Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cultivating Compassion: Meditation For Better Relationships

(Reposted from the Huffington Post: )

A long time ago, I came across this joke:
Once, a disciple asked, "Master, is associating with people half the holy life?"

The Master replied, "No, associating with people is the whole of holy life".
This joke probably started as a misreading of the famous Upaddah Sutta in Buddhism, where the Buddha told Ananda that friendships with "admirable people" is not half of holy life, but the whole of holy life. Over time, however, I found the humorous apocryphal version to be deeply insightful. There are at least two components to one's spiritual practice, Wisdom and Compassion, and associating with people, especially in difficult situations, helps us grow Compassion. Therefore, you probably cannot live a holy life without associating with people.

I have found three practices to be extremely useful in helping me deal with people.

The first practice is a combination of "Just Like Me" meditation and Loving-Kindness meditation. There are three premises behind this practice. The first is that when we perceive somebody as being similar to ourselves ("just like me"), we become much more likely to feel and act positively towards that person. The second is that kind and loving thoughts towards another can be generated volitionally. The third premise is that mental habits can be formed with practice, so if we spend time and effort creating thoughts of similarity-to-others and loving kindness, over time, these thoughts get generated habitually and effortlessly, and once you equipped yourself with that mental disposition, people start liking you even more, and you become more likely to have satisfying relationships that contribute greatly to everybody's happiness.

The practice itself is very simple. In formal meditation, I would ask my fellow meditators to sit in pairs and I would guide with this script:
Become aware that there is a person in front of me. A fellow human being, just like me.

Let us now consider a few things:

This person has a body and a mind, just like me.
This person has feelings, emotions and thoughts, just like me.
This person has at some point been sad, disappointed, angry, hurt or confused, just like me.
This person has in his or her life, experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me.
This person wishes to be free from pain and suffering, just like me.
This person wishes to be safe, healthy and loved, just like me.
This person wishes to be happy, just like me.

Now, let's allow some wishes to arise:

I wish for this person to have the strength, resources, and social support to navigate the difficulties in life.
I wish for this person to be free from pain and suffering
I wish for this person to be happy.
Because this person is a fellow human being, just like me.
In real life, I have found this practice to be tremendously powerful in healing relationships. Whenever I have a major conflict with somebody, I would find an excuse to leave the room and after I'm sufficiently calmed, I would recollect that person in my mind and do the above exercise. By the time I'm done, at least half my anger would be gone. It's a very useful practice, both at home and at work.

The second practice is something I call "Multiplying Goodness". It is an adaptation of the Tibetan tonglen practice. In tonglen, you breathe in suffering (of self and others), transform it within your heart, and breathe out relief (to self and others). We found tonglen too difficult for our students, so I made a change to it. Instead of breathing in suffering, you breathe in goodness (of self and others), multiply it in your heart by 10 times, and then breathe out all that goodness to the world. The idea is to use mental visualization to create these three mental habits:

1. Instinctively see goodness in self and others.
2. Become confident in multiplying goodness.
3. Create desire to give goodness to the world.

In formal meditation, I would guide with this script:
Connect with the goodness within ourselves, our capacity for love, compassion, altruism, and inner joy. If you wish, you may visualize your goodness radiating out of your body as a faint white light.

When you breathe in, breathe in all your goodness into your heart. Use your heart to multiply that goodness by a factor of 10. And when you breathe out, give all that goodness out to the whole world. If you wish, you may visualize yourself breathing out a brilliant white light representing this abundance of goodness.

Now, let us connect with the goodness within everybody in this room. Everybody in the room is a good person, possessing some goodness. (Repeat above)....
Finally, let us connect with the goodness within everybody in the world. Everybody in the world possesses at least a hint of goodness. (Repeat above)....
This practice helps us gain confidence in our own inner goodness and equips us with the mental disposition to see goodness in others. The ability to perceive underlying goodness in all even in difficult situations affords us the inner resources to calm ourselves and others in those situations.

