|Photo from mindful.org|
Can meditation help us invest better? Many including titans like Ray Dalio say it can.
So what are we all to do, just drop the financial pages and adopt the full lotus position? How many of you have thought the following words?:
"Look, I simply don't have the time to sit and do nothing"
"I feel guilty when I try - I could be doing something else!"
"I know many people say it's good for the head, but I could be exercising instead."
Have you ever uttered any of the above when asked about meditation? It's weird isn't it? Most of us have time for some form of exercise, but when it comes to mental health care, we drown ourselves in excuses. Why is this I wonder?
The Buddha said, "We become our thoughts; we become what we think."
Swami Vivekananda said, "We are what our thoughts have made us: so take care about what you think."
These are wise words. So why do we neglect our minds in favor of work, social media, chit chat and the millions of other deflection techniques that prevent us looking inwardly?
This is a question that has been on my mind of late; in fact, it's been one that has been bothering me sporadically since I was in my early 20s. Let's jump into a time machine for a minute and travel back to the heady days of the early 2000s.
When I look back at myself, I barely recognize what I see. My behavior was reactive and wild. I lived to read, drink and dance to strange grooves. Travel and mind altering substances excited me as did pushing the boundaries of what was socially acceptable. I had no time for tradition, rules or custom and convention (I still don't actually) I saw myself as a rebel, an outlier, someone who had something to say both politically and socially, and after a few beers I would tell you my theories (and my goodness they were nonsense) I would sit with friends discussing political theory and philosophy until the blue light of a new day pierced the tightly drawn curtains of the living room. Nothing was of bounds: Marxism vs Capitalism, Anarcho-syndicalism, Temporary-Autonomous Zones, the Stoics, the pre-Socratics, Schopenhauer, Hegal, Wichenstein and this list went on and on... My God, flashbacks of 4am conversations flash thorough in my mind, conversations so full of inconsistency and plastic intellectualism it makes me glow with embarrassment now.
But, hey, isn't this what life is all about? Don't we all look back on our behaviors in the decades past with an uncomfortable smile? Sure we all do, for there are few of us who have found our true voice by the time we're in our 20s. Life is about discovery, uncovering new aspects of ourselves that are shaped as the sands of time run their course.
How many of us would say we are the same person as we were a decade ago? Think about when you get an email from an old school friend saying he'll be in town in a few weeks and would love to meet for chat. Of course, initially, waves of positive emotions flood your system:
"This is going to be amazing! I haven't seen this guy in 15 years.'
Then, when the day comes, you're on the way to meet him and ripples of anxiety start lapping against the core of your being.
"Should I bother? What if we have nothing in common, for it was a long time ago. I wonder if if people still call him 'Haze' or if he calls himself Richard now... or Rick or Rich...I wouldn't like to piss him off! Maybe this is a bad idea after all; I might just text him and tell him I'm Ill."
This indeterminable chatter, this continuous, monotonous interior dialogue - and how to counter it - is the true purpose of this post. We all suffer from it, and, it makes us behave frantically, irrationally, reactionary, and, above all, it makes us miserable. The weird thing is that most don't ever realize this internal mumbling shapes how we live our lives. These conditioned ways of thinking, picked up largely in childhood, added to in our teenage years and compounded in adulthood, form the basis of how we identify with ourselves.
"Sorry, for shouting. I've a bad temper. It's what I do when I'm stressed.'
"I always get anxious at this time of year."
"I'm conservative at heart; I don't like to take risks."
We all fall into the trap of identifying who we are with the thought we have, don't we? Well, what makes meditation so dam interesting, and important for that matter, is that quickly you begin to notice that that thoughts are transitory, they come and go like the smell of coffee as you walk past a coffee shop. One moment they are here and the next...gone. Nothing persists except the noise in our heads. Nothing is permanent including happiness, wealth, relationships, fitness etc etc no matter how much we fret and struggle to make them so.
