When silence helps CEOs stay sharp

It isn’t easy heading a company and dealing with numerous responsibilities. Some founders have been using vipassana meditation techniques to remain calm and focused

Sandhya Soman
Updated1 Sep 2021, 12:25 PM IST
Floh Network’s Siddharth Mangharam starts his day with vipassana at home
Floh Network’s Siddharth Mangharam starts his day with vipassana at home(Photo: .Raj Sam/Mint)

When startup founder Siddharth Mangharam lost his laptop bag in a crowded shop in Bengaluru nine years ago, he realized he had a secret superpower—equanimity.

There he was, fresh from the fitting of his wedding suit, a few days before the big event, facing the theft of his laptop with confidential data and a personal journal.

“I was intensely aware of rage, disappointment, guilt and finally, acceptance flashing before me in a few seconds,” says Mangharam, 45, chief executive of Floh Network, a singles community. He quickly moved on to file a police complaint and get home for dinner. His family was aghast at his seeming nonchalance. “Why aren’t you upset,” they asked. Mangharam realized that he was composed, thanks to his vipassana meditation practice.

Some corporate leaders like Mangharam have been quietly going about their vipassana practice long before Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey gush-tweeted about his “10-day silent meditation” for his birthday. They say it is one of the surest ways to beat the stress that comes with having to make many decisions in increasingly complex and dynamic workplaces.

Pressure points

“From coaching conversations I’ve had with leaders, it is clear that there are high levels of stress brought on by multiple factors,” says Sridhar Laxman, executive coach, Lucid Minds, a coaching company.

On the other hand, he adds, there is increased awareness about how exercise, mindfulness and meditation can help.

Anirudh Gupta, CEO of social travel platform Tripoto, finished his first 10-day vipassana course recently in Mumbai. “I had been thinking about it for a long time but never got the time to do it,” says Gupta, 33, a veteran of two startups. He says his stress had been building up since 2016.

“Nothing seemed to work. My wife suggested mediation and I tried on my own using soothing music to focus my mind,” says Gupta. He took to reading scriptures and interpretations of them, and finally settled on a vipassana course after hearing about it from a friend. The technique seems helpful, says Gupta. “If something happened the way I didn’t want it to, I used to get stressed out. Now, I don’t rationalize it, I am okay with it.”

Practice makes perfect

It has been 50 years since the late S.N. Goenka moved to India from Myanmar to teach vipassana meditation, which derives from Buddhist practices. The various centres he has established in India and abroad offer free, non-religious courses, but the format is rigorous. Beginners have to sign up for a 10-day silent monkish existence—they can’t read, write or speak, but must practice for close to 17 hours.

Those who persist swear by the practice. “At the end of the day, it is a technique—you observe your breath, sensations in your body, be neutral towards them and leave the rest to nature,” says a senior business leader who has been practising vipassana for 20 years. One is free to reject the theory behind the technique, as the late Goenka says in one of his talks.

Once one settles into the practice, there is a sense of calm and greater awareness of oneself. “A CEO of a company is like a king. There are rules and limitations and you are responsible for a whole lot of people. Situations require you to be calm and that’s where vipassana helps me,” says Udai Kumar, CEO of Ohum Healthcare Solutions, a digital health startup.

It could also make decision-making easier, says the senior leader, who sets aside an hour a day for vipassana. “You become so aware that the process of choice-making becomes spontaneous and smooth,” he says.

In his case, he is now able to choose the most important problems out of the several presented to him at the beginning of the day and solve just those. “I was able to consistently deliver a better performance over 10 years, which spanned the time I was a vipassana practitioner,” he says.

Sometimes, it could help in keeping oneself afloat during serious personal and professional crises.

Kumar, 58, had his first heart attack in 2003. There were financial setbacks and he lost his previous startup to partners. “There were problems at every level but nobody looking at me now would realize it. I am always positive and full of energy. I don’t think this would have been possible if I hadn’t reinforced my inner nature with vipassana practice,” says Kumar, who finds some time early in the morning for meditation.

Growing interest?

According to Lokesh Goenka, grandson of vipassana guru Goenka and trustee of Mumbai’s Vipassana Research Institute, the practice has always attracted corporate leaders. “In fact, a few years ago, Guruji (S.N. Goenka) was invited by the World Economic Forum because there was a lot of interest among business and political leaders worldwide to understand the benefits of vipassana,” he writes, in an email.

Tripoto’s Gupta attracted some amount of curiosity and scepticism on his return from Mumbai. “After I came back, many asked me about it. Some were curious, others sceptical, rightly so,” says Gupta. He adds that it would be worthwhile for everyone to give vipassana a shot.

Mangharam says it is not impossible to take time out for 10 days. “People go on vacations or spend time on fitness. Some go away for two years to do an MBA, which is essentially to get an edge. But if they really want to do vipassana, it is not a big deal to take 10 days off, remain completely disconnected from the world, maintain silence and focus on breath and sensations in the body,” he says.

Mangharam, whose nine-year-old daughter sometimes joins his daily practice, says there is a lot of talk around grit and resilience in the startup world. “What really gives you an edge is equanimity.”

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First Published:1 Sep 2021, 12:25 PM IST
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