More than a year ago, we reported on the growing trend of mindfulness training in Silicon Valley, led by Google.
Things haven’t slowed down since then.
Last week, Wired magazine ran a piece that describes how “quiet contemplation is seen as the new caffeine, the fuel that allegedly unlocks productivity and creative bursts. Classes in meditation and mindfulness—paying close, nonjudgmental attention—have become staples at many of the region’s most prominent companies.” Link to it right here.
The crux seems to be — at least from Wired’s point of view — that these old traditions suddenly are at the heart of companies that have made millions of people want things they didn’t even know existed. Or things that didn’t exist.
You get the idea.
These companies are doing more than simply seizing on Buddhist practices. Entrepreneurs and engineers are taking millennia-old traditions and reshaping them to fit the Valley’s goal-oriented, data-driven, largely atheistic culture. Forget past lives; never mind nirvana. The technology community of Northern California wants return on its investment in meditation. “All the woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde,” says Kenneth Folk, an influential meditation teacher in San Francisco. “This is about training the brain and stirring up the chemical soup inside.”
It can be tempting to dismiss the interest in these ancient practices as just another neo-spiritual fad from a part of the country that’s cycled through one New Age after another. But it’s worth noting that the prophets of this new gospel are in the tech companies that already underpin so much of our lives. And these firms are awfully good at turning niche ideas into things that hundreds of millions crave.
Enlightenment for the masses. Really. Here’s what Google’s lead trainer in this area has in mind:
Despite the language of neuroscience and business advancement, Search Inside Yourself is ultimately an attempt to replicate Meng’s elevated mind-state—first in Googlers and then in the rest of us. “We can all become saints, because saintly habits are trainable,” he tells the class. “I hope you all do.”
And if we start such training, Meng insists, we won’t just be helping ourselves. “My dream is to create the conditions for world peace, and to do that by creating the conditions for inner peace and compassion on a global scale,” he writes. “Fortunately, a methodology for doing that already exists … Most of us know it as meditation.”
So, maybe the way to nirvana is via iTunes? If it comes, does it matter the avenue?
And it is what it sounds like. A piece about a popular “mindfulness” course that Google offers as one of its many employee perks. You probably have heard of others: bowling alleys (I’ve seen one), the bikes on campus, massage chairs.
For all its cushy side benefits, make no mistake: Google is a high-pressure place to work. (It is, though, one devoid of ties, and as a person who has had meetings on the main Google campus with tie-wearing crowds, I can assure you that you get lots of stares.)
And so the company is doing something. Offering employees a way to better handle the stress of the workplace and, in the bargain, creating better, more innovating employees.
Along with studies of yoga (and we’ve heard from the lead on the study Eddie Stern is involved in, and we will have more from him shortly), this type of “mainstreaming” of what I’ll broadly call “alternative health methods” is a way toward acceptance here in the West of yoga, meditation, etc.
It’s all about credibility. If it works for Google, you can figure that Google’s competition and collaborators will give it a look or two or three.
Here’s a little taste from the Times piece:
Little wonder, then, that among the hundreds of free classes that Google offers to employees here, one of the most popular is called S.I.Y., for “Search Inside Yourself.” It is the brainchild of Chade-Meng Tan, 41, a tall, thin, soft-spoken engineer who arrived at Google in 2000 as Employee No. 107.
Think of S.I.Y. as the Zen of Google. Mr. Tan dreamed up the course and refined it with the help of nine experts in the use of mindfulness at work. And in a time when Google has come under new scrutiny from European and United States regulators over privacy and other issues, a class in mindfulness might be a very good thing.
The class has three steps: attention training, self-knowledge and self-mastery, and the creation of useful mental habits.
For the next two hours, employees partner up and perform exercises to identify and share emotions. The teachers set a gentle, welcoming tone, so the class offers students a place to question why and how they behave. Here, simply wielding superior technical skills or ferocious intelligence won’t cut it.
