Meditation 101: Getting Started

[dc]A[/dc]s I promised last week, I’m going to start posting on some different topics and broadening the scope of this blog a little bit. (Depending on the reception, maybe a lot, but we will see.) Let’s jump off today by starting to think a little bit about meditation. I read this article yesterday, which is an interesting introduction to the subject. There are many things in that article I might take issue with, but it’s probably a good place to start if you’re starting from scratch.

I’ve been involved with meditation since my early college years when I worked with biofeedback machines to improve my performance as a musician, and had at least hints of the experience in some of my martial arts training when I was a kid. I’ve always thought of meditation as a sort of “mental technology” that allows us to make changes to our minds and our bodies. (If you think the benefits must be limited to our minds, at least accept the possibility that they might extend to the body as a possibility.) For many decades, I certainly knew more about meditation than the average person on the street, but I have a confession: I wasn’t very good at it and I didn’t do it very much.

I think much of the problem is that I have the attention span of a common housefly. For instance, there was a point this weekend where I was watching something on television, making cookies, reading a book, chatting on my phone, and browsing on my tablet, all at the same time while drinking a cup of tea, and I realize this is fairly normal for most of us. Meditation is an invitation to reduce clutter and focus on simplicity. Rather than multitask 10 things, do one thing supremely well. Master the most important tool: your own mind. There is great power there, but it’s surprisingly difficult to get started. In recent months, I’ve come back to meditation and have expanded my practice to the point where I now spend more than an hour a day (in a few time blocks) in meditation. If I can do it, with my hyperactive attention span, anyone can do it. You can do it. Attention and focus are a lot like a muscle: exercise them and they get stronger.

One of the major points I would take issue with in the article I linked is the idea that, drawn from the title, if you want to “make a killing on Wall Street, start meditating.” Though it’s a catchy title, it is hard to imagine a more wrong-headed approach to the practice of meditation. You will see benefits, accruing slowly but surely over time, that probably far outweigh your expectations, but this is a practice that works on you as a whole person. If you narrow your focus to “being a better trader” or “respecting my stop losses” then I think you compromise the whole process and it simply won’t “work” in any meaningful sense of the word. The skills you need to navigate financial markets—clear vision, equanimity, balance, control, better intuition, impulse control, self-awareness, the ability to moderate your emotional state, etc.—will grow out of this practice, but developing those skills should not be the focus.

There is a lot of mystery surrounding meditation, and a lot of nonsense has been written about it. Over the next few weeks, as we dig deeper into what meditation is and is not in a series of posts, I’ll work to strip away some of the confusion. Know this: all meditation techniques have one thing in common—they work toward a state of clarity and for the stopping of random thoughts and influences. They usually get there through focus and relaxation. Often that focus is placed on something like a sound, an object, or an image, the meditator’s thoughts, or some sensation in her body. Though there are probably tens of thousands of meditation techniques, they all have this basic idea in common; focus on something, relax, and wait until the mind settles down and becomes clear.

So, take this post as an invitation to get started. How? Well, the easiest way is to just sit for a few minutes and see what you experience. I suggest a commitment is in order. If you play at meditation you will do it for a few days, decide it is hard and/or boring, and walk away. The only way you will accomplish anything is if you decide to do it for a certain amount of time, and then evaluate results. Again, I’d gently suggest that three months is probably an appropriate commitment. If you want to start, begin this week by setting a timer for five minutes, and then sit and pay attention to your breathing. That’s it. That’s the entire instruction: sit and pay attention to only your breathing for five minutes.

If you want, you may count your breaths, perhaps counting 1 to 10 and then starting over. Set a timer for 5 minutes, and do this twice a day. When your mind wanders, and it will (“did I send that email? Is the lettuce too far back in the refrigerator so it might freeze? You better get up and check. Did I pay that bill? Make sure you email Joe back…”) just bring your thoughts back to your breath and, once again, focus. When your mind wanders, don’t be upset or angry or tense, just gently guide your attention back to your breath and continue to breathe. Just sit and focus on your breath. Do not worry about how you sit, where you sit, what you wear, how you hold your hands, what you eat, or anything else—simply sit and breathe and you will have begun a practice that can pay incredible dividends over the next few months. I will post again in a few days, and give you some ideas for taking this practice a little but further, but why not get started today?


Adam Grimes has over two decades of experience in the industry as a trader, analyst and system developer. The author of a best-selling trading book, he has traded for his own account, for a top prop firm, and spent several years at the New York Mercantile Exchange. He focuses on the intersection of quantitative analysis and discretionary trading, and has a talent for teaching and helping traders find their own way in the market.