Search Inside Yourself, by Chade-Meng Tan

The cover of Search Inside Yourself is a clever riff on Google’s famous multicolored logo, and this is appropriate given that the author is a long-term Google employee and that the material is based on a course developed for Google’s staff.

Meng, as he is called, is a long-term meditator. Quite how long I’m not sure, but he refers to meditating before he joined Google (which was in 1999). Google’s workers are allowed to spend 20% of their time on personal projects, and so Meng and some of his colleagues spent that time developing a personal-development course which had meditation and mindfulness at its core.The course was jokingly called Search Inside Yourself, and the name stuck. This book is the result. SIY (the course) has been taught at Google since 2007, and has been taken by hundreds of people.

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Search Inside Yourself is in some ways an odd book, no doubt because it’s written by an eccentric person. Meng seems irrepressibly jokey. (His Google business card describes his job title as “Jolly Good Fellow.”) The book is peppered with goofy cartoons and constant quips. At times these provoked chuckles, but mostly I found it all a little wearying. Quite literally I found my energy to be drained by Meng’s jokes, which I think is to do with the jokes taking my attention away from Meng’s more serious points, and thus requiring me to have to re-engage. I’ve had a similar sense of weariness overcome me at times when talking with people who can’t stop joking.

Which is not to say that the book is not valuable — in many ways it is, and I’ll come to that shortly. But at one point I almost put the book down for good. One of Meng’s traits is constant name-dropping and a lack of modesty that some might find refreshing but which to me is distasteful. Here is the point at while I nearly abandoned my reading:

[E]ven though I am very shy, I find myself able to project a quiet but unmistakable self-confidence, whether I am meeting world leaders like Barack Obama, speaking to a large audience, or dealing with a traffic police officer. I watched the video of myself speaking at the United Nations, and I was amazed how confident I appeared.

In the very next paragraph Meng mentions “interacting” with Natalie Portman and Bill Clinton. It was several days after reading that particular passage before I could persuade myself to pick up SIY again.

What kind of book is this? It’s a guide to achieving success and happiness, according to the subtitle. Inside we learn that we do this by developing greater emotional intelligence. It’s therefore not just a meditation book. Meditation here is just one tool to develop emotional intelligence. As the book went on I became increasingly enthusiastic and interested in Meng’s approach. The later material is more connected with empathy, lovingkindness, and compassion, which is for me inherently more interesting than the earlier material on mindfulness.

Who is the book aimed at? At times it seems that the target market consists of managers and CEOs, and often it’s reminiscent of Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” There’s nothing wrong with that, of course — and in fact Covey’s book had a big influence on me. But some may find the recurring references to the corporate world a little off-putting if that’s not part of their experience.

I present what I didn’t like first, because my experience of reading the book was of being tripped up on the way to reading about an interesting program of personal development. And there is a lot of useful material in the book, and Meng has a number of strengths as a guide.

One strength Meng has is that he is an engineer and likes to know what works and what’s the science behind what works. And so there’s a lot of scientific backing for the meditative methods he outlines. For a meditation geek like me this was a delight. He’s also keen on taking systems to pieces and putting the back together again. So he breaks down the skills of mindfulness, empathy, compassionate communication, motivation, etc., and presents them very clearly.

I found myself looking forward to the gray boxes that contained the actual exercises. These were very stimulating and sometimes suggested exercises that I’d never thought of, such as the “meditation circuit training” on page 73. There’s an exercise on dealing with memories of “success” and “failure” (pp. 149–151) that’s similar to exercises I’ve taught in dealing with painful memories generally, but never with regard to that particular topic. His lovingkindness meditation (pp. 169–170) is very brief, and very familiar, but laid out in a very clear and concise way.

(As an aside, talking of familiarity, Meng uses a diagram on page 36 of his book that’s almost identical to one I devised for my own teaching twenty years ago, and use on this site. He referenced this to researcher Philippe Goldin, who used the diagram in a lecture he gave at Google, and I’m intrigued to know whether Goldin read my book, saw this site, or maybe happened to come up with the same schema independently.)

Another of Meng’s strengths is that he is not shackled to a particular ideology. The very common, almost standard, mindfulness-based stress reduction model, for example, that tends to downplay lovingkindness and compassion meditation (although it integrates those qualities into the meditation it teaches). Meng is prepared to take whatever works and to go with it. And so his approach is refreshingly varied and creative, including mindfulness, compassion, tonglen, communication exercises, etc.

One of the other things I admire about Meng is that he is a big thinker. In discussing motivation and “higher purpose” he says,

If you find yourself inspired by your ideal future, I highly recommend talking about it a lot to other people. There are two important benefits. First, the more you talk about it, the more real it becomes to you … The second important benefit is the more you talk to people about your ideal future, the more likely you can find people to help you.

This is something practical I’ll certainly take away from Meng’s book, and for that teaching alone I felt deep gratitude for having spent time with his writings. I realized how much I keep my vision to myself, as I work on from day to day trying to bring the benefits of meditation to more people. How sad! And how limiting! I’ll be spending more time reflecting on this.

