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How To Trade Like A Zen Monk

How To Trade Like A Zen Monk

“You only lose what you cling to.”

The above phrase is often attributed to the Buddha, though, some scholars say there is no record of him ever saying that. But whether the Buddha actually uttered that phrase or not, in Buddhist epistemologies, it is well understood that most of our troubles stem from our attachment to things that we mistakenly see as permanent.

So the remedy that is put forward is that we must develop a mind that clings to nothing.

Imagine what it’d be like to have a mind like that — it doesn’t need things to be a certain way or behave in particular ways. It’s really a mind that’s rooted in non-attachment; a mind at peace with the way things are, because it doesn’t need anything in particular.

Every difficulty we experience in life is caused by this habit of attachment: stress when you’re overwhelmed, procrastination when you don’t want to work on something difficult or do something uncomfortable but necessary, boredom, loneliness, shutting down rational thinking in an argument, bad financial habits, overeating, and much more.

In trading,

  • If a loss irritates you, it’s probably because you were attached to a particular outcome.
  • If you obsess over the fluctuations in your PnL, checking it 20x a day, you are also attached to a certain outcome or ideal you want to happen.
  • If you have a habit of cutting short your winners when your plan says you should let them run, you are attached to certainty.

There are many other examples, but in general, you are attached because you’ve imagined things to be a certain way in your mind, and when they happen differently, you feel miserable.

If your mind wasn’t fixated on a particular outcome, you would be fine. You really would. Of course, you would still need to be curious about what happens in the market, and your results, always open to learning; always ready to refine your execution skills if need be, but you would not have to be upset about the outcome that didn’t turn out your way.

Do you see what I mean? Being upset and all worked up is optional. In seeing that you can’t control what the market decides to hand you — the profits it gives, it can take back in an instant (plus more) — you become dispassionate and start to let go. And that’s a good thing! It’s the essence of trading psychology (and the subject of one of my books). It implies that you don’t need any outcome to be a certain way in the short-term, you just accept it as it is and focus on executing your trades as per your plan. You just show up trade after trade after trade, with acceptance.

Okay. So now let’s tackle the practical part of this post:

How to develop a mind that doesn’t cling?

1. Start by just noticing when you are getting attached.

It’s hard to see at first, but once you become aware of it, you start noticing it all the time. When you don’t like the way your lunch tastes, that’s attachment. When you need to have your morning coffee, that’s attachment. When you overtrade, close a trade too soon, or when you check your PnL 30 times a day, that’s attachment. When you procrastinate, overeat, get frustrated, lash out, run to your favorite distractions, shut someone out… those are all instances of attachment. Just start noticing. Notice without judgment.

2. When you’ve noticed the habit of attachment, try to see how it feels.

What do you notice about your mind when your attached? What do you notice about your body and the sensations therein? Get curious; fine-tune your attention so that you can notice the smallest details. Notice where in your physical body you feel that feeling of attachment, of crisping, of wanting… And without trying to push the sensations away, feel what happens to them when you observe them objectively. Do they linger? Do they move? What’s their temperature? Usually, what you’ll see is that, if you adopt this kind of “objective observer stance”, the feeling gradually dissipates.

3. Notice the self-centeredness of attachment.

When you are clinging to something, it’s because you are at the center of it all. You want things to go your way,  to be the way you like it, to meet your desires and fantasies. This is when we put ourselves at the center of everything. Again, just notice. And realize that while your ego protects you in the outside world (although this is debatable), in the market, it isn’t needed. This is how much ego you need in trading: Just enough so that you can execute your trades properly and stop shooting yourself in the foot. 

4. Practice letting go.

Letting go of attachment is akin to a sort of relaxing of the tightening and rigidity of your mind and body. It’s a relaxing of your grasp on how you want things to be. It’s saying to yourself, “I don’t need things to be my way. I don’t need them to be any way. They can be any way they want and I’ll be content with that.” But here’s an important caveat: Try not to actively seek letting go. This is another form of attachment. Instead, simply feel whatever comes up in your body as a response to what’s happening in the market, or to your trade. Accept it fully and letting go will then naturally happen.

5. Find beauty in everything.

Inherently, no situation is ever “good” or “bad.” Because you never know how the future will turn out from there. Have you ever seen the movie The Butterfly Effect? It’s a great depiction of how life is – it’s a giant play of causes-and-effects. If an immediate outcome is positive or negative, you still never know what the future reserves. Because the future is always open to new possibilities. So everything is perfect the way it is now. “Good” outcomes, in the short term, will confirm some of your ideas, positive habits and qualities and help you build confidence. “Bad” outcome will get you wisdom and help you make smarter future decisions. When you understand that, you also understand how futile it is to label events and outcomes as good or bad. You just flow with whatever is.

6.     Pick up a daily formal meditation practice.

If you’ve been reading this post while saying to yourself: “Well, don’t you need some sort of attachment to an ideal if you want to achieve something specific in life?” It’s true, but then I’d make the distinction between attachment and aspiration. Attachment is rigid, it’s a unidimensional way of looking at things. Aspiration is more flexible. It’s has acceptance built into it. When you cultivate a meditation practice; when you sit in calmness and observe the patterns in your body and mind, and the patterns in the outside world, one of the many insights that will eventually come to you is that nothing in your life is as reliable as it seems. Everything is subject to change; subject to the law of impermanence. When you realize this, it will help you see (experientially) that attachment is a lose-lose situation, no matter how you slice it. You lose if you do not get what you want. You lose if you get what you want because what you got will change or your desire will change. But your meditation practice will also help you accept this fact of life. When you accept it, paradoxically trading becomes easier. Because you’re not grasping and resisting. You’re letting everything flow and be just the way they are with full acceptance.

Conclusion.

The real way to develop a mind that clings to nothing is to continue to let go. It’s always about letting go. Moment after moment, noticing the clinging and then letting go. Again, and again.

As long as there is attachment to things that are unstable, unreliable, changing and impermanent, there will be suffering – when these things inevitably change, when they cease to be what you want them to be.

The above steps, if applied, refined, practiced, will help you develop a mind that doesn’t cling. Of course, it goes without saying that those steps won’t get you all the way, Zen monk style, but they’ll get you pretty close.

 

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Yvan
I've been trading for a living since 2006. By merging mindfulness (an in-depth study of the mind and its tendencies in the present moment), a good trading process, and an efficient business practice, I went from being a losing trader to a consistently profitable one. Through my work here at Trading Composure, I aim at helping you do the same.
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  • NVP

    Hi Yvan…..aside from your own publications is there a book you can recommend that explores this further regarding this approach to,life ?

    Neil

    • Hey Neil. Thanks for reading. Yes, absolutely. There’s this great little book called Mindfulness in plain english. It’s a beautiful introduction to the practice of mindfulness and things I discuss here on this blog. Here’s the link: https://amzn.to/2IL1UA2

      On a side note, I met the author (Bhante Gunaratana) during a one day meditation seminar he led in West Virginia. He is such a wonderful teacher.

  • Carl Kuskopf

    Hi Yvan . Love your blogs,I can understand how detachment can help as a trader.
    Just curious how it effects your live outside of trading eg. watching your football
    team will you still go through the highs and lows of the game or will it just become
    an unemotional event?

    • Carl, I apologize for the late response. Non attachment doesn’t mean that you don’t feel the highs and lows anymore. You can’t really stop emotions. They’re part of life, Carl. Non-attachment just means that you teach yourself to experience them from a place of freedom.

      Thanks for reading 🙂
      Y.

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