This episode features a thoughtful discussion with Toby Sola, Co-Founder & CPO of Brightmind, a meditation app for managing stress and anxiety. Ben and Toby explore the intersection of meditation and technology, as well as how to start inviting contemplative practice into your workplace.
Follow Toby on Twitter:
Try Brightmind today:
Intro / Outro Music by DJ Quads
Ben: Hello and welcome to episode three of the Hired Thought podcast. I’m joined today by Toby Sola of Brightmind. Toby, could you introduce yourself? Because I’m so excited to pick your brain. What should our audience know about you before we get started?
Toby: Hi, Ben. Thanks for having me. It’s really good to be here. Yeah, we originally connected through our mutual friend, Tasshin, and both Tasshin and I are interested in meditation and technology. So I run a meditation app called Brightmind and also on the job, my background is in meditation, practicing and teaching meditation. And on the job, I’ve learned technology so I’ve learned product design and project management and content creation. I haven’t done coding specifically, but everything else, user acquisition. So you and I talked, we’ve had some fun conversations about some of the unique stuff that I do in some of those fields. So yeah, my background is mostly meditation and then I’ve been really blessed to have some pretty rad mentors and advisors about how to learn all this other stuff, all the other skills that you need in order to succeed in the realm of technology. And so now I’ve, you know, slowly starting to know my way around the other spaces of project management and product design and user acquisition. And I live in Los Angeles, downtown. It’s a fun place. And yeah, that’s, I guess, a bit of background.
Ben: That’s a fantastic introduction. And our mutual friend, Tasshin, we found ourselves doing distinctly weird and different kind of strange things, like wearing all the different hats like you mentioned. Tasshin is also very passionate about strategy and things like understanding what it means to make an organization purposeful. And I like that sort of magnetism between the three of us, trying out these different sort of ways of navigating life. And yes, we’re specialized, but we have to wear so many different hats at any one point in time to sort of fit into our roles and I loved hearing you describe that to me in our last conversation about what you do at Brightmind. And I think we might explore that a little bit more today, but I wanted to start out with something you alluded to earlier which is the intersection of meditation and technology. This is, to say the least, interesting. We go about our lives every day augmenting the way that we think, the way that we show up and be, with different things like cell phones and clothing and cars and all this kind of stuff. All this counts as technology, and yet I think maybe the way that we interface with that is less conscious than we would otherwise think. It’s there and we just integrate it without thinking about it. So starting from that point, what do you think of when you say technology as intersecting with meditation?
Toby: A lot. Actually, the first thing that comes to mind is the big picture. And the big picture is since the beginning of time, humans have used two basic methodologies in order to reduce pain and confusion in their lives, and those two methodologies are technology and meditation. Now, of course, I’m painting in really broad strokes and this is one interpretation, it’s not the only interpretation, but just roll with me basically.
Toby: And so if you think about it, so you’re a hunter-gatherer, you’re cold, you develop the technology of a fur coat, maybe fire, and that objectively reduces the amount of cold that you’re experiencing and that works. So the methodology of technology works. Also, you might do some kind of ceremony, a religious ceremony, and during the ceremony, you may enter flow states where the cold may not bother you as much. You let the cold flow through you. And sure enough, oh my God, so that also works. Meditation, developing these skills of your attention, that also works. And in traditional societies, technology and meditation were actually very close. You know, the healers were often utilized, you know, their knowledge of maybe herbal medicines which is a kind of technology and then also ceremony and spiritual practice. So one way to think about technology and meditation is that it’s the two basic methodologies that humans have been using since the beginning of time to reduce pain and confusion and they both work. And they’re actually not in, they work fine together. And they have been working fine together. And a lot of people think maybe that, oh, technology is real and attention skills aren’t, or, meditation is real and technology’s bad. A lot of people think that way and I just think that that’s ridiculous because the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that technology is helpful for people, or can be helpful for people in general most of the time, and meditation and attention skills can also be really helpful. So I guess that’s kind of a really interesting big frame to watch that happen. I guess the next step, though, then, is to kind of trace that throughout human history. And a lot of what happened, I mean both of these things developed. So especially as technology got more and more refined, so did meditation got more and more refined. And so both of them got in a