Entrepreneurship is perhaps one of the most invigorating fields you can participate in. It gives you the opportunity to create something brand new and give it to the world. The creation of something new is by no means an easy task, there are many hurdles along the way. In response to knowing the daunting task that awaits them, many entrepreneurs are able to cultivate an extremely disciplined mind that allows them to “will” their creation into existence despite any setbacks. The resolve of this mindset is critical to the success of a startup. If the founders are not willing to put in the work, the startup will inevitably fail. However, this is also the most energizing piece of working on a startup. It’s hard not to become intoxicated by the energy of willing something into existence day in and day out. The ability for humans to operate at this extreme level is amazing, and it is responsible for some of the most important inventions in human history. But, it is not without its dark side.
The prolonged state of stress of entrepreneurs means that the body doesn’t have time to remove the build-up of cortisol in the brain. This eventually leads to burnout, anxiety, depression and a multitude of other health issues.
People in startups are 50 percent more likely to report having a mental illness. It seems that the brain is capable of operating at extremely high levels, but there is a backlash. The heightened state that entrepreneurs operate on causes an increase of cortisol in the brain (cortisol is our stress hormone). Cortisol is a normal part of being human, but the problem starts when we constantly have cortisol running rampant in our bodies. The prolonged state of stress of entrepreneurs means that the body doesn’t have time to remove the build-up of cortisol in the brain. This eventually leads to burnout, anxiety, depression and a multitude of other health issues. This presents us with a problem, entrepreneurship is largely responsible for humanity moving forward but if we sacrifice our wellbeing, then what have we gained?
Fortunately, there are things that we can do to dramatically lessen the amount of stress we experience. This leads to a best of both worlds scenario, entrepreneurs are free to create whatever it is they please, without their stress going unchecked. Personally, I really value my time, so if I adopt a new habit I do extensive research first to ensure that it is actually worth my time and money. There are a number of relaxing activities that you can participate in, but I wanted something that gave me something more than just a way to relax. This is how I came across meditation. Meditation has gained a lot of popularity recently and with it have come many misconceptions about what the practice actually is, and what you can gain from it. The truth is, there is a multitude of quite substantial benefits to be gained from meditation, it’s free and has a relatively low time-commitment. The value of meditation can extend well past providing a cheap and easy way to relax. It also offers some quite profound philosophical insights that have the power to improve many areas of your life.
With this article, I intend to try to convince you that mediation is a very real and powerful tool that is well worth your time to entertain.
Practicing a skill for eight weeks can physically alter the structure of your brain for the better.
Before we explore the philosophy behind meditation, let’s consider the cold hard facts. Studying meditation in a laboratory setting is still a rather new idea, and in general, the subjects of these studies have been focused on monks who have practiced meditation for years (There are still a number of studies that focus on non-meditation-masters). However, there have been some very concrete differences found between these meditation masters and the average person. Perhaps the most notable of these differences are physical differences in the brain. Monks who have practiced meditation have decreased gray matter in parts of the brain related to anxiety and depression. In addition to this, there is also an increase in gray matter in areas related to learning and memory, specifically the hippocampus. What is even more fascinating is that it seems these physical differences can start to be achieved relatively quickly; one study reported that these changes can be seen in as little as eight weeks of meditation practice.
Let me reiterate this, because this is absolutely amazing. Practicing a skill for eight weeks can physically alter the structure of your brain for the better.
In addition to these structural differences, meditation also changes the frequency that your brain operates on — these frequencies are called brain waves. Our brain is made up of billions of neurons that all fire tiny electrical impulses to communicate. The combination of these electrical signals create brains waves. There are several different frequencies that the brain operates on, usually correlating with how relaxed or conscious you are. Delta waves, for example (.5 -3 Hz), usually occur during deep sleep. Beta waves (12-30 Hz) are what we typically experience during our regular day. Alpha waves (8-12 Hz) can be generated by daydreaming or relaxing, or meditating. Why is this important? Alpha waves have been shown to reduce depressive or anxious thoughts while simultaneously increasing creativity. So then, not only is meditation capable of altering the physical structure of the brain, it is also capable of generating quite rapid reductions in anxiety and depression.
In conclusion, if you’re looking for a way to reduce stress while boosting your creativity, memory, and your ability to learn, meditation is for you.
I have realized that the past and future are real illusions, that they exist in the present, which is what there is and all there is. — Alan Watts
Meditation is most famously used as part of various religious groups’ practices. However, I do not intend to present any sort of dogmatism in this philosophy. In fact, many of these religious traditions don’t include any dogmatism in their meditation practices anyways.
