Research has shown the many benefits of practicing daily meditation. Lower stress and anxiety. Stronger relationships. Greater empathy for others. Improved focus and mental cognition. (Just to name a few.) All qualities shared by great leaders...and great parents. Matthias Birk joins us to explain the powerful connection between mindfulness meditation, leadership, and parenting. With more than 20 years of meditation and leadership experience, Matthias, an adjunct professor at NYU’s Graduate School of Public Service and Columbia Business School, has taught meditation and leadership skills to hundreds of executives at companies including Goldman Sachs and McKinsey. A father of two young children, Matthias shares how anyone – even stressed-out working parents in the middle of a global pandemic – can find inner peace by starting (and sticking to) daily mindfulness meditation practice.
Listen to this episode to learn:
For more information, read Matthias Birk’s recent article in Harvard Business Review.
Meditation for working parents
Intro: Welcome to the Equal Parts podcast brought to you by Care@Work.
Emily Paisner: Being a working parent is hard, and now more than ever, we need ways to calm our minds and center ourselves. Today's guest is going to talk about how we can practice meditation to accomplish just that. His name is Matthias Birk and he's been practicing meditation for more than 20 years. He's an adjunct professor at NYU and the Columbia Business School who's taught meditation and leadership skills to hundreds of executives and companies. During our conversation, Matthias talked about the benefits of mindfulness meditation, how it can help us see things more objectively and form deeper relationships.
We also discussed how meditation makes us better, more mindful leaders, and, as you know, parenting requires leadership, so there's lots to take away from this episode especially during this time. Have a listen. Matthias, thank you so much for joining us today. I'm really looking forward to this conversation and how you can help us find some calmness in this crisis.
Matthias Birk: Thank you for having me.
Emily Paisner: Let's start with the basics. Can you tell us what mindful meditation is and what the physical and mental benefits are?
Matthias Birk: First of all, there are many different forms of mindfulness meditation, so if you ask different people, you might get different answers depending on what traditions they've trained in, but I would say the basic tenant is that you do something that's fairly antithetical to, I think, how most of us live our lives. You take some time out of your day where you're not being productive, where you are basically not doing anything other than practicing being present.
The reason I say practicing being present is because for most of us when we start sitting down, and then the most mindfulness practices that means you sit down and you observe your breath or you count your breath, you start to realize how busy your mind is. The biggest benefit I think of mindfulness practice is that you learn to let go of those, oftentimes, anxiety-provoking, self-critical, judgmental thoughts and you will start to realize that you are not those thoughts. You start to learn to let go and maybe most importantly, you start to actually become present to what is right now.
Where the proof is in the pudding is once you get up and you go back to your kids or you go back to your work, how much is that helping you to be present with what is instead hanging out in your thought generated reality.
Emily Paisner: As you mentioned, there's so much fear, and anxiety, and stress, and uncertainty right now. I know personally I'm having a lot of sleepless nights. A lot of states in the United States have announced that schools are closed for the rest of the school year, which leaves many of us parents juggling kids and working from home for probably longer than any of us had anticipated. How can meditation help working parents right now during this stressful and uncertain time?
Matthias Birk: That's a great question. As you and I talked right before the recording, I have two young kids and I have a full-time job, so I certainly empathize with that. I'm German, so we like to start with the bad news. The bad news is you have to do it. You have to find additional time for it. Some people might hear this and they are like, "Is this a bad joke? On top of everything else I need to do, now I need to find time to meditate?" That's the bad news and we can talk a little bit about that. I think the good news is, like I just said, mindfulness meditation at the core helps you deal with what is, and let go of all these expectations and anticipations your mind creates.
My 10-year-old has to do Zoom school. Me and my wife, we have a certain expectation of how it should go. It almost never goes like this. Or you have an idea of how you want to have breakfast and connect with your kids, and it just doesn't go that way. Or if you're late for a meeting, you're just about to leave the kitchen and someone's spills the milk. Reality happens and where we get tripped up is where we have a different idea of how reality should be than how reality expresses itself. The moment you realize maybe your son or daughter ain't taking so well to the Zoom course, your mind goes off into all kinds of directions. "Oh my God, what does that mean for the rest of the school year? I don't have child care, I'm not getting my work done."
All of a sudden, your mind starts creating a story, after story, after story, and then it comes with anxiety, and anger, and fear, and frustration. You jumped onto this train that takes you out of being present and alive for the present moment into some kind of imagined future. At the core, mindfulness meditation, all it is is training your mind to say, "All right, mind, there you go, these are all the thoughts, let me be present with my coworker, with my spouse, with my child, just where they are right now, not where I would like them to be."
Matthias Birk: I think you captured some of the moments going on in my house right now, and craziness and chaos seem to be a common theme around here. How can working parents find the time and space to create a mindfulness meditation experience during this time? We're always pulled in a lot of different directions, but this is just a different level of it, and so is it carving out a few minutes in the morning or before bed? What can we be doing and focusing on in order to get the greatest benefits?
