Mindfulness and meditation for actuaries

Milton Lim, actuary at Taylor Fry, spent a year travelling and meditating at retreats. In this article, he shares with us what he’s learnt about mindfulness, meditation and emotional intelligence.

What is mindfulness?

After three long years of study, the apprentice monk is confident about his examination. He enters the room, bursting with deep philosophical ideas about Buddhist metaphysics and the true nature of reality.

“This exam has one question. As you entered the doorway, what was the colour of the flowers in the vase?” the teacher asks.

The apprentice monk walks out stone-faced, for three more years of hard study.[1]

As the story illustrates, mindfulness is simply the awareness of the present moment, right here right now. It is the awareness of your own thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. It is the awareness of your body sitting down in a chair and your mind reading this article right now. You may even be aware of your own awareness, which is realising a deeper state of awareness.

Mindfulness is not restricted to meditating silently with your eyes closed whilst sitting cross legged in a monastery. You can be mindful while walking, eating, working, talking, exercising, doing yoga, or even while fighting someone (this is known as martial arts!). Sitting meditation is merely the training ground for developing the life skill of mindfulness, which allows you to enjoy each moment of your life fully and during times of stress to find peace in the eye of the storm.

If mindfulness was available in tablet form, it would be the best selling drug of all time. It has been scientifically proven to effectively relieve stress, boost our immune systems and even dramatically slow the ageing process.[2] It has been prescribed as both the prevention and cure for a wide range of health problems such as depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure. It can also sharpen mental concentration, improve creativity, and make us genuinely happier people. Finally, it is free, easily learnt and always available. So why not try it out?

Although meditation will not grant you any psychic powers, levitation or achieve immortality, Harvard medical professors have published studies of Tibetan monks performing incredible feats of meditation. [3] With a strict discipline of over 12 hours of meditation every day in the Himalayan mountains, these monks have developed such powerful control over their bodily functions, that they can sit comfortably in the freezing snow wearing nothing but underwear. Whereas most people would start shivering uncontrollably and contract hypothermia, the monks practise a special form of “gTum-mo Yoga” meditation where they first calm their minds and then visualise a great fire burning inside them, which actually raised their body temperature. The monks would even host competitions where icy wet sheets were draped over their bare skin to see who could steam and dry off the most number of sheets in a day.

How to meditate

“There is no way to enlightenment, because enlightenment is the way.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Here are a few basic instructions to meditate:

  1. Find a quiet calm environment with minimal distractions.
  2. Sit down in a comfortable position, either in a chair or cross legged on the floor, but not lying down as you may fall asleep.
  3. Close your eyes, or keep them slightly open to ‘gaze’ at a spot
  4. Focus your mind upon an object of meditation, such as your breath, a mantra (word or phrase), a prayer or a physical object (e.g. candle flame). The breath is commonly recommended as it is simple, free and always available.
  5. Follow your breath, as you breathe in and as you breathe out. Don’t try to control your breathing, simply breathe naturally. You may wish to count your breaths.
  6. Maintain a passive attitude as you observe any thoughts, feelings, or bodily sensations arise and pass away. It is a not a race or competition. There is no need to strive for a goal. It is simply being present.
  7. Continue for about 10 to 20 minutes at least once a day.

You will inevitably encounter problems and distractions of all shapes and sizes, such as intrusive thoughts, unpleasant feelings, restlessness, boredom and the like. Many people (myself included) make the mistake of trying to stop thinking (“the monkey mind” phenomenon), which is really outside our control. Meditation is neither avoiding nor clinging to your thoughts, but simply observing them like clouds floating across the sky. Just let your busy mind settle like a glass of muddy water, where the dirt settles down leaving the water crystal clear, allowing you to “see things as they really are”. Like walking a tightrope, this is easier said than done. The key to success is regular daily practice and discipline.

Emotional intelligence

“Follow your heart, but remember to take your brain with you!” – Alfred Adler


The Pixar animated film “Inside Out” (2015) poignantly depicts the emotional journey of a young school girl growing up with characters representing the various states of her mind (joy, sadness, fear, anger, disgust). Paul Ekman, an American psychologist, identified six basic emotions which are recognised universally, regardless of culture or ethnicity, which can be roughly arranged as pairs of complementary emotions in the diagram above.

