Part 2 – You CAN Teach An Old Dog New Tricks – Transformation through Contemplative Practice

WHAT IF people can use contemplative practices to help them succeed in life and at work? In other words, what if contemplative practices can be made beneficial both to people’s careers and to business bottom lines?

Chade-Meng Tan

In Part 1, I shared the Tree of Contemplative Practices, in which meditation was one branch of practice. Reference was made to neuroscientific research on meditation, that indicated that rewiring of the brain took place in meditators. Scientists also note that the brain is capable of creating new connections on a massive scale, at any stage of life.

Within our primitive brain lies the amygdala, in which lies our well developed instincts of fight, flight, freeze or appease. In our ancestors this served well as they encountered threats e.g. wildlife, as they searched for food. It ensured their survival. In the corporate world today, our perceived threats may come in the form of ideas that are rejected, individuals whom we do not trust, change and uncertainties. Such threats stimulate our fight-flight-freeze-appease response, leading us to respond in ways that are detrimental to the desired outcome – amygdala hijack. During meditation, the information being received by our primitive brain is reduced and the overall activity of this part of the brain slows down. This is observable after a 20 minute period of meditation. After an 8 week course of mindful meditation, the amygdala shrinks.

Meanwhile, in our prefrontal cortex, our executive brain, activity increases. The prefrontal cortex is associated with attention, concentration, decision making, reason, building community and trust and problem solving. The prefrontal cortex plays a significant part in directing attention, developing and pursuing goals, and inhibiting counterproductive impulses. After an 8 week course of mindful meditation, this area of the brain thickens. Additionally, researchers observed that in meditators, the connection between the amygdala and the rest of the brain gets weaker, while the connections between areas associated with attention and concentration get stronger. Our responses become more thoughtful and effective. 

  • Discovery of the brain’s plasticity reveals that it is possible to: change behaviours and attitudes
  • enhance positive emotions
  • ´diminish negative emotions, and
  • ´actually change the brain itself

Let’s step back to the origins of meditation. Meditation is a universal spiritual wisdom, a practice found at the core of all the great religious traditions. The practice dates back to over 2,000 years.  It involves silence, stillness and presence, as a means of Communion, Connection and Awareness. 

Prior to neuroscientific findings of the impact of meditation and its ability to modify behaviour, organisations such as the 70 year old National Training Laboratories for Applied behavioural Science (NTL) USA, have been at the forefront of helping people to be mindful and to increase their emotional intelligence. Alan Klein M Ed, in his review of NTL’s methodologies notes, the “discovery” of the T-Group in 1946 came about when Kurt Lewin (German-American Psychologist) and his colleagues recognized that when individuals reflect on their own behavior, and that of the group they are in, they can achieve greater clarity and more integration of learning than they achieve when outside experts do the reflecting for them and about them. 

At NTL, participants are encouraged to be mindful observers of their behavior, the others’ behavior, and the group’s behavior. The core mantra of the T-Group – “Stay in the Here and Now” – is at its heart, an invitation to be mindful; to be actively and openly in the present moment. The fundamental “coins of the realm” in T-Groups – self-disclosure and feedback – serve as the vehicles through which participants share their emotions and learn about their impact on others. Conceptual models, are used to help participants practice, even under pressure, Emotional Intelligence … managing themselves, their emotions, and their relationships – connecting, to achieve the goals they have set for themselves. 

What better way to do this than reducing the activity of the primitive brain and increasing activity in the prefrontal cortex via staying in the here and now. The emphasis is on sharing emotions, as opposed to judgments or conclusions. In this way, T-group participants can learn how their words and actions trigger emotional responses in the people they communicate with and suitably adjust their behaviours to achieve the desired connection. Join me in this series, as I continue to explore how contemplative practices are being used to “teach an old dog new tricks” in various organisations.

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