How a 2500 year old meditation technique can help exponential human awakening
Over my professional life I have worked as a scientist in various corporate research labs such as Microsoft´s or Bell Labs, worked in multiple start-ups in the bay area, run innovation teams in large corporations, and now I am the CEO of Alpha, a moonshot factory established by Telefonica to go after multi-year projects that address big societal problems. It is Europe’s first moonshot factory, developing new innovative ideas and full-blown moonshots: projects that will affect 100 Million+ people, be a force for good on the planet, and grow into new impactful businesses.
In parallel to my professional journey, over the last seven years, I have also started a personal growth process, one where the focus of the innovation, the evolution, and the hacking happens within you, so you can help others better. And during this journey, I have developed a sense that taking high innovation risks also requires a more stable inner you, sharper focus, increased attention, deeper serenity, and a sharper mind to succeed at the journey of discovery.
In fact, Steve Jobs was a famous meditator, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey is too a frequent meditator and has recently done a 10-day silent meditation retreat, and the same goes for Salesforce’s CEO Marc Benioff. More and more research is linking Buddishm and neuroscience. This is especially true for particular types of innovation geared towards high impact through solving extremely difficult problems, being socially aware and connected to global struggles, sustainable and with global reach. It is also important to engage the new generation of talent, who are developing higher levels of social consciousness, connection and belonging.
Over these past years I have tried various mediation and mindfulness techniques, mind-body programs such as Alexander (where you simply practice sitting and standing making no efforts), Feldenkrais, or other forms of therapy (including voice therapy programs where you get to explore your emotional range through singing). I have also taken and facilitated various leading-self programs where I’ve taught tools for focus, self-awareness and resilience, so people can create a better world both for themselves and others.
But I had never done a silent meditation retreat. Then last year a close friend and yoga professor, and a young entrepreneur recommended I try Vipassana, one of the most pure meditation techniques and experiences. This is a 10-day silent mediation practice based on a Buddhist practice from 2500 years ago. The practice helps calm and focus the mind, through a strict code of silence. The expected results lead to increased self-control, awareness, and purging negative patterns and habits. It is also a good opportunity to do some digital detox, and get your brain to reset from the day to day.
Vipassana, which means to see things as they truly are, was discovered by Buddha after his enlightenment, and was then shared with millions of people in India. S.N. Goenka revamped the practice and popularised it, establishing more than 200 retreat cecentres for meditation around the world. The experience is almost the opposite of what you get in your day-to-day life. The course schedule is very intense and runs from 4am to 9pm for the 10-days, and you spend 11 hours doing meditation each day. Sex, drugs, alcohol, lying, stealing, and any form of physical contact are forbidden.
You are not allowed any analogue or digital form of input or output (e.g. no writing, no reading, no phone, no calling) — all devices are left at the door and you give close friends or relatives a phone number where they can call in case of emergency. You have no eye contact with people for the whole 10-days and you’re not allowed to communicate, either through speech, gestures or notes. There is one meal (near vegan) served per day, a light breakfast of cereals and milk, and a piece of fruit and some ginger water for dinner.
You are asked to dress casually with no discernible brands or logos, men and women are separated to avoid distractions, there are restricted walking areas, there is no hierarchy with others and a culture of serving others and generosity is encouraged. You share the sleeping quarters with others, and you are supposed to take care of your own space and maintain it clean. I did my retreat in Italy in December and the bedrooms did not have heating (organizers of the Italian site I was attending couldn´t afford to pay for it) and hot water would come and go, so getting ready for the harsh and austere environment required some preparation (bringing a light torch not to disturb others, ear plugs to get some good sleep, extra layers of clothes and blankets). The course is free and they accept donations at the end — total cost of our course was estimated to be 12K EUR, for 100 attendees. In fact the course is run worldwide as a non-profit to help people, rather than making money. All retreats are paid for by donations and staffed by appreciative past participants.
The Vipassana technique helps eradicate internal miseries that you have developed over the years (e.g. cravings, aversions) through self-observation of breath and bodily sensations. It also helps purify and sharpen your mind. No prior meditation training is required, though it helps. It takes about three days for the brain mud to settle, and to stop thinking about the flotsam of day to day things such as family, friends, work, bitcoin price, Trump, or your next vacation. The first days you feel tired and confused (especially if you did not adjust your walking up hours to be closer to the 4am starting time). The need to read or communicate with your environment takes a while to go away, and so you see people talking to themselves, reading the labels of the toiletries, or hugging trees to feel closer to nature.
After the first three days your brain becomes very very crisp, and so do your dreams. And you start realizing that many things that you considered important such as money, eating, recognitions, social media activity, etc.., are not. The emphasis of the 10-day retreat is on work, and the level of rigor and discipline is high. In fact, I had not worked so hard in a long time — probably since I passed my Ph.D. entry exams! Focusing on your breath and sharpening your mind to avoid all sorts of other distractions, while sitting in a yogi position for 100 hours, is hard work.
The 6th day was the hardest for me, where back pain hit and I could barely move. But persistence, discipline and patience eventually paid off, and by the 7th day I was back on track. During the last days, you put enough distance from yourself and what you are doing that you are able to have some incredible revelations and discoveries about your life and what your path is in this world. You just see things so clearly! There are times when you want to quit, however, this is highly discouraged. Finishing out to the 10th day was not easy. The retreat feels like a physical, emotional, and mental marathon.
On the 10th day you are finally allowed to speak to other attendees and prepare for the landing back into the real world. It is funny to hear people’s voices for the first time, see them smile, and learn their real names and professions — over the prior days I had given my own names to people and fantasised about their professions/lives. Most of the attendees I met were professionals. From an Artificial Intelligence Ph.D. student from London, to a lawyer from Geneva trying to use the technique to help warring lawyers reach consensus, to a company CEO who flew all the way from NYC wanting to learn and apply the technique to developing a better company culture.
Personally, the 10 days help you get rid of superfluous needs and desires and focus on what matters in your life. Meditation helps decrease ego, focus more on others, decrease the need for material things (when I arrived home to Barcelona I started throwing out or giving away many things that don´t serve me any more) decrease my addiction to perfection, or my addiction to being online. Digital detox is a big part of the benefits of the retreat as well. I realised how tech-savvy people like me risk losing touch with reality and diverting our attention away from reasoning, falling into a bubble trap with a sense of predestination and direction that feels as if you have outsourced thinking to the cloud and with that, you have lost your freedom.
On my way back from the retreat, I had a feeling of peace I can´t ever recall having before, but I also felt overwhelmed by how many things are trying to hijack my attention all the time (e.g. advertising, shops, gifts). As the days pass, I am generally happier by focusing more on what I have instead of what I want or think I want. I am also seeing an increased capacity in myself, where I am able to do more and procrastinate less and do better work. I am sleeping less (I am waking up earlier to do an hour of meditation each morning) but feel equally rested and sharp.
This is certainly a personal journey, but I also wonder whether it is also a requirement for those embarking on the extremely ambitious journey of innovation, hoping to succeed in the challenges and transformations that lie ahead. Meditation, self-knowledge, and techniques such as Vipassana, can all help you make good choices, create a safe space for experimenting, develop a sharper focus, have a less agitated mind, decrease your ego, avoid the desire to please everyone or blame others, eradicate self-doubt, avoid fear of failure, and get used to dealing with scarcity of resources — all which are clear enemies of conscious, meaningful and impactful innovations. Maybe meditation, and doing well by doing good, are indeed a marriage made in heaven/Nirvana to solve some of the fundamental challenges of our world and time.