Like Mr. Tan, many S.I.Y. students are highly educated immigrants from Asia. Some of their peers are already millionaires. This course challenges them to examine how their choices affect their work and relationships.
“We need an expert,” Mr. Tan says as the class begins. “That expert is you. This class is to help you discover what you already know.” To illustrate his point, he shows a slide of a pile of four smooth polished stones, balanced atop one another. “We’re looking for alignment, finding our deepest values, envisioning how they’ll take us to our destination and the resilience we need to achieve that.”
Can S.I.Y. translate to other companies and corporate cultures? One of its tenets is mindful e-mailing. Mr. Tan says it’s too easy to focus on the message we’re sending, and not on its recipients and the possible impact on them. When recipients don’t know the intent behind the e-mail — as is often the case — they tend to assume the worst, like anger or frustration on the sender’s part. “We frequently get offended or frightened by e-mails that were never intended to offend or frighten,” Mr. Tan writes in his book. “If we are emotionally unskillful, then we react with offense or fear, and then all hell breaks loose.”
“Emotionally unskillful” sounds an awful lot like samskaras to me or simply reacting with too much attachment.
A separate piece floating around and, I guess, worth a look on this topic — bringing yoga into the mainstream — is at the Huffington Post. I’ll admit that HuffPo isn’t on my regular reading list (I know, I know, it just won a Pulitzer). So, I’ll just point you toward the review/reflection on this topic and our favorite author William Broad by Stewart Lawrence. A perhaps overly lengthy excerpt:
What’s the solution? Yoga needs to “grow up,” Broad says, and focus more squarely on its healing mission. And the best way to start is to create a more professionally trained and licensed teaching corps, operating under some form of public authority, with the power to ride herd on the industry and to crack heads on abusers and charlatans, if necessary. Many countries in Europe, and even in India, the yoga motherland, take their yoga so seriously that they treat it as a collective public good, and like all such goods, subject it to state guidelines and to at least a modicum of regulation. But not in America, Broad notes. Free market fundamentalism and a near-hysteria over religious “freedom,” two of the hallmarks of our conservative political culture, have also, oddly enough, suffused the yoga movement. As Broad documents, organized yoga “lobbyists” have already beaten back legislation in New York and Virginia that would have imposed state vocational training guidelines on yoga teachers, just as it does on nurses, chiropractors, and other healing professionals. And more recent legislation in Texas and elsewhere that would require yoga studios to pay sales taxes is also under siege.
Broad suggests that this defensive posture is a dead-end for yoga. Defending an esoteric sub-culture prevents yoga from fully embracing the American mainstream, and sets the interests of the yoga studios and their teachers against the needs of their students and the broader public. In his Epilogue, Broad envisions a time when yoga has moved beyond its traditional know-nothing attitude toward science while the mainstream health and medical establishment has also become increasingly open to “non-traditional” medicine. Government authorities would agree to fund large-scale clinical trials to more thoroughly document yoga’s manifold contributions to “disease prevention and treatment”. And yoga, with the help of professional accreditation, and a more sober and mature attitude toward its own corporate and social responsibility, could become more accepted as a modern, time-tested “wellness” practice, accessible to the broad masses, not just to a relatively privileged few.
A convergence of science and spirituality? That sounds like a powerful “yoking of opposites,” the very essence of yogic philosophy. But that convergence won’t happen, Broad suggests, as long as the industry clings to its worst eccentricities, and refuses to subject itself to public scrutiny and oversight. If yoga really wants to grow — and to “serve,” one of its cherished ambitions — it can’t, like a rebellious infant, stay in “Child’s Pose” forever. It needs to embrace the world like a trusted friend, rather than indulging its penchant for hollow consumerism and seduction. Only then, he suggests, can yoga truly “soar.”
I’m certainly not advocating that yoga needs to change itself to enter the mainstream. I mean more that it has to play the game, but not be affected by that game. You know — working in the world without attachment.