Zen in the Valley

Buddhist practices, Art of Living make inroads in Silicon Valley.

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By Zenobia Khaleel

SAN FRANCISCO: The uninformed visitor at Googleplex may find himself perplexed when he sees the presentation room filled with techies perched in half lotus position, meditating. His confusion is justified since it is hard to imagine that the corporation that prides itself in thinking ahead of tomorrow is now looking back at centuries old traditions to bring out the best in its employees.

Google is embracing Buddhist meditative practices in a big way. Zen masters and monks routinely tour the campus, the company has instituted  self awareness courses like Search Inside Yourself, Neural Self-Hacking and Managing Your Energy, designed to teach people to manage their emotions through meditation, and Googlers are signing up for these classes in droves.

No, Google isn’t renouncing its worldly searches. Quiet contemplation is the new buzzword in Silicon valley, with the region’s heavyweights like Twitter and Facebook jumping  aboard the neo-spiritual  bandwagon. Contemplative practices and meditation sessions has become key features of employee training in most firms. As in all things in the valley, the centuries old practices has been innovated to suit the Valley’s goal oriented culture. Forget Nirvana, the not-so-lofty aim of these endeavors is all about training the brain to unleash productivity.

Research suggests that meditation can rewire the brain’s response to stress and helps improve memory and executive functions. Exercises in ‘ mindfulness’—paying close, nonjudgmental attention- help understand a coworkers’ motivations and  cultivate emotional intelligence. In the hyper kinetic Silicon Valley, where  the deadly cocktail of  hard driving culture, unbridled ambitions and  fragile egos lead to stress and  burnouts, these self- regulation practices strengthen emotional resilience, and  is a better coping mechanism than fast-food therapy.

Chade-Meng Tan, a Google employee and creator of the Search Inside Yourself program, defines it as the Zen of Google. The course is a series of meditation exercises  wrapped in the package of emotional intelligence.

“The other-centricity that meditation breeds can boost your trajectory,” says Meng ,who believes that in a place like Google, where there is no dearth of high intelligence quotient, the  differentiating factor that sets you apart from the rest is having high emotional intelligence.

Earlier in the year, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, an international humanitarian and spiritual leader, kicked off his campaign  of violence-free, stress-free community to a packed audience of 8,000 plus at the San Jose convention Center. The campaign, based on the Guru’s Art of Living philosophy, propounds stress busting techniques through meditation, breathing exercises and yoga.

“If individuals, schools, social groups and even prisons can help reduce stress and anxiety on a mass scale, violence and crime will drop dramatically,” believes the Guru.

The non-denominational nature of the Guru’s philosophy is catching on among other ethnic groups and atheist followers too. The Art of Living workshops mushrooming in the Bay area is a testament to the success of the movement.

Frustrated by his divorce, work stress and  twitter addiction, Soren Gordhamer wrote a book—Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and  Constantly Connected. The book was no bestseller, but its message of living mindfully, wisely, and compassionately in the digital age set off ripples of introspection in the tech community that culminated in the launch of the annual conference Wisdom 2.0.

The event serves as a super connector of the technology and contemplative communities. The vision behind wisdom being, tapping  our inner wisdom even as we integrate more and more technology into our lives, and keep them from taking over.

Wisdom 2013 drew huge crowds and the attendees included headliners like Jeff Weiner, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, and, Arianna Huffington, who describes the event as her version of Disneyland.

Meditation therapy is growing deep roots  in the Valley which is no stranger to New Age fad cycles. The tech biz is taking periodic pauses in the rat race, trying to connect the dots between spirituality and technology, to find the bigger picture.

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