Meditation: How and Why

Becoming a teen father, going through a divorce and building a high-growth startup were perfect opportunities to learn more about myself. In a crushing wave, as chaos washes away the ego and displaces you outside of your comfortable bubble and all its related distractions, you’re forced to look outside-in at the way you’re living your life.

Although you can deceive yourself otherwise, the only thing you have complete control over in life is your mind. You manufacture your own chaos—the stress and the anxiety—by conjuring up the narrative of expectations surrounding it. If you lose millions investing in the stock market, you set yourself up with the expectation that you’ll hit jack pot. If you get divorced or break up, you crafted that identity as a husband, wife or significant other. Whatever the situation may be, when looking at the spectrum of thoughts and emotions between pessimistic victimization to overconfident self-absorption, I’ve sought after equilibrium. I want to be grounded in the bigger truth, even when I play.

I appreciate and practice meditation for the same benefit of self-discovery, without having to artificially throw a curve ball at my life. You begin to understand your inner dialogue—the constant chatter in your mind, and your limiting self-beliefs and where they come from. You develop a vivid awareness of what’s happening in your mind and body without labeling them as good or bad. It just is. You can struggle to fight and deny this reality, or you can accept it and find inner peace during these challenging times.

Just as you would approach any other skill, meditation progressively cultivates your attention for a clear, undistracted state of mind. It takes time and practice. But it’s not just about thinking more clearly. Because what you think is also what you experience, you can also observe and move through life more clearly, without getting caught up in vanity, ego and materialism.

Although meditation is commonly associated in a Buddhist or Hindu context, you can practice it in a spiritual vacuum without any religious beliefs. Most of the meditation content out there can be offputting because they have religious or even weird New Age vibes (e.g. chanting in Sanskrit, unlocking your chakras, magnetic forces, acoustic vibrations, crystals and so on).

The various cultural constructs that surround meditation are sometimes useful tools, but most of them evolve into gimmicks that miss the point. Beyond the cultures that originally conceived of them as spiritual frameworks, the doctrines and rituals are mistranslated and the intended meanings lost as they’ve been geographically exported and passed down generations.

Yes, the exotic and the weird can be a nice hack to transport you out of your day-to-day mind set. For example, using Sanskrit mantras such as Ham-Sa during your breathing meditation avoids tapping your brain for any unnecessary associated thoughts or emotions to common English words you’ve lived with all your life. But you should be aware of the purpose of these beliefs and rituals and not blindly follow them as a brainwashed disciple.

Basic mindfulness meditation strips away the religious doctrines and beliefs, and it focuses on what matters: calming your mind and grounding you in the present. It’s important with this exercise to let go of expectations. Expecting a certain result from meditation—for example, a feeling of transcendence—is another form of pain you are inflicting upon yourself. If you seek it out you won’t find it.

Here is my personal technique for simple, bare bones meditation.

