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Google on Mindfulness: How the Company Implements its Motto, ‘Don’t Be Evil’

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It’s a happy thing that Mindfulness – a state of active, open attention on the present – has lately attracted a lot of attention, especially in technology circles. Among the companies embracing mindfullness is Google, which had an unusual opportunity to demonstrate its commitment.

The recently-concluded Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco was a showplace for a new trend in corporate communications and management, of which Google is certainly in the vanguard, along with, as it turns out, many other companies including Facebook and LinkedIn.

Along with the corporate executives from these firms, presenters including luminaries that one might see on Oprah: Eckhart Tolle, the author of The Power of Now, Jon-Kabat Zinn (perhaps the father of American meditation practice), Alanis Morissette, and Arianna Huffington.

Several presentations featured speakers from both the Wisdom and Technology world, and over three days, this year’s event attracted over 2,000 attendees to hear them speak on yoga, mindfulness, compassion, and heart-centered learning.

Therefore, as Arianna Huffington said in her presentation (“Thrive: The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power” – and an upcoming book by same title), “We have reached critical mass.” A discussion of consciousness or wisdom is not just for quiet corners of cocktail parties away from the “realists,” but it is now in the board rooms of major corporations.

And these techniques are no longer considered “far out” or “New Age.” Rather, asserted the speakers, when actually applied, they can bring a profound level of awareness and insight to even challenging circumstances—even apart from their usefulness in the ordinary world of meetings, agendas, and productivity.

Change Management: the Panel Disrupted

This was nowhere more evident than when a few conference volunteers turned out to be disguised protesters and took over the stage shouting “San Francisco, not for sale,” disrupting the Google presentation with three Google executives on stage.

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When the stage was cleared by another Wisdom 2.0 volunteer and a hotel union A/V guy, and order restored, Bill Duane, senior of the three Google executives who were interrupted, put his teaching into practice. Duane’s title at Google is Sr. Manager, Well Being and High Performance Learning, and he heads up the well-being and sustainable high performance learning team within People Development. His team’s mission is to help Googlers live and work in sustainable ways that allow them to be their most effective and happy selves, as individuals and as an organization.

Duane manifested great calm and indeed wisdom, suggesting everyone absorb the situation as it was, and feel whatever reactions it may have triggered within.

He asked for a period of silence and reflection.

Then Duane acknowledged the sincerity of the protesters in their own right and expressed compassion for the fervency of their beliefs and dedication. He mentioned the presentation the previous day by the President of Rwanda, concerning the country’s hardships and the injustices and genocide that are part of human existence.

Duane then asked for everyone to consider their own relationship to conflict and how they “show up” in periods of stress.

This was done in an atmosphere of grace and calm that eloquently modeled (in its silence) the notions of compassion, openness, and sincerity that his group is bringing to Google.

Duane garnered rousing applause from the audience of over 2000, each of whom had his or her own inner reaction to the unusual situation both validated and acknowledged without judgment, pontification or a sense of duality of “us” and “them.”

A Learning Moment

Duane turned over the panel to Google’s Karen May, vice president of Learning, who was still reacting to what had occurred. She echoed Duane’s comments, and expressed pride that her team’s leader was able to maintain the sort of clarity of purpose and inner acceptance of circumstances (even when challenging) that they espoused in their work at Google.

With over 20 years of professional experience as an organizational psychologist and leadership coach, May joined Google in 2010 to head up the company’s learning, talent, and career development programs. May oversees a global team that supports more than 28,000 Googlers in more than 60 offices in over 30 countries. The team implements a broad range of developmental offerings, including executive coaching, new hire on boarding, leadership development, and peer-to-peer instruction for Googlers of all levels, regions, and tenure.

May said among the several core values to the team’s work, perhaps the key belief permeated Duane’s reaction (or non reaction) to the events of the morning: “Honoring diversity and meeting people where they are.”

Then she went on to expand the conversation beyond mindfulness to wisdom, compassion, and community, the other core values in her team’s vision.

Equally important to the concepts mentioned was putting these ideas into concrete practice, through experiments among the team and then throughout the enterprise. They began every meeting with a meditation led by Duane, with attention to breath as well as compassion and understanding.

What they found initially surprised them. The most skeptical member of their team turned out to be one of the strongest proponents of the practices: He said that he had observed that “He was a better person” after several weeks of engaging in the practices.

The newly-inspired team member was fervent in wanting to take these practices directly out into all of Google but the team was more restrained. It worked with other elements including Gratitude exercises, Tai Chi sessions, and eventually the team produced 15 master-led meditation videos. All of these offerings were completely optional for Google employees but have been increasingly popular and widely adopted.

May emphasized that the key component of the corporate culture fostered by these techniques is a “posture of respect” for divergent viewpoints and backgrounds, which again resonated with the response by Duane to the protests that began the session.

Proliferation of the Practices

The third member of the Google team at the Wisdom 2.0 Summit was Meng Tan, whose title is “Jolly Good Fellow, Google.” After a successful 8-year stint in Engineering and two years as Google EDU’s Head of Personal Growth, he now serves with Google’s Talent Team. His current mission is to “Enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace.”

Meng’s focus is on developing skillful “champions” of mindfulness within the organization who can both model and teach the various techniques.

