By Noah Shachtman
CHADE-MENG TAN IS PERCHED ON A CHAIR , his lanky body folded into a half-lotus position. “Close your eyes,” he says. His voice is a hypnotic baritone, slow and rhythmic, seductive and gentle. “Allow your attention to rest on your breath: The in-breath, the out-breath, and the spaces in between.” We feel our lungs fill and release. As we focus on the smallest details of our respiration, other thoughts—of work, of family, of money—begin to recede, leaving us alone with the rise and fall of our chests. For thousands of years, these techniques have helped put practitioners into meditative states. Today is no different. There’s a palpable silence in the room. For a moment, all is still. I take another breath.
The quiet is broken a few minutes later, when Meng, as he is known, declares the exercise over. We blink, smile at one another, and look around our makeshift zendo—a long, fluorescent-lit presentation room on Google’s corporate campus in Silicon Valley. Meng and most of his pupils are Google employees, and this meditation class is part of an internal course called Search Inside Yourself. It’s designed to teach people to manage their emotions, ideally making them better workers in the process. “Calm the mind,” Meng says, getting us ready for the next exercise: a meditation on failure and success.
More than a thousand Googlers have been through Search Inside Yourself training. Another 400 or so are on the waiting list and take classes like Neural Self-Hacking and Managing Your Energy in the meantime. Then there is the company’s bimonthly series of “mindful lunches,” conducted in complete silence except for the ringing of prayer bells, which began after the Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh visited in 2011. The search giant even recently built a labyrinth for walking meditations.
It’s not just Google that’s embracing Eastern traditions. Across the Valley, 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. There’s a Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institutenow teaching the Google meditation method to whoever wants it. The cofounders of Twitter and Facebook have made contemplative practices key features of their new enterprises, holding regular in-office meditation sessions and arranging for work routines that maximize mindfulness. Some 1,700 people showed up at a Wisdom 2.0 conference held in San Francisco this winter, with top executives from LinkedIn, Cisco, and Ford featured among the headliners.
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.
MANY OF THE PEOPLE who shaped the personal computer industry and the Internet were once members of the hippie counterculture. So an interest in Eastern faiths is all but hardwired into the modern tech world. Steve Jobs spent months searching for gurus in India and was married by a Zen priest. Before he became an American Buddhist pioneer, Jack Kornfield ran one of the first mainframes at Harvard Business School.
“All that woo-woo mystical stuff is so retrograde. This is training the brain.” -Kenneth Folk
But in today’s Silicon Valley, there’s little patience for what many are happy to dismiss as “hippie bullshit.” Meditation here isn’t an opportunity to reflect upon the impermanence of existence but a tool to better oneself and improve productivity. That’s how Bill Duane, a pompadoured onetime engineer with a tattoo of a bikini-clad woman on his forearm, frames Neural Self-Hacking, an introductory meditation class he designed for Google. “Out in the world, a lot of this stuff is pitched to people in yoga pants,” he says. “But I wanted to speak to my people. I wanted to speak to me. I wanted to speak to the grumpy engineer who may be an atheist, who may be a rationalist.”
Duane’s pitch starts with neuroscience and evolutionary biology. “We’re basically the descendants of nervous monkeys,” he says, the kind with hair-trigger fight-or-flight responses. In the modern workplace, these hyperactive reflexes are now a detriment, turning minor squabbles into the emotional equivalents of kill-or-be-killed showdowns. In such situations, the amygdala—the region of the brain believed to be responsible for processing fear—can override the rest of the mind’s ability to think logically. We become slaves to our monkey minds.
Repeated studies have demonstrated that meditation can rewire how the brain responds to stress. Boston University researchers showed that after as little as three and a half hours of meditation training, subjects tend to react less to emotionally charged images. Other research suggests that meditation improves working memory and executive function. And several studies of long-term practitioners show an increased ability to concentrate on fast-changing stimuli. One paper cited by the Google crew even implies that meditators are more resistant to the flu.
But Googlers don’t take up meditation just to keep away the sniffles or get a grip on their emotions. They are also using it to understand their coworkers’ motivations, to cultivate their own “emotional intelligence”—a characteristic that tends to be in short supply among the engineering set. “Everybody knows this EI thing is good for their career,” says Search Inside Yourself founder Meng. “And every company knows that if their people have EI, they’re gonna make a shitload of money.”