way better and better. So the meditative techniques that we have now are, you know, a lot of people over thousands of years experimented with different stuff and found out stuff that works really well in regards to, like, oh no, if this happens, try this. And with technology, I mean, it’s crazy, iPhones, whatever. Well I guess actually, I do wanna back up once more which is in hunter-gatherer lifestyle, life kind of induced meditation. What I mean by that is technology wasn’t that good and so people were forced into states of openness and flow. Like if you spend all night freezing, a lot of times, if you’ve ever spent all night freezing, it can sometimes feel like a spiritual experience, right? It’s like, oh my God. I really had to go somewhere that I wasn’t used to going before. And so the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers just naturally induced meditative states. And as technology got better, that actually reduced the requirement on attention skills and on openness, that people just had to work through pain in their lives. That got worse. And so actually, people’s, in a lot of ways, people’s minds got weaker as technology got better. And religion, the development of religion, was a way to keep people’s minds sharp, right? So it’s like, fasting used to just happen because you didn’t have any food. However, with agriculture, all of a sudden religions were like, oh no, that was actually good for us. We should actually fast regularly even if we have food because that’s actually good for the mind and body to fast. So in a way, technology started reducing the load on meditation in spiritual practice. And in a way, it kind of caught up with more sophisticated religious technology. But in a way, it hasn’t. And so that brings us to today, right? At this point in history, technology is really, well one, in terms of warmth and food and water, for a lot of us especially in the developed world, those aren’t concerns anymore. And so we never have to deal with being thirsty, we never have to deal with being hungry. So our minds are just like weak and we just can’t really deal with those states very well. But then especially if you start thinking about the dopamine machine that is your smartphone. Technology also now enables us to just, like, immediately get rid of loneliness.
Toby: Right? So this is a whole, especially with social media and the way in which smartphone apps have been evolving over the last 10 years, it’s a whole other level where technology is really, in my mind, overstepping its bounds and bandaiding stuff that just is not healthy to bandaid. And you see that. Like, teen suicide rates are going through the roof. Teen loneliness is really bad. People just freak out if they don’t have their phones. And so now what we’re seeing is extremely weak attention skills and people have a really hard time focusing and it’s because, I think, the way in which smartphone applications have really gone overboard on making humans feel happy and secure. And yet I’m also building a mobile app, right? So it’s not black and white. I’m building a mobile app that is kind of Trojan horsing it. I’m building a mobile app that teaches people meditation. And that kind of relates back to what I was originally saying about how fundamentally technology and meditation– There’s nothing fundamental about either of these methodologies which make them incompatible.
Toby: However, right now in which specific implementations of technology can have really bad effects on the mind and we’re seeing that today. But I guess part of what I’m trying to do with my work and my life is to get a really mature perspective and do good work in the realm of technology that is helpful for people’s minds and really walk that nice edge between– You’re really utilizing the best of both worlds and utilizing both methodologies in order to make the world a better place. Utilizing technology and also utilizing meditation, bringing those together and kind of letting those dance.
Ben: That was such an incredible explanation of I think a lot of complicated things that are, there’s an interplay here. I really appreciate in particular how you drew the line between how meditation and technology have this kind of supporting relationship, and I’m reminded again of Tasshin and what he’s taught me about in particular the balance between the three elements of wisdom, love and power. And his call to action in a lot of cases is for the meek, for the people who were cultivating, who have already cultivated wisdom and love to begin cultivating power and to begin gaining comfort in being able to do that responsibly given the balance of these three things and the interplay between all three of them. When I hear the words Trojan horsing, for me right now, that’s actually a tell that you’re giving respect to the power of the way the system is disposed to working. So I’m really fascinated by that and what that process looks like from Brightmind. But let’s go back to the other question real quick. So given the history, given the way that technology and meditation have interacted over time, I feel like right now there’s a giant blank between, okay, meditation without technology, your circumstances without technology induces meditation. Between that and developing a mobile app to support meditation, there’s this giant blank space between those two endpoints about how those two things have interacted really well. And I’m curious what comes to mind when I say that.
