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When you first sit down with Meng, he likes to share “life stories.” How did you get to where you are today? What has motivated you? He begins with his own. Meng’s life has taught him that persistent intention will bring the dawn of the next big idea. His life had changed significantly several times before the turning point of IPO Day. A dozen years prior, at the age of twenty-one, in a time of fervent searching for relief from the pain of life, he encountered an American Buddhist nun, Sangye Khadro, in his native Singapore. When he asked her what Buddhism had to say about suffering, she told him that all of Buddhism is about suffering. “It was like suddenly somebody opened the floodgates. I immediately understood,” he writes on his blog. He committed himself to serious Buddhist practice.
The next of his epiphanies, or “eureka moments” as Meng prefers to call them, came the year before the IPO, when he was strolling around the Google campus on a beautiful summer’s day and “something strange” happened. “A strong aspiration to save the world suddenly solidified in me, for no good reason at all,” he writes. “I just stopped and made a solemn promise to myself that one day, if I achieve financial independence, I will dedicate my life to humanity. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always had a desire to do something big and important for humanity. It was a thought that existed as a constant, faint background buzz in my mind. It just never really solidified until that lovely summer day.”
IPO Day was a day much like any other, Meng says. Apart from some high-fives and a “few very embarrassing seconds of victory dances,” little changed. Meng wrote code. The magnitude of the windfall didn’t really sink in, and in any case, Meng felt that by the time he was permitted to sell his stock, six months hence, it might well be worthless. As time wore on, though, what Meng calls “denial” began to wear off and, he says, “Sometime in early 2005, it hit me. I caught myself thinking, ‘Omigod, I actually have real money!’ ”
Meng has given some of that money away. He donated one million dollars to the Center for Compassion Research and Education at Stanford (which received seed money from the Dalai Lama), and he has started his own small foundation. But it’s clear that his deepest aspiration has been, in software engineering parlance, to “make SIY open source.” For that to happen, it had to succeed within Google.
Meng’s first foray into marrying meditation and Google was Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, but it didn’t attract much attention. “Stress reduction didn’t really fly here,” he told me. The hiring process at Google, Meng pointed out, is designed to draw out high achievers and idealists who have done something a little different, like hiking in Patagonia or going to war-torn areas to help children. “For high achievers, stress can be a badge of honor, and not many people will sign on for stress reduction, particularly those who need it the most. So I needed to go beyond stress reduction. I wanted to help people find ways to align mindfulness practice with what they want to achieve in life, so they can create peace and happiness in themselves, and at the same time create world peace.”
World peace—expressed with no irony—is the recurring theme for Meng, and his contemplations have led him to the firm conviction that meditation is the path to world peace, since all prior efforts, he says, have failed by “imposing social or political structures on people. They tried to create world peace from the outside in. My idea is to do the reverse, to create world peace from the inside out.” In Meng’s view, meditation is the methodology for creating peace from the inside out.
However, Meng feels that if meditation is not approached scientifically—if it is not “data-driven”—it won’t achieve widespread popularity. Very few fellow Buddhists he contacted showed much enthusiasm for the idea of proving the benefits of meditation scientifically, but Alan Wallace (whose Shamatha Project aims to prove the tangible benefits of intensive meditation) was very encouraging. When Wallace told him that the Dalai Lama had reached the same conclusion, Meng felt he was really on to something.
Yet, as Meng sees it, establishing meditation as scientifically valid is just one element in a larger campaign. For meditation to be widely adopted, people will need to think of it as something as normal and obviously beneficial as exercise. If meditation is regarded as a workout for the heart and mind, the thinking goes, it will start to become a part of the fabric of daily life. When Meng read Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, he felt he’d found his “vehicle for aligning meditation with real life.” Emotional intelligence seemed like a desirable feature that everyone would like to have and that would be appealing in a business context, as a means to make people more effective. “Google is, after all, a business, and there needs to be a business justification for whatever we do,” Meng concluded.
Meng felt EI would appeal to engineers and high-achieving people because “we may have some problems in dealing with difficult conversations. We either avoid them or go at them like rampaging geeks. Either way, we recognize it’s a deficiency.” Also, Meng says, software engineers may think that the most important thing is coding, and interacting with others takes a backseat, but as one gets into higher levels of engineering, “half or more of the work is about talking to people.” Learning to emerge from your shell and interact well is what emotional intelligence is all about.
Meng asked Mirabai Bush to help design a course. She brought in poet and Zen teacher Norman Fischer and persuaded Dan Goleman to help generate interest by giving a talk at Google. Peter Allen, director of Google’s employee education program, known as Google University, became SIY’s patron saint and an active participant. Eventually, Google University started the School of Personal Growth, which includes SIY, a course taught by Meng called “The Neuroscience of Empathy,” and a few other offerings. They frequently invite eminent guest speakers such as sleep scientist William Dement and neurobiologist Dan Siegel.
The current SIY curriculum has been designed by nine contributors, in typical Google teamwork style. The design team mixes scientific, meditation, and business expertise. In addition to Fischer and Bush, it includes, for example, the young Stanford professor Philippe Goldin, a leader in the budding field of contemplative neuroscience who told me that he’s fully in sync with Meng’s notion that contemplative practice may one day be seen as a beneficial workout for the mind; Marc Lesser, author of Z.B.A.: Zen of Business Administration; and Monika Broecker, who was instrumental in the development of the School of Personal Growth and is now an independent consultant and business coach.
SIY includes an introductory class, a full day of mindfulness practice, and six two-hour sessions, each a week apart. Class sizes range from twenty to fifty, depending on the time of year and whether an entire team or department has signed on for the course. The course begins with the “Neuroscience of Emotional Intelligence,” which shows participants that there is a growing body of scientific literature on the effects of training attention and emotion. In addition to basic mindfulness, the course includes instruction in journaling as a means of nonjudgmentally noticing mental content, mindful listening, walking meditation, mindful emailing, and a variety of other contemplative techniques. The latter stages of the course emphasize empathy using loving-kindness meditation, and social skills, including how to carry on difficult conversations. The word “Buddhism” is not used.
The first course ran from October to December in 2007. It garnered a lot of attention within Google and participants deemed it a success. It has been offered regularly ever since, and more than two hundred participants have gone through the program. In response to my request to interview participants, Google asked that, given the personal nature of SIY, I use anonymous reports of participants’ responses to the course. One reported discovering that a lot of body problems have emotional bases and found that they were sick a lot less often. Another talked of being less egocentric and yet better able to make decisions and stick with them. Another said that he “began to practice responding rather than reacting. I realized that my assumptions about the other shaped my reactiveness.” Googlers are encouraged to work in non-hierarchical teams of three to five, and one person said that being more relaxed in meetings seemed to bring out the creativity in others. One participant simply said, “This course changed my life.”