Meng has had quite a career himself, joining Google in 2000 as employee number 107 and working on mobile search. But for years, his attempts to bring meditation into the office met with limited success. It was only in 2007, when he packaged contemplative practices in the wrapper of emotional intelligence, that he saw demand spike. Now there are dozens of employee development programs at Google that incorporate some aspect of meditation or mindfulness. And Meng—who was born in Singapore and was turned on to Buddhism by an American nun—has slowly ascended to icon status within the company. More than one Search Inside Yourself student has asked Meng for his autograph.
There is in fact little data to support the notion that meditation is good for Google’s bottom line, just a few studies from outfits like the Conference Board showing that emotionally connected employees tend to remain at their current workplaces. Still, the company already tends to its employees’ physical needs with onsite gyms, subsidized massages, and free organic meals to keep them productive. Why not help them search for meaning and emotional connection as well?
Duane, for one, credits Google’s meditation program with upgrading both his business and personal life. It wasn’t long ago that he was a stress case, and with good reason: He was leading a 30-person site-reliability team while dealing with his father’s life-threatening heart disease. “My typical coping strategy—the bourbon and cheeseburger method—wasn’t working,” he says. Then Duane attended a lecture Meng arranged on the neuroscience of mindfulness and quickly adopted a meditation practice of his own.
Duane believes the emotional regulation he gained from meditation helped him cope with his father’s eventual death. The increased ability to focus, he says, was a major factor in his promotion to a management post where he oversaw nearly 150 Googlers. In January he decided to leave the company’s cadre of engineers and concentrate full-time on bringing meditation to more of the organization. Google executives, who have put mindfulness at the center of their internal training efforts, OK’d the switch.
Duane still doesn’t have much use for hippies. He still professes to be a proud empiricist. But when I walk back into the Search Inside Yourself class, neither he nor any of the other Googlers seem at all fazed when Meng tells us to imagine the goodness of everyone on the planet and to visualize that goodness as a glowing white light.
As before, Meng’s voice lowers and slows to a crawl. And, of course, we close our eyes. “When you breathe in, breathe in all that goodness into your heart. Using your heart, multiply that goodness by 10,” he says, in a variation on a Tibetan Tonglen exercise. “When you breathe out, send all that goodness to the whole world. And if it’s useful to you, you may visualize yourself breathing out white light—brilliant white light—representing this abundance of goodness.” We exhale. I actually feel a buzzing on the underside of my skull as I try to imagine pure love. For a minute, I forget that we’re in a room ordinarily reserved for corporate presentations.
SEARCH INSIDE YOURSELF might have remained a somewhat isolated phenomenon in the Valley if a mindfulness instructor named Soren Gordhamerhadn’t found himself divorced, broke, out of a job, and stuck in the town of Dixon, New Mexico (population 1,500). Gordhamer, who had spent years teaching yoga and meditation in New York City’s juvenile detention centers, was feeling increasingly beleaguered by his seemingly uncontrollable Twitter habit. He decided to write a book—Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected—that offered tips for using technology in a mindful manner.
The book wasn’t exactly a best seller. But Gordhamer struck a nerve when he described how hard it was to focus in our always-on culture. By providing constant access to email, tweets, and Facebook updates, smartphones keep users distracted, exploiting the same psychological vulnerability as slot machines: predictable input and random payouts. They feed a sense that any pull of the lever, or Facebook refresh, could result in an information jackpot.
And so he got the idea to host a conference where the technology and contemplative communities could hash out the best ways to incorporate these tools into our lives—and keep them from taking over. The event, billed as Wisdom 2.0, was held in April 2010 and drew a couple hundred people.
That was three years ago; since then attendance at the now annual conference has shot up 500 percent. In 2013 nearly 1,700 signed up to hear headliners like Arianna Huffington, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, Twitter cofounder Evan Williams, and, of course, Meng talk about how they run their enterprises mindfully. Gordhamer has become a Silicon Valley superconnector, with an array of contacts that would make an ordinary entrepreneur burst with envy. He now leads private retreats for the technorati, and more conferences are in the works—one just for women, another to be held in New York City. “Everywhere you turn at Wisdom,” says PayPal cofounder Luke Nosek, “it’s like, ‘Oh my God, you’re here too?’”