Toby: Yeah, no, that’s a good question. One answer is, you’re better off without technology, just be a hunter-gatherer. And that’s a legitimate answer. I think that the spiritual life of a hunter-gatherer is tangibly different and perhaps at the end of the day superior than any other spiritual life. And I think it’s important to recognize that, that living with nature might just be the best expression of humanity. And we may just not get better than that.
Ben: Yeah, wow.
Toby: But we are where we are. So another answer to that question is, it’s really hard to meditate if you’re starving to death or you’re, like, about to freeze to death or you have cancer and about to die. What technology does really well is it takes care of our bodies, really. You know, like it helps us not get too cold or too hot, it helps us stay hydrated, it helps us get calories. And if that stuff is at least taken care of to the point where we’re not dying, then we can focus on spiritual practice. A more contemporary answer is my to-do list in my smartphone definitely offloads working memory. If I think of something that I have to do, I can immediately use technology to get it out of my brain and immediately return to my meditation technique. So that’s an example of a technology that allows me to stay focused on my meditation which is great.
Ben: Yeah, okay, that helps a lot with refining that relationship I think because it’s a lot more complex than I was initially stating I think.
Toby: Technology is just, one way to think about it is a bunch of stuff that we figured out in order to effect change in the world, make bigger changes in the world. You know, meditation has the association of kind of transcendence. But one really important aspect of meditation and attention skills and training the mind is to positively change the world, like change the world for the better. And so especially if you define meditation as making the world a better place, it’s not just some side effect. But if part of how you define your practice is how able are you to make the world a better place, and by the way, that’s not always the case. A lot of people don’t really define meditation using that, but I do. And so especially if you incorporate, so how positively can you effect the world, if that’s part of how you define the strength of your mind, then clearly technology can play a really important role.
Toby: You can scale. You can customize. You can meet people where they are. It’s an amazingly powerful toolkit for effecting change.
Ben: Yeah. Is that definition of meditation something that comes out of like Shinzen’s methodology or what you learned at the Monastic Academy? Where does that definition tend to live?
Toby: Well, it lives in a lot of places. So certainly, this is nothing unique, nothing super unique. People use different languaging and different emphasis, but where I really, I think, got the core of what I’m saying and what I’m kind of expressing now is at the Monastic Academy, which is a training center in Vermont that is really playing with this modern take on integrating meditation and making the world a better place. And basically, to paint in broad strokes, the traditional curriculum of a monastery is just transcend yourself. And after you’ve learned how to transcend yourself, go into the world and make the world a better place. But we don’t really deal with that. We mostly just focus on learning how to transcend yourself. And so part of what the Monastic Academy is experimenting with is, can we create a curriculum that involves teaching people how to transcend themselves but also teaching people how to make skillful decisions, be responsible, run organizations, positively effect the world and creating a positive feedback loop between those two things? So that’s very explicit and that’s where I’ve gotten a lot of the language that I’ve been talking about is from the Monastic Academy. And I think they are doing really innovative stuff in regards to, like, what is a curriculum like that really look like? But it’s definitely, you see this thread in pretty much every major religion and every major spiritual practice. You know, like all religions have ethical codes. So that’s just an example of, like, this is kind of embedded in everything, but it’s just, like, not as– I think humanity as a whole, there’s a lot of work to do. Even though everyone’s talking about it, there’s a lot of work to do in regards to, okay, how does this actually happen? And we’re just not that good at it, to be honest. There’s a lot of ideas and a lot of religious practices and a lot of people talking about how there’s, if you can transcend yourself and look beyond yourself, you can make the world a better place. But, like, we still just, people aren’t that good at it and it’s really hard. So there’s a lot of work to do. There’s a lot of ideas and a lot of people are talking about it, but we’re not there yet.
Toby: We’re about to destroy life on earth with global warming and nuclear war.
Ben: Seems like that’s what we’re gonna do right now.
Toby: Yeah, exactly.
Ben: Yeah, so not only is that the case with meditation but I also think it’s the case with harnessing human energy together. And I mean that literally in the sense that you get humans together inside organization to do work towards something.