  1. Happiness vs sadness
    Happy smiles and laughter are often infectious which allows humans to enthusiastically strive towards goals to grow and prosper.
    Sadness and depression allows people to mourn a major loss or disappointment which kept early humans close to home where they were safer.
  2. Fear vs anger
    This is the classic “fight-or-flight” response that humans evolved as a survival instinct e.g. attack or escape from a predator or enemy.
    Anxiety is a mild state of fear and frustration is a mild state of anger.
  3. Surprise vs disgust
    A surprised expression of raised eyebrows allows a larger field of vision to gain more visual information about an unexpected event.
    A disgusted reaction of wrinkled nose or vomit reflex is a Darwinian attempt to close the nostril against a noxious odour or spit out a poisonous food.[4]

Mindfulness can be seen as the equilibrium resting point of all emotional energies and gives rise to the self-awareness that holds everything together. Of course, the human condition is much more complex than this simplistic model, with countless other nuanced emotions, moods and feelings. These six primary emotions can be combined like different coloured paints to give rise to secondary emotions, as an example:

Excited = happy + anxious
Worried = sad + anxious

The perception of risk and uncertainty can be either positive or negative, depending on the underlying mood of optimism or pessimism. Perhaps this can explain how different people can have different attitudes to the same financial risk, either as investments with upside growth potential or downside risks to be insured or avoided.

Aristotle wrote “Anyone can become angry – that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not easy.” Taking a few mindful breaths can be the difference between finding a useful constructive solution, or a useless destructive one. Mindfulness can act as the bridge between depression and happiness[5] or turn fear into anger (or its more beautiful relative – passion) e.g. Dale Carnegie taught people to conquer their fear of public speaking by talking about something that made them angry (or passionate).[6]

The dark side

“With great power comes great responsibility” – Voltaire

The transplant of secular mindfulness from Eastern religious traditions into Western culture has had its fair share of controversies. Some have criticised the ‘marriage’ of money and mindfulness in promoting corporate greed on Wall Street with headlines such as “To make a killing on Wall St, start meditating”, as mindfulness has almost taken on a cult status in the business world.[7] Some meditation teaching has become increasingly commercialised, with some courses such as the Deeksha movement promising “Reach enlightenment in 21 days!” (for a large fee).

The power of meditation has even been harnessed by military forces, which is quite contrary to the Buddhist principles of non-violence. The Japanese army trained its soldiers in zazen meditation during WWII to sharpen concentration and to kill “calmly and serenely”. [8] Snipers in the US Marine Corps have been taught mindful breathing techniques to improve their accuracy.

Although mostly beneficial for the general population, meditation can pose a risk for those with serious mental illnesses e.g. chronic depression, schizophenria, or psychosis through amplification of subconscious emotions and the surfacing of repressed emotional traumas. In fact, during long silent meditation retreats with a solid 10 hours of sitting each day and no talking, reading or writing, people may even experience hallucinations due to the extreme sensory deprivation. Consulting with a medical practitioner would be advised before starting a meditation routine.

Resources & Retreats

A Buddhist monk volunteers to teach meditation classes at a prison. He describes a typical day at the monastery: a 4am wake up call with an hour of silent meditation, then a bowl of rice for breakfast. After a few hours of meditation and study, lunch was rice and boiled vegetables. An afternoon of manual labour ended with supper, just a cup of tea. There was, of course, a complete ban on alcohol, sex, drugs, TV, newspapers, Internet and other distractions.

One prisoner bursts out “If life ever gets too tough at the monastery, you can always come here to live with us at the prison!”

You don’t need to torture yourself with the ascetic lifestyle of a monastic in order to reap the benefits of meditation. You can start a mindfulness practice right now, with a slow deep breath. You can replace your wasted time throughout the day with mindful moments, until you find yourself naturally being mindful, without even trying. There are a large variety of resources to guide you on your inner journey to mindfulness.

  • Smartphone Apps: Headspace, Insight Timer, Smiling Mind can remind you to schedule regular ‘quickie’ meditations throughout the day e.g. 1min, 5min, 10min
  • Books: there is an unimaginably vast amount of religious and spiritual literature, ranging from ancient Buddhist texts to New Age philosophy all with different traditions and techniques. For a clear, concise introduction, I would recommend “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. Also see other references listed in the bibliography.
  • Meditation Retreats – treat yourself to a retreat, a real holiday from the world! For those who wish to deepen their practice, you can attend retreats ranging from 1 day, 1 week, 1 month or even longer. A warning that you might come back as a different person!

As you can only learn to swim by getting into the water, the only way to meditate is to keep practising and to notice how your own perception of the world changes over time. Books and teachings are only signposts on the path, rather than the path which you must walk yourself. So the only thing you need to remember is to forget everything and just breathe.


[1] Seligman, Martin (2002). Authentic Happiness

[2] Michie, David (2008). Hurry Up and Meditate

[3] Benson, Herbert (1975). The Relaxation Response

  Benson, Herbert (1984). Beyond the Relaxation Response

[4] Goleman, Daniel (1995). Emotional Intelligence

[5] Williams, Teasdale, Segal and Kabat-Zinn (2007). The Mindful Way Through Depression

[6] Carnegie, Dale (1926). How to Develop Self-Confidence and Influence People by Public Speaking

[7] Goldberg, Michelle (2015). The New Yorker, “The Long Marriage of Mindfulness and Money”

[8] Dawson, Geoff and Turnball, Liz (2006) “Is Mindfulness the New Opiate of the Masses?”

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