The most popular class — titled “Search Inside Yourself” — regularly has a wait list stretching six months.
“I know this sounds melodramatic,” a Google employee reported on an after-course examination, “but I really think this course changed my life.”
The class has been taught at Google since 2007 and can be taken as either a two-and-a-half-day intensive course or in 19 hours over seven weekly sessions.
It’s the brainchild of Chade Meng-Tan, a Singapore-born engineer who was hired as Google employee No. 107 back in 1999. Meng (as he’s known to his colleagues) has made significant contributions to the company, including ramping up its Chinese language compatibility.
Meng has also influenced Google’s culture. He’s famous in the company for hosting VIPs that grace the Googleplex; he reportedly has a wall of himself smiling with celebrities, including presidents Clinton, Carter, and Obama.
“I’m not interested in bringing Buddhism to Google,” Meng has said. “I am interested in helping people at Google find the key to happiness.”
That’s the scope of Meng’s ambition. His job description reads: “Enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace.”
Meng tried to launch meditation courses at Google before the Search Inside Yourself class, but couldn’t find the right positioning — until he aligned it with another movement in organizational psychology: emotional intelligence.
“The people I wanted to reach were those who might look at the course description and say, ‘This is all hippie bullshit,'” Meng has said.
By branding meditation as a workout for your emotional intelligence, Meng was able to angle Search Inside Yourself as a contemplative training program that would help people better relate to themselves and others, thus providing a differentiating set of skills in engineer-heavy cultures like Google.
“Everybody knows this EI thing is good for their career,” Meng told WIRED. “And every company knows that if their people have EI, they’re gonna make a shitload of money.”
The course — which got a shoutout in a New York Times column last week — is fast becoming an institution in and outside of the Googleplex. In 2012, Meng published a book based on the course, called “Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace).” It’s gone on to be a bestseller, receive heaps of awards, and is being translated into 24 languages.
As a course, Search Inside Yourself is broken into three portions:
Attention training: “At any time, whatever is happening to you — whether you’re under stress, you’re being shouted at, or anything else — you have the skill to bring the mind to a place that’s calm and clear. If you can do that, it lays the foundation for emotional intelligence,” Meng says.
Self-knowledge: “Once your mind is calm and clear, you can create a quality of self-knowledge or self-awareness that improves over time, and it evolves into self-mastery. You know about yourself enough that you can master your emotions,” Meng says.
Creating mental habits: “For example, there is the mental habit of kindness, of looking at every human being you encounter and thinking to yourself, ‘I want this person to be happy.’ Once that becomes a habit, you don’t have to think about it; it just comes naturally,” Meng says.
According to a Google spokesperson, the class is effective because of the way it ties neuroscience to the first-person research that meditators have been doing for some 2,500 years.
While instructors change, there’s always two of them. One supplies the scientific research, and the other gives practical instructions. The science-oriented instructor focuses on what’s happening in your brain when you sit on a meditation cushion or walk through your life, explaining how swirling thoughts connect with the fight-or-flight hormonal impulses handed down from evolution. The practical training in mindfulness teaches the basics of meditation.
The word “Buddhism” is never used.
During the course, an instructor might ask you and another Googler to pair off and sit across from one another. She’ll then tell you that the person sitting across from you is a person, has a mother and father, fears and hopes, and has experienced pain. It’s a workout in compassion — recognising that your colleagues are human beings as opposed to cogs in a colourful corporate machine.
The results are powerful. Just look at a few of the testimonials of the Googlers who have decided to Search Inside Themselves, via Mindful.org:
One participant said, “I have completely changed in the way I react to stressors. I take the time to think through things and empathise with other people’s situations before jumping to conclusions. I love the new me!”
Some have found the quality of their marriages improved. Others reported overcoming personal crises with the help of Search Inside Yourself.
For example, one person told us, “I experienced personal tragedy — my brother’s death — during the course of Search Inside Yourself, and [the class] enabled me to manage my grief in a positive way.” One person simply said, “I now see myself and the world through a kinder, more understanding set of eyes.”