Ben: And supposedly, in my mind, and maybe, I’m curious if you agree or disagree with this definition, but in my mind, the purpose of an organization is to focus energy, to focus human effort. And so shifting gears a little bit, thinking about the work that you’re doing at Brightmind to bring meditation to the world through technology by creating a meditation app that helps hijack, helps Trojan horse some of the ways that technology is actually hurting our ability to have mental concentration, hurting our ability to have awareness. Essentially taking advantage of that space and laying a different set of kind of rules over top of it. So with Brightmind, you’re running an organization to bring about that kind of future. I imagine like in general, there’s this larger question of contemplative practice in the workspace, but one of the hardest things I find is being able to look within your own context and apply some of these ideas. Like if your expertise is in meditation, how do you bring contemplative practice into the workplace at Brightmind?
Toby: Yeah, so first I wanna back up and say, I thought about bringing this up when I was talking just now, but, you know, when I was talking about examples of systems that we’ve created in order to help people transcend themselves and do good work, I mentioned religions as examples. But I also think that you can use organizations as examples, which I think is what you were kind of alluding to. And again, roll with me, this is a very different frame from when most people are looking at, but I care about different things than most people. Basically, you can look at, so there’s these two variables: transcending yourself, looking beyond your own perspective, and making the world a better place. Those are both obviously part of religious practice. There’s fasting which helps you get over yourself, and then there’s also ethical codes which help you make a good impression on the world. Those two themes also exist in organizations. However, the emphasis is on effecting change in the world. But there is emphasis on getting over yourself. Like we have stand ups in the morning. Why do you think that it’s a stand up meeting and not a sit down meeting? It’s because it’s an embodied practice that makes people shut up and only say what’s important. That’s a transcendent practice that organizations figured out. You can look at the themes of seeing beyond your own perspective. How do organizations get their employees to see beyond their own perspective and collaborate as a team? And how do we effect change in the world? Organizations are involved in those same exact pursuits as religion. And again, this is kind of from a very bird’s-eye view sociological perspective, but I think it’s a really important lens to look for. And I think part of what I’ve been excited about with the work that I’m doing is that organizations have a lot, they’ve come up with a lot of really good ideas about how to effect change in the world. So yeah, organizations are entities that are effecting the world and they’ve come up with a bunch of different ways to get people to work together as teams and act nicely and see from each other’s perspectives and there’s a lot of really good stuff that organizations have figured out. So I guess one just from a personal perspective, it’s been really refreshing. After being steeped in spiritual communities where people were not very good actually at working in teams and you’d think they would be, to enter the realm of organizations where people have like really thought a lot about and iterated on how to work together as a team. It’s just been really refreshing to, like, oh, there’s ideas out there. And so, yeah, I’m kind of at this intersection where I’m playing with, you know, I have this background in contemplative practice and I’m now learning some of what is best practices within business. And so I mean in terms of, like, contemplative practice within an organization, I mean one, me and my business partner, we meditate together every morning. And it’s really good. You know, even this morning, he was saying how he appreciates the support because it’s hard to have the motivation to meditate and it’s the oldest trick in the book to have a gym buddy. Oh, I don’t have to motivate myself to the gym. I’m meeting Dillon there at 3:00 pm, I need to be there. I don’t have to, it’s so much easier! So I think that organizations, that’s one kind of way that organizations already are and probably will continue to be as their community that can support each other in contemplative practice. And, you know, other than that, a big thing is just, like, work flow and meeting facilitation which we’ve talked about before. There’s a lot, like, if you look at meeting facilitation from this lens that I’m talking about which is, like, how do we set up meetings in a way that help people see beyond their own perspective and work together as a team? And saying that, like, the weight of as if it was, like, a religion, like a spiritual practice, like this is really hard and is not easy and involves people’s sense of identity. People get offended in very deep ways in business meetings. It’s not logical. It’s very, like, people’s identities get rocked in organizations. So, like, to pretend that that’s not going on and pretend we don’t need a kind of sophisticated, mature frame of how people’s minds work is just ridiculous. If you enter into an organization, a lot of it isn’t rational. A lot of it’s energetic and emotional and human stuff going on. And so I think to bring in some of what religions have figured out in regards to really the nuts and bolts of how to see beyond your own perspective and how to empathize with someone else and how to be compassionate, to ask those types of questions when you’re designing a meeting format is, like, that’s really fruitful. And that’s where I think we’re at the kind of cutting edge and a lot of really exciting stuff is gonna happen I think over the next few decades in regards to bringing in contemplative lenses into how organizations run, but it’s gonna be subtle. It’s not gonna look like, it’s not gonna look anything like religion obviously. But there’s so much interesting, yeah. So like, basically, contemplative practice, I think, can come into organizations explicitly like the way in which my business partner and I meditate every morning. But it also can come in in terms of, okay, like, how do we facilitate this meeting? What questions do we start with? What’s the order of questions that we start with? Who talks when? And also, we need to do work flow stuff. Like when do we have retrospectives? And like a lot of this actually can be infused with some of the really skilled and refined lenses from contemplative practices. But it takes, you need to, yeah, the dance of that is pretty interesting. We’ll see how that ends up.