The final practice is a mantra I created for myself that summarizes many of my practices. The mantra is, "Love them, understand them, forgive them, grow with them". Whenever I find myself in a difficult situation involving other people, I would silently repeat the mantra to myself. I found that it works especially well with children and bosses.

My friend, Rigel, suggested that my mantra may also apply to magic mushrooms. Very funny, Rigel.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Short Funny Thoughts

Here is a collection of funny thoughts I've had over the past few weeks, each too short to be a blog post on its own:

The meaning of life is not.

I knew saving the world would be impossible, but I didn't think it'd be hard.

I have so many things to do I don't even know what to do anymore.

I enjoy debating with myself.  Everytime I debate with myself, I win.

When things are bad, better is good, but good is even better.

In the gym, nobody can hear you scream.

I'm good at being selfishly compassionate, but fail at being compassionately selfish.

What's new with me?  Just the same old same old, everything is different everyday.

I discovered I'm the most stupid person I know with an IQ of 156.

If ever you're promised 72 virgins for blowing up a building, you should confirm their gender and sexual orientation first. Otherwise, there may be nasty surprises.

It turns out that the job of the Vice President doesn't actually involve vice. Once I realized that, I didn't want the job anymore.

I crack myself up sometimes.  I'm glad I'm not Humpty Dumpty.

I think the God of the Old Testament had way too much fun.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Transforming Your Brain at Work

Recently, my team at Google had the privilege of hosting 2 amazing talks by 2 great speakers, Richie Davidson and David Rock, on subjects very near and dear to our hearts.

Richie is one of the most famous neuroscientists in the world and a pioneer in many fields of neuroscience, including the one I care most about, Contemplative Neuroscience, the science of transforming our brains with contemplative practices.  To me, he's a rock star.  In person, besides being extremely smart, he's just really kind and sweet.  I'm truly honored to have a friend like him.

David is a well-known coach and author who, in my opinion, is on his way to becoming a rock star (if he isn't one already).  I'm sure history will remember David for being a pioneer in bringing neuroscience to the workplace in general and to corporate leadership in particular.  In person, I found him to be very smart and intellectually adventurous, an inspiring ball of energy working towards greater good for humanity.  I'm very thankful to our mutual friend, Dan Siegel, for introducing us to each other.

Richie spoke in Google about Contemplative Neurosicence, and David spoke about application of neuroscience at work.  My own work in Google is to apply neuroscience to work for Googlers, particularly Contemplative Neuroscience.  Each talk was amazing in itself, but taken together, they just fit perfectly in my grand scheme of things.  That creates a warm fuzzy feeling in this old man's heart. I highly recommend both talks.

Also, David blogged about his visit to Google (coincidentally, he did it today, just as I was blogging about him).

Related: Other talks available at:

Friday, November 20, 2009

Funny Thought: Giving Food Advice to Alton Brown

I'm a true Google foodie.  I (only half-jokingly) tell my friends I'm so rich I'm working for food.  Gluttony is my favorite sin.

Hence, I was thrilled yesterday to have the opportunity to lunch with Alton Brown, the host of Good Eats and main commentator of Iron Chef America (both of which Angel and I watch all the time).  In a way, it was just another lunch with a new friend, but given the context, it feels almost surreal.  Eating with Alton Brown is almost like Nirvana-ing with the Dalai Lama.

And yes, we both had good eats.

I'm proud to say that I was able to give food advice to Alton Brown during lunch.  Yes, me giving food advice to Alton Brown.

During lunch, Alton mentioned that when he turned 30, he suddenly developed an allergy to raw oysters, and could never eat them again.  So I said, "Alton, I can give you some advice on that:  Never turn 30 again.  I did that turning 30 thing myself, it didn't work out for me too".

(For those who are wondering, yes, Alton Brown is really nice.  Hundreds of his fans lined up to get an autograph and photo op with him, it took one and a half hours to clear the line, and he took the time to greet everybody in line and was nice to all.  I was impressed.  I could almost call him a .... jolly good fellow).

