"I am so busy today that...I am going to meditate for two hours instead of one."
- Mahatma Gandhi
Meditation is a practice where an individual trains her attention to achieve a clear, calm and stable state of mind. The Dalai Lama believes that meditation and prayer have similar benefits. However, my reading of the subject suggests that there are two differences between meditation and prayer. Firstly, meditation is, in general, a more advanced form of concentrating and focusing the mind than prayer. Secondly, whilst prayer has as its focus either a god or a deity, meditation - especially in its more advanced forms - can be about completely blanking out the mind.
The recorded origins of meditation are usually traced to the Chinese and Indian civilisations, although it also appears highly likely that people elsewhere in the ancient world had also clocked onto the benefits of this simple but powerful practice. As John Selby says in Seven Masters, One Path: Meditation Secrets from the World's Greatest Teachers (2003):
"Several thousands of years ago, among the...the Taoist culture of ancient China, the judging, analytical thinking mind was already correctly identified as the perpetrator not only of our particularly human blessings in life, but also of our particularly human curses. They understood clearly that...we humans have gained vast powers to think logically, reflect upon past experiences, and manipulate the world to our advantage. However, because thinking is a past-future function of the mind, we have tended to lose touch with the vital experience of participating spontaneously in the present moment.
Meditation aims to resolve this 'lost in thought' dilemma as we temporarily distance ourselves from the constant barrage of thoughts from our inner virtual reality, and shift into a deeper consciousness. By learning to calmly watch thoughts flowing through our minds without being attached to those thoughts, we liberate ourselves from chronic identification with our ego's limited notion of what life is all about...In the Taoist tradition, when we quiet our thoughts in meditation, we let go of trying to manipulate the world based on our inner fantasies of how things should be."
What are the work-related benefits of meditation?
One legendary investor, Ray Dalio, and another highly successful albeit lesser known investor, Jason Voss, have written extensively about how meditation has helped them become better investors (Dalio in his book Principles (2016) and Voss in his book The Intuitive Investor (2010). When I bumped into Jason last year and asked him how meditation had helped him, he pointed me towards John Selby's excellent book which is referenced above. What follows in this section is a summary of what I have learnt from these three books and from my chats with Jason Voss. The benefits of meditation - going from the most basic to the most advanced - appear to be:
1. Stress relief and recovery from difficult experiences
This is the most commonly cited benefit of meditation. Normally, mental and physical stress causes increased levels of cortisol (also called the primary stress hormone). Cortisol in turn promotes depression and anxiety and disrupts sleep. Scientific studies show that meditation reduces stress and cortisone. Effectively, meditation has the opposite effect - on the body and the mind - as an adrenaline rush (which increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy levels). As a result, meditation plays a dual role of not only providing relief from a stressful experience but also helping in the rejuvenation and recovery process (via lower cortisol, less anxiety and better sleep).
2. Clarity of thought and greater focus
Uncluttering our mind so that we can think more clearly, even if we are facing time pressure and/or financial pressure, is clearly a valuable skill. Psychologists are increasingly of the view that one of the best ways to regulate your body and emotions is through meditation. In fact, research shows that meditation not only improves your health, it also strengthens your mental muscle especially your ability to focus and concentrate. A brain imaging study by Massachusetts General Hospital found physical changes in the brain after an eight-week meditation course. Researchers identified increased activity in parts of the brain associated with learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion and introspection as well as decreased activity in the amygdala.
3. Higher level thinking and creative ideas
According to Jason Voss, meditation allows you "access to creativity, intuition and wealth manifestation. Exploration of this topic opens up an entirely new world, one rich with skills for making you richer." In other words, by subduing your ego and your sense of self, meditation allows more creative thoughts to bubble up to the forefront of your mind. To quote from Ray Dalio's book Principles, "I also came to understand that while some subconscious parts of our brains are dangerously animalistic, others are smarter and quicker than our conscious minds. Our greatest moments of inspiration often 'pop' up from our subconscious. We experience these creative breakthroughs when we are relaxed and not trying to access the part of the brain in which they reside, which is generally the neocortex. When you say, 'I just thought of something', you noticed your subconscious mind telling your conscious mind something."
4. Greater ability to work cooperatively
Regardless of how talented we might be, successful professional endeavour almost always involves working in collaboration with other people. Unfortunately, our education system and the general ethos of capitalism focus on our identity as individuals. That in turn inhibits the extent to which we are voluntarily willing to collaborate with others. Life, especially in the financial-services profession, seems to hinge around chasing greater pay and perks. Meditation helps you to de-emphasise your own role and what rewards you will get from your efforts. That in turn makes it easier for you to work with others for their benefit. Ironically, that is a far more efficient way to move forward in the world rather than barging forward Gordon 'Greed is Good' Gekko style [see Wall Street (1987)].
How to meditate in the midst of a packed schedule
The beginner's format for meditation simply focuses on using a basic technique to either distract or relax your conscious mind (where your ego resides). Here is my basic technique to meditate on flights and car journeys - I close my eyes and count backwards from 100 to zero whilst trying to visualise each number as I call the number out in my mind. The reverse counting is a way of distracting my ego and thus letting the mind enter a more relaxed mode. Practising this technique on a daily basis for even ten minutes allows you to gain control of your mind to such an extent that soon you will be able to meditate at a time and a place of your choosing.
The more advanced formats involve concentrating in one or more long sessions (of an hour or more) each day. This often involves chanting as the technique being used to distract the egoic mind. The effort then is to focus the mind on the mantra that you are chanting and hold that focus for very long periods of time. It is hard to do but Dalio and Voss swear by these advanced meditation techniques and the way they have helped them become better investors and better human beings. I have delved into this subject in greater detail in my latest book The Victory Project: Six Steps to Peak Potential.
Saurabh Mukherjea of Marcellus Investment Managers is the author of The Unusual Billionaires, Coffee Can Investing: The Low Risk Route to Stupendous Wealth and The Victory Project: Six Steps to Peak Potential.