  1. First, remove and prevent possible distractions. Silence your phone, close your computer and retreat to a location where no one will unknowingly or accidentally disturb you while you are deep in meditation.
  2. Set a timer. I use the Insight Timer app because the interface is easy—considering it’s been designed for this purpose—and you can set sounds to warm up, begin and end the session. With that said, Insight Timer is bloated with unnecessary guided meditations in the developer’s effort to monetize, so if you don’t support that feature you can really use any other timer. Whether you meditate first thing in the morning or mid-day, you’ll generally be in the midst of your daily schedule of work and life, so it’s challenging to meditate without a pre-determined time block. Your anxiety can easily take over and botch the meditation session while you wonder how much time has passed or if you’re missing an appointment or meeting because you’ve gone over time. So with a timer you can at least compartmentalize and set aside this line of distracting thought—one less thing to worry about. Provide yourself with a comfortable box of time. Start at 10 minutes and gradually work your way up to 30 minutes of meditation.
  3. Sit comfortably. The common positions are sitting upright in a chair or sitting cross-legged with the back straight. It doesn’t have to be the cliché lotus position, but if that’s what’s most comfortable for you that’s fine too. You’re doing this for yourself and not to please others, and it’s a gimmick if you try to appear a certain way for vanity. What’s important is assuming a position that is relaxing while you can stay alert and aware. Not so comfortable where you’re slouching or laying down and you could easily fall asleep, but not so tense that you are straining to keep the position. The physical position itself is a metaphor for this exercise of finding balance. Also consider how you place your hands, because that can become a distraction and a point of tension as well.
  4. Close your eyes and become aware of all your senses. Settle into your body. Slow down your breath to a relaxed, calm state. Feel the points of contact with the seat or ground beneath you. Begin noticing the tensions, warmth & cold, and the vibrations in and around your body. Take in the scent in the air. Bring your attention to the sounds in the ambiance surrounding you. Here you observe and accept without labeling the sensations with judgment.
  5. Now shift your attention to different points in the body, beginning from the head down to your feet. As you focus your entire attention on that body part, notice the feelings there. I like to go in this order: starting with the top of the head, back of the neck & shoulders, abdomen, lower back, arms & hands, and ending with the legs & feet. It’s like a mental massage where your attention is giving compassionate care to all points of your body. If there’s physical pain somewhere, you can choose to go with the flow, or take the opportunity to study what the pain actually feels like and its root cause.
  6. Now focus your attention on your breath. Pick a point in the body where you notice the breathing most. It can be your nostrils, the pulse in your neck or your abdomen rising and falling. Notice the inhale and exhale. You can also mentally count the breaths to help keep the attention. The point is to place a mental marker that can gently nudge the attention back when you notice it strays. Every time your mind wanders, just bring it back to your breath.
  7. As you do keep your attention focused on the breath, you’ll naturally receive thoughts, emotions and physical sensations. Simply observe these as a witness to what’s happening. You’ll begin to notice the common pattern. They come, change in your mind and pass. Everything is a transitory experience.

Highs and Lows

Building a business from an idea to over $100 million in revenue has been the greatest thrill ride of my life. Nothing compares to the insane rush of fresh adrenaline electrifying the entire body after the validating moment of making the first sale. Yes, we were on to something! From then on I was hooked. I wired up notifications for whenever another order would come through, and like clockwork every ding produced a wave of euphoria.

Meanwhile, I soon began to define my sense of self around the business, and this gurgled up as the fountain I drank from to receive my happiness. I had bet everything on the business. Quitting my job and burning down my savings, sacrificing the stability of my household, turning away from my friends and coworkers who sneered that I’m crazy, and toiling away every waking hour to make this work. The business was my path to redemption. This was my life and it became me.

From one press hit to another, and from our first million to the next digit, I was living and breathing the entrepreneur’s journey as illustrated by Hollywood and the media. I had become entranced by that rapturous feeling of danger, excitement and gratification.

Yet, still, when the business wasn’t moving quickly enough—and it was easy to feel this way in the early days with no startup capital or employees besides myself and my co-founder—I felt down and punished. I found myself craving after the highs of the business. To avoid the empty feeling of inactivity or the negative feeling of failure, I began seeking to supplement it with activities and entertainment that could potentially simulate that rush. It’s never the same, and when you seek it you can’t get it, of course.

One day, I found myself shopping for a motorcycle—one of those crotch-rockets that could zing down a highway ramp in full rage as the rest of the world blurs around you. As I was driving over to the dealership, however, I stopped myself. How did it even get to this point? I wondered in a sobering moment, as I realized I needed to find a sustainable way to play the emotional game if I wanted to continue building the business for the long-term.

Once you really get going, though, the chaos takes over the lull, with no spare moment left to breathe. Where it feels like you exerted all your might to push a train to the top of the mountain, and now it’s hurtling downhill without brakes while you’re being dragged helplessly behind it in a silent scream.

That’s how I felt when the period of hyper-growth kicked in. As employee headcount doubled and tripled every month and our sales climbed into the double-digit millions, from my waking moment to passing out in bed, there was not enough time in the day to get to even half the tasks and people needing my attention. I would drive home after the workday with the post-traumatic daze of recovering from shell shock.

I wanted to be superhuman and parallel process multiple tasks with machine-like efficiency. But I knew that wasn’t the right answer. That would not be fair for me or for others depending on me: my family, my employees, my business partners, our customers. You need to take care of yourself first before you can take care of others.

The highs cannot exist without the lows. When you’re trudging through the dark valleys, those down moments provide the shadows of contrast so that you can notice and appreciate the highlights at the peaks. You may try to hide or avoid the lows, but you’ll just be crafting an image of reality that is actually an illusion.

