Former Google engineer Chade- Meng Tan had one of the most unusual titles in Silicon Valley.
His business card read simply “Jolly Good Fellow” followed by the tag line “which nobody can deny.”
Tan earned his title in part by developing a course at the search engine giant in meditation and “mindfulness” – what Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, describes as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Tan’s seven-week class became so popular that there was a half-yearlong waiting list to get in.
Tan went on to write the best-selling Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace), before leaving Google to found a company of his own.
His goal: to take the Google mindfulness- for-the-corporate-world approach on the road.
That approach – which Tan’s Search Inside Yourself organization describes as “a highly interactive course that blends evidence-based mindfulness, emotional intelligence and neuroscience” – came to Israel recently, courtesy of Yaakov Lehman, who has his own creative title – chief executive integrator – at Wisdom Tribe, a local group that seeks “to build a bridge between ancient Jewish wisdom and the global mindfulness movement.”
ON TWO warm spring days at the Wix Business Hub at the picturesque Tel Aviv Port, 70 people paid upward of $1,000 each to learn how adopting the principles of mindfulness can turn them into more productive and better engaged managers at work.
As someone who has participated in half a dozen more traditional meditation retreats, I wanted to see whether Tan’s system could teach in two days what it usually takes a week (or a lifetime, really) to achieve. The answer is mixed.
Search Inside Yourself (SIY) Tel Aviv was led by two enthusiastic facilitators who presented a kind of “Mindfulness Greatest Hits,” backed up by lots of scientific research and studies, all wrapped in the language of business.
The latter is deliberate. As Tan writes in his book, “Being very skeptical and scientifically minded, I would be deeply embarrassed to teach anything without a strong scientific basis.”
That worked to his advantage. “My engineering-oriented brain helped me translate teachings from the language of contemplative traditions into language that compulsively pragmatic people like me can process.”
Everything you’d learn in a weeklong retreat is there – sitting meditation, focusing on your breath, guided body scan, gratitude, mindful eating.
But with time so limited and with most of the participants new to mindfulness, everything was compacted into short attention-span bites.
So instead of half an hour of silently sitting, the instructors would give a 30-minute lecture, complete with PowerPoint slides, followed by a mere five-minute practice session.
There were also activities that seemed more like something you’d learn in a self-help workshop – or maybe in a marriage counseling session.
Like “mindful listening” (where one side talks for two minutes while the other says nothing). Or “mindful conversations” (where your partner adds a few key phrases at the end, like “What I heard you say was...,” then the two sides switch).
The traditional “loving-kindness” practice, where you silently envision people to whom you want to beam good wishes, was transformed into a kind of couple’s exercise where you gaze into your partner’s eyes while channeling blessings. It’s effective, but also unnervingly intimate, especially with someone you just met. I’m used to the custom practiced by many on meditation retreats where people avoid any eye contact whatsoever.
ALL THIS points to perhaps the biggest distinction between SIY and a silent retreat – it’s not silent. Participants are encouraged to share their reactions with the group after each exercise. Lunch was burgers and networking.
Phones are discouraged, but not banned.
At a silent retreat, you’re exhorted not to read or write – even privately in your own room at night. At SIY, however, there was a “journaling” exercise where we were told to write down our answers to several prompts, like “my biggest challenge is…” or “things that give me pleasure are…” As one of the two facilitators, Lori Schwenbeck, who flew in from California, said, “We are ‘operationalizing’ mindfulness for business.”
It seems to be working. Nathalie Garson, a Jerusalem-based strategist and business coach, debated whether to attend Search Inside Yourself. “I practice meditation and I’ve been to India, but I found that it was disconnected from my professional practice. Google and mindfulness are two words not usually connected.”
Since attending the seminar, Garson says she has started integrating mindfulness into her consulting work. “It’s really helped empower some of my clients with business decisions they had to make,” she says.
SIY is full of useful tips for business.
If you’re triggered by someone at work and tempted to respond quickly, practice SBNRR: Stop. Breathe. Notice where you’re at. Reflect on what you really want to say. Then finally you can Respond. It works in person and for email, too.
Want to develop compassion for a difficult business colleague? Here’s another acronym: JLM for “Just Like Me.” Think to yourself: “This person has a body and a mind, feelings, emotions and thoughts, just like me. This person wants to be free from pain and suffering, just like me.”
When you arrive at a business meeting, encourage everyone to do a one-minute “check-in” before jumping into the agenda. One doesn’t automatically shed the lingering effects of a difficult commute, a contentious previous meeting or a tricky project just because the door has closed and the room has been called to order.
SIY has the potential to reach many more people than a traditional mindfulness program for another reason – and it’s a biggie: it’s the kind of seminar you can get your work to pay for – or bring in-house.
“I’d recommend that companies offer Search Inside Yourself internally, more than as something offered for the public” as it was in Tel Aviv, Garson says. “It would be more productive if you do it with people from your own team.”
SIY founder Chade-Meng Tan says the potential goes beyond just work.
“I believe the skills offered here will help create greater peace and happiness in your life and the lives of those around you, and that peace and happiness can ultimately spread around the world,” he writes in his latest book, one of several self-help Search Inside Yourself titles.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist leader, once said, “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”
Two days of “searching inside yourself” in a business setting is an excellent way to start the process of honing that quality.
The author is a freelance writer who specializes in technology, startups and the entrepreneurs behind them. www.bluminteractivemedia.com.