Centuries-old mindfulness breathing and meditation practices have become an increasingly popular fad, but do they really have the power to transform lives? In this interview with psychologist/author Maria Konnikova as part of Big Think’s partnership with 92Y’s Seven Days of Genius series, Arianna Huffington explains that mindfulness practices helped her overcome a mid-career crisis and refocus her priorities entirely. Together, Huffington and Konnikova review some of the recent scientific findings that support ancient beliefs about the power of mindfulness and meditation.
This is the first video in an exclusive video series of today’s brightest minds exploring the theory of genius. Exclusive videos will be posted daily on youtube.com/bigthink throughout 92nd Street Y’s second annual 7 Days of Genius Festival: Venture into the Extraordinary, running March 1 to March 8, 2015.
Maria Konnikova: Arianna I wanted to open up by talking a little bit about the introduction to your book. So you write about this collapse that you suffered that really made you reevaluate your life, your priorities. And I’m curious how mindfulness came out of that because you write a lot about health, sleep, exercise, and you could have very well, you know, taken a vacation, gotten some sleep and then moved on. Why did you decide to stop and focus on mindfulness as well?
Arianna Huffington: For me this collapse eight years ago when I collapsed literally from burnout, sleep deprivation, exhaustion — hit my head on my desk, broke my cheekbone, and found myself coming to in a pool of blood of my own. That moment really made me reevaluate a lot of my life and in the course of my life, I had always been interested in mindfulness, in meditation. My mother taught me to meditate when I was 13 living in Athens, Greece. That was quite exceptional at the time. I went to India and studied comparative religion before I went to college. I’ve meditated on and off all my life, so I’ve always been drawn to that aspect of life.
What changed eight years ago is that I realized that I didn’t want this to be sort of episodic journeys, but to integrate them into my life on a daily basis. And I studied the science, which is pretty incontrovertible. And then I became fascinated with how, despite all that we know scientifically, behaviorally, how hard it is for us to still change. And that’s really a big part of Thrive that how can we move from knowing what is best for us to actually doing what is best for us. And to realize there are no trade-offs between leading an effective life that will produce results and get stuff done and also being mindful and taking care of that deeper dimension of ourselves.
Maria Konnikova: So when we talk about mindfulness today, how would you describe its main tenants? So what do we mean when we say we need our lives to be more mindful?
Arianna Huffington: I love actually what Jon Kabat-Zinn has said about mindfulness which is that it’s really heartfulness as well as mindfulness. It’s really being fully present each moment of our lives, mind and heart and body, of course. And what follows is the recognition that thoughts are going to come, you know. We’re not going to stop our thoughts, but we don’t really have to follow them wherever they go. And that’s where, for me, breathing and consciously inhaling and exhaling is such an essential part of mindfulness. Because I use my breath to return to that centered place in us and let the thoughts come and go instead of following every thought sort of slavishly wherever it wants to go.
And the other thing is that there has been, as you know, this avalanche of new scientific discoveries that have validated ancient wisdom. So philosophers as spiritual teachers have always known these things, but now we have modern science validating them. For me some of the most important work is by Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, who has actually used modern methods like MRIs and lasers on the brains of Buddhist monks who’ve meditated for years to see some incredible results on the brain itself, you know, in gamma waves that show how that the plasticity of the brain is extraordinary. And we can actually affect how our brain functions and by being more mindful and taking time to meditate and doing all these things.
Maria Konnikova: In your book you refer a lot to Steve Jobs as kind of someone who really took this to heart and managed to put things like mindfulness ahead of other things that people normally link to success and ended up succeeding more so than almost anyone else. In your mind, is it possible to achieve that kind of success — we can call Jobs a genius if we want — without mindfulness. Is it actually an essential component or is it something that you can take or leave?
Arianna Huffington: I think geniuses are so rare that I’m sure there are many ways to be a genius, you know. By definition, it does not conform to a standard deviation. So I’m talking about all of us, you know, the rest of us who are not certified geniuses. What makes for a life that is both more meaningful and more effective? I like to use that word because we all want to be effective at whatever we are doing. For the vast majority of people, we know for certain that mindfulness enhances everything. It enhances performance. There is no trade-off between being mindful and being effective.
It also enhances our own experience of life because if we just define life purely in terms of success reduced to these two metrics of money and power, we are missing out on what, for me, is the essence of life, which you cannot really experience without that third metric, which is like the third leg of the stool. In Thrive I define it as consisting of these four pillars — well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving. And that’s really what a complete life is. And very often we’ve seen people who reach a level of success and then begin to integrate giving or wonder. By then it may be too late to integrate well-being because we now know that the toll that our own health and immune system take if we live in ways that are consistently stressful. And wisdom which has to do with decision-making — again I quote a lot of people in the book acknowledging like Bill Clinton who said that the most important mistakes I made, I made when I was tired. So the connection between exhaustion, sleep deprivation, et cetera, and bad decisions is huge.