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Mindfulness Meditation and Banking — An Oxymoron?

Contributor: Shreya Zaveri

Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).

On Work and Life Stew Friedman spoke with Andrew Scheffer, Wharton MBA, and founder of Mindfulness Meditation Training. Andrew has worked at Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and UBS and has extensive experience in private banking, financial services, and sales and combines his passion for meditation with his livelihood and all aspects of his life.

The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.

Stew Friedman: How did you first come to mindfulness?

Andrew Scheffer: andrew schefferThere was both a conscious and unconscious evolution. I went to college at Johns Hopkins, and it was very stressful. After my freshman year, I felt that some of the calm that I’d entered college with had dissipated. At the time, my brother lent me some books on meditation. When I tried to do it, I found it quite alarming! Because even in the quarter of a second that I was asked to focus on my breath, I recognized that my mind wandered. It was the same sense of alarm you’d get when riding a car with a driver who takes their eyes of the road to talk to you. If I couldn’t pay attention under perfect conditions, what would happen when I was under stress?

SF: Define mindfulness for us. Is it different from meditation?

AS: Meditation is a horrible English translation of an ancient Pali or Sanskrit word, bhavana, which means to develop or to bring about. Meditation is about cultivating space of mind. Mindfulness is bringing about quality of mind. Meditation is often defined as thinking or reflecting, which is very different from a skill where you’re cultivating a specific quality of mind. Mindfulness can also be described as bringing one’s attention face to face with the object being observed.

SF: Is mindfulness an effective way of managing stress or reducing strain?

AS: It’s remarkably transformative. The better parts of me have become more polished and more dominant, and the parts of me that cause me unhappiness don’t dominate me. I’m now able to recognize harmful tendencies. Meditation helps with seeing those parts and dealing with them. When we’re paying attention, we start with the breath, then thoughts, and feelings. As your attention focuses on those thoughts and feelings, they start to lose their hold over you.

SF: I hear a lot from people in banking, and other sectors, about feeling that they’re stretched too thin. What’s your diagnosis of the culture of modern finance, and how can mindfulness training enhance it?

AS: One of the most important qualities of the private banker or wealth manager is the ability to listen to clients and assess their needs appropriately, to attend well to what people are really saying to you. The average person listens for 47 seconds before eagerly formulating their response. We can help them to break that habit and really pay attention to what the client is really saying before letting their minds race to solutions.

If you look at net neutrality, certain investment banks wanted to gain a speed advantage to gather information worth millions of dollars. Meditation can give you that ability. Scientists used to believe that all humans perceive information at a set rate. Through studies, they discovered that meditators perceive sights and sounds faster than others.

Caller 1: I’m a law student with a deadline on Monday, and I’m trying to pull an all-nighter to make it. It’s very stressful. Is there anything besides meditation that you’d suggest to relieve stress? What are your surroundings like when you’re trying to get into a mindful state?

AS: There are many things you can do to get into a more mindful state. One is to get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation leads to performance at a lower IQ, or as if we’re inebriated. Other simple things like taking a moment to let go of tension, going for walks, making sure you’re hydrated are basic tools to deal with stress.

SF: What are some of the obstacles when trying to be mindful, and how can we overcome them?

AS: In the beginning people have a lot of preconceptions about what meditation should be and feel like.  And they get frustrated when they can’t achieve those goals immediately. Sleepiness is also a problem! If you sit down and close your eyes when you’re not well rested, you fall asleep as soon as you start to relax a little bit. It’s also just hard to make the time, especially when we don’t have the most supportive conditions in our lives yet, so it’s easier to choose a more familiar activity.

Caller 2: I use visualization a lot to achieve my goals. Is there a link between that and meditation?

AS: The world of meditation can be divided into two: tranquility and insight meditation. Tranquility meditation is a conceptual practice where you take time out for visualization and repetitive chants to calm your mind in a unique and special way. Insight meditation, or mindfulness meditation, is about a moment-to-moment awareness, in tune with your surroundings, and you can use it anywhere and anytime. Visualization falls under tranquility meditation, and it’s useful in its place. Insight meditation has a profound and more immediate impact.

SF: What advice do you have for someone who’s burned out at work?

AS: The first step is to take care of yourself and come back to a neutral place before you start trying mindfulness meditation. If you take the same burnt out and stressed approach to mindfulness, it won’t work. When you create the habit of mindfulness, you can apply it to basic activities in your day. I’ve trained extensively at meditation centers, but you can do it anywhere—sitting, walking, standing. It’s the same activity whether you’re sitting in a limo or a monastery. You can learn to be mindful, bring your attention back to your body, and reset your mind at your cubicle or walking down the hall to the coffee machine. To recover, you need to learn to reset your mind and be mindful.

For more information about Andrew’s work, visit www.andrewscheffer.com.

Join Work and Life next Tuesday at 7 pm on Sirius XM Channel 111.  Visit Work and Life for a full schedule of future guests.

About the author

Shreya Zaveri Shreya Zaveriis a junior in the Wharton School studying Management and Marketing and OPIM with an International Relations minor. She also serves as a vice president for the Work/Life Integration Project Student Advisory Board.

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