“In the next 20 years, meditation will be like running
I first heard of Bjorn Lee and his meditation app MindFi on the news last year, when they raised a six-figure seed round. But that’s not what caught my attention. Working with startups is part of my job, so the seed round seemed like any other. Plus, there are a lot of meditation apps coming up these days. What piqued my curiosity was that the voice-over for the meditation modules were done by an ex-monk.
I checked out the app, and saw options to commute and eat mindfully, or even grow a plant while you’re at it. I knew I had to dig deeper. A mutual friend connected me with Bjorn Lee, who agreed to meet over coffee. The conversation that ensued was most engaging, and all yours to read.
You’re a product-builder, a serial entrepreneur. You could have built anything. Why mindfulness?
I wanted to build something that was meaningful, but also neglected. I didn’t have a label for what I was looking for, I just knew what I didn’t want to do: anything overly crowded or trendy, like e-commerce. I’m against the culture of over-consumption and consumerism. We’re simply spending too much time thinking about what to buy on Amazon.
Some of my initial ideas were bad. I thought of a breakfast machine and a Netflix for children’s toys. But the margins weren’t working out. So I thought about starting out with my passion, meditation and therapy. I thought of it like an Uber for therapists. Called a hundred therapists in the region, but didn’t get a good response.
I was feeling like something was missing, but I couldn’t quite pin point it. That’s when I realised that I could productise my own habits in mindfulness. And MindFi was born.
Is MindFi a meditation app or a mindfulness app? What’s the difference?
Whichever – I don’t want to waste time on labelling it or explaining it to people. Basically, meditation is an umbrella term and mindfulness is a part of meditation. You can practise mindfulness by sitting down and closing your eyes. But there’s also an informal way, where you can be mindful while washing your dishes, eating and living your routine. I focus on this, i.e. creating a way for working people to bring an attitude of mindfulness into their lives, to work more productively and to reduce stress.
It’s important to do both; taking out time to sit down and meditate but also to bring mindfulness into your daily life. You can’t justify being angry at work and treating a coworker like shit, only to go home and meditate. That’s not going to work out.
I noticed that MindFi has an interesting feature, it asks you to grow a bonsai alongside your meditation practice. How did you come up with that?
The bonsai is just a reward mechanism. It signifies growth. A bonsai takes requires a lot of time and patience to grow, just like it takes time and patience for your mind to become sharp, honed and empathetic. It’s an Artisan craft.
You also picked investors who meditate themselves, and then there’s the monk…
Brand names to me are less important than good partners. Some of these investors are ex-colleagues who went through the same struggles and discovered meditation at the same time. Toby, the monk, does the voice-over. It’s not just him, there’s an entire team behind him. He also teaches at INSEAD, so he observes the vibe and understands the need to make mindfulness a regular practice.
Why is this so important to you?
Because stress has affected my physical health, twice. Once when I was working on my first startup, 15-16 hours a day. I started experiencing chest pains, and thought it had something to do with my heart. The doctor said I was too stressed out and asked me to mediate.
The second time, the company I was working for had just been acquired and I was in-charge of making the deal happen. For two weeks, I was waking up at 3 or 4 am, taking calls. I began to wake up in fright, thinking I had notifications. The worst part was, everyone else on the team thought this was normal, everyone was stressed out. That’s when I realised that it wasn’t just me who needed to meditate. I then started a reading a lot more, tried mini hacks and experiments. Eventually, I left the company to sit down and digest the lessons I’d learnt learnt, and to figure out how to integrate mindfulness into their lives.
The problem is that people who’re stressed say they’re often too busy to take out time to meditate.
Well you still have to eat. Or you’ll die. Take small breaks between meetings. People think they need to be doing something all the time. In Asia, busyness is a badge of honour. And they love to brag about it. Our culture is broken. Productivity and health experts are actually saying that it doesn’t have to be this way. The billionaires across the world take breaks, they even have mindfulness coaches. So why the excuses?
Mindfulness is an absolute necessity today, because we lead mindless lives. We read feed after feed on our phones, we can’t focus, we can’t work, we can’t read long form text. Where do you think our knee-jerk reactions come from? We react in primal ways with racist, stereotypical and sexist thoughts because our mind is tired. He looks like a redneck. She can’t drive. These primal instincts take over unconsciously, and affect the way we live.
Have you noticed any change in yourself?
I apologise faster now. Some days I know when my temper is rising. So I check myself and become mindful of my own breath and body. I find that I’m able to moderate myself better. My friends have actually told me that you seem to be calmer, you look way calmer now. Having said that, I’m not the Dalai Lama. I just probably make less mistakes and am more respectful of people’s time.
What are some of the small things we can do to get started?
When you’re having a meal, just have the meal. When you’re in a meeting, switch off all devices and listen to the person you’re talking to. When you’ become really comfortable with yourself, you’re able to completely focus on the other person.
What’s your long-term vision with mindfulness? How do you want to see the world?
That in the next 20-30 years, meditation will be like running. 30 years ago, nobody ran or went to the gym. Even in California, it was still quite hippie. Now, running is commonplace. I want meditation to be that.