Ben: What’s kind of interesting, especially when you mentioned stand ups, is I imagine some people are listening to this and actually having, like, a moment of panic hearing you describe that as, like, part of a contemplative practice or part of, like, a good thing in an organization. And the reason for that, I think, is very similar, or maybe this is the exact argument with technology. When you develop a practice, if it’s deployed indiscriminately which I think is oftentimes the case inside many organizations, instead of it being deployed through the lens of, you know, this thought process of, how are we going to most effectively cause change in the world for the better? Instead, you often have people adopting technology practices almost as fashion. And one of the particular things, I’m gonna press into this a little bit because I think this will bring us to an interesting place. One of the phrases that tends to be kind of triggering for a lot of people who have dealt with especially trauma in organizations is, are organizations a family?
Ben: And in a similar way, I think there’s probably an adjacent feeling with, our organization could take specific practices from religious or contemplative practices and build them in. But I wanna be very careful to draw distinction between what that reactionary feeling is gonna be for the people who hear these kinds of things and immediately go to that place. And what you’re describing as what is essentially a high-jacking of often purposeless, indiscriminately deployed practices and technologies, and instead making it intentional and purposeful, and actually towards a greater good. So when you get together every morning, and let’s look at this through the lens of the average small business, let’s focus on that example for a second, how can an organization like that bring in opportunities for contemplative practice? When I imagine their immediate reaction to meditating together in the morning is, whoa! That’s different. What does a baby step in this direction look like?
Toby: So what are you asking is like, what is a… the way in which, even just, like, the phrase contemplative practice, incorporating that into an organization would often get pushback and people would think it’s weird. I mean, I think it’s what you said, baby steps and skillful framing. You let the experience of benefit drive the implementation.
Toby: So you start with something really small like maybe emotional check-ins at the beginning of a meeting where you say, like, how are you doing as a human? Not as a task-doer, but like how are you doing as a human?
Ben: That by itself, just in the moment recognizing that you and I have our individual lives and we’ve come from some places, we’ve been some places this morning, maybe some very difficult places–
Toby: Yeah, or last night, after we left work or–
Toby: Yeah, my kid was screaming and I didn’t sleep and I’m actually pretty tired. So even doing something small like that. Over time, people start to experience, like, oh, it’s actually really nice to one, be able to say how I’m doing in front of a group and two, get a read on where people are at because I may not push John on the deadline if I know that he was up all night dealing with his sleepless baby. It’s really practically helpful to know. So you let experiencing the benefits set the stage for the next iteration, I think is the way to do it. And then, like, maybe you start incorporating like at the end of meetings, you reflect. Like, how was that meeting for people, right? In terms of, like, how did we communicate? From like a bird’s-eye view, how was this meeting? How do you think the meeting goes? Like little things like that are totally reasonable upon first hearing about it. Yeah, I mean none of this should be necessarily framed as religious or spiritual. As an anthropologist, I’m saying that these technologies that religions and spiritual practice have a lot to offer, but that’s more of an anthropological statement than some kind of, like, I’m just looking at these religions as, like, groups of people doing things that are having results. I’m not talking about specific beliefs especially or worldviews. It’s more of, like, a sociological anthropological perspective where these people have figured some s*** out and it certainly doesn’t take that frame when it enters into secular organizations at all. It totally leaves that behind and I think that that’s really important. And you just let the actual people’s experience drive that. You start out small, people start appreciating the practices and then you slowly turn it up. And a lot of the times can be organic. There’s no black, there’s definitely no, like, cookie cutter application to this stuff. Like for example, like I really like emotional check-ins and reflections at the end of the meeting, and I try to do that in almost all of the meetings that I’m a part of. But often, when we’re working with consultants where we just don’t spend that much time interacting with them, there’s not the same rapport and it just doesn’t, I’ve kind of tried stuff like that and it never really felt right and so I ditched it. There’s also an element of do what works and, like, be grounded with who you’re with and like–
Toby: Cut out that hippie s*** if it doesn’t feel right. Just work as a team! Like that’s the North Star. The most important thing is that we work together as a team and there’s all sorts of ways that you can do that and different ways of expressing kind of what we’re talking about, you know?