ON AN ENCLOSED porch outside the exhibition hall at this year’s Wisdom 2.0 event, Zen-monk-turned-CEO Marc Lesser talks about his plans to take the Search Inside Yourself training to companies everywhere. Plantronics, Farmers Insurance, and VMware have already signed up. Nearby, companies promoting mindfulness apps and “cloud-based platforms for market professionals” hawk their wares while an acoustic guitar player strums. On the main stage, executives discuss how they maintain mindful practices during the workweek: One wakes up early and focuses on his upcoming meetings; another takes a moment to pause as she dries her hands in the bathroom. In the cavernous, wood-paneled main hall, oversize screens show a silhouette of a brain connected to a lotus flower and the logos for Twitter and Facebook.
One of the reasons that Wisdom 2.0—and the broader movement it represents—has become so big, so quickly, is that it stripped away the dogma and religious trappings. But it’s hard not to consider what gets lost in this whittling process. Siddhartha famously abandoned the trappings of royalty to sit under the Bodhi Tree and preach about the illusion of the ego. Seeing the megarich take the stage to trumpet his practices is a bit jarring.
It also raises the uncomfortable possibility that these ancient teachings are being used to reinforce some of modern society’s uglier inequalities. Becoming successful, powerful, and influential can be as much about what you do outside the office as what you do at work. There was a time when that might have meant joining a country club or a Waspy church. Today it might mean showing up at TED. Looking around Wisdom 2.0, meditation starts to seem a lot like another secret handshake to join the club. “There is some legitimate interest among businesspeople in contemplative practice,” Kenneth Folk says. “But Wisdom 2.0? That’s a networking opportunity with a light dressing of Buddhism.”
ON THE THIRD DAY of this year’s Wisdom 2.0 conference, Facebook engineering director Arturo Bejar takes the stage with Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s English interpreter and right hand in North America. They tell the crowd about an experiment going on at Facebook that is at once subtle, a little strange, and potentially of deep significance. While many other Silicon Valley companies are teaching their employees to meditate, Facebook is trying to inject a Buddhist-inspired concept of compassion into the core of its business.
Bejar had been a somewhat reluctant guest at the first Wisdom 2.0 conference in 2010. But he was struck by an onstage conversation about kindness with American Buddhist trailblazer Jon Kabat-Zinn. If people truly see one another, Kabat-Zinn said, they’re more likely to be empathetic and gentle toward each other. Bejar knew something about depending on the kindness of others. As a geeky teenager in Mexico City in the 1980s, he snuck into a tech convention by bribing the guards with candy bars; a local IBM exec was so impressed he gave Bejar a job. Then Bejar had his college education paid for by a friend of a family friend: Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak.
Buddhism teaches that we are all interconnected. And nowhere is that more apparent than on Facebook.
After hearing Kabat-Zinn, Bejar began looking for ways to bring some of that compassion to Facebook, where bullying and flame wars were all too common among users and the tools for reporting offensive content weren’t terribly effective. Bejar set up a series of “compassion research days” at Facebook and brought in Buddhist-inspired academics from Berkeley, Yale, and Stanford to see if they could help.
The researchers’ advice: Make the tools more personal, more conversational, and more emotional. For instance, let people express their vulnerability and distress when asking for a problematic picture or status update to be removed. The changes were small at first. Instead of tagging a post as “Embarrassing,” users clicked a new button that read “It’s embarrassing.” But those three letters made an enormous difference. It turned the report from a seemingly objective classification of content into a customer’s subjective, personal response. Use of the tool shot up 30 percent almost immediately. This in a field where a change of a few percentage points either way is considered tectonic.
Further fixes followed: personalized messages, more polite requests to take down a photo or a post, more culture-specific pleas. (In India, for example, online insults directed at someone’s favorite celebrity tend to cut deeper than they do in the US.) “Hey, this photo insults someone important to me,” reads one of the new automatically generated messages. “Would you please take it down?”
