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'We have never been in a greater state of stress as a species'

Former internet industry head Peter Coroneos found an antidote to stress through meditation. Now training executives in the practice, he gives new meaning to the term 'corporate guru'

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21 December 2016

It's not easy being an executive in the corporate world nowadays. Not that it had ever been easy, but today, with the advent of technology that has made everything faster, not to mention the collapse of formerly strong economies and the emergence of others, the corporate world is an ever-changing quicksand-type field, making it all the more challenging to stay on top of the game. It's no wonder that a vast percentage of executives are battling with often debilitating stress and all its after-effects on physical and mental health.

Enter Peter Coroneos. Having spent most of the '90s and '00s at the helm of Australia's Internet Industry Association, he knows all about the challenges and he has come up with a simple antidote to stress: meditation.

Through his venture, Serenityworks, he trains executives to use the practice in order to battle stress and make better use of their mind and body. Of course, this didn't happen overnight.

"I have been meditating myself for nearly 40 years, since 1977, but it wasn't until recently that I came across some research on neuroscience and meditation, which shows that meditation is causing structural changes to the human brain, even in adulthood, corresponding with changes in function, affecting focus, attention, memory and concentration.
"Every meditator would be familiar with the subjective experience of changes that occur in your sense of clarity and perception and of sharp mental acuity, but now it had some very hard science providing independent validation of the subjective experience."

So, after taking a sabbatical to consider his next move after the AIIA ("that's a big job to step away from"), he went on to persuade his corporate colleagues that they should consider incorporating meditative practices in their daily routines, so they can improve their functioning.

"That's really how it began," he says, explaining how he has worked with executives who "were all very stressed and suffering from the typical consequences of stress". In this new role, the former head of the internet industry developed a three-stage meditation technique "based on my own studies practicing ancient techniques, designed to take people into a very deep state of relaxation, very quickly. So it becomes a very efficient practice of people who do not have a lot of time".

"The results were phenomenal. We found that even 15 minutes a day are enough to start reducing the effects of accumulated stress, blocking out spontaneity and creativity. In an innovation culture such as ours, creativity is now seen as one of the top-three skills in senior executives and − ironically − stress is the number one killer of creativity. What meditation does is give you a time-out, where you can actually empty the mind and basically rejuvenate yourself and recharge. And of course, there's the neurological change that accompanies the practice; you actually begin to strengthen the parts of the brain that have been weakened by stress. Neuroscience shows that within eight weeks, the brain starts to change on a cellular level, on a structural level, not just chemically or electrically.
"People gain clarity, regain short-term memory, which is one of the first casualties of stress, and see an improvement in their general state of anxiety. Meditation gives them much greater calmness and detachment. They don't become as emotionally reactive to situations, they get more perspective and the capacity to choose how to respond."

Peter Coroneos, former CEO of Australia's Internet Industry Association, has developed a meditation program for executives.

Still, the idea of a company CEO shutting down his smartphone and engaging in an ancient practice is kind of a paradox. Since it was embraced by the hippy movement in the 1970s, meditation has been associated with a kind of spirituality which is pretty much the opposite of the corporate mindset.

"Exactly. It is the antithesis of the corporate world," Coroneos confirms, admitting that he did have to deal with a certain level of scepticism on the part of his prospective clients. But there were some surprises, as well.

"There are executives, like me, who have been practicing meditation for a very long time, but they haven't told anybody, because of this association with an alternative, 'counter-culture' lifestyle, which would be unacceptable. So, the best way to approach them is to basically show them the scientific evidence. Once they see the science, they understand there is some validity to it, they are open and the challenge is to simply give them a strategy so that they can continue the practice ideally every day."

And many executives seem to be embracing the practice. "The level of interest is very high because I think we're reaching a crisis point in modern corporate life, which is related to the advent of technology of which I was a champion, obviously. I see now that there is a downside to the technological world and it comes from the state of constant stimulation," says Coroneos.