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Random Thought: Birthday Aspirations

Strong like the mountain.
Deep like the sea.
Vast like the sky.
I aspire to be.


Funny Thought: Birthday Meal

(Sung to the tune of 12 Days of Christmas)

For my lunch on my birthday, my true love gave to me,

A five-course meal.
Four types of sushi,
Three-dollar oysters,
Two scoops of ice-cream,
And a bowl of nabeyaki.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Funny Thought: Chief Humor Officer

I aspire someday to hold the title of Google's Chief Humor Officer. Even if I'm bestowed the honor posthumorously.

Sadly, the Chief Humor Officer will never be appointed a Member of the Bored.

(Fedor's comment: He would also not be able to allocate any FUNds, but will be reimbursed for smilage.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Life Story: Taking my Bodhisattva Vows

The first time I took the first Bodhisattva Vow, it was done with humor, in a very serious way, of course.  Not surprisingly, the person who opened that door for me was Dr Larry Brilliant, a laughing bodhisattva I'm honored to call my friend.

In the Zen tradition (which is the Mahayana tradition I'm most familiar with), the 4 Bodhisattva Vows are:
Countless are sentient beings, I vow to liberate them all.
Endless are afflictions, I vow to discontinue them all.
Measureless are the Dharmas, I vow to learn them all.
Supreme is the Buddha Way, I vow to attain it in full.

For me, the last 3 vows are relatively easy.  I mean, learning all the Dharmas, for example, that sounds like getting 2 or 3 PhDs, that's doable in my lifetime.  But the first vow was very tough.  The first vow implies the aspiration to be the last one out of Samsara.  It means choosing to purposely stay in the realm of endless suffering until the last sentient being is liberated.  It's like is being the first person to know how to get out of a large burning building, but choosing to be the last person to get out so you can help everybody else out first.  For a long time, I didn't feel I was remotely up to the task.

What annoyed me even more was that other Buddhists seem to have no difficulty taking the Bodhisattva Vows at all.  I know of weekly ceremonies at temples where large numbers of people recite the vows once a week without batting an eyelid.  Why is it so easy for them and so hard for me?  I can think of 2 possible explanations.  The first explanation is that I'm a useless coward and lousy Buddhist.  The second explanation is, unlike those who recite them as a ceremonial ritual, I was actually serious about fulfilling those vows, in my lifetime if possible.  My best guess is that both explanations are correct.

The event that helped me get over that hump occurred in May 2006.  My friend, Larry Brilliant, had just recently joined Google as the Executive Director of, Google's philanthropic arm.  One of Larry's first tasks was to figure out the strategic directions for  As part of that effort, he hosted an "offsite meeting" with some leaders of the philanthropic world he knew well, and perhaps because I was so good-looking, Larry invited me to come along too.

That offsite meeting was a fascinating experience for me.  I spent 2 days in the presence of highly inspiring people like Larry Brilliant and Jane Wales, people who gave their adult lives to saving the world, listening to them explain and strategize about solving some of the biggest problems in the world like global poverty and climate change.  Whoa.

That experience was deeply inspiring for me in 2 ways.  First, it was the experiential realization that these people are around us.  That, yes, there are people who dedicate their lives to humanity, people of greatness who are also ordinary at the same time.  They are not just folks you read about occasionally on Time Magazine, they are real people with real lives, and they are here, just doing their best like everybody else, trying to save the world in their own quiet ways.  Second, I realized how happy they are.  Saving the world is a career choice fraught with stress, frustration and failure, but it's also full of meaning, purpose and positive engagement.  It's a life full of love.  It turns out that saving the world is not necessarily miserable, saving the world can be fun (which is the topic of another blog post, stay tuned).

At the end of the 2 days, my mind was in a different state.  My mind was now full of inspiration and possibility.