It’d be easy to be cynical about this effort—to laugh at people who over- identify with a Bollywood starlet or to question why meditation teachers, the masters of directing attention, are working with the social networks that cause so much distraction. But when you sit with Bejar and his colleagues at Facebook as they review these reports—when you see all the breakups, all the embarrassing photos, the tiffs between mothers and daughters—it’s hard not to feel sad and awed at the amount of confusion and hurt. Over a million of these disputes happen every week on Facebook. If you had a God’s-eye view of it all, wouldn’t you want to handle that pain with gentle hands?
Buddhists have been preaching for centuries that we are all fundamentally interconnected, that the differences between us literally do not exist. That is the basis of Buddhist compassion. And there is no place where this interconnectedness is more obviously revealed than on Facebook. Arturo Bejar isn’t running off to a monastery; his personal meditation practice, if you can call it that, is taking a walk with his camera. But incorporating Buddhism’s compassionate kernel into a billion-person social network? That reflects a level of insight many people will never reach, no matter how long they sit cross-legged.
ONE NIGHT DURING the Wisdom 2.0 conference, I meet Kenneth Folk and some of his protè9gè9s at a vegetarian restaurant run by the local Zen center. At first the conversation doesn’t sound so different from what I might hear at Wisdom 2.0: the neuroscience of mindfulness, the remixing of ancient traditions, the meditation-as-fitness riff.
Then things turn kaleidoscopic. After the mesquite-grilled brochettes with Hodo Soy tofu, Vincent Horn, who runs the popular Buddhist Geeks website and podcast, tells me that everyone I’m eating with is enlightened.
Horn drops this casually, as if he were discussing his hair color or the fact that all of the men are wearing pants. I’m not sure how to respond. As Jay Michaelson — the guy sitting to my left, and the author of Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment — gleefully notes, talking openly about enlightenment is as big a taboo as there is in modern American Buddhism, where the exploratory journey trumps any metaphysical destination. Enlightenment implies sainthood, perfect wisdom, an end to the cycle of birth and death. Michaelson, Folk, and Horn are polishing off their second bottle of red. Is that who they think they are?
Folk’s journey toward enlightenment, he later explains to me, started in 1982 when he ran out of cocaine. An addict, he took the only drugs he could find: four hits of LSD. He saw a glass tube open up into the sky and merge with beautiful white light. “My drug addiction vanished in that moment,” he recalls. It sent him on a decades-long journey to re-create the experience. He spent three months on a silent retreat in Massachusetts and another six at a Burmese monastery, wearing a sarong in winter and eating his final meal of the day at 10 am. He found himself hitting ecstatic heights. But he also found that, at times, meditation could lead to rather horrible depression.
The monks of Burma told Folk that the depressive episodes were the completely predictable result of his meditative work and that they would soon be over. He was on a well-worn path through 16 stages of insight, each one bringing him closer to enlightenment. They laid out a map of his inner voyage and told Folk precisely where he was. Folk followed their plan and, he says, eventually became enlightened.
It was a radical shift from the method traditionally used by mystics to impart wisdom, in which a master cryptically pointed the acolyte in the direction he should go. And Folk loved it. Enlightenment wasn’t some completely mysterious, ungraspable goal. He returned to America ready to preach a gospel of jail-broken enlightenment: The source code for spiritual awakening is open to anyone. “Enlightenment is real. It is reproducible,” he says. “It happens to real human beings. It happened to me.”
Not surprisingly, Folk’s doctrine was rather attractive to a set of seekers who were raised with the idea that information should be free and status updates should be shared publicly. He and Horn started contributing to a web forum called the Dharma Overground, founded by Daniel Ingram, the soundman for one of Folk’s old bands. It became the place online to share tips on the most effective means to promote enlightenment, to brag about the mystical powers that come with intensive meditation, and to chart their progress through the four rounds of 16 stages that lead to a final awakening. Ingram wrote “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book,” which became a cult classic, in part because it likened meditation to a contemplative videogame. Episodes of Horn’s “Buddhist Geeks” podcast are now downloaded regularly by 100,000 people. On his website, Horn is constantly introducing new forms of mindfulness for the social media crowd, from concentration- boosting apps to something he calls #Hashtag Meditation.
