Waking up at 5 a.m. is not so bad when your mattress feels as soft as a block of wood. Neither is showering in a shared bathroom with 1,000 ants because you’re not allowed to speak and complain. When I put on my simple white linen uniform, I get a glimpse of how a monk’s life must feel. I exit my barely furnished chamber to carefully walk up the dark path to the meditation hall. Equipped with a flashlight and inhaling the cold, humid air of the sleeping jungle I quietly ask myself…“What on earth am I doing here?!”.
I’ve put myself into a peaceful prison for the mind and haven’t spoken one word the entire week. Using a cell phone is forbidden. The same goes for reading and writing. Twenty strangers and I chose a Buddhist temple in Northern Thailand to spend time with nothing else but our minds. Monks float around the premises in small groups, sporting red robes, bald heads, and radiating peacefulness.
In the morning lecture at 5:30 a.m., the head monk teaches us Buddhist wisdom like ‘How to catch a monkey with a coconut’ (I’ll tell you later — keep reading). After that, the next ten hours will be filled with individual meditation practice, only interrupted by a short lunch break where twenty strangers silently stare and chew their steamed vegetables and white rice. Life is simple in the prison of the mind.
When I started my company as a twenty-something first-time founder over ten years ago, I would never have considered a week of silent meditation as productive time. However, beyond my own experience in Thailand, I‘ve recently interviewed over fifteen entrepreneurs who have attended similar meditation retreats and were enthusiastic about the benefits. It seems that mindfulness and meditation have gotten pretty popular in the entrepreneurial community lately.
What is it, that all those stressed-out, overly ambitious and results-hungry entrepreneurs find fascinating about spending days and weeks in mindful solitude and ‘doing nothing’?
What happens in the jungle
First of all, a Vipassana meditation retreat is nothing like a meditation app. I used such apps for over two years before putting on the white uniform. They are a great start but offer just a small glimpse of what meditation truly has to offer. A 15-minutes guided meditation session is like stepping on the balcony to enjoy a quick breeze. A meditation retreat, however, is more like spending a vacation in the mountains and coming back pumped with fresh oxygen. It’s the real deal.
During the meditation practice, you train yourself to concentrate on an object of meditation. It can be your breath while sitting or your footsteps while walking. You’ll try to notice and observe your thoughts without just blindly following them. Of course, after a couple of seconds or minutes, you’ll get distracted and immersed in one of your thoughts without noticing. As soon as you become mindful of that, you’ll start over from the beginning.
In each practice, which can last between ten and sixty minutes, you‘re working on extending the time between distractions and keeping your mind in an observing concentrated state. That’s basically what you practice for an entire week. Seems like a boring waste of time? Wait for it.
The benefits of meditation retreats for entrepreneurs
During my retreat and after talking to all the other founders who’ve attended similar ones, I found the following aspects to be the most significant benefits of meditation retreats for entrepreneurs.
Calm your mind down to see clearly and reflect
During the tough weeks of my start-up journey, my mind used to feel like fireworks on New Year’s Eve. New thoughts popped up in every single one of my fifty weekly meetings or phone calls. If my mind were a bowl of water, it would be filled with mud and continuously stirred up with new input. It was impossible to see through! However, after a couple of hours of meditation in the temple, the mud slowly settled to reveal a calm state of mind; it had always existed but was hiding behind the chaos of new thoughts. ‘Vipassana’ means ‘to see things as they really are’.
That’s the main difference between your daily Headspace tape and a meditation retreat: after listening to a short tape of guided meditation you’ll probably feel a little more relaxed, but not much of the water will have changed. In my retreat, I had hours and hours to calm my mind. Eventually, the mud settled to reveal a much clearer state of mind.
Setting the right priorities and making the right decisions are the building blocks for entrepreneurial success. But how to choose between the thousand daily opportunities and decide objectively? A clear state of mind gives you clarity about yourself, your priorities, and your goals as well as your company’s. When the mud settles, and the noise dies down, you’ll be able to hear your inner voice clearer and see more objectively.
Improve relationships through ‘non-judgment.’
Like in a start-up, in meditation, it’s easy to get frustrated when something doesn’t work. You try to focus on your breath for the thousands time, but your mind wanders away. The key here is not to judge yourself. That’s why I visualized training my mind just like I would train a puppy to stay with me. The puppy runs away to discover the world, just like my attention. That’s only the puppy’s nature. A good trainer will gently bring it back and not beat it with a stick.
