There is an old story about a beautiful peasant girl named Layla who was passing through a farmland while going to another village. There was a man offering his prayers out in the open. The custom was that no one should cross in front of the place where anyone is praying. When the girl returned from the village, this man was still sitting there.
He voiced, “O girl, what terrible sin have you committed earlier!”
“What did I do?” she asked puzzled.
“I was offering prayers here, and you passed over this place.”
“What do you mean by offering prayers?”
“Thinking of God”, he replied.
“Really? Were you thinking of God? I was thinking of my young man whom I was going to meet, and I did not see you. Then how did you see me while you were thinking of God?”
Science magazine published an instructive report which spoke to the challenges of the disengaged mind. We quote from the editor’s summary: “Nowadays, we enjoy any number of inexpensive and readily accessible stimuli, be they books, videos, or social media. We need never be alone, with no one to talk to and nothing to do. Wilson et al. explored the state of being alone with one’s thoughts and found that it appears to be an unpleasant experience. In eleven studies, they found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative.”
How strange. Perhaps the French philosopher Blaise Pascal was correct in observing that: “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” Life is difficult for many of us, but very often we make it even more difficult for ourselves by
the way we think.
In our age of connectedness and perpetual motion, there is something to be said about cultivating stillness in order to summon some emotional and mental clarity. We suspect that most of man’s problems arise from him abandoning the religion of solitude. Pico Iyer, in The Art of Stillness, reveals the unexpected pleasures of sitting still, without being distracted, as a way to uncover a form of well-being that is inherent to the nature of our minds.
He reflects with a sense of nostalgia: “Not many years ago, it was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury; nowadays it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize… We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off – our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk.”
Iyer believes that this is the reason why many people seem to be turning to yoga, or meditation, or tai chi. They are all desperate to unplug. How many times have we imagined sitting on the banks of a river in perfect tranquility, or leaving everything behind and going on top of a mountain to live an unperturbed life?
From time to time, we all feel overwhelmed by the demands of this world and would like nothing more than to withdraw into a more peaceful state. But, as the example of the man in the opening story shows, harmony eludes the untutored mind. But it is surely something we can attain if we put our heart to it, as demonstrated by Layla when she went in search of her Majnun.
Much has been written about meditation as the solution for the modern man or woman given his or her frantic schedule. According to popular blogger Maria Popova: “Over the centuries, the ancient Eastern practice has had a variety of exports and permutations in the West, but at no point has it been more vital to our sanity and psychoemotional survival than amidst our current epidemic of hurrying and cult of productivity. It is remarkable how much we, as a culture, invest in the fitness of the body and how little, by and large, in the fitness of the spirit and the psyche – which is essentially what meditation provides.” Research has shown this can lead to better health and clearer thinking, even emotional intelligence. And if you’re Ray Dalio, it can even lead to bigger profits. As acknowledged by the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund: “Meditation, more than any other factor, has been the reason for what success I’ve had.”
We find all cultures of the world steeped in esoteric practices of one form or another to provide an effective means for acquiring self-knowledge. A kind of introspection and detached observation which helps people discover an even higher aspect of themselves. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is contemplative prayer. In the far Eastern traditions, vehicles of meditation often have to do with mastering aspects of breathing or the heartbeat. In the Zen Buddhist tradition, it is sitting with an awareness of thoughts and feelings without clinging to them. In Islamic tradition, it is emptying your heart and invoking God’s name. The objective of these practices is not to force yourself into a state of peace – which would be counterintuitive – but instead, to refocus your attention away from the ego or intellect toward the calm, pristine depths within. To attain harmony, one has to seek that lilt which is present in the innermost core of our being.
According to Inayat Khan: “It is just like the sea: the surface of the sea is ever moving, yet the depth of the sea is still. And so it is with our life. If our life is thrown into the sea of activity, it is on the surface. We still live in the profound depths that are still, in that peace. But the key is to become conscious of that peace which can be found within ourselves.” As the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius shared in one of his Meditations, nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul. You need not sail to St. Barts or travel to the Himalayas.
Meditation, in the words of Inayat Khan, is not some stoic physical position or arduous mental exercise that you do for 20-minutes in a day. It is really a letting go. The lifting of a veil, in our view, which leads to a marvellous change of viewpoint. By awakening our self, we develop more attentive and appreciative eyes that are so essential for a true reflection of the world. We don’t view it as just another to-do item.
At Stray Reflections, there are times when we sit around the office and do nothing. We just try to cultivate our receptive capacities as we “meditate” about the world. We find the thoughts that come to us unbidden are far more original and profitable than the ones we consciously seek out. It still takes us a long time though to coalesce our stray reflections into some actionable trade ideas. But one thing is for certain, when we let our mind go, we discover that we can see the world more clearly. As Pico Iyer alleged in one of his earlier essays, “It’s only by having some distance from the world that you can see it whole, and understand what you should be doing with it.”
We don’t do much with it, frankly. Just like not too long ago, it was access to information and price movements that seemed the greatest luxury for an investor; nowadays we think it’s often freedom from information overload, and the chance to sit still and not feel compelled to trade on every earnings release that feels like the ultimate prize. As the demands on our attention have increased in this madly accelerating world, we prefer to pull ourselves away from the screen every now and then to hone the power of detachment. We now experience fairly undisturbed thoughts and emotions to volatility spikes, and don’t always search for a well-reasoned explanation.
It’s not that we have declared a Trading Sabbath (different from our CNBC Sabbath). It is essential to stay in touch with markets and to know what’s going on in our positions. We have just developed habits of observation that we feel are far more important in our research process than fairly large and frequent accumulations of consensus groupthink. We endeavour to narrow the differences between what we choose to focus on and what actually gets us results. We take seriously our duty to our cherished readers and hope to provide a valuable return on your time.
Your harmony is important to us.