Google’s ‘Head of Mindfulness’ speaks out

wildmind meditation newsJo Confino, A growing awareness of the importance of our emotional fitness is mirroring the same journey of acceptance that physical exercise took in the last century, says Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s head of mindfulness training. Tan says that mindfulness opens the doorway to loving kindness, which is at the heart of business success.

Chade-Meng Tan’s job description would never get past most companies’ human resources departments. As the head of mindfulness training at Google, his role is to enlighten minds, open hearts and create world peace.
But he hopes that one day, his role will become commonplace. A growing awareness of the …

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Yourwellness magazine follows up google meditation programme

Digital Journal: In the hope of increased innovation, Google is offering its employees meditation and mindfulness courses, CNBC reported September 20th. According to their article, “Ommmm! How Silicon Valley values meditation,” Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” course has been taken by more than 1,000 employees and currently has more than 400 on the waiting list, and is geared towards teaching emotion management which could ultimately increase productivity and creativity. Programme creator Chade-Meng Tan commented, “There are people who came to me that say they got promotions because they came to my class, people who say they feel a lot better physically, mentally and emotionally,…

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Google seeks out wisdom of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

Jo Confino, The Guardian: Why on earth are many of the world’s most powerful technology companies, including Google, showing a special interest in an 87-year-old Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk?

The answer is that all of them are interested in understanding how the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay as he is known to his hundreds of thousands of followers around the world, can help their organisations to become more compassionate and effective.

In a sign that the practice of mindfulness is entering the mainstream, Thay has been invited later this month to run a full day’s training session at Google’s main campus in California.

Thay, who has sold over 2m books in America alone, is also meeting more than 20 CEOs of other major US-based technology companies in Silicon Valley, to offer his wisdom on the art of living in the present moment.

He plans to discuss with them how they can…

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An uncertain refuge

Google-Plus-LogoI remember the day I realized I was an atheist. I was sitting on an S-Bahn in Stuttgart, reading Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker for the second time – this time paying more attention. I finally came to know that for my purposes there was no credible need to believe in the god I had been raised to worship. The ties were already very loose by then. Dawkins just helped me to be honest with myself.

There has always been some kind of searching going on in my life (if you are reading this blog then there is no need to explain that idea). I had tried out Buddhist meditation a few years previously and found it to be good thing. But then I started travelling, living a whole new life with lots of money and lots of fun. Meditation had given me a kick start, and now I had moved on. The moment of realization on that S-Bahn brought me to the conclusion that there was no need to seek any more. Silly me.

The question about whether or not there is a god takes up a lot of space on YouTube these days, but I’ve come to see it as a bit dull. Once you’ve answered the question for yourself – in whatever way that works for you – the really interesting questions remain: How do I live well? What is the nature of mind and experience? And who the hell is asking, anyhow? I’ve never been comfortable calling myself Buddhist as it has too many associated assumed beliefs to which I don’t adhere and which I don’t wish to defend. But something has moved in the years since The Blind Watchmaker, and again I find myself forced into honesty.

On the 44th anniversary of the moment I started breathing air, and at the end, more or less, of the 4th year that I have returned to observing that breath in Buddhist meditation, it seemed like as good a day as any to acknowledge what has changed. I still choose not to call myself a Buddhist. But there remains the realization that I have already taken refuge in the Buddha – as much in my own presumed Buddha nature as in the historical seeker and scientist Gotama.

I have already taken refuge in the Dhamma – it describes in a very satisfactory way the things I experience in life, and much of what I read about in the sciences.

And now in the past few months, I have taken refuge in a very special Sangha: the Wildmind Community.

These are not refuges into which one flees in fear to avoid uncertainty, but towards which one gravitates in hope and confidence but with some trepidation. Whatever word I might or might not use to describe myself, there is a path ahead of me now that I cannot imagine leaving.