There’s a lot we don’t know about this world. It makes it increasingly more difficult to learn anything when we are trapped in our own heads. We have sensory organs that help us try to approximate our perception to the real world, but they aren’t perfect. To take this point further, I don’t believe it would be inaccurate to say we hallucinate our reality. What I mean by this is that everything we experience is electrical impulse in the brain, no part of this perceptual experience is actually the physical world outside our heads. The consequence of this idea is that there is a possibility that everything we know about the world is simply a figment of our imagination. For example, how do you know that you’re not dreaming at the moment of reading this? This may make you start to question the very nature of your reality. Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am,” so at the very least, the one thing that can not be an illusion is your conscious experience. You are real, and really, that’s all that matters, because if you’re real, then everything else is too — in one way or another.
So how does this relate to meditation? I’ve just proved to you that everything you experience is a perception arising in consciousness. Meditation is the practice of becoming more aware of this process, and training it. Your mind is the only thing you really have, so why wouldn’t you train it? In this way, meditation quickly becomes one of, if not the most important thing you can be doing with your time. Your entire life is being played on a screen inside your head, and meditation will dramatically increase the resolution of the video.
There are many insights that can be glimpsed through meditation, the majority of which I will leave to you to discover. However, I want to take a moment to highlight one such insight, the importance of the present moment. The past did exist, but no longer does, and the future does not exist yet. Therefore, neither the past nor the future actually exists, the only thing that exists is the present moment. If you aren’t living in the present moment, then you aren’t living at all. Of course, it’s not physically possible to not live in the present moment, but we can lose our awareness of this fact. We often find ourselves worrying over events that have not yet happened. We are worrying over fiction. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t also have an awareness that everything changes. It’s possible to think about the future while remaining present in awareness. This seems paradoxical, but with practice you will find that it is not.
The logic of sacrificing the current present moment so that you can be happy in a future present moment makes absolutely no sense, and yet we all do it. How do we change this habit? Well, one way, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, is to meditate.
A failure to recognize this fact can result in a lifetime of constantly sacrificing the present in favor of a better tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes. It is always the present moment. The logic of sacrificing the current present moment so that you can be happy in a future present moment makes absolutely no sense, and yet we all do it. How do we change this habit? Well, one way, as I’m sure you’ve already guessed, is to meditate. If you’re wondering what it feels like to be truly present, I often compare it to the feeling you get when visiting a place like the Grand Canyon. You are taken by the beauty of the world, and for a moment, everything feels like it’s just the way it’s supposed to be. Being present generates a very similar emotion in your everyday life.
This idea of awareness is a common theme in meditation. A lot of our suffering stems from a simple lack of awareness of how things are. For example, let’s say you’re worrying about studying for a test. You aren’t worried about studying, you’re worried about the test. Actually, you aren’t worried about the day of the test either, you’re worried about the grade you get on it. You’re not worried about the grade you get on it either, you’re worried about how this will affect your cumulative GPA. Even then, you aren’t worried about your GPA, you’re worried about how this will affect your chances of getting a job, or getting into graduate school. You’re putting the stress of the success of your career on one test. That is not a correct perception; your success in life — even though it may seem like it sometimes — is not resting on one test. Your deluded awareness of the situation produced a huge amount of anxiety. A healthier way of thinking about this scenario could be realizing all you need to do is study in this moment. Studying isn’t hard, in fact it can be quite enjoyable to learn new things. If you change your awareness to the joy of learning in the present moment. Your anxiety of the test, and ultimately your future, falls away because it never existed in the first place. Our brain has the amazing ability to consider the way things might play out. Realize that you are thinking about one possible way out of the infinite possibilities of how things will actually play out. The sheer probability that your anxious thought is actually how things will play out is very low.
This is just one way that your lack of awareness can produce suffering. Whether it be in our relationships with friends, family, or work associates always strive for a greater awareness of the situation, and I think you’ll find that everyone will suffer less.
In the case of running a startup, we often impose self-defined deadlines to get things done. This is important because it’s what pushes us to achieve more faster, but it also causes a great deal of stress. You can keep the deadlines, but just realize that they are a fiction. You can also extend this idea of being present to almost all startup issues. (I have started my own startup, indextheapp.com, so I am well versed in the various stressors of the startup world.) For example, say you’re running out of money. At this moment, you are not out of money, you are experiencing the worry of the day you run out of money, today. I think you’ll find that there is actually very little — if anything — wrong in the present moment.
Let me be clear, this does not mean you should expect meditation to remove all of your stress, nor should you want to remove all your stress. Some stress is good for you, and is great for motivation. It becomes a problem when you are stressing over things that don’t need to be stressed over. Meditation only aims to let you see which of stressors are actually worth stressing over. Once you’ve identified these stressors, you can use this philosophy of being present, along with meditation to remedy a great deal of the stress.