The power of advisors—those who have been there done that—is being able to put your problems, as well as successes, into perspective. When things aren’t working out, the world is not falling apart; when things are going well, you haven’t conquered the world so stay humble.

Avoid emotional attachment with your victories. They are highlights, just that, rather than self-defining moments. You have to continue on with the journey, or else you will be chasing a constantly expanding dream or begin rotting away in a distant memory.

So how do you ground yourself in what can otherwise be an emotional rollercoaster? Internally, focus on the learning. Work towards doing just one thing better each day. Use the accelerated compression of highs and lows in this journey to go deeper within yourself and become more self-aware. All the while savoring—yet not attaching yourself—to the experience.

We didn’t start with a business plan

Tuft & Needle has been a sandbox for us to experiment with and build a company that we’ve always wanted to see in existence. A “good” company in our minds, that is doing honest business in an era where corporate greed is running rampant. When we see all around us that all that matters is peacocking to hypnotize investors with the highest perceived valuations, marketing by pulling out all the manipulative gimmicks in the salesman’s bag of tricks, outsourcing manufacturing to the lowest-bidding factories, using the cheapest labor to service customers, and automating in efforts to completely eliminate the human side of business.

We were sitting to the side and just complaining about it—commiserating in our misery. Then we could see clearly that the actions and steps were right in front of us. As we slowly progress, other passive bystanders chuckle and point a finger saying that’s cute and we’re so millenial. Yes, this is a millenial’s problem because we grew up in the midst of it but have not yet become desensitized or disillusioned by it. We are the youth that needs to see change in the belief that there can be a better world. Or else soon we will lose our selves. We need to fix these business problems that ripple out to create an enormous social problem centered around capitalism.

The right variables have come together to make this possible for us: a broken industry, with other believers coming together for a unified mission, in an economically suppressed city with untapped potential.

In a business environment where it’s all about the ego and all about me, we stand in contrast to that. Not because of self-righteousness, but because that’s what we’ve wanted as consumers and as employees ourselves.

Through our own circumstances we’ve been led to the water. We just had to drink from it. Now we share and signal others to come join us and drink from it too.

Chaos

Embrace the chaos. Don’t seek it out, but when it comes, welcome it.

You see chaos all around you, and cross your fingers and pray that it will never happen to you. Getting laid off from your job, opening your new business and not making the sales as you expected, getting a divorce, the market crashing and wiping out your retirement savings, an unplanned pregnancy, getting into a car crash, your home being robbed. But it does happen, and will happen, in a form you least expect.

Chaos shatters the rosy lens of your reality. You feel the nervous jolts of frustration because things are not working out as they should. All of a sudden, you see the once-invisible obstacles littering the path ahead.

Once you can hear the infantile cries of your own sense of entitlement, then you can grasp and set your ego aside for the moment. Set to flame the Hollywood script that drives your idealism.

Chaos presents the opportunities for personal growth, character building and truth seeking. Through these iterations you constantly stretch to expand your inner boundaries. You begin to realize your full potential, only to realize there are actually no limitations to the mind. When you realize you determine your own perception of reality, you then write the experience of your own narrative.

That’s why meditation is powerful. It’s a time to disengage your mind for a moment from the barrage of selfish chatter—to accept things, to let things go or however you want to view it. While focusing on your breath, you breathe out the chaos. Not to ignore and sculpt a magnificent wall of denial. You breathe out your anxieties and fears, and make the chaos a part of your new reality. There is no point in fighting to struggle. You roll with it.

There are plenty of micro storms of chaos entering throughout your day that usually fire up unnecessary brain cycles. Practice with the small, to build up to the large.

A stress-free life is not existing. You’ll be able to escape to that idea of paradise when you die. These are your trials that make you who you are.

Social Media

At one point a few years ago I did quit social media altogether with firm commitment. Tapping and clicking between Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat and whatever else was the latest app—I understood the damage it was causing to my day-to-day as a looming distraction. Social media introduces more negative than positive feelings—envy, anxiety and unhealthy validation-seeking instead of happiness. So in a sudden storm of furious determination I deleted them all. Peace followed, as expected.

