Episode #1441 Megan Jones Bell: A Beginner's Guide to Meditation

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Headspace Chief Science Officer Megan Jones Bell and Jenna discuss how meditation empowers us to show up as the people we aspire to be by increasing our sense of presence and compassion and decreasing feelings of anxiety and stress. Megan walks us through simple ways to build our own meditation practices, shares what we should really expect when we meditate, and how cultivating awareness puts us in control of how we choose to perceive and respond to our daily experiences.


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Megan Jones Bell

Chief Science Officer at Headspace View Full Profile

Highlights from the Transcript

  • On helping people rise out of isolation: “Isolation is one of the leading health problems in our society today. Our goal using technology is to meet people where they are. If they’re feeling isolated, using something like an app can be incredibly helpful and empower them to develop skills that allow them to go back into their lives in person and build relationships that can hopefully carry them through in the future.” 
  • On coping with over stimulation: “If you look at the way we use technology and the number of pieces of information our brains have to process on a daily basis, no wonder we are feeling stressed, having problems sleeping and feeling more anxiety. They’re all a natural consequence of that. We are busier and living with more stimulation than we ever have. The way we engage with our social networks in a comparative way, looking at people’s highlight reels rather than their real lives, it makes sense that people feel the need to invest in their self-esteem.” 
  • On opening up about our mental health: “A lot of leaders can relate to feeling like everyone expects you to be a superhero but your experience is the opposite. You’re just waiting for balls to drop or feel like you’re getting a B- in areas as opposed to the A+ that everyone is expecting from you and that you expect of yourself. It’s really helpful to talk about that. There is so much power and strength to be gained in acknowledging it, modeling being able to ask for help and setting boundaries to protect your wellbeing…Especially as a leader, I’d think of it as your responsibility to help model behaviors that you know will help benefit your own wellbeing and that of your team…We have to recognize that we are always in a position to stop swimming with the school of fish. We can swim in the other direction and pull the culture along with us by modeling an alternative.”
  • On the benefits of meditation: “Meditation has a dual effect and enhancing benefits. A lot of research shows that meditation can improve happiness, sense of wellbeing, and resilience. It can also decrease things like anxiety, depressive symptoms, stress and feelings of burnout. In both directions, you get more of the things that give you energy and less of the things that drain your energy. Those are internal experiences. The benefits of meditation also extend to how we act and interact with the world around us, particularly in our relationships with others, both our close ones and the way we interact with strangers. We’ve done some really interesting social psychology studies with academic partners showing that Headspace can result in people acting in a more compassionate way to strangers and being less aggressive when they are provoked. It’s really interesting to look at the internal experiences around mediation - of being less stressed and anxious and feeling happier - and how it enables you to act differently.” 
  • On how meditation can rewire your brain: “Meditation over time can change our amygdala: the emotional center of our brain, where we notice what is happening around us and dial up or down our reaction to it. It’s how we interpret something’s salience or relevance in our lives. One of our Headspace studies showed that people were less reactive to negative feedback after they meditated for a month. The neuroscience research shows that the amygdala is less active after a meditation practice. The effects that we see in brain changes are really mirrored in people’s actions…After three weeks of 10 minute daily mediation training, two studies showed that people acted in a more compassionate way towards others (giving up a seat to somebody who appeared to be in pain) and acted less aggressively when provoked. We tend to see an effect on the outcomes around aggression, compassion, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and many mood related benefits after a month to eight weeks of daily practice, which in reality ends up being three to four times a week.”
  • On cultivating awareness: “Part of the benefit of meditation is that you are cultivating awareness. One of the common meditation concerns is that people fall asleep when they start. Andy, our co-founder, says that meditation isn’t making you sleepy. It’s making you aware of how tired you actually are. When you start to learn and cultivate awareness, you become aware of what feels different in terms of feeling happier and acting in a way that is more consistent with how and who you aspire to be. It helps you see a contrast of the periods you are taking time to invest in your wellbeing and resilience and when it’s slipping off your priority list, and the consequences of that…When I’m not regular in my practice, I see these other ramifications like starting to snap at my spouse, not being 100% present with my child and thinking about my email instead of being in the moment with him. When people start becoming aware of those experiences they see that contrast and can understand why it is worth investing in a mindfulness routine.” 
  • On beginning your meditation practice: “When you’re approaching meditation, we try to help people understand that, as you sit, you are going to feel and pay attention to your thoughts. There are going to be a lot of them that come in and out and feel like they’re directing your attention in ways that you can’t control. The practice is about learning to observe that and change how you are relating to those thoughts. Rather than jumping and grabbing onto every single one of them you can learn to let them pass…Meditation is a skill to be learned and practiced. It’s not something you master the first time you sit down. You can get a benefit immediately but truly learning the skill is like building a muscle. You can’t go to the gym and lift a 100 pound weight. You train and lift heavier weights over time. It’s the same thing with your mind. Part of that practice means that you are going to hear distracting noises, you’re going to notice that your back hurts and that’s going to distract you. It does’t mean that you are doing it wrong. It means that you have an opportunity to notice the thought and bring your attention back to your breath or your visualization.” 
  • On gaining clarity in stressful situations: “For me, meditation has been a place of rest in my mind. If I’m facing a stressful challenge or am in a difficult meeting and need to maintain my composure and act deliberately I always know I can go back to the place I visited just that morning, which makes it familiar and I know the way there. I go back to my breath, that calm centered place, and it helps me approach the challenging things in my life from a much more grounded place.” 
  • On mindfulness and performance: “You would never expect an elite athlete to perform at their best if they haven’t slept enough, eaten well or taken time to get into the right headspace before competing. So, why would you expect yourself, as a corporate athlete, to do anything different? We have to play by the same rules. Thinking about the amount of time that an athlete spends in training and recovery is a helpful way to look at your life regardless of your profession.” 
  • On 3 ways to be more mindful today: Each of these things can be the seedlings of a routine that you add to overtime:

  • Start small and set achievable goals, like a 5 minute meditation. Accept that you’ll likely be distracted. 
  • Practice mindfulness in motion, like an audio-guided walk or run. 
  • Create a wind-down ritual to decompress in the evenings.