Emily Paisner: It's maybe the toughest question because many people probably, they listen to this and say, "Yes, it'd be so great to be less anxious and more present. I want it, but how do I do it?" I would almost rephrase the question, it's not about finding time because if you wait until you magically find that time, that's never going to happen, especially not if you are working and you have kids, and you have to, now especially, make sure, of course, these kids get their school done and so forth. That time isn't magically going to drop from somewhere and all of usonly have 24 hours in a day.
Usually, in my experience, certainly for myself but also when I work with executives who are attempting to build in meditation practices, you have to make that time, and usually, that means there's something that you are currently doing that you need to stop doing, so there's an element of sacrifice in there. For me, and I think for most people that have kids means you probably have to do it when the kids aren't up or you have to find an arrangement with your spouse. For me, that means getting up earlier and in the morning, I do my meditation in the morning and the evening when the kids are in bed, and over time, meant I had to make adjustments.
Like my case, that means we don't have a TV, I don't watch TV, I don't have a glass of wine. I don't know what it is that you are doing, but there's something probably you will need to stop doing to start finding time to practice.
Matthias Birk: It's interesting because I think that the assumption is that everyone has more time right now because you're not commuting to work and you're not driving your kids to a million activities, but it does feel like we have less time than we did before.
Emily Paisner: Yes.
Matthias Birk: You talked a little bit about how you have worked with leaders at various organizations and helped them to put this practice into place. We've talked about this in some of our past episodes that there are a lot of similarities between being a parent and being a leader. A lot of the work that you do centers around the connection between leadership and mindfulness, can you explain that connection and talk about how meditation can help us become more effective leaders at work and in our personal lives?
Emily Paisner: I think one of the great qualities of mindfulness meditation is it allows you to least slightly let go of those constantly worrying, largely ego-driven thoughts that are like, "How can I make sure I'm fine." Once you're able to get to a place where that kind of ego let's go a little bit of their grip on you, you can much more easily step into empathizing and being compassionate with others, and saying, "Okay, what is it that I can do to help others?" I always ask the executives I work with, "What's an executive that you really looked up to that you were deeply inspired?" They usually come up with a name and they'll say, "She was a selfless leader" or "She was really helping me be the best version that I can be."
I think it's an essential tool. I think it's very hard to let go of that kind of ego anxiety grip if you don't have some twists that help us recenter.
Matthias Birk: For those who haven't tried this before or maybe curious about it, do you have any intro-level pro tips or resources on how people can get started with a daily meditation practice?
Emily Paisner: Yes, sure, I have a couple of thoughts. One, of course, is we live, this wasn't the case when I started meditating. I started way before the Internet, but there are obviously plenty of apps out there. I'm not an expert on meditating with apps because that's not how I started, but there are apps like Headspace, Ten Percent Happier, and Waking Up. I've dabbled a little bit in them just to understand how they work because that's a question that comes up often, and most of these have like five minutes, seven-minute guided meditations. I think that's certainly a way to start.
Another way to start is to literally see, can you find five minutes tonight after everyone's in bed, switch off everything, sit down, find a quiet space where you can sit down and simply count your breath, one on the in-breath, two on the out-breath, the way to 10, and then do that for five minutes. Whenever your mind takes off into thoughts, redirect your mind to your breath. Those are probably the most intro-level ways to start meditating. I do think then, at some point, most of the people I know that start with using an app at some point will want to go a little bit further. Then I really think it is good, depending on what city you live in, to Google are there any meditation centers in your city.
A lot of these, obviously, you can't visit now, but they have virtual sittings. I do think it's good advice to see can I find a community, can I find a meditation teacher that can help me stick to that practice?
Emily Paisner: That's great advice. Finally, you've been practicing meditation for more than 20 years, and you've taught hundreds of executives the benefits of it. What's one of the most important lessons meditation has taught you about yourself and others that you want to leave our listeners with?
Matthias Birk: Be patient. I think sometimes people, they come from their crazy lives where they're up 16 hours. I certainly can relate to that, my day sometimes feels like this, and then they sit down for mindfulness and they're almost surprised that they didn't feel that deep peace and quiet. Sometimes people tell me, "I sit down for five minutes and I feel even more rattled because now I'm realizing all this stuff that's going on in my head." Then they say, "I don't think it's working for me." I usually say, "No, it's exactly working just the way it should be." The first day you go to the gym and you start lifting weights, chances are you're going to feel sore.
It doesn't need to work right away or give you some deep sense of peace. All you're doing is starting to give your mind some space to quiet down and that may take some time.
Emily Paisner: Matthias, thank you so much for joining us today. I am sure a lot of the parents who are listening right now will be able to take some great lessons away from this in how meditation may be able to help them during this unprecedented time that we're living in.
Matthias Birk: It was a pleasure, thank you.
Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of Equal Parts. See you next time.
Emily Paisner: Wait, before you go, I just want to tell you a little bit about Care@Work by care.com. They work with some of the world's largest companies to offer family care benefits to their employees. If you're one of the lucky ones who already has care benefits at work, use them. If you don't, ask for them, it's a real lifesaver. To learn more, visit care.com/careatwork. Again, that's care.com/careatwork.