Ben: Yeah, there’s definitely like a certain set of biases that an organization has by default that are informed by its past that are informed by the people that it’s hired and brought in, the way that the culture has evolved from the artifacts, the literal doing combined with, you know, the values that have emerged from that and just as an outcome thinking about the Shook and Schein model of culture, right? What is interesting about the bias that in particular I think the western world has with these kinds of practices is it’s all about action, it’s all about decision and being sure and being confident. And one of the things that I find immensely awesome about introducing contemplation or introducing those little emotional check-ins or starting a retro with a short guided meditation just to sorta get people grounded in where they are in time and space so that they can come at a question with a particular informed kind of approach that is grounded in that whole experience. That changes things ever so slightly where even if you did that once, the answers you’ll find, the decisions that you’ll make as a result of that are going to be completely different and much more informed by a greater spectrum of options and the greater spectrum of possibilities I think. So viewing this as a balancing act or maybe even more as a kind of dispositional direction. If we can do one small thing tomorrow to bring a little bit more contemplation, a little bit more contemplative practice into our workplace, we’re gonna get that much better over time. And I can’t understate the effects of that kind of decision-making and thought process for how we behave as humans ’cause we are human.
Toby: Yeah. The way to sell it in the West especially is to make explicit the way in which it’s improving our work flow and our teamwork. Because, like you say, the bias is, like, well, we need to get s*** done. And that’s a good, yeah, that’s a great viewpoint and honestly, religions need to learn that from organizations, right? That’s the type of mindset that make organizations badass and look super effective in the world, is that they have that hard line of, it’s Q4, we need to , you know, get our reports or whatever. And that’s a beautiful perspective. Obviously, it has its limitations, it’s not the only perspective. So yeah, I think especially when you can get your team to experience the way in which contemplative practice and trying out new meeting formats and stuff like that is actually making the team work better and everyone’s happier and there’s energy. Especially when you can establish that. You should keep that in mind as, like, you need to be doing that and then making people aware of that because then it really is a good thing.
Ben: 100%. I know there are some really great blog posts from Brightmind on meeting practices and just in general what it’s like thinking about meditation in the context of our human experience today. I’ll post a link to a couple of those articles that I’ve really enjoyed reading from Brightmind in the show notes, and what’s a great way for people to reach out to you?
Toby: Yeah, yeah. So my Twitter handle is @tobyornottoby20.
Ben: Awesome .
Toby: T-O-B-Y is how you spell my name. And yeah, that’s the best place to follow me on social media. You can also just shoot me an email. Toby T-O-B-Y dot Sola S-O-L-A at Brightmind.com. And yeah, check out the Brightmind app. It’s available on both iOS and Android. There’s a lot of what makes the app unique, but part of what makes the app unique is that it’s kind of a very systematic look at what meditation is and the different ways to practice, and kind of no bulls*** very clear. Here’s what you can do and really giving the user lots of options and lots of different perspectives outside of that. So, yeah, check it out. I’m super proud of it.
Ben: There’s a reason I switched over from Headspace.
Toby: Yeah, there you go! No and seriously, a lot of our users are coming from Headspace because their learning has kind of plateaued and they need a little more systematic and clear, rigorous instruction. That’s what we got. And we’re also really good for beginners, too, so–
Ben: Thank you so much, Toby, for joining us and I really look forward to chatting with you again soon.
Toby: Yeah, thanks Ben. It was a lovely way to spend the morning.