But beyond such masters, Meng emphasizes that each member of the Google community develop his or her own practice of serenity and wisdom. As an engineer he also understands that explaining the science behind these practices enables proponents to extend the benefits of mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or whatever practice they choose (if any—all is voluntary) to others. He believe it will proliferate throughout the organization.

Meng’s dream is a time when everyone at Google (and beyond) is “wise and compassionate and can deepen their practice in harmony with the company, their families, and the world at large.”

Bringing Mindfulness to Your Tech Organization

Duane concluded Google’s presentation with these suggestions for fostering these techniques in any organization:

  • Build mindfulness support among true believers
  • Consistently espouse best values
  • Note the cognitive improvement that unfolds
  • Create supportive networks to continue these practices; and
  • Manifest ethical leadership at all levels.

The Power of Now

Karen May returned to the main stage the following afternoon for a “One-on-One with Eckhart Tolle: Awakening in the Digital Age.” She joined Tolle on stage after his “guided meditation” during which Tolle took the audience through several stages of deeper integration and mindfulness.

May noted the enthusiasm and calm of the audience and mentioned how unusual it was to be able to lead a meditation by teaching and instill an actual and tangible experience in those present. She attributed this to Tolle’s presence and spontaneity – the live freshness he brought to the occasion – and then she tore up her own notes with laughter and appreciation from the audience.

May asked Tolle about the apparent contradiction between his emphasis on dropping one’s “personal story” or commentary by the voice in the head and the use of stories in an organization to foster respect for diversity and communication. Tolle suggested that in your communication, you should look deeply at the other person and not at your story about them, or their story: Don’t confine your connection to story.

A big part of this would be not to think while conversation but to listen deeply – that the gift of one’s true attention is perhaps the greatest one can convey. Tolle said, “Usually you only get this from a dog.”

He suggested that communication become the “personal and spacious dimensions dancing” and that each of us acknowledge both.

Our “collective story reinforces our roles,” Tolle said, which in a corporate environment is necessary up to a point – but it can also inhibit spontaneous communication. Presence is the key, and Tolle reminded the audience about Ram Dass’ statement on enlightenment: “If you think you’re enlightened, spend a week with your family.”

Similar tests of presence obviously abound in meetings and the corporate world. Tolle said that it is important to always keep in mind that “One can only behave at one’s level of consciousness.” He added that presence can best be practiced in brief encounters and initially when there is little at stake. Try to put down the cell phone and truly engage with the clerk in the grocery store and bank: Notice the difference in energy that ensues.

When May asked for more ideas about meetings, Tolle said that if necessary, “You can be the only one (truly) present at a meeting, but cautioned against the Egoic trap of taking oneself as ‘enlightened’ as a feeling of superiority.”

“Choose to be present with complete attention,” Tolle said, “not fueling conflict or group unconsciousness.”

May and Tolle then engaged in a discussion of how gadgets can both foster and distract from communication – at which point a cell phone rang, and Tolle wondered, “Is it mine?” The audience roared.

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Tolle cautioned that gadgets can indeed “fill up our mind” which is the antithesis of true “mindfulness.” He dislikes that term, preferring “presence” because he is a proponent of using the mind only for vital tasks and otherwise disengaging the voice in the head.

On that point, Tolle said, he does now text, but he has invented “spacing” or sending an empty text message, which has flummoxed some of his friends.

Tolle reminded the audience of Arianna Huffington’s practice of making her bedroom a gadget-free zone, to avoid the burnout that can ensue when our devices take over. He made fun of email in his own inimitable style by modeling how when an email comes in, we can react automatically by “assuming that every message is urgent and important. They aren’t.”

Tolle cautioned against the addictive aspect of gadgets like cell phones. He compared them to TV, which also makes people addicted to thinking and ultimately they suffer; especially with television or media which suggests that the future holds a promise that can never be fulfilled. “Don’t let children get lost in digital world,” he reminded the audience.

Tolle stressed again that the ultimate lesson is that only the present moment is true Life. All else is illusory.

May asked Tolle what give him hope. He replied, “This moment (with the audience – he gestured around the vast room).”

Google Yoga Wrap-up

One final Google representative did a hand-on yoga session – “the largest yoga class ever in San Francisco?” Gopi Kallayil is the Chief Evangelist at Google for Brand Marketing. Prior to that he was Chief Evangelist of Google+ for Brands; he previously worked on marketing the company’s flagship advertising product, AdWords, in the Americas and Asia Pacific. Kallayil also led the marketing team for AdSense, Google’s publisher-facing product.

Kallayil called the human body the most advanced technology we know, and gave a glimpse of a “portable yoga practice” that would enable participants to “instantly change state intentionally.”

Before the Sunday lunch break Kallayil demonstrated and led the audience in a series of yoga postures from beginner to moderately advanced, and modeled conscious breathing.

Kallayil reiterated that all of these techniques are available to Google employees on a voluntary basis.

A recurring theme in all of the presentations was to ask, “What is Life calling you to do?” This takes the questioner beyond the duality of good and evil, and even beyond the directives of one’s supervisor or manager, but to a much deeper space.

In closing, these forays into higher consciousness made me wonder what the implications might be for Google’s work with artificial intelligence, but I suppose that would be the highlight of another conference.

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