As an investor, it's easy to get caught up in the madness. The advent of the internet has given us endless amounts of information about the companies in our portfolios (and those on our watch-list) Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms spit out a continuous flow of investor data from rumors to updates from conferences to financial report analysis to whatever. The list goes on and on, a never ending deluge of data, some useful some not. As humans we crave this data and try to make sense of it into an digestible narrative. It's these narratives that inform our investment decisions. This constant flow of information is simultaneously liberating and imprisoning.
You don't believe me? Look a Twitter for example. Let's say you follow all the companies in your portfolio as well as some of their CEOs etc., this amounts to tsunami of data popping up in your account everyday. Now, of course, you don't have to read every article and watch every video recommended to you via the feed, but it's difficult not to. What if you miss something important? What if not reading the latest projection or bit of gossip could result in your financial downfall? The temptation is always there, isn't it?
Never before have humans been so addicted to the intravenous drip drip drip of dopamine, the naturally occurring brain chemical so manipulated online these days. We know the second we sit down on the train or stand in a queue, there'll be information of interest just a click away. Thus, our brains are flooded with dopamine and we click and let the good times roll. The question is, as investors, how does all this flicking and scanning do to our heads? It is helping us become better investors or is it blurring the line between knowledge acquisition and procrastination? From what I witness daily I would lean more towards the latter. Yes, people have more access to more quality information than any point in our species history, but is it more than we can handle? Also, are we processing this information in a deep and meaningful way, leading to enhanced analysis and evaluation, or does this frenetic need to scan (as opposed to read) as many articles per day muddy our overworked minds? Again, I gravitate towards the latter, and this is what got me thinking recently about meditation and investing.
In order to pull the investment trigger (as the Yanks say) we need to be thinking rationally. The more we are driven by fear or excitement, the greater danger there is of making a decision we'll regret later. This, of course, doesn't mean we have to be cold as steel, emotionless investing robots, void of spontaneity and humor. Far from it. But we do need to be able to pause before we invest and re-consider if we are indeed doing the right thing. This, in my opinion, is were mediation plays a role for the investor.
The problem with social media news feeds for the investor is that is clutters our mind and means we never get a break from investing news. Of course, it's important to read about the companies we are invested in, but many people become obsessive. I'm sure you all know people like this, or perhaps you are one of them yourself. Can you go without reading financial news for one train journey? Do you read financial news on the toilet? What I'm saying is that we need to take a step back and reassess our relationships with our devices - especially us investors. What's the worst that could happen if we didn't read the news while eating dinner with our friends? I believe it's high time for us all to ask these questions and take back control of out time and the information we digest.
I'm a big fan of the 10% Happier Podcast presented my Dan Harris. For those of you unacquainted with the show it's about meditation, self-help and generally becoming a better person. Dan Harris is an NBC news anchor in the US and comes from a background a far cry from the usual soft voiced, bead-wearing mediator. For me, this is one of the show's big appeals. As a listener, you get candid advice from a man who has - on the surface - no business in the hippy-dippy world of meditation. Anyway, Dan Harris states that "if we all do a few minutes of meditation almost every day" the world would become a better place. This may to some sound ludicrous, but those within this camp are usually people with little to no meditation experience.
I've been practicing a few minutes almost every day now for quite some time, and I feel the benefits: I'm less likely to fly off the handle at people; I think more before I act; I breathe more deliberately and try to stay in the moment more; I sleep better... and the list goes on. And I feel these positives help me as an investor, too. What investor wants to fly off the handle with clients? What investor wants to think less before they act? What investor wants to breathe without thinking and be riddled with anxiety? What investor wants to sleep less? None is the answer to all the above.
Thus, to wrap up this post before it morphs into a mini-novel what I'm trying to say is that mediation's benefits can help us all as investors. It only takes a couple of minutes per day, time that we probably spend scrolling down out Facebook feed and clicking thumbs up for reasons we can't explain. So why not give it a go folks and see what it can do for you?
By the way, I recommend a free app called Insight Timer to get started.
If you have any comments of questions, please leave them in the comment box below, and I'll be happy to further the conversation.