But until recently, Folk himself remained relatively unknown. He lived with his mother-in-law in a New York City suburb, teaching meditation over Skype. Then, in the spring of 2011, Luke Nosek—a partner at one of Silicon Valley’s most successful venture capital firms—emailed Folk from Manhattan and insisted they get together. Like, immediately. “I have a spaceship,” said Nosek, whose fund owned a chunk of the private rocket company SpaceX. “What planet do I have to fly to so I can meet you tonight?”
Nosek had a history with meditation. But nothing like this. When he and Folk meditated, it brought him into a state of such utter focus, he says, that “I could see the patterns of threads in my socks with more detail than I had in my entire life.” Nosek and several other execs paid to move Folk out to San Francisco so he could start opening some of Silicon Valley’s most influential minds.
In some ways, Folk’s seemingly mystical enlightenment gospel would appear to be a bad fit for the titan-of-industry set—especially compared with the business-friendly message found at Search Inside Yourself or Wisdom 2.0. And several established Buddhist leaders who came to this year’s conference were openly wary of what they saw as an unhealthy fixation on the brass ring of enlightenment. “If someone really wants it, I’ll teach it,” says Kornfield, cofounder of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center north of San Francisco. “But a strong goal orientation can heighten unhealthy ambition and self-criticism. It doesn’t really heighten wisdom.”
Folk’s doctrine may be less radical than it seems, however. Yes, he calls himself enlightened. But he doesn’t think of himself as some holy man. To him, the old stories of Buddhist saints shaking off their cravings for food or sex are just that: stories. “Sainthood is a relic of the past,” he says.
Nor is Folk interested in re-creating that LSD-induced peak anymore. “It’s a loser’s game,” he says. Better to take every experience as it comes and then let it pass. (You can’t hold on to those feelings anyway.) Enlightenment may be hackable and shareable, but only if its meaning radically changes. To Folk, being enlightened is about “meta-OK-ness”—meaning that it’s OK even when it’s not OK—which he says anyone who tries can achieve.
AT SEARCH Inside Yourself, Meng starts with a seemingly small request for Googlers to pair off and take turns meditating on each other’s happiness. I sit across from Duane, the tattooed former engineer, and do my best to send him good vibes. Not only is he a nice guy who’s been through some pain, he’s at least indirectly responsible for the tools I use a thousand times a day. I want him and every other Googler to be their highest selves—centered, focused, calm, and content. Perhaps I can help head off a future Google Buzz.
But Meng has another goal in mind for this exercise: to help his colleagues develop mental habits conducive to kindness. It’s these sorts of meditations, Meng tells me later, that ultimately led him to “discover the ability to access joy on demand. After a while, it became a skill.” He smiles and gives me a look as if to say: No, seriously.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at the claim. Last year Meng published a Search Inside Yourself book. The introduction proclaims him to be “a closet Bodhisattva”—a Buddhist saint, next in holiness to Siddhartha himself.
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.”
Suddenly acid-inspired Kenneth Folk seems downright grounded in comparison. It’s hard to deny that meditation can have remarkable benefits. But world peace? Sainthood? That may be a bit of a stretch. Steve Jobs spent lots of time in a lotus position; he still paid slave wages to his contract laborers, berated subordinates, and parked his car in handicapped stalls.
One of Meng’s students raises her hand. This saintly training, this randomly wishing for others’ happiness—it doesn’t seem all that genuine, she says: “It felt like I was saying the words, but I wasn’t actually doing anything by thinking that.”
Duane tells her it’s OK to feel that way. The practice will help you later, he says, even if it comes across as empty at the time. “There’s definitely a fake-it-till-you-make-it aspect to it,” he says.
Oh no, Meng answers. It’s the first time in the whole class he’s corrected anyone. “It’s not faking it until you make it,” he says. “It’s faking it until you become it.”
The session ends and we walk out into the sun feeling slightly dazed. The next lesson begins in five minutes.
ARTURO BEJAR: The Facebook engineer rewrote the network’s alerts to be more compassionate.
Contributing editor Noah Shachtman (noah.shachtman@gmail .com) wrote about cracking an ancient secret code in issue 20.12.