, teachers, church groups, orphans in Romania, Irish mindfulness groups, retreatants at Findhorn, Scotland, and hundreds of children in mindfulness practice. It is a hopeful trend in our fast-moving breakneck high tech society of instant communication that we are willing to open up some space, to stop, breathe and savor the present moment. Without texting or TV.
To stop, to smile. As the old Cat Stevens song goes, “Come and join the living.” This is how we keep our most important appointment, our appointment with life.
Judith Toy will lead mindfulness practice anywhere, currently at Cloud Cottage Community of Mindful Living in Black Mountain – www.cloudcottage.org. She is the author of Murder as a Call to Love, A True Story of Transformation and Forgiveness – www.murderasacalltolove.com. Toy is editor for Cloud Cottage Editions, and can be reached at email@example.com or 828-669-0920.