Every year I make it a point to go on a silent meditation retreat as a way to focus my mind and keep myself grounded. This year I attended a weeklong retreat in Tahoe led by Zen teacher Adyashanti.
Sitting in total silence for seven days is often physically and mentally excruciating. A lot of interesting things happen when you stop talking and just sit with yourself, and every retreat I come away with valuable lessons, many of them applicable to business. Here are the seven biggest lessons from my retreat this year:
1. You Have Time:
In business it’s easy to convince yourself that you don’t have the time, or that there are too many things going on to allow you to step away for any period of time.
In my case, I find that every year (without fail) something comes up that makes me consider not going on retreat. One year I actually gave in and didn’t go.
This year I was offered a keynote address for the Network For teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) finals in Los Angeles; had an urgent opportunity to build teams for a major startup; and had to forgo a trip to go kite surfing in Ireland with other entrepreneurs. Despite the temptations I stayed strong and went on retreat, and I’m glad I did.
I may have missed out on the keynote and the Ireland trip, but the truth is I was shocked by how little changed over the course of seven days. The major opportunity had barely progressed and nearly everything else in my business was the same.
When you checkout completely for any period of time, whether its on a silent retreat, a remote camping trip or spending time with your family sans cellphone, the first fear is FOMO (fear of missing out). We naturally think something major is going to happen and we won’t be there to handle it or experience it. I’ve been on four weeklong retreats and every time I return shocked that almost nothing has happened. It’s a good reminder that while I need to remain deeply involved in my business, I don’t have to do so at the expense of my personal well being.
My experience has shown me that it is okay – and often much better – for me (and the business) to choose the personal option. Whether it’s a meditation retreat, your son’s baseball game or a dinner with Mom, it’ important to let go a little bit and tend to the other, important aspects of your life.
2. Your Emotions Are YOURS:
In daily life and business we constantly assign blame and responsibility to things outside ourselves. We get caught up in statements like, “I’m pissed off because they didn’t do a good job on the project. I’m stressed because they are threatening to cancel our contract. OR I’m happy because they signed the contract.
On retreat you realize that you (and only you) are responsible for all these feelings – no one else.
Sitting in silence you are often overcome by waves of emotion – anger, sadness, joy and terror. Even after sitting for just 20 minutes I would find myself more pissed off then I have been all year, even though NOTHING was happening. It was just me a meditation mat and my own fury.
It made me realize that our emotions are merely reactions to external events. Other people do things, but we react.
This lesson is the most frustrating, because when we are pissed or anxious the last thing we want to hear is “it’s your fault”. So don’t try this when you are really emotional. But next time you find yourself mildly annoyed or anxious, sit for five minutes and focus on your breathing. Then ask yourself, “does this anxiety/anger/etc., serve me?”
3. Worrying Is a Waste of Time:
When you go on a silent meditation retreat of any length, you quickly realize that whatever challenges you’ve faced in the weeks leading up to retreat often become objects of fixation.
On this retreat I thought a lot about two ex-employees who are starting a competitive company, the founders of an incredible startup who are considering TaskUs and my business partnership Jaspar.
Deprived of any contact with the outside world my mind invented catastrophes in all of these relationships.
Half way through the week I was convinced that I would return to a business that had been stolen from under me, a group of furious clients and a “thanks but no thanks” email from the biggest opportunity our business has ever seen.
Eventually I grasped the absurdity of my own thought patterns. It’s incredible how the mind considers every possible scenario of the future and obsesses over events of the past. But research from the University of Cincinnati tells us that 85% of what your mind worries about never happens! Like it or not, a silent retreat quickly makes this fact crystal clear.
Worrying and obsession provide absolutely no benefit. Much like #3 it’s tough to get yourself to just stop worrying and obsessing once you have started.
I recommend 15 minutes of meditation a day. It’s like the gym for your mind and can help you dispel unfound worries and focus on what your business really needs.
If you are looking for a simple start to meditation, check out UCLA Medical School’s mindfulness guided meditations. Once you are comfortable there go deeper with Adyashanti’s True Meditation.
4. Your First Impression Is Wrong:
One of the most interesting things on a silent retreat is that you don’t speak to any of the people you are sitting with. Naturally the mind begins to make up stories about the people you are surrounded by.
On every retreat I find myself shocked when I find out the truth of who someone is. This happens when someone stands to ask a question of the teacher. Suddenly the American girl is French, the mean middle-aged man is the funniest person you’ve heard from all week ad angry old man is bravely struggling to beat cancer and understand life.
In business we meet people everyday at conferences, cocktail parties and networking events. Very often we are quick to judge a person – helpful or unhelpful, important or unimportant. This is natural and often necessary. But my retreat helped me understand that there is no way to grasp the depth of a person on first glance.
Next time you find yourself writing someone off in the first 30 seconds, stay present and ask them a real question like, “What’s the best thing that happened to you this week?” You’ll be amazed by what you find.
5. Often, You Are The Meanest Person You Know:
Generally we are our own worst critics. If this is true for you, sitting in silence with yourself is not very fun to begin with. On my first retreat I picked myself apart.
I criticized myself for everything from my disheveled appearance, to my healthy appetite for the vegan chocolate cake to not “meditating right”. It was like spending a week locked in a closet with my worst enemy.
Realizing this is very sad and begins a process of forgiveness that allows you to recognize your fears, apologize to yourself and gently begin to appreciate every element of who you are. Doing this frees you of anger and judgment that haunts daily life and provides space to enjoy it.
When you build a business you are going to lose more often than you win. Even if you are building the next Apple there are always more defeats than there are victories. When you are your own worst enemy these defeats are toxic, they slow you down. Learning to really appreciate yourself regardless of defeats or victory makes, allows you to recover quicker and win sooner.
6. There Is Nothing But Right Now (…now…now)
When you realize that nothing else exists but right now life’s possibilities really open up. People are happiest when they are totally present. Mihlay Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow, shows us that when we are happiest when fully engaged in work or play because we are fully present.
You may have experienced this playing music or skiing down a mountain or having sex – time disappears, thoughts of future and past drop and there is nothing but now…now…now. Living, even half an hour a day, from this place is bliss. Ironically, it also makes you a much better leader.
Research from Wharton and INSEAD has show that executives who meditate and spend more time fully present are far less likely to fall victim to Sunk-Cost Bias. This bias prevents people from letting go of past investments of time and money, and negatively impacts the decisions they make today.
As my retreat and own meditation experience have proven, meditation can help business leaders make better decisions by helping them make decisions in the present moment, unfettered by the past and focused on what is best right now…now…now.
If seven days in silence sounds terrifying, you are not alone, but don’t let that deter you from exploring meditation especially as a tool to help you become a more focused and mindful businessman or woman. If you’d like to explore meditation consider the following resources:
Search Inside Yourself: A great introductory book from Google’s chief meditator.
Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach: Another great introductory book and one of my favorites.
Guided Meditation Recordings from UCLA: Great guided meditations to get you started in your practice.
Introductory Meditation Courses (Santa Monica and Pasadena): The time is now!
Open Meditation Classes (Santa Monica and Hollywood)