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Lions Roar : September 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN SepteMBer 2009 38 sIY includes an introductory class, a full day of mindfulness practice, and six two-hour sessions, each a week apart. Class siz- es 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 Intelli- gence,” which shows participants that there is a growing body of scientific literature on the effects of training attention and emo- tion. In addition to basic mindfulness, the course includes instruc- tion 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 medita- tion, and social skills, including how to carry on difficult conver- sations. 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 people 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’ respons- es 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 re- sponding rather than reacting. I realized that my assumptions about the other shaped my reactiveness.” Googlers are encour- aged 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.” 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 unassuming and yet deeply insightful. he takes them places they aren’t accustomed to going, and accord- ing 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 be- ing quiet and calm, they don’t want less stress, they’re not inter- ested 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 per- sonal 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 ➢ PhotoBYRIChARDBosWeLL Norman Fischer, the “Abbot of Google” “Google’s main value is not the hard-edged, profit-seeking mind,” says Norman Fischer. “They really believe that if you foster the creative, altruistic mind, you will make money and you’ll also be able to do good things.”