To end the 2-day meeting, Larry invited all of us to sit in a circle and talk about how we felt.  When it was my turn to speak, I said,

  "Last person out of Samsara, please turn off the lights.  And, let that be me".

And then, it occurred to me, I finally took the first Bodhisattva Vow.  Effortlessly, in light humor, and in full readiness to fulfill it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Funny Thought: My job was to say "Google sucks"

There is a great story on Business Week ( ) about Google's "Evaluation Team" ("Eval"), the team which, among other things, measures the performance of Google's search algorithm.  In case you were wondering what I did when I was in Google Engineering (back when even I was young), I used to run that team.  Of course, that job was much smaller back when I was doing it than Scott's current job (the company itself was also much smaller).  Part of my job, perhaps the most important part, was to know where and when Google's search is broken.

The most fun I had in that job was describing what I did to new Googlers.  When they asked me what I do, I would say, "My job is to tell my bosses 'Google sucks', and they give me a salary".

The other joke I used to crack about "Eval" is, "Only 'I' can make eval evil".  Bad joke, I know, but it made people laugh.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Random Thought: Training Level 5 Leadership

A few months ago, I wrote about the idea of "Egoless Ego".  Main idea: To achieve breakthroughs, you need to have enough ego to know you can change the world, AND at the same time be egoless enough to know that you are mostly irrelevant.  It is like being as big as Mount Fuji and as small as a grain of sand at the same time.

I also mentioned that the state of mind that is conducive to "Egoless Ego" is something I called "Selfless Glory", a mind that seeks glory without the glory, the state of mind of peaceful stillness surrounded by powerful motion.

I have recently come across a less poetic but much clearer description of this state of being.  It is something Jim Collins describes as "Level 5 Leadership" in his book, Good to Great, which I recommend very highly.  (If you read only one business book, read this one).

In Good to Great, Collins defines 5 levels of leadership.  "Level 4" leaders are what he calls "Effective Leaders".  Most successful CEOs (such as Lee Iacocca) are "Level 4" leaders.  "Level 5" leaders are the type of leaders that turn good companies into great ones.  They are the "good to great" leaders.

What is the difference between a "Level 4" and "Level 5" leader?  A "Level 5" leader has all the strengths of a "Level 4" leader, plus 2 important qualities:  strong ambition AND personal humility.  One way Collins describes such leaders (page 22):

Level 5 leaders are a study in duality: modest and willful, humble and fearless. To quickly grasp this concept, think of United States President Abraham Lincoln (one of the few Level 5 presidents in United States history), who never let his ego get in the way of his primary ambition for the larger cause of an enduring great nation. Yet those who mistook Mr. Lincoln’s personal modesty, shy nature, and awkward manner as signs of weakness found themselves terribly mistaken, to the scale of 250,000 Confederate and 360,000 Union lives, including Lincoln’s own

In other words, a Level 5 leader is one who works towards glory and greatness, but in a way that is selfless and humble.  To tie this in with my initial thoughts, I think a Level 5 leader is someone with a mind of "Selfless Glory" expressing "Egoless Ego".  Here's what Collins says about Level 5 leaders and ego (page 21):
Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves into the larger goal of building a great company. It's not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious - but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.
Hence, it seems that the thoughts I've had about extraordinary personal achievements ("achieving breakthroughs") also apply to leadership, and Collins has the data to prove the effectiveness of such leaders.  That is incredibly encouraging for me.

That leads us to an important question:  How do you cultivate the "Level 5" leadership?

Given that the distinguishing features of Level 5 leaders are ambition and personal humility, whatever you do to create those leaders needs to down-modulate their ego while strengthening their motivation at the same time.  Two obvious ways of achieving that are surviving personal trauma (eg, surviving cancer) and having a significant religious experience.  Obviously, not everybody can or wants to experience trauma or get religion (personally, I prefer neither for myself, thank you very much).  So, outside of trauma and religion, are there ways to train Level 5 leadership?  I think so.