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Knowing every breath you take

Mirabai Bush, New York Times: In 1972, I was a 30-year-old American traveling in India, with the smell of incense in my hair and mantras repeating in my ears. Back then, if you had told me that I would someday be training employees of corporate America to apply contemplative practices to help them become more successful, I would have said you’d been standing too long in India’s hot noonday sun.

Yet not long ago, I was standing in front of employees at Google in Mountain View, Calif. They were dutifully following my instructions to feel the sensations of their breath as it passed in …

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‘Mindfulness’ grows in popularity—and profits

Julie Carr-Smyth, AP: In what’s become a daily ritual, Tim Ryan finds a quiet spot, closes his eyes, clears his mind and tries to tap into the eternal calm. In Ryan’s world, it’s a stretch for people to get this relaxed. He’s a member of Congress.

Increasingly, people in settings beyond the serene yoga studio or contemplative nature path are engaging in the practice of mindfulness, a mental technique that dwells on breathing, attention to areas of the body and periods of silence to concentrate on the present rather than the worries of yesterday and tomorrow.

Marines are doing it. Office workers are …

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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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O.K., Google, take a deep breath

Maybe it’s no surprise that a yellow-brick road winds through the Googleplex.

Step onto Google’s campus here — with its indoor treehouse, volleyball court, apiaries, heated toilet seats and, yes, Oz-style road — and you might think you’ve just sailed over the rainbow.

But all the toys and perks belie the frenetic pace here, and many employees acknowledge that life at Google can be hard on fragile egos.

Sure, the amenities are seductive, says Blaise Pabon, an enterprise sales engineer, but “when you get to a place like this, it can tear you apart” if you don’t find a way to handle the …

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Norman Fischer on meditation

A video transcript.

KATE OLSON, correspondent: It’s early morning along the Pacific Coast. Norman Fischer, a Buddhist priest who’s been teaching meditation for over three decades, opens a day of silent meditation for practitioners of Zen Buddhism.

NORMAN FISCHER (speaking to group): Thank you all for coming, and I hope everybody has a good day, a peaceful day, a day in which whatever needs to arise in your heart will do so.

OLSON: Other days, Fischer is at Google in Silicon Valley offering the same meditation practice to employees participating in a class called “Search Inside Yourself.”

FISCHER (speaking to class): Lengthen the spine, open the chest, and let your body pull itself up.

OLSON: Or he may be at a Jewish contemplative retreat sharing the practice with Jews seeking to experience their own faith tradition more deeply.

FISCHER (speaking to retreat): The practice that we’re doing on our cushions is fundamentally the practice of just feeling our life.

OLSON: The various hats that Fischer wears are part of his effort to help enrich everyday life experience by sharing the spirit and practice of Zen with the world.

FISCHER: If you really do the meditation practice and you continue that over time, your life really changes. You really have a sense of purpose, you really have a much greater sense of connection to other people, and loving kindness and interest in others and wanting to help others. Nothing makes us feel better about our own lives than that.

OLSON: At Google, Fischer is helping employees increase their so-called emotional intelligence on the job. Since the class began just over two years ago, close to 600 employees have taken it with the full blessing of management.

FISCHER: At Google it’s very explicit. Our brief is let’s get smarter about our feelings and emotions. Let’s go deeper than we usually go for the purpose of getting closer to ourselves and being able to be more empathetic and more understanding of others, and that’s the whole realm of emotional intelligence. There is no better technique or practice for going into and working through and really understanding our heart and the hearts of others than meditation practice.

OLSON: Developing emotional intelligence is not a cognitive process, Fischer says. Understanding the heart calls for another way.

FISCHER: This doesn’t work by thought and will. It doesn’t disregard thought and will, but thought and will are not the engine that makes this go. The engine that makes this go is taking a step back and trusting the body, trusting the breath, trusting the heart. We’re living our lives madly trying to hold onto everything, and it looks like it might work for awhile but in the end it always fails, and it never was working, and the way to be happy, the way to be loving, the way to be free is to really be willing to let go of everything on every occasion or at least to make that effort.

