A Radical Method For Quieting The Mind

Almost 20 years ago, I became interested in the role of expanded states of consciousness in cultivating elite trading performance. Working full-time at a financial firm and seeing first hand how successful traders made decisions in real time, I became convinced that a large part of their knowledge base was tacit: the result of implicit learning. Our ability to recognize a face, for example, is not anything we put into words. It is a kind of pattern recognition that results from repeated experience. Much of what we know—from the driving of a car to the reading of a person’s body language—has been learned implicitly. It is for that reason that all of us know far more than we can verbalize. This tacit knowing is typically what we refer to as “intuition”: having a “feel” for what we do.

Psychologists working with professionals in performance fields have long recognized that this “feel” is fragile. A golfer who has made a putt hundreds of times in practice can get the “yips” and miss at a key time in a tournament. A trader, frustrated with a loss, can completely lose their feel for the market and place a boneheaded trade that they would never make in a calm, focused state. This has led trading psychologists to view the control of emotions as essential to success in financial markets. Many of the techniques advocated by those who work with traders, from careful trade planning to altering self-talk, are designed to reduce emotional interference with decision-making.

When I reflected on my early experience, I became convinced that the key to performance was not merely the minimization of arousal, but the deepening of quiet. Then, as now, traders and investors used meditation to calm themselves and focus on markets. Indeed, evidence suggests that meditation can be helpful for performance, enhancing attention and working memory, improving creativity, and providing us with greater control over the information we filter out and in. My experience was that traders typically utilized meditation as they might employ a relaxation method; that is, as a short-term method for calming themselves and regaining their emotional equilibrium. That is fine as a tool to be used in the heat of competition, but is quite different from, say, the “mindfulness of the body in the body” described by Thich Nhat Hanh, where meditation becomes an activity employed while walking, eating, sitting, and more. From this latter perspective, the goal is not so much stress management as the cultivation of a qualitatively different mindset grounded in mindfulness.

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In my book The Psychology of Trading, I described a radical method for quieting the mind. Playing the lengthy modern classical musical piece “Music in 12 Parts” by Philip Glass through high quality headphones, I sat very still in a quiet, dark room and simply focused on the parts being played by each of the instruments and the subtle changes throughout the score. Doing this for a number of minutes while breathing slowly and rhythmically led to a centered, quiet state. Eventually, however, I grew antsy with the exercise and moved on to other activities.

The breakthrough occurred when I decided to push past this point of antsiness and focus on the music for extended sessions of an hour and more. Emerging from these sessions, I felt as though my entire sensory system had recalibrated. Later, I replicated this experience by staying in a sensory isolation tank for extended periods. The feeling was one of extreme internal quiet. Time slowed down. Colors seemed more vibrant. I was unusually focused in the present. That state of absorption was not just a more still version of my usual state; it was a unique state in itself. Extended periods of focus, whether achieved through biofeedback exercises, sensory isolation tanks, or meditation, truly “trance-form the mindscape.”

The bottom line for trading performance is that, in those periods of immersive focus, we gain unusual access to our tacit, intuitive knowing. Moreover, in that state, we are unusually sensitive to patterns that we observe in the world, fueling our implicit knowledge base and, as Headspace notes, helping us perceive new relationships and respond to those creatively. In my work as a psychologist, I find myself accessing the quiet focus when I am listening to a client. I know that, if I listen well, the themes in the person’s life will jump out at me and I’ll know how to respond. Similarly, when I trade financial markets, I observe and observe and observe many markets across many time frames and follow many indicators. It’s the equivalent of being absorbed in listening to another person. I know that, if I sit quietly with a sustained focus, I’ll make sense of the market’s patterns and will eventually perceive opportunity. After years of listening to the Glass music and conducting extended exercises in controlling my physiological arousal through biofeedback, I’ve improved my ability to access what I know, but can’t put into words.

Quite simply, performance is state-dependent, and we can literally create and access new states through the right kinds of activities. In yoga, for example, we cultivate those fresh states through mindful movement and body-awareness. Through self-hypnosis, we can gain unique access to our motivational systems. Might it be the case that all great sports—from mountain climbing to archery—build the mind by stretching it, requiring sustained levels of concentration that expand our access to intuitive understanding?

We access radical quiet of the mind when we push past our normal constraints and stay highly focused for extended periods of time. In normal life, we flit from thought to thought, activity to activity, never staying focused long enough to cultivate our storehouse of implicit knowing. Quite simply, much of trading psychology has been playing the wrong game by focusing exclusively on discipline, emotional control, and positive self-talk. All of those are fine in their place, but do not in themselves deepen our capacity to build and access our tacit awareness. Whether as athletes, musicians, or traders, we must still our egos—our internal chatter—for abnormally prolonged periods if we are to find soul-full performance.

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