Meditation not too long ago garnered interest only from a small sliver of society. But today, bookstores are filled with titles on contemplative subjects, and there is a sense the practice has gained broad cultural appeal.
To test the waters, I joined a one-day meditation course for businesspeople.
The course was organised by the Japanese office of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, and Elaura Inc., a company that is involved in magazine publishing and other ventures.
It was held at a hotel in Tokyo and attended by 48 people in their 30s to 50s.
There are many types of meditation, but this course was on "mindfulness," which essentially means focusing on the present moment without making any value judgments about it.
Mindfulness has even found its way into Google Inc. of the United States, which has incorporated the practice into its training programme.
The course was led by five Buddhist priests from overseas who are disciples of Thich Nhat Hanh.
In the morning, we listened to a discourse by Phap Kham, who is dharma teacher and director of the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism.
Some pearls of wisdom from the discourse:
"It is very important to have your body and mind rooted firmly in the here and now during meetings at work."
"Don't act before your mind is settled. Only when your feelings are calm can you observe situations clearly."
"One has to accept changes in business. Impermanence is always present in the world."
"'Selflessness' means that you cannot exist on your own. Your happiness comes from the happiness of others, and your happiness contributes to the happiness of others. In business it is the same."
We were not taught a special business-oriented meditation at the course. By focusing on the here and now, one can understand one's relationships to others and calmly deal with changes.
Mindfulness is a meditation method that fosters the ability to adapt, even in business.
Several times during the discourse we took breaks for sitting meditation. We were told to sit with our backs straight and focus on our breathing.
It was actually quite difficult, and thoughts quickly began to arise in my mind. But I tried to observe and accept them without suppressing them and returned to focusing on my breath.
Lunch was bento that had been prepared for us-eating meditation.
We were instructed to eat in silence, bringing the food to our mouths slowly and chewing each bite at least 30 times.
I found the tastes of each ingredient to be surprisingly subtle.
There was a discussion and other activities in the afternoon, then the course ended with a session of walking meditation. As evening fell, the participants set out from the hotel for a 40-minute walk.
We walked while feeling our soles contact the ground, taking two steps per inhalation and two steps per exhalation. Six steps per breath was also acceptable if there was a need to walk quickly.
Just as in sitting meditation, I tried to calmly accept the thoughts and emotions that arose, and return my attention to breathing and walking.
Sometimes I felt a comfortable breeze, or heard a bird chirp or a temple bell toll. Then a truck would pass and drown everything out, causing a slight feeling of unpleasantness to arise.
I observed all these emotions quietly, and eventually, even though I was just walking, I was filled with a feeling of fulfillment.
Now I see. When you focus on the here and now, you train yourself to accept both the good and the bad with tranquillity. This would definitely come in handy at work.
One of the participants was Maki Michihana from Yokohama.
Under constant pressure from her job at an information technology company and trying to raise a child, she recalled realizing she was never breathing deeply.
"I was like a goldfish flitting around a tank from lack of oxygen," she said.
She became depressed and last summer quit her job. Asked what she thought of her first meditation course, she said: "I felt like I was able to remember who I used to be. I realised I don't need to change myself. I need to return to myself."
Are you tired from work, too? Why not try focusing on your breathing for a while on your commute or lunch break?