When I encountered a problem in my company, I regularly got mad and emotional at myself or someone else. Now I try to think of the puppy, observe my own reaction and try to bring my mind back to clarity. I make a game of it and try to catch myself before judging negatively. Then I try to put my puppy-mind back without getting upset.
When you start to judge yourself less, you’ll automatically do the same with other people and create a healthier base for relationships with employees, customers, vendors, and investors.
Separate emotion from the reaction to deal with highs and lows better
As a first-time founder, I was pretty good at reacting quickly, especially when I was not too fond of something. One of the best benefits of prolonged meditation training is creating a mental space between a trigger and an emotional reaction. Imagine being able to objectively seeing your anger arise when you read the newest customer complaint and being able to think clearly for a moment before writing that devastating email to the employee who screwed it up.
It’s a great success when you manage to observe a trigger and not follow the corresponding thought. At the beginning of my retreat, I would get annoyed when tourists randomly popped into the meditation hall. Later, I embraced the opportunity to train my mind to actively ignore them.
It’s fascinating to experience first-hand that every thought dissolves and makes room for the next one. As a first-time CEO, I was easily carried away by negative emotions and wore them like a dark veil. During my meditations in the temple, I could experience that all thoughts (positive and negative) were just fleeting images on the screen of my mind.
My takeaway for start-up land: Don’t take your thoughts too seriously. Do you think you should fire that lazy sales rep? Or shut down your entire company? It’s just a flickering thought — nothing more. Don’t blindly act on everything. Instead, watch for recurring thoughts and patterns and put careful analysis into a problem before deciding.
Train your concentration, willpower, and patience
Both Bill Gates and Warren Buffet named ‘Focus’ as their #1 source of success. Focus in practice is concentration. But how do you actually concentrate in start-up land, where you wake up to 50 notifications and go to bed with a hundred things to do? In our always-connected and always-distracted world, it’s rare to be able to really focus. That’s why it’s useful to train the mind and bring it back to one particular thing for an extended period of time.
But it’s not easy: Half the people who came to the temple with me quit during the first few days. 8–10 hours of meditation each day is extremely challenging. However, when you see it as a workout for your willpower, it gets a lot easier. Of course, I got impatient and wanted to quit sometimes. In some instances, I then realized that that’s just another thought like the thousands I had before on that day. When I acknowledged the thought and brought my awareness back to my meditation, the thought disappeared quickly. I learned a lot about patience in the jungle.
Concentration, willpower, and patience are like muscles that you can train. Think of a meditation retreat as a ‘mental gym’. You’ll need the workout because your start-up will test the limits of all your mental muscles.
Relax and recharge
Although meditation is much more about focused observation than it is about relaxation, the week in the temple still calmed me down immensely. Just think about how liberating it would feel to put your phone away for a week. Now add zero distractions and no new input in the middle of nature. After leaving, I felt completely centered, recharged, and ready to handle anything. My batteries got recharged through the simplicity of the experience.
Sam Harris, the author of ‘Waking Up,’ puts it eloquently by saying:
“The purpose of meditation isn’t merely to reduce stress or to make you feel better in the moment — it’s to make fundamental discoveries in the laboratory of your own mind.”
When was the last time you visited the laboratory of your mind to make a discovery? It’s worth a visit. After all, everything you’ll ever experience, in your company, your relationships or life, will be constructed by this laboratory.
Thank you for your thoughtful input for the article:
Flavio Rump, Sebastian Pollok, Michael Lubomirski, Clemens Dittrich, Daniel Kollmann, Niklas Walinski, Risto Kuulasmaa, Albert Pusch, Thomas Baier, Tobias Günther, Kirthy Iyer, Emanuel Vonarx and Namgyal Sherpa.
Very much appreciated!
- The meditation center I attended in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand: Doi Suthep Vipassana Meditation Center
- Worldwide overview of Vipassana retreats: Dhamma.org
- An excellent book to start: Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris
- Meditation apps: Headspace, Calm, Primed Mind (Disclosure: I’m an investor), Waking Up (by Sam Harris)
- Lastly, if you‘re still wondering about ‘How To Catch a Monkey With a Coconut’ — here you go 🐒