The conclusion to SIY is in fact an outline of how Meng plans to make meditation accessible to the world. He wants to get to the point where everybody knows as a matter of course that meditation is good for them (just as they know that exercise is good for them), where everyone who wants to meditate can find a way to learn it, where companies value meditation and encourage their employees to do it, and where, in short, meditation is taken for granted. Or as Meng says, people will get to the point where they think, “Of course you should meditate, duh.”

SIY (both the course and the book) is part of Meng’s strategy for achieving these goals. He wants to make the SIY course “open source,” and to “give it away as one of Google’s gifts to the world,” although it’s not clear what he means by this. The book itself is not free. Even the Google Books preview limits how many pages can be read, which is rather ironic. And given that the book is under traditional copyright, it’s not strictly legal for people to copy and possibly even teach verbatim the exercises in it without permission. I wonder if Meng could have published the book under a Creative Commons license rather than traditional copyright, making the material freely available on a non-commercial basis, so encouraging others to spread the word?

Still, I wish Meng well. He’s a crazy dreamer, but when has anyone but a crazy dreamer ever pulled off anything big?

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • George Colombo
    June 11, 2012 10:38 am

    My reaction to Search Inside Yourself was decidedly more positive than Bodhipaksa’s. Perhaps this reflects my relative inexperience with mindfulness and meditation. Still, after studying and reading on the subject over the past year, I found a number of instances in which SIY conveyed nuggets of wisdom that were genuinely new to me. At the risk of seeming to engage in Asian stereotyping, Meng reminds me of Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid in his ability to convey important information so that the student barely realizes its significance until it’s already been assimilated.

    Also, Bodhipaksa’s observations about the book’s distribution and copyright strike me as not being on point or relevant. Meng is a Google employee; this book is not Google’s, it is his. Whether or not Google could afford to distribute it for free, then, is not germane. And the copyrighting is the publisher’s domain, not the author’s.

    Relatively speaking, these are quibbles. Bodhipaksa overall assessment of the book is positive and I agree with his main points. I’d take it a step further, though: If someone who was entirely unfamiliar with the concepts of mindfulness and meditation came to me wanting a place to start, Search Inside Yourself is likely where I’d point them.

    • Hi, George.

      I hope I made it clear that there’s much of value in the book, and it’s the style of writing that I didn’t enjoy. There’s certainly a lot to appreciate.

      I don’t think the comment on Meng’s description of the program being “Open Source” is at all irrelevant. The term open source has a specific meaning, which Meng as a programmer must be aware of. That meaning is that the creator is making his or her work freely available for other people to copy, redistribute and (most importantly) improve upon. But there’s nothing in the book that indicates that it’s legal to do this with the content. In fact the copyright declaration says “All rights reserved” so it would technically be illegal to use Meng’s program without written permission. This could have been addressed by using Creative Commons licensing, or Meng could have avoided using that phrase in an unclear or even meaningless way.

      You’re correct of course that it’s Meng and not Google who is the book’s owner, but Meng could, if he wished, make the electronic version available free of charge. Some authors (the science fiction authors Cory Doctorow and Patrick Kelly spring to mind). And he could have given Google permission to use the whole of the book in Google Books. I’ll edit that part of the review, however, to correct my inaccuracy.

  • I’m a software engineer working in a corporate environment who’s recently become interested in meditation and mindfulness, so I was quite excited when I saw this book: a book on meditation and mindfulness aimed at engineers! I ordered it as soon as it became available in the UK and am now just over halfway through it.

    It probably takes a lot to convince such cynical people as engineers that sitting quietly on a cushion for twenty minutes a day thinking about lovingkindness is time well spent, but I think Meng succeeds. My wife recently reminded me that some years ago I dismissed meditation as a lot of nonsense. I don’t remember the comment, but I in the past I would have seen it as some cranky new-age practice.

    The book doesn’t say much that is new, but it is reassuring to see much of what I’ve learnt from books and a local Buddhist group repeated in an engineering context. Perhaps it won’t find its way onto the book shelves of may Buddhist centres, but I think it has a place next to my software engineering books.

  • Dada Nabhaniilananda
    July 19, 2014 11:15 pm

    I’m a meditation teacher and a monk, living in Silicon Valley. I’ve met Meng Tan and spoken at Google and other companies about how to develop love, creativity and wisdom through meditation. (Hope that’s not too much name dropping, Bodhipaksa. I just want to create some context.)
    I appreciate the work of Meng and others. If it were not for their pioneering work, paving the way and making meditation much more acceptable in this very science based tech community, I do not think I would have been invited by these companies to present a more traditional, spiritual version of meditation.
    I do feel that in the process of secularizing meditation and making it more palatable to a skeptical audience, something is lost, as though it were meditation with the love taken out. However, now that they have been exposed to a simple form of meditation, the Googlers I met displayed a keen interest in going beyond mindfulness and learning more about the deeper, spiritually transformation side of the meditation tradition.

  • The Search Inside Yourself program is nothing more than a Corporate Pep Rally to allow employs to give more of what they don’t have, i.e: More time to the company, more energy to the company, more blood, sweat and tears to the company. They don’t care what will do that for them. Meditation can be exploited just as easily as mid eastern Oil.


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