I can think of 2 qualities that are conducive to cultivating Level 5 leadership that can be trained in a secular, workplace setting:

  1. Compassion
  2. Ease of Mind

1. Compassion

Compassion has 3 components, a cognitive component (I understand your suffering), an affective component (I feel for you) and a motivational component (I want to help you).  Compassion is also strongly altruistic in nature.

Compassion helps develop Level 5 leaders in 3 ways:

1. Being altruistic in nature, compassion is a great antidote for excessive self-obsession.  Hence, the compassionate leader becomes strong in the humility needed for Level 5 leadership.

2. Compassion's motivational component keeps the compassionate leader highly motivated and ambitious towards greater good.  Hence, he is unafraid to do big things despite his personal humility.

3. A compassionate leader inspires people (because "his heart is in the right place") and understands and work well with people (because he understands and feels for them).  Hence,  he usually has the bottom-up support needed to be successful.

In fact, compassion is so conducive to Level 5 leadership I believe that compassion is the foundation of Level 5 leadership.  I even believe all Level 5 leaders are compassionate leaders, but I don't have any data at this time (if you do, let me know).

2. Ease of Mind

I like easy.  Easy is good.

I think the best way to do big things is with a mind that is at ease.  This is the mind where you have nothing to gain and nothing to lose, you are doing what you are doing only because it is the right thing to do, and it is fun. With this mind, the sense of ease doesn't go away even when you have to put in real effort, and even when you get frustrated.

The best analogy for this mind I can think of is playing serious golf for charity.  Sure, it takes work, the double bogeys are frustrating, and you have nothing to gain for the entire afternoon of effort, but hey, it's fun, you have nothing to lose, and you're doing it as an act of kindness towards others with a bunch of your best friends.  The mind is at ease the entire afternoon.

Why is this ease of mind important?  I can think of 3 reasons.

First, it frees you.  If you have nothing to gain or lose, then you cannot be demotivated.  There is nothing to hold you back.  You are free to play at your best, and you're free to take risks that help you become even better.

Second, it opens you up.  When you're at ease, people find it much easier to work with you.  And if you happen to be the leader, you can better take full advantage of other people's talents, partly because people enjoy working for you (so they don't hold themselves back), and partly because you don't suffer from petty jealously that unconsciously makes you fear their success (so you don't hold them back, consciously or otherwise).

Third, it motivates you.  If your mind is at ease, most likely it's because what you're doing is fun to you in some major way, and most likely that ease of mind makes it even more fun, thus forming a virtuous cycle.  Fun is important.  I often say that saving the world can be fun, and has to be fun, because if it's not fun, nobody will save the world.  So, please, be at ease, have fun.

It is important to note that "ease of mind" does not exclude experiencing strong emotions.  Indeed, great leadership often includes strong positive emotions such as joy, excitement, exuberance sometimes, passion, hope,  deep satisfaction and the like.  It also surely involves stress- some good, some very bad.  "Ease of mind" includes the ability to contain all strong emotions.  The analogy is a deep ocean.  The water on the surface is choppy, but the water in the depths is calm despite the movement on the surface.  Similarly, one whose mind is at ease experiences strong emotions from time to time, but in the depths of his mind, his ease is largely undisturbed.  Which is why he is capable of experiencing strong emotions without being derailed.

How, then, is this ease of mind cultivated?

I can think of 3 conditions for that mind to emerge.  The first is to having a stable inner happiness that exists fairly independently of one's life conditions.  That stable inner happiness eventually helps you become comfortable with who you are, what you have, and how the world sees you.  The second is developing mastery over one's own emotions, developing a mind that is capable of experiencing and transforming emotions (for example, channeling anger into energy to fight for change).  The third is finding alignment with what you like to do, what is important to you, and your work.  That alignment helps you find motivation at work in a way that is fun for you.

This powerful combination of Compassion and Ease of Mind is what makes Level 5 leaders, in my opinion.

The good news is that all these qualities are covered in the Search Inside Yourself (SIY) curriculum we developed (admittedly, not in enough detail, but enough to get you started).  So it is possible that SIY is the foundation of a training program for Level 5 leadership.  This thought is gloriously exciting to me, in a selfless sort of way, of course.


Update 10/4/09:  Added clarification on strong emotions in "ease of mind", also added "emotional mastery" as a  condition for that mind to emerge, after discussion with Annie McKee.  Some of the wording are Annie's own.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Funny Thought: Letter of Recommendation

My friend, Ke, told me that in China, it is common for graduating students to write their own letters of recommendation in the names of their professors.

If I got to write my own recommendation in the name of my professor, it'd look like this:
Meng is, by far, the best student I have ever had. In fact, he is the smartest person I have ever met. It is hard to imagine someone so stunningly handsome can, at the same time, be so brilliant. I admire him so much even his mere shadow inspires me. It is my professional opinion that anybody who doesn't hire him is an idiot. If you don't hire him, I'll personally beat you up.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Random Thought: Dealing with distress

Over the years, I've developed a 4-step plan to deal with my distress.  I hope this would be helpful to you too.

My 4 steps are:
1. Know when you're not in pain.
2. Do not feel bad about feeling bad.
3. Do not feed the monsters.
4. Start every thought with kindness and humor.

1.Know when you're not in pain.

When you're not in pain, know that you're not in pain.

This is a very powerful practice on multiple levels.  On one level, it increases happiness.  When we're suffering pain, we always tell ourselves, "I'll be so happy if I'm free from this pain", but when we're free from that pain, we forget to enjoy the freedom from pain.  This practice of constantly noticing the lack of distress encourages us to enjoy the sweetness of that freedom, and thereby helps us to be happier.

On another level, I find that even when experiencing pain, the pain is not constant, especially emotional pain.  The pain waxes and wanes and there are times (perhaps short intervals of minutes or seconds) when a space opens up where one is free from pain.  The practice of noticing the lack of distress helps us abide in that space when it opens up.  This space gives us temporary relief and it is the basis from which we launch our recovery and find the strength to face our problems.

2. Do not feel bad about feeling bad.

We have the tendency to feel bad about feeling bad ("meta-distress", I call it).  This is especially true for good people.  We would berate ourselves by saying things like, "Hey, if I'm such a good person, why am I feeling this much anger?".  This is even more true for good people with contemplative practices like meditation.  We would scold ourselves by saying, "Maybe if you're actually a good meditator, you won't feel this way.  Therefore, you must be a lousy meditator, a hypocrite, a useless piece of [insert context-appropriate noun]".

It is important to recognize that distress is a naturally-arising phenomenon, we all experience it from time to time.  Even Thich Nhat Hanh, the very symbol of enlightened peace in the world, once got so angry about someone he almost wanted to stand up and slug him.

Also recognize that feeling bad about feeling bad is an act of ego.  It's a reflection of our ego's image about itself, and the net result is the creation of new distress for no good reason at all.  The antidote is to let the ego go, with good humor where possible.

And remember, meta-distress is really bad economics.

3. Do not feed the monsters.

Let's pretend our distress are monsters that arise from and occupy our minds, wrecking havoc in us.  What can we do to stop them?  They seem so overwhelmingly powerful, we feel so weak at stopping their arising, and we are powerless to make them leave.

Happily, it turns out that our monster need us to feed them.  If we don't feed them, they'll just get hungry and maybe they'll go away.  Therein lies the source of our power.  We cannot stop monsters from arising, or force them to leave, but we have the power to not feed them.

Not feeding monsters is very good economics.

4. Start every thought with kindness and humor.

In every situation, distressing or otherwise, it's useful to begin each thought with kindness and compassion.  Kindness both for oneself and others.  The practices most useful for cultivating this quality of heart are Metta Bhavana (Meditation on Loving Kindness) and Tonglen.