Then as Facebook Connect became more pervasive across 3rd-party sites, one day I unconsciously clicked “Log in with Facebook”, and Facebook caught me totally unprepared as it hooked and reeled me back in. I was instantly back in action. With a plunging feeling of guilt that felt so wrong but so good, I savored the Facebook updates I had missed for over a year. So this is what relapse feels like.

Although I had since pruned my catalog of active social profiles, I rationally justified my newfound existence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Especially as I was building my startup, social media appeared to be a necessity. You need to have access to the advertising platforms, right? But really, behind the scenes, social media was a critical source of validation and a dependable enhancement of the highs—what a rush of adrenaline when you get an incoming flood of Likes from your friends on top of a sweet press hit.

I realized it was time to cleanse again and purge this toxicity. But this time with a more practical setup designed to last.

Use social media like an RSS feed. I miss RSS readers. They seem to have gone extinct over the past few years as we’ve been completely consumed by social media. As a result, some big-time bloggers have transitioned entirely to publishing their thoughts as Facebook status updates or as “tweet storms”.

Social media can be healthy when it’s used like a blog network. To push real, meaningful updates—and to receive the same. Periodic and asynchronous, not real-time.

How you consume it is just as important as how you post. Just because you lurk and never share anything doesn’t make you any better than the friend who’s posting multiple times a day about what he’s eating or what the latest background or prop is to her selfie.

Your mind can only absorb a limited amount of information every day. Do you want to fill it with all the noise and hype on your social feed? What you consume and surround yourself with also shapes your reality. So be selective. That is at least one choice you have control over, whereas most things just happen and you have to roll with it.

Stop giving likes, stop expecting likes. Social validation—or at least what appears to be so at the surface—is addicting. The dopamine effect from this has been proven by a flood of scientific research in recent years. In our times where so much information is bombarding us that at times you feel helpless in the midst of it all, social media seems like one of the few escapes to check in on your virtual bank account of self-worth. But it’s exactly that: A magnificent illusion made up of faux-popularity, faux-achievements and faux-interactions.

I heard of a story recently where a friend had someone private message them saying, “Hey, I’ve been liking every one of your posts. Can you give mine a like? I’d really appreciate it.” It sounds ridiculous, but think about how many of your social updates are liked or favorited out of mindless loyalty, expecting you to return the favor later in the day when they post their updates.

Make it your new personal policy not to validate others in this way, and not to expect it from others. Break free from the taunting, seductive number superimposed on the notifications icon.

Transfer your true social media to minimal apps. What you care about is your true social media—your circles of immediate family, friends and coworkers. Use text, email or chat instead to share and converse. I now use iMessage and Slack groups for those conversations and photo sharing.

By disconnecting in this way, I find myself taking photos with true intent and purpose—not optimizing for sharing on social media, but for my own memories. Also, it’s much less tempting to check a broader social feed when you subconsciously know that you will just be entering into a fantasy world of noise.

Why do you share things about your life to distant friends and the broader network of associated peoples? Your family and close circle of friends are the only ones who need to know what’s going on. But, of course, we as humans are highly skilled at selective rationalization.

Limit access to social media. First, delete all social media apps from your phone. This is where most of the temptations and distraction come from—within easy access at all times and pretty much no friction. All it takes is a single tap to open the app and you’re instantly plugged into social media world. Don’t make it that easy.

Then only access social media through a separate browser on your desktop. Cookies are the silent, stalking predators waiting to pounce on you and drag you back in. If you normally use Safari, then download Chrome or Firefox and use that as your dedicated social browser. This is so that, throughout your day as you encounter these common bait & traps, if you accidentally click on a link that leads you to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or anything else you’ll be stopped in your tracks by a login wall.

This also means all extensions of the social media app ecosystem need to be eliminated as well. I used to have our family group chat on Facebook Messenger. I now use iMessage group chats and have deleted all remnants of Facebook from my phone.

There are also browser plugins and other tools to limit access to social media. By using those, you’re treating yourself like a child with pseudo-parental controls—over your self. I’ve tried this and it feels silly.

The hypocrisy as a socially active business. As a business, we need to go where our customers are. Today, that means all the popular social media platforms.

As consumers, if we continue to use social media we are helping sustain the problem. Businesses like ours will continue to feed these beasts millions of advertising dollars to keep them well and alive.

Until that day comes when Facebook, Twitter and the like are no longer relevant, we will need to continue participating in social media to stay competitive.