This brings me to my final philosophical point. This piece is admittedly less related to entrepreneurship, but it one of the most valuable insights that meditation offers so I felt it would be wrong to not at least briefly mention it here. l think we can all agree without an in-depth analysis that the world could use more compassion. I’ve already discussed how meditation allows you to be more present, but there’s another aspect of being present that I haven’t talked about yet. Being present generates a greater appreciation for things. For example, consider the door. We use doors countless times a day, and yet I’m willing to bet you haven’t felt a deep sense of appreciation for your doors. However, doors do a lot for us; they shield us from the environment, and they offer us safety and privacy. I know talking about a door isn’t the most profound example, but things change when you use this same idea and look at other people. You began to be much for appreciative towards others, and I think you’ll find that the emotion compassion is heavily intertwined with the emotion of appreciation. Being present lets us consider things deeply; this deep consideration allows us to be more compassionate towards the people in our lives.
Your partner comes home from work and they had a bad day, and you also had a bad day. Instead of being compassionate towards each other, we take out our frustration on each other. We do this because we aren’t being aware of what our actions are doing. If you both took a moment to ground yourselves in the present, the interaction would happen very differently. You would hug each other and give each other support. You would be compassionate. After all, what hope do we have for this world if we can’t even be compassionate towards those we love?
How to Meditate
Meditation is the simple act of bringing your attention to where your attention is. Oftentimes our attention is on the anxiety-inducing thoughts in our minds; you might try changing your attention to your breath, or how your body feels in space.
I’ve talked in great detail about the vast benefits of meditation, and vast they truly are. I sincerely hope that this was enough to convince you to give it a try. I want nothing more for you than to reduce the suffering in your life, and this really can do it. It won’t eliminate it, but it will at least help.
I would suggest devoting 10 minutes a day to the practice of meditation. Ten minutes is really all it takes to start experiencing some of these benefits. You don’t have to practice the same time every day, but you may find that creating a routine helps you keep your practice consistent. For those of you who claim not to have 10 minutes a day, I call your bluff. Time is simply a matter of priority, and meditation should be one of your top priorities. Once again, your mind is all you really have, neglecting it will have far-reaching consequences.
Take a seat in a chair or on the floor. For some mysterious reason, most people find meditating to be easier when they don’t lay down. You may also find it helpful to straighten your back and sit upright. In the beginning of your practices, it might also be helpful to meditate somewhere quiet, with your eyes closed. However, it is possible to mediate anywhere, and it is also possible to do so with your eyes open.
Meditation is the simple act of bringing your attention to where your attention is. Oftentimes our attention is on the anxiety-inducing thoughts in our minds; you might try changing your attention to your breath, or how your body feels in space. These are sensations that are always there, but we often don’t notice them. Inevitably, at some point, you will realize that you have become lost in thought. Most people who try to meditate get frustrated because they can never make their mind become still, and as a result, end up quitting. Instead of this, simply notice the fact that you are thinking, notice the thought itself, and gently bring your attention back to your breath. There is no need for judgment; do not scold yourself for being unable to meditate. This process of becoming lost in thought and bringing yourself back is in and of itself meditation. As you practice, over time this will happen less and less; it may never be eliminated totally, and that’s okay. Meditation is not about making your mind go blank. All that is important is that you practice bringing yourself back to the present moment over and over again. This will allow you to more effectively do the same thing during the rest of your day, and I highly encourage you to take two seconds every now and then to pay attention to a single breath. The more you meditate the more you will realize that there is no real difference between the time you sit down to formally meditate and the rest of the day; it’s just a matter of where your attention is. There are many different meditative practices, and paying attention to the breath is just one of them; however, I think it is the most simple and easy to describe. If you choose to continue your meditative practices past a few weeks, I would recommend that you search out some literature on the topic or download one of the many meditation apps from the App Store. Meditation is quite a large topic, and I can only talk about it in so much detail within one article.
I wish you the best of luck with your practices.
Below I’ve listed several books (along with the studies I referenced in this article) that I’ve really enjoyed on the topic of mediation. If you’re interested in some of the more philosophical insights you can gain from meditation, I will warn you that due to the nature of the discussion, some of them use some religious themes when discussing these ideas. However, the ideas themselves can be placed in context of any religious background, including atheism.
Books on philosophy and meditation:
- “Waking Up” by Sam Harris
- “You are Here “by Thich Nhat Hanh
- “The Miracle of Mindfulness” by Thich Nhat Hanh
- “The Heart of Buddha’s Teachings” by Thich Nhat Hanh
- “The Book—On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are ” by Alan Watts
- “The Four Agreements” by don Miguel Ruiz
- “The Wisdom of Insecurity” by Alan Watts
Entrepreneurship and mental illness:
Mediation’s neurobiological effects:
Meditation’s effect on brain waves: