Lifestyle

Mindfulness in times of distraction

by Mai Yoshikawa

Kyodo

If, like a stereotypical office worker in Japan, you are working brutal hours and sacrificing your wellbeing just to stay afloat, Junya Ogino wants you to pay attention.

Why? Because the mindfulness maven believes you’re in a position to try a simple brain hack that will put you on top of your game and help you to face reality head-on “Mindfulness,” the self-confessed workaholic says, “could save lives.”

As a certified instructor of the Google-born Search Inside Yourself contemplative training program, Ogino warns his countrymen not to wear work addiction as a badge of honor. He believes it could put their most critical asset, their mental health, at risk.

Ogino teaches mindful leadership courses at companies across Japan, which is notorious for its workplace culture of long hours and rigid hierarchies, and leads workshops for executives seeking to create a mindful culture within their teams. Practitioners such as Ogino know workers will never excel at anything when they are multitasking, partly doing this and partly doing that. They believe that if you’re the kind of person pouring your coffee into a to-go cup as you rush out the door, it’s a big red flag.

When you stop trying to be everything to everyone, Ogino says that you are not just giving your brain a break, you are preventing potential damage by focusing on a single task and treating yourself to a few minutes of “me-time” every day.

The 45-year-old says it’s time to drop the myths behind mindfulness. You don’t have to chant. You don’t have to be vegan. You don’t have to shave your head. You don’t have to wear tie-dye.

It requires you to go nowhere and costs you no money.

Ogino, CEO of the Mindful Leadership Institute, says he knows from experience that there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by living a more purposeful, centered life.

“You don’t need a yoga mat or a cushion to start meditation. You can be mindful while taking a shower, or working on your computer, or cooking, or folding your clothes,” Ogino says. “Meditation and mindfulness aren’t the same. You don’t have to meditate to be mindful. If you’re focusing on the present moment, that’s mindfulness already. Look around. Opportunities are everywhere.”

As one of about 200 certified teachers of the globally recognized SIY mindfulness training program, Ogino sees an urgent need for Japan’s stressed-out workers to learn to sit still for two minutes without the chorus of to-dos in their heads getting in the way.

“Mindfulness is all the more important in this digital age,” he says. “We’ve become unable to focus. That’s why we need to set a ritual of practicing it every day and transform how we think, feel and act.”

Like many white-collar office workers in Japan’s unforgiving contemporary corporate culture, Ogino was a workaholic and an insomniac in his late 20s and early 30s. At the time, his goals were money-driven and his idea of success was owning a red Volvo.

He would sleep on the conference room table after 18-hour work days and rarely made it to his own bed, but the adrenaline highs didn’t last forever. He fell into unhealthy patterns of thought.

“I burned out,” he says. “If I went to a doctor I probably would’ve been diagnosed with depression. I even had the urge to jump off the balcony of my 31st-floor condo.”

Ogino feels that work-related stress is a deep-rooted problem in Japan, possibly best demonstrated by the fact the language even has a word for death from overwork — “karoshi.”

In 2005, when Ogino had an eye-opening yoga experience, he was not even familiar with the term “mindfulness.” But something felt right, and six months after his first yoga lesson, which included a brain fog-clearing meditation, Ogino took a job in the yoga industry.

“Today the concept of mindfulness has become somewhat of a buzzword, but still, overall, I would say less than 1 percent of the Japanese know what it is,” he says. “Some people are skeptical and also think the whole meditation thing (which involves mindfulness) is an absolute scam, especially those above 50 years old.”

To those who think meditation is linked to religious cults and dismiss the whole idea of contemplating the breath, Ogino remains open-minded, practicing what he preaches.

The author from Saitama Prefecture says that finding inner peace doesn’t have to involve sitting cross-legged in a lotus pose.

Though meditation has yet to hit mainstream Japan, he sees a gradual increase in the number of “conscious leaders” thanks to big-name businesses such as internet giant Yahoo, HR agency Recruit and Tokyo-based startup Sansan, joining the mindful movement.

While the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs expressed appreciation for Zen Buddhism, Ogino talks about the tradition’s neurological benefits. Meditation is both spiritual and scientific, he explains to those who are reluctant to learn about the ancient Eastern practice.

Mindfulness, in general, can help a person can develop self-awareness, which is an essential skill for being an effective leader, Ogino says. The science-backed method doesn’t work on the level of faith or trust.

“NHK aired a meditation special on their program, and if you saw the news on the Thai boys who were trapped in a cave, you’d know that they used meditation to stay calm until they were rescued. Little by little it’s spreading,” Ogino says. “If leaders learn the transformative power of meditation, their employees will reap the benefits. We teach them what meditation does to your brain. The ‘fear center’ amygdala shrinks and the prefrontal cortex becomes thicker, improving concentration.”

A satisfactory level of emotional intelligence is one of the fastest growing job requirements nowadays, says Ogino, adding that the focus is now changing from IQ (cognitive intelligence) to EQ (emotional intelligence) as a key leadership skill.

The bottom line, according to Ogino, is that meditation is a practice that helps people who want to be helped.

“I’m not selling products or services to anyone. I’m aware of the stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding meditation, so I’m not forceful. I know when to keep my mouth shut,” he says.

But many people Ogino speaks to admit they are dealing with some form of mental disorder, such as wrestling with self-judgment or low self-esteem. He says all these issues come from the regret of past actions or fear of the future — not living in the present.

These types of people, for years and years, have had a bad habit of over-thinking, so it’s easy to spiral. By simply being “present,” Ogino says people can kick the over-thinking habit.

“It’s like building muscle for a healthy brain. It takes training. It’s a skill. And there will come a point and time when you know you’re in the here and now,” he explains. “If you’re wondering whether you’re doing it right, you’re not there yet. You’re still judging. You need to disconnect and observe. It’s the same with anger management. You have to first notice you’re angry.”

Ogino is the first admit that he isn’t perfect when it comes to inner peace, and believes that people who start taking care of their psyches shouldn’t expect perfection immediately.

“I still experience stress. No one can avoid all stress,” he says. “Expect ups and downs. Keep practicing. The results will come. It changed my life, and it could change yours too.”