So the practice really works with sitting down, returning awareness to the body, returning awareness to the breath. It usually involves sitting up straight and opening up the body and lifting the body so that the breath can be unrestrained. And then returning the mind to the present moment of being alive, which is anchored in the breath, in the body.

Then, of course, other things happen. You have thoughts, you have feelings. You might have a pain, an ache, visions, memories, reflections. All these things arise, but instead of applying yourself to them and getting entangled in them, you just bear witness to it, let it go, come back to the breathing and the body, and what happens is you release a whole lot of stuff in yourself. A whole new process comes into being that would not have been there if you were always fixing and choosing and doing and making. This way you’re allowing something to take place within your heart.

OLSON: Fischer says the meditation practice, which includes meditative walking, is not an escape from difficult or painful emotions and negative thoughts, but a way to be present, and not attached, to whatever arises. This open a whole new way of seeing oneself and others.

FISCHER (speaking to class at Google): I begin to notice others are rather like me and I’m rather like them. There’s not so much difference, you know. I’m scared. Well, probably they are too. I have yearnings or longings. Well, maybe they do too. So maybe there’s more of a felt sense, not a theoretical sense, but a felt sense of kinship.

OLSON: And this has implications that go beyond working more effectively for a company.

FISCHER: You end up coming to a place where it becomes more and more difficult to be harmful to others. It becomes more and more difficult not to be kind, more and more difficult to push for a result and not notice the consequences.

OLSON: At the Jewish retreat, Fischer teaches meditation to help Jews experience their own faith more deeply. He draws on traditional Jewish language and imagery in his teaching, such as Jacob’s ladder.

FISCHER (speaking to retreat group): A ladder rooted in the earth and stretching up toward heaven—that’s the human body. The spine is that ladder.

OLSON: Fischer, who is a practicing Jew, feels much of the teaching about Judaism today doesn’t do enough to support a personal connection with God. Meditation not only deepens this relationship but helps one see God in everything, as he says the Torah teaches.

FISCHER: When we sit we recognize the crucial, divine importance of absolutely everything that arises—every thought, every feeling, every truth, every unspeakable, unnameable impulse. But also we recognize the ultimate importance of the others—of the sky, of all the sounds inside and outside the room. As the mind becomes a little more quiet the sacredness of everything within and without becomes clear.

OLSON: So how can a practice from Zen Buddhism, a tradition that does not speak of God, help practitioners from a tradition where God is central?

FISCHER: Buddhism in general is not committed to God or no God. It’s committed to awakening. So taking this practice from Buddhism and applying it to Judaism, it’s a way to go deeper into our heart, our mind, our consciousness and in a Jewish context, when you do that I think, at the bottom, you find the divine. You find God, and there’s nothing in this practice nor is there anything in Buddhist or Zen thought that would deny this possibility.

OLSON: Fischer, who has served as abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, says it’s important on the spiritual journey not to ignore the emotional realm, which is sometimes overlooked in religious practice.

FISCHER: When we think we’re going to go from, you know, everyday life straight through to the divine, leaving out maybe all the many needs and feelings and human foibles and frailties that are actually there, they need to be processed and dealt with.

(speaking to retreat group): The thing about this practice that is, to me anyway, so sweet is that we are doing it together. We’re walking the big long line all together, like one person walking.

OLSON: Wherever Fischer teaches, he says the practice is an ongoing contemplation that leads beyond the self to a deep connection and compassion for others and all life.

FISCHER: If you stay with this practice long enough, you basically will work through all the knots and confusions that your life has sort of set up within you. The practice will help work through that below, below, below, below to the place where you see what’s really important to you, and what really matters to you is that you are alive, and you are alive in a world with others. You really feel like my life is a life of complete connection and it’s a life of joyful connection and concerned connection, and then you have to act on that.

OLSON: Fischer says the practice he teaches doesn’t conflict with other faith traditions, but can be helpful to anyone on the spiritual journey, a journey he calls “to the bottom of the heart.”

[Kate Olson, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly]
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