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Norman Fischer, one of the foremost students of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and a former abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, quickly came to love teaching at Google, and students there are fond of him as well. They find him unprepossessing and yet deeply insightful. He takes them places they aren’t accustomed to going, and according to Fischer the googlers take him to unaccustomed places as well. He’s called “the Abbot of Google.”
When I spoke with Fischer about Google, he was enthusiastic about his experience with SIY. “Googlers are not interested in being quiet and calm, they don’t want less stress, they’re not interested in religion. So why would I be there? Because the corporate culture supports people who sincerely want to make the world a better place. I’m a Buddhist teacher but I don’t teach Buddhism there. That hasn’t been hard, though, because my goal of personal integrity and the goals of the corporation and the participants seem to line up. Many people these days recognize that operating out of touch with your emotions yields bad results. It’s not going to work anymore to pay all of your attention to work life and none to your inner life. They're not separate.”
One reason Fischer likes making the trek from his Marin County home down to Silicon Valley is the spirit of inquisitiveness and debate he encounters in the high-tech crowd. As Meng pointed out to me, many of the people at Google “grew up being very scientific, very investigative. The best of scientific engineers do not accept authority. If you simply take things on authority, you never make a breakthrough.” Both Fischer and Meng feel that the googlers’ questions and doubts make for a deeper engagement with the material and the practices.
“Questioning,” Fischer tells me, “is built into the spirit of Buddhism. In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha explicitly tells people not to accept something just because the teacher said so, but over the generations debate and questioning have become very circumscribed. There are questions considered outside the sphere of questions that can be raised.”
Whereas his Buddhist students are more inclined to simply accept what he has to say, “the people at Google feel full permission to ask any question, whether it fits the realm of Buddhist discourse or not.” That’s “energizing and fun” for Fischer, because “questions that are not the usual questions give me a chance to rethink what I know, and understand and reframe it in new ways.”
Fischer also enjoys the Google ambience. “Their main value,” he says, “is not the hard-nosed, hard-edged, profit-seeking mind. It’s the creative mind, the altruistic mind. They really believe that if you give room to and foster the creative altruistic mind, you will make money and you’ll also be able to do good things.” Fischer allows that Google’s brief, stunning history has helped reinforce that belief, but whether it lasts or not, the belief and its beneficial results are very much intact at Google today.
Above all, Fischer has come to appreciate the workers—their diverse talents, their brilliance, their readiness to bring mindfulness into every aspect of their lives, and even their grace. “One time, during a break,” he tells me, “I was staring dumbfounded at a very sophisticated espresso machine. A participant came up, a young woman who had been a champion barista at Starbucks. She offered to make me a cup. She created magic before my eyes. In two minutes, she ground the beans, made the espresso, steamed and swirled the milk, and handed me a latte whose surface was the shape of a bodhi leaf. It tasted magnificent, and it’s the finest offering I’ve received as a Buddhist teacher.”
Mirabai Bush is the grande dame of the movement to bring contemplative practices into the mainstream of society. She’s a connector par excellence and was instrumental in the cross-pollination that brought Search Inside Yourself into being. When I asked her whether she thought SIY could be exported—made “open source,” as Meng said—Bush felt certain that it could be. “Of course, it would probably have to be adapted,” she said. “The whole point was Meng wanting to bring mindfulness first into Google. That required figuring out how to design and market it for Google people so they would see it as helpful for both their work and for becoming full human beings. But what motivates people will be different in different workplaces. SIY is a good curriculum and if it’s exported—and we’ve been talking about how to do that—it won’t simply be a Google thing.”
Bush noted that the accommodating environment at Google removes much of the stress that’s ubiquitous in the traditional workplace, but she says, “the stress of producing and creating is still there and when people take SIY they start to see underlying patterns that were causing stress. They begin to actually reduce stress, even though stress reduction wasn’t the door they entered through.
“On top of that, you have to appreciate that these are people who’ve gone to the best schools and been at the top of their classes,” she says. “They’ve been thinking algorithmic thoughts in front of screens from a young age, but maybe they've been less at ease in their interactions with others. Emotional intelligence can help them be better integrated people with a wider circle of friends and family, a sangha.”
Questions always arise, Bush says, when contemplative or spiritual practices are brought to any corporate setting. Will they be taught in merely a technical way with no larger ethical significance? Will they truly serve the participants’ lives or just the company’s goals of efficiency and profit? In her experience, “If programs are taught by good teachers with integrity, students glimpse the whole span of the dharma and it begins to have profound effects beyond the workplace.”
Bush feels we “could be right on the edge” of a world where many people will want mindfulness in their workplace, and equate emotional fitness with body fitness, as Meng hopes, but “the challenge will be to take it to scale. Big institutions do lots of training, so they’re inclined to think it will be easy to simply teach larger and larger numbers of people and to train trainers. But this kind of teaching is not simply about getting people to close their eyes and watch their breath. If you don’t have the experience of transformation through practice, you can’t really appreciate the depth required in a teacher of contemplative practice. There are not many Norman Fischers out there.”
That said, Bush is upbeat about Google and loves going there. She tells a story about teaching mindful emailing, in which participants are taught to take three breaths after typing an email, look again, imagine how the other person will receive it, visualizing both their mental and emotional response, and then alter it if need be.
“One person came back the next week,” she said, “and he was amazed at how much of a difference it made when he was reflective about email. ‘I wrote this whole email out,’ he said, ‘and I knew it was really important for the person to receive it with openness to my ideas. But the message was emotionally loaded, so he might not respond very openly. I looked at it carefully and reflected, and then I did something very radical. I called him on the phone.’ Others in the class nearly gasped, and then he said, ‘You know, it really worked!’”
Barry Boyce is senior editor of the Shambhala Sun and editor of the anthologies In the Face of Fear: Buddhist Wisdom for Difficult Times, and The Mindfulness Revolution.
Originally published in the September 2009 Shambhala Sun magazine.To order a trial subscription to Shambhala Sun,
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