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Mark Thornton on Spirituality
A former vice president and COO of JP Morgan Private Bank in London, Mark Thornton spent more than 25 years studying meditation traditions all over the world and is the first executive meditation coach. He currently teaches meditation to the staff at numerous companies, including The New York Times, United Nations, JP Morgan and TIAA-CREFF. He is also author of Meditation in a New York Minute: Super Calm for the Super Busy. Thornton tells us about integrating meditation practice into everyday life.
You certainly have gone through some interesting life changes, from being a banker, to researching meditation, to an author, to now teaching meditation. What inspired you to live more spiritually?
I was 26 years old and an investment banker in London. I was caught in a trap: I loved my job but was so stressed I was grinding my teeth at night. I had to wear a mouthguard and I was also losing my hair. I was going to be bald and toothless by 30, so I definitely wanted to find a way in which spirituality would be part of my everyday life. My particular journey was to India. I met a master who taught me a range of different techniques to do in the fabric of your everyday life. That was a huge opening because it meant that I no longer had to spend 20 minutes on a mat or lighting candles or incense or getting into the lotus position—it could be five seconds at the water cooler, five minutes on the commute to work or two minutes at lunch. It was shifting the orientation of my day away from the manic mind to pause, flow, calm center and ease.
Do you feel you have an easy definition for what it means to live more spiritually?
Yes, for me it’s really a return to the center, the center of who you are as a person. The analogy that I use is simply a circle: Every circle has a circumference and a center. Spirituality is a way to very immediately and directly access your center. The language I use is “returning to the heart,” meaning in the sense of returning to the center of who you are. Like in the phrase, “the heart of the matter.” It’s like returning to your ethos, to your source, to your core. There are many different paths that take you to your center.
I’m guessing that meditation is one of the most important ways to get back to your center and to live more spiritually? A lot has been said about meditation. People might think, “I’ve heard so much about it, but I just don’t know how to get started.” What would you say to them?
This is a great question because meditation used to be something that was weird and foreign, alien, guru-based with people wearing orange robes and open-toed sandals. But in the last four decades, there has been a ton of scientific research around this stuff with great academic institutions like Harvard and Columbia including [meditation] in their studies. So, there has been a huge shift. Meditation is a very important part of returning to the heart and that’s my particular gift: sharing the art of meditation with people.
One of the great things about Meditation in a New York Minute was that you shared many non-obvious ways of meditating. Can you share a few examples on how to incorporate meditation into your day?
One of the most powerful techniques that I used on the trading room floor at JP Morgan was a practice from the path of 13,000 steps. The 13,000 steps are basically the number of breaths that you take every day. In various traditions, your breath is one of the key drivers of what is happening in your physiology and your mind. There’s a saying in Sanskrit that says, “as in your breathing so is your thinking, as is breath so is your thought.” The technique that I like to use is to simply slow the inhale down to a count of three, pause for one, then exhale for the count of three and pause for one and then just repeat the sequence. You can do this before you pick up the phone. I always do it before I make a presentation or when I stand in a boardroom. It’s great to do when you are sitting on the subway in Manhattan.
The bottom line is if you do it for a minute, you get a minute’s benefit. We call it the path of the 13,000 steps because there are 13,000 opportunities everyday where we can start to shift our breathing to one of practice and returning to the heart.
What do you say to people who make excuses like “I’ve tried and I just can’t do it” and “I just don’t have the time?"
The number one reason why there are 10 million Americans that meditate and 290 million who don’t is because of time. No one has the time, so my particular passion is to say that I use to be the CEO of an investment bank and I used to meditate at least an hour a day. Now does that sound like a lot?
Yes, so the key is for that hour to be done accumulatively, not consecutively. When I am executive coaching and teaching in businesses, I take leaders’ calendars and simply show them all the opportunities [they] have to practice. For example, everyone I know commutes to work and comes back from work. Most people have a breakfast and a lunch and a dinner. Most people walk down the streets. Most people shower in the morning. When you have the right techniques, these can all be opportunities that are really very deep, very beautiful, very profound connections to your heart. I’ve had experiences that were as profound as sitting in lotus position on a retreat for weeks. All I was doing was changing the shape of my breathing at the water cooler, finding a moment to pause on the subway. These techniques are very, very powerful. Whether you’re a mother with three kids or a busy executive, there are moments where you can start to create an oasis of calm in the middle of your real world, your real life.
What are some of the advantages that someone can expect to feel as they embark on this? I’m sure some people are wondering: “Why should I care; why should I bother?”
Some of the feelings that people experience, and certainly this is my experience and the experiences of others, are qualities such as openness, calm, poise, balance, joy, love, clarity, perspective and bliss. All of these feelings are an intimate part of spirituality. That’s why we do it; that’s why I do it. There are more than 1,200 scientific studies from Harvard, Princeton, Yale and MIT, and there are more than 54 separate benefits that have been proven by scientific research.
I’ll take just one: There are more than 100 studies that unanimously show that meditation reduces anxiety. In America, anxiety is a $4 billion-a-year business for drug companies. That’s just anxiety. It’s the same with sleep. Meditation is a way to turn the mind off, turn the mind down and to become slower and quieter. It becomes easier to sleep.
What do the first few days, weeks, months of starting on this path look like?
It’s very important to find a teacher. Second, it is very important to find a community of like-minded souls. The third thing to do is to really start to follow your small intuitions. Next, take a break maybe from some of your traditional habitual patterns. It might be worth taking a break from your friends and it might be good to go to different places [instead of] your normal places.
Spirituality is like trying on a new coat. You have to take off your old coat to put on the new, but you don’t have to take off all of your clothes. It’s really important that people avoid drastic things like: “I’m going to leave my job” or “I’m going to leave my partner.” It’s important to leave space for the new stuff, but it’s also important to be really clear to not to make any drastic changes in the first 30 days. I share that from personal experience because there were a number of times that I told my teachers, “I want to give it all up, live on an island and just meditate all the time.” They would always laugh and say the challenges that you’re facing are exactly where you are now, so they will also be there on the island.
What is the belief that you personally go to during times of change?
I go to the answer that lies within.
“The best thing about change is….”
...new horizons, new vistas, new opportunities, new experiences, new depths and new enlightenment. Just wonderful!
What is the best change you have ever made?
Answering the call.
For more information about Mark Thornton, visit www.yescalm.org.