Google’s Zen qualities

As I eye new developments like Google glasses, Google Drive, Google Car, I am fully aware of how much Google permeates my life between my phone, email, docs, maps, reader and more.

As much as Google makes me a little anxious (Why do my search habits follow me around? Will the company suddenly start charging for currently free products?) despite its “Don’t be evil” mantra, its inner-workings intrigue me as much or more as Apple entrances others.

A new piece from the New York Times offers some of those inner workings, focusing on how some employees deal with the stress of working at the company.

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.

If it sounds a bit touchy-feely, consider this: More than 1,000 Google employees have taken the class, and there’s a waiting list of 30 when it’s offered, four times a year. The class accepts 60 people and runs seven weeks.

The Zen of Google, huh? Are there religious underpinnings here?

But what is Mr. Tan’s ultimate goal? A Buddhist for many years, he says without irony that he wants to create world peace. “I was always very different from the other kids,” he says. “I have an I.Q. of 156. I didn’t play sports. I thought big. I thought I could achieve great things. I don’t want to sound megalomaniac, but my whole life is about doing something for the world, from as far back as I can remember.”

Ah ha. There it is. The reporter discovers that Mr. Tan is Buddhist, but the story does little to explain whether the course has Buddhist ideas or even Buddhist motivations behind his desire to spread his thinking.

Born and raised in Singapore, Mr. Tan describes his childhood as “very unhappy.”

“It was the geek thing,” he says. He taught himself how to write software code at the age of 12. And by 15, he had won his first national academic award. At 17, he was one of four members of the national software championship team.

“In Singapore, the way to distinguish yourself is to win competitions,” he says. But public attention and external rewards brought him no satisfaction. “It wasn’t making a difference,” he says. “I wasn’t any happier. There was a compulsion to be the best.”

So was the turning point happen when he became Buddhist? When did that come in? There’s one other brief mention of faith in the story.

Mr. Tan likes to refer to the example of Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk once described by a British newspaper as the happiest person in the world. At first, that rang hollow to Mr. Chang. “Matthieu’s a monk; I don’t want to be a monk,” he says. “But Meng was able to make that bridge for me. He presented S.I.Y. the way we all present to one another: here’s my premise, here’s my control, here’s my experiment.”

There isn’t necessarily an obvious religion angle here, but it could use just a little more detail in the same way that it explains Mr. Tan’s upbringing and eventual employment at Google. Without more, the mention of his faith is like describing his height or the kind of car he drives, color for the story with little connection to the main point of the piece.

Please excuse me while I go sit quietly for long, unproductive minutes. Because Google tells me so.

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  • Ira Rifkin

    Think of S.I.Y. as the Zen of Google.

    One problem here is a failure to differentiate between Buddhism’s varied branches. Its no different than assuming that anyone calling themself a Christian is a conservative evangelical.

    The Zen of Google may be a cutsey phrase but its a cliche, and an incorrect one at that in this context. Mindfulness – the Buddhist offshoot Google has taken to – is a Westernized, watered-down version of South Asian Vipassana. It’s a long, long way from Zen.

    Moreover Matthieu Ricard, referenced by Tan, is the Dalai Lama’s longtime primary French translator and a monk in the Tibetan tradition – again, a very long way from Zen.

    Mindfulness – employed everywhere from prisons to hospitals to corporate board rooms to help reduce stress and anxiety – as it is gnerally presented in the US, is the least “religious” of the various Buddhist schools now available. It can be presented with no references at all to “spirituality” or “religion,” but simply as “psychological.”

    But like hatha yoga, mindfulness does indeed have religious origins – which makes it a fair target for the “is it?” or “isn’t it? debate presented in this post.

    One last indulgence:

    Please excuse me while I go sit quietly for long, unproductive minutes.

    Taken at face value, this is a gross misreading of what happens in meditation/contemplation.

  • Richard Mounts

    Ira,

    Sitting quietly for long unproductive minutes is not at all a gross misreading of what happens in MY meditation/contemplation.

    But I believe that we can agree that there is definately a “ghost” in this story–of course I’ve come to expect that in the NYT.

    By the way, Sarah, why do I imagine you with a blank stare and a monotone voice when I read, “Because Google tells me so.” ;-)

  • Jerry

    Ira you took the words out of my mind and did it better than I would have done. But I’d like to add a couple of points.

    First, there is ample scientific evidence about the medical value of meditation. http://www.jpsychores.com/article/S0022-3999%2809%2900094-4/abstract is but one example.

    Second, Christian meditation techniques constitute a gigantic ghost in news reporting and clinical studies. I can find many examples of measuring the effect on the body of meditation in general and Buddhist forms in particular, but I could not find any on Christian meditation techniques.

    Finally, a comment on “unproductive”. Since this particular practice helps people cope with arthritis and back/neck pain particularly, I’d hardly say it was unproductive at least for people with specific clinical issues leaving aside the question of spiritual benefits.

  • Julia

    Catholics have been meditating forever. I wonder why that is never mentioned.

    It was recommended to us as far back as grade school. Meditating after receiving Communion, meditating on various religious mysteries while praying the rosary, meditating when making a quick visit to the Blessed Sacrament when no services are taking place, etc. The labyrinths in old Catholic churches in Europe are a substitute for making pilgrimages and you are supposed to do some meditating while walking on their paths. And rote prayers are not as mindless as people think – it allows for lots of mindfulness underneath what looks like unproductive activity.

    There’s also bio-feedback techniques taught by some physical therapists to deal with pain.

    But, unfortunately, today we need to search in distant, exotic cultures for what we have forgotten or misunderstood in our own culture.

  • Julia

    Should have noted that “bio-feedback” techniques have been around a long time. It has just gotten better in the past 30 or so years since it is now possible to hook the patient to wires to monitor and direct the practice to be most productive in easing pain, etc.

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    Julia, the grass is always greener on the other side of the world.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Ira,
    Great comments. This sentence, though, was adapted directly from the article.

    Please excuse me while I go sit quietly for long, unproductive minutes.

    So I’m not in any way trying to capture what meditation, religious or otherwise, might entail. Hope that helps.