Recently, my partner, who once lived in a meditation-focused intentional community (read: hippie house), urged me to go on a 10-day silent retreat to learn insight meditation. Being a skeptic, but wanting to move our relationship forward, I reluctantly drove to the Sierra Nevadas for just such a retreat, leaving my company in the hands of my brother/CFO.
I expected to become calmer and more mentally balanced as a result, but what surprised me was the way the retreat helped me make the decisions that shape the fast-growing snack company I founded four years ago. Decision-making can be overwhelming, but it’s the single biggest responsibility a CEO faces, since it ultimately determines a company's failure or success.
Insight meditation, also known as vipassana, is a method handed down by Gautama Buddha himself to his followers. Insight meditation focuses on maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations, without judgment. Students first take a vow of silence. They then enter into a daily routine of sitting for as many as 11 hours per day, renouncing all other religious or ritualistic practices, eating only vegetarian fare and not speaking except during a short Q&A session with the teacher.
For the first three days of the program I was in, the goal was to observe physical sensations when breathing through the nose. That’s it. Initially, it felt like a pointless exercise since my mind constantly wandered. But by the fourth day, my mind, isolated and left to its own devices, was occupied with negative thoughts that had been simmering in my subconscious for years. I hated those thoughts -- it was tortuous to confront the unending memory queue of grudges, wrongdoings and betrayals. My practice seemed like a terrible way to achieve a calmer mind.
So, I brought up my struggles to the teacher. And he simply told me that my response was normal. Unlocking those memories and allowing them to pass is a step toward mental clarity. Hearing this made me feel better; I learned that observing feelings is the first step to avoiding any reaction to them.
With that realization, my mind settled down, and I was able to identify sankaras or cravings and aversions before they led to reactions. Later, I would realize that this skill is pretty handy for running a business.
Throughout the retreat, I learned other new things about myself. Food-wise, I didn’t miss meat. A lifelong athlete and meat eater, I found that minimizing movements and exercise also minimizes the need for animal protein. I discovered the wonder that is nutritional yeast. It tastes a lot better than it sounds. At dinner, the only items served were tea and fruit, which is a practice I may adopt in the future to lose a few holiday pounds.
I did miss email. The daily reminder that people need you and want your input is addicting. The first thing I did when leaving the retreat was to check emails and feel needed once again. I was surprised at how little things had changed in my absence. Knowing my brother was running the ship allowed me to meditate peacefully instead of worry about our company.
When I left the retreat, returning to talking for the first time after 10 days, my surroundings seemed louder, brighter and more vivid. After the retreat, I was better at identifying gut feelings and other bodily signals, which serve as a real-time emotional litmus test. Also, upon returning to my CEO duties, I found my intuition had become sharper, and I was able to make decisions with more clarity than ever before.
Previously, I would delay tough decisions that caused conflict. But meditation, I found, helps ground me in making these decisions more authoritatively -- particularly those involving negotiations.
Going into the retreat, I was negotiating with a broker-partner of ours who wanted higher commission rates. Instead of avoiding that conflict, as I had done in the past, I stood my ground and didn’t give into this partner's demands without answering with demands of our own. Eventually we settled, and our business has more than doubled since then.
The upshot? If you’re looking for a relaxing vacation, head to Hawaii. If you want to increase discipline and sharpen concentration, head to a meditation center.
Be prepared to feel some pain (I recommend sitting still for an hour at a time beforehand as practice), and to subject yourself to loud inner voices. You'll also find that negative thoughts that normally whisper inside your mind will be amplified to shouting.
And you'll unlock emotions that haven’t been expressed, which may make you laugh or cry. While not for everybody, insight meditation allows you to take a step back and pay attention to those things that get pushed under the rug due to day-to-day responsibilities.
A meditation retreat is an enriching life experience, and one I’d recommend to anyone seeking to adopt a calmer, more deliberate mind.