The financial professionals who recently packed a classroom in a Toronto office tower were there to learn about a technique typically associated with Buddhist monks.
Meditation is not just for shaven-headed Tibetans in search of enlightenment, the buttoned-down attendees were told. It's also a practical skill that can help investors think better, overcome their biases in decision making and manage stress.
If your brain is a computer, "think of [meditation] as a hardware upgrade," said Jason Voss, a nattily-dressed former portfolio manager from Colorado. He led the session, which was sponsored by CFA Society Toronto, an affiliate of CFA Institute, a worldwide association of investment professionals.
Mr. Voss cited several billionaire meditators, including Paul Tudor Jones, the famed investor behind Tudor Investment Corp., and Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the world's largest hedge fund.
He also mentioned the most famous executive meditator of them all – Steve Jobs, the late, revered co-founder of Apple Inc., who praised the benefits of slowing down the mind's usual chatter as a way to boost perception and intuition.
It may seem odd to use techniques developed to encourage spirituality in search of better ways to make money, but Mr. Voss emphasized that meditation doesn't have to involve any particular set of religious beliefs.
"Many of us already slip into meditative states every day," he said. The trigger is often a simple, focused task – washing dishes, for instance, or cutting the grass – but regular practice of meditation can make it easier to attain the desired frame of mind.
One key benefit of meditation, according to Mr. Voss, is the ability to create a pause between stimulus and response, so an event such as a plunging stock price doesn't automatically trigger feelings of panic.
A flood of research in recent years suggests that meditation – or mindfulness, as it's also known – can alleviate myriad problems including insomnia and high blood pressure. Supporters also claim it can boost creativity and improve decision-making.
For now though, a bit of caution may be in order. Many of the positive studies suffer from lack of control groups or other methodological deficiencies.
A 2014 review by Madhav Goyal, Sonal Singh and Erica Sibinga at Johns Hopkins University looked at nearly 19,000 research papers and found only 47 that met the researchers' standards.
Those rigorous studies supported the notion that regular meditation over the course of several months can help reduce anxiety, depression and pain. However, the researchers found no evidence that meditation was better than exercise, drugs or other behavioural therapies at helping patients. The cautious thumbs-up of the Johns Hopkins researchers gibes with the restrained praise that meditation garners from some long-time practitioners.
"Don't expect more [from meditation] than it can deliver," advised Tony Schwartz, a journalist and author. In a New York Times column in 2014, he told of the hundreds of hours he had spent meditating over several years with diminishing returns. His advice was to dispense with hopes that meditation will lead to enlightenment or dramatically improve your relationships. Instead, he wrote, you should use it in small doses to relax and focus.
For money managers – arguably not the most spiritual of people anyway – the limited, practical benefits sound just fine. In a business as competitive as investing, even tiny edges can matter.
The group of roughly 40 financial professionals who gathered to hear Mr. Voss in Toronto were asked to put up a hand if they already meditated. About half did so.
Mr. Voss credited meditation with helping him work more efficiently when he was co-managing the Davis Appreciation & Income Fund, which handily beat the S&P 500 during his tenure. He said that when he turned to regular meditation, he was able to see patterns in data and connect ideas in just a few hours a day instead of the 100-hour workweeks he originally put in. Of course, there's now an app for that. Buddhify, Headspace and Calm are just some of the hundreds of software developers vying for a piece – or perhaps that should be a peace – of people's minds.
Paul Hamilton, a vice-president at Beutel Goodman in Toronto, said he uses the Headspace app while commuting to work on the subway.
"It is certainly a help in managing stress," he said. "It helps me be more in the moment, and I think it helps with my creativity too. For all those reasons, it's time well spent – and besides, I'm in the subway everyday anyway."