For 10 minutes, the audience of more than 300 sat with eyes shut in silent meditation, taking deep, steady breaths and clearing their minds of stress. That’s out of the ordinary at a Kellogg Distinguished Lecture Series event.
Then again, the journey of Pandit Dasa is also out of the ordinary. For 15 years, he was a monk living in a monastery amid the cacophony and chaos of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It was also in this whirlwind of humanity that he found his inner peace, and meditation provided the path.
Dasa guided the rapt crowd through an exercise to relieve stress from a day spent in the office or classroom. Meditation was part of a dual approach in Dasa’s discussion of the “Principles of Mindful Leadership” on April 25 at the Bronco Student Center, the latest edition of the Kellogg Distinguished Lecture Series that is funded by the Kellogg Legacy Project Endowment.
He has conducted workshops on mindfulness and meditation sessions at corporations and institutions such as Google, Bank of America, Intel, Novartis, USC and Columbia University. He has spoken at a TEDx conference and has been featured on PBS, NPR and the New York Times. Dasa wrote the book “Urban Monk” that focused on his time in a Lower East Side monastery helping people reduce stress in their lives.
“Our mind is like a smart device. It has apps that are constantly open. If you can close open apps, the mind works better,” Dasa says. “Mindfulness is about becoming aware of what apps are open right now, which ones are taking up my mental energy and how do I close those apps so I can focus on the things I need to focus on?”
His odyssey to mindfulness started in 1980 when his parents moved from India to Los Angeles. At the age of 7, he explored American culture through basketball, skateboarding and surfing while his parents worked a gift booth on Venice Beach.
After six years, the family had saved enough to open a jewelry shop in Glendale. That venture boomed into a multi-million dollar business that secured the family a six-bedroom mansion with panoramic views of the Los Angeles skyline. That American dream went up in smoke after a devastating fire destroyed the business. The family lost their livelihood and home, and had to start from scratch.
Dasa’s father tried to capitalize on business opportunities in Bulgaria in the mid-1990s before returning to the U.S. and opening a clothing business in New York. Dasa ventured into the cutthroat world of home mortgages, but began to wonder if the pursuit of the almighty dollar was his sole purpose.
“I just knew I needed to look at something else for my life. Something that had more meaning than just making money,” Dasa recalls. “I saw the temporary nature of this world and how things come and they go. If something is meant to go, no matter how hard you try and hold on to it, it’s not going to stay. It’s like trying to hold water in your hands.”
To find the answer about his purpose in life, he went to a monastery in Mumbai, India. Forty monks lived there and everyone slept on the floor on a thin straw mat. They woke up at 4 a.m. for meditation and other spiritual practices from 5 to 8 a.m., and spent the rest of the day preparing food and serving the needs of the community.
“The plan wasn’t to become a monk,” he says. “Somehow, I fell in love with this lifestyle. I had never lived a life full of service in this capacity.”
One month turned into six months. He stayed at several other monasteries in India before returning to New York and finding his place in the Lower East Side monastery. Over the next 15 years, he helped people strike a balance between work and life, and concluded that mindfulness in the workplace could help achieve this aim.
“You can be a strong leader, you can be a tough leader and still be mindful. Mindfulness doesn’t mean that if people aren’t doing their job that, ‘Oh, it’s OK. Let’s all just meditate.’ That’s not mindful leadership,” Dasa says. “Mindful leadership means making sure that goals are clearly laid out, that expectations are clearly laid out, and you are putting the right people in place to execute those goals because if they’re not the right people that means the leadership has to take responsibility.
“If something doesn’t go right in the organization’s goals or missions, the leadership should be honest enough to say ‘What did I do wrong?’ before pointing the finger anywhere else. That is a sign of strength,” says.
To Dasa, there are two distinct types of management: The boss who orders people to do things and the leader who jumps to the front and leads the charge.
“One of the key traits of a mindful leader is that they are leading by example, doing the things that you are asking others to do. It’s so important for the leader to be visible to the workforce, to everyone around,” Dasa says. “It’s important to see that the leader is good, that there’s not a huge gap between leadership and the rest of the workforce.”
Dasa cited other methods to achieve a mindful work environment:
- Appreciation (“A culture of appreciation creates harmony and a much greater level of teamwork.”)
- Recognition (“Celebrate the success of others.”)
- Communication (“It’s all about listening. Think dialogue, not monologue.”)
- Balance emotions (“If we lose our cool, our intelligence shuts off.”)
- Humility (“It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help.”)
One key component circled back to a practice he knows best. Dasa encourages a daily ritual of meditation — even for as little as five minutes — to help rid the mind of stress.
“The busiest place is always in our mind. The more we can control our mind, the more we have power over our mind, the more peaceful and happy we can be,” he says. “The important part of mindfulness is how to press the pause button, how to not let insignificant, irrelevant thoughts disturb our mind and disturb our life.”
(To learn more about mindful leadership and meditation, visit www.panditdasa.com.)