"When the levels of arousal are maintained for long periods of the day, what happens in the end is that the brain restructures itself; you're basically in a constant state of stress, when there is no actual cause of stress present. Because the brain has readjusted itself, it holds you in a state of arousal all the time, and the result is the development of conditions like anxiety and depression. There is an epidemic of anxiety and depression in the corporate world and in society in general, and I attribute it to the fact that, as a species, we have never been in a greater state of stress."

That is why this program is not just aimed at the corporate world. "I also run a community program and train schoolteachers and traders," says Coroneos, sharing the secrets of the practice that has sustained him, in his own ventures, with others, who want to become the best they can.

"That has been my mission, after leaving my high-pressure, high-profile job. Because honestly, I would never have achieved what I did if I didn't have the capacity to tap into deep periods of stillness, into the deep well of inspiration. What you do, when you meditate, is go to the source of ideas. There are specific techniques you can use for problem-solving and for the resolution of complex issues, that you can't normally achieve through the conscious mind, through brainstorming and logical processing. Einstein said that a solution is never found at the same level of consciousness that created the problem."

Einstein is not the only great intellect that Peter Coroneos evokes while discussing his practice.

"The Greeks of all people really should understand it, even if we're a little bit prejudiced. Some of the greatest thinkers arose in 500BC in Athens and other neighbouring places. They didn't have internet, they didn't have television, they didn't have mobile phones; they did have their power of observation, the capacity to think deeply and they had time. Plato writes about 'the internal space of being' − it's about reversing the direction of attention. Normally the attention is going outwards into the material world, into the physical world. The key to unlocking your perfection and releasing the perfect nature is to reverse the flow of attention, turning it inwards into the inner space."

Looking back to ancient Greece for inspiration comes naturally for Greeks, and Peter Coroneos is no exception. "I do consulting in cyber security and often bring up examples from Herodotus and Thucydides. You realise that people have not changed, only the technology is different," he says, taking pride in his Greek heritage.
"I'm a second generation Australian and when I was young, I always felt a bit odd, like a part of me did not belong, even though I was born here. As I grew older, I went back to night school to learn Greek and so did my children. I've been to Greece a number of times, to Kythera and Kastellorizo, where my parents' families come from, and it's amazing that you still feel some connection, when you come from that place. I don't know if it's genetic memory.
"If the Greek government wanted to show vision and leadership, it would give incentives to the best and brightest from the diaspora to come back, to own land and bring back the wealth that we've gained and contribute to society. The great thing is that you have internet on these islands, so you can live and work from there and have the best of both worlds. That's how it's been for me. My life is becoming a synthesis of my Greek heritage, my deep commitment to practicing meditation and my passion for technology."

Of course, now he prefers to describe himself as a "former passionate advocate" of technology.

"After my move out of my role in the internet industry, I had a lot of time to think what this meant for society as a whole, where we're heading as humanity with all this technology that we're embracing without question," he explains. "What I've come to see, after this period of reflection, is that we don't really think of the social consequences of the technology that we're using and inventing and so I saw that there was something missing, there was a gap; we have no strategy to manage and to counter this phenomenon of constant stimulation."

This has greater implications affecting not only business, but every aspect of life in a community.

"The big danger here is that, if you're in a culture when you move from one thing to the next through social media, your attention span is getting shorter. That is highly problematic, because we become a very superficial species − the brain will adapt and restructure itself according to the predominant forces in the environment, to this constant exposure to very superficial information. That has political implications, as well. People lose the ability to think about policies that will affect them and they become much more manipulated by politicians. Populism will become the driving force in politics, and we're starting to see this in America, in the UK with the Brexit and in Australia, with the changes in political leadership.
"People are losing patience, they don't allow time for things to develop. In the first sign of any setback, the polls go down and people start screaming for their removal."

This is where meditation is helpful; it helps to develop a greater sense of the importance of time and reflection.

"We have to retain our capacity to think deeply about things, because the greatest development in human civilisation has come from contemplation, from deep thinking.
"So, it's not that I have become anti-technology, but I think that now we need to add this other thing into our lives, to act as a counter-balance, as an equilibrium. Because, let's be honest, we're not going to get rid of technology; it's here to stay."

For more information on Peter Coroneos and his program of meditation, visit www.serenityworks.com.au

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