In my experience, the most important quality of kindness is its healing effect.  Imagine taking a rough, spiky brush and repeatedly brushing it hard and quickly on an area of your skin.  Eventually, your skin will become inflamed and painful.  Kindness is the quality of gently stopping that harmful brushing action, and if you do that, eventually, the skin will heal.

I also find it very useful to see humor in my own failings.  Everytime I lose my anger or arise a thought of greed or spitefulness that doesn't go away for a while, it's like I've fallen off the wagon again.  I can interpret falling off the wagon as a painful, humiliating, embarrassing experience, of course.  However, I found it much more fun to think of the experience as a scene in an old black-and-white comedy.  Guy fell off wagon in the context of fast, playful music, makes a funny face, dusts himself off, and then climbs back up the wagon in awkward, jerky, quick motion.  It's all very funny.  So everytime I fail, it's a comedy.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sometimes, When I'm Alone, I Search Inside Myself (Part II)

(Continued from Part I)

In Part I, we described the 3 principles behind Search Inside Yourself (SIY), Google's homegrown program for developing Emotional Intelligence:
1. Emotional skills are trainable
2. EI training starts with attention training
3. Work with emotions in the body

In this post, we'll describe an overview of the structure and content of SIY.  Note that SIY is still in "beta" (perhaps semi-permanently).  That means that we're never fully satisfied with it and we're constantly trying to make changes to improve it.  So this information is only valid as of today, and we're almost certain to make some important changes every now and then.

SIY is a training program consisting of 3 courses totaling 19 class hours.  The 3 courses are:
1. SIY 101: Introduction to Emotional Intelligence (2 hrs)
2. SIY 102: Day of Mindfulness (7 hrs, pre-requisite: SIY 101)
3. SIY 103: Developing the 5 Domains of Emotional Intelligence (10 hrs, pre-requisite: SIY 101)

1. SIY 101: Introduction to Emotional Intelligence

The objective of this course is to introduce participants to the neuroscience, application and development of Emotional Intelligence.  It includes a theory section and a practical section, so participants walk out of the classroom armed not only with new knowledge on the topic, but also with useful practices they can apply in daily life.

The content covered in this class includes:
  • The neuroscience of emotions (in which we ask participants to watch this video before coming to class).
  • What Emotional Intelligence is and how it relates to work.
  • Our method for developing Emotional Intelligence (see the 3 principles of SIY above) and some of the neuroscience behind it.
  • Introduction to "Mindfulness".
  • Introduction to 3 foundational practices: Attention Workout, Journaling and Mindful Listening, how each relates to Emotional Intelligence and suggestions for developing and applying them in daily life.

The "Attention Workout" practice is the Mindfulness of Breathing practice, intended to help you strengthen your "muscles" of attention.  "Journaling" is the practice of "free writing", where you're given an open-ended prompt (such as, "What I'm feeling now is ...") and then you just "brain-dump" whatever comes to mind onto paper, whether or not it relates to the prompt, and whether or not it makes any sense at the moment.  Mindful Listening is the practice of giving the gift of your full attention to another person when she speaks.  In a way, it's a form of meditation where the object of meditation is the other person.

We hope that by the end of SIY 101, participants will have an introductory understanding of the topic, gain some confidence that we can all become more emotionally skillful with training, and pick up enough tools to start making a difference in their own lives.

2. SIY 102: Day of Mindfulness

SIY 102 is a full day class lasting 7 hours (usually held on a weekend day), where participants gain a deeper understanding of the practices covered in SIY 101, get an opportunity to spend an entire day practicing them, and pick up a few additional useful practices.

The content covered in this class includes:
  • A more indepth understanding of Mindfulness of Breathing (this is actually the same content as the Meditation 101 class I teach in Google, which I plan to put on YouTube "real soon now").
  • A practice called "Looping" (short for "Closing the loop of communication"), which is an extension of Mindful Listening (covered in SIY 101) where participants graduate from merely listening mindfully to conducting a mindful conversation with mutual feedback.
  • Mindful standing, walking, eating and emailing.
  • Experimenting with "open awareness" vs "focused awareness" (mindfulness vs concentration).
  • A practice called the "Game of Self", where one person repeatedly asks the question to another, "Who are you?"
  • More journaling.
We hope that SIY 102 helps participants build a solid foundation for further growth of emotional competencies.

3. SIY 103: Developing the 5 Domains of Emotional Intelligence

SIY 103 is a series of 5 sessions, each lasting 2 hours, conducted over 5 weeks.  Each session explores one domain of Emotional Intelligence in some depth and introduces practices relevant to that domain.  "Homework" is given at the end of each session (eg, 10 minutes of mindful sitting a day).

Session 1: Self-Awareness.

The theme of this session is developing a deeper understanding between body, thoughts and emotions.  Topics covered in this session include:
  • Body scan ("The insula workout").
  • Discovering emotions in the body.
  • The relationship between emotion, aversion and thoughts. 
  • "Looping" (for those who didn't take SIY 102 before this).
Session 2: Self-Regulation

The theme of this session is moving from Compulsion to Choice.  Topics covered in this session include:
  • What Self-Regulation is and isn't.
  • Dealing with emotional triggers.
  • Moving from existential to physiological (from I am angry to I experience anger in my body).
Session 3: Motivation

The theme of this session is discovering your deepest motivations (which you already know, you just have to uncover them).  Topics covered in this session include:
  • Alignment:  Aligning my deepest values with what I do.
  • Envisioning:  Seeing my best future.
  • Optimism:  Maintaining self-confidence by becoming honest and comfortable experiencing both "positive" and "negative" emotions.
Session 4: Empathy

The theme of this session is developing a "social radar".  Topics covered in this session include:
  • Seeing similarities ("Just like me" meditation).
  • Offering kindness (loving-kindness meditation).
  • Listening for feelings (empathic listening).
Session 5: Social Skills

The theme of this session is "Leading with Compassion".  Topics covered in this session include:
  • Development of compassion (Tonglen).
  • Compassion and leaership.
  • Conducting difficult conversations.
  • Exploring who I am as a leader.
One feature of SIY 103 is the "buddy" system.  During the first class, we ask participants to pair up, so each would have a "buddy".  The idea behind this is to provide companionship for practice.  The analogy is starting a training regime at the gym.  Regular practice at the gym is very hard to maintain, especially in the beginning, so what helps many people stay with their training regimes is having a "gym buddy".  The gym buddy is somebody who goes to the gym with you 2 or 3 times a week.  The main benefits of having a gym buddy are that you never have to be alone at the gym, you have someone to encourage you as you work out, and there's someone to bug you if you don't go.  The SIY buddy is designed to do the same thing for your SIY practice.

We ask SIY buddies to converse at least once a week, with at least the first few minutes of the buddy conversation structured to cover these topics:
  • How is your practice?
  • What is one thing that happened this week that is relevant to SIY practice?
  • How was this conversation (we just had)?

We are very encouraged to find that SIY had been very helpful to many people.  We hope to "open source" all the SIY content soon, so that more people can benefit.  This will happen once we find the time to improve the presentation of the content (see, this bearing the Google name, I can't be as sloppy as I usually am).  My idea is to release SIY content under some sort of Creative Commons license that allows anybody to use SIY content in any way (including for profit), as long as they attribute the source.  An additional condition I'd like to impose, if I can, is that if anybody makes any improvements to the content, they are obliged to tell us and allow us to give that improvement away to all for free under the same license if we choose to.  That way, everybody can benefit from improvements made by everybody else.

Once we get our materials in order, I'll post it on this blog.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Sometimes, When I'm Alone, I Search Inside Myself (Part I)

(For the story on what motivated us to create Search Inside Yourself, see this post: "Three Easy Steps to World Peace")

Search Inside Yourself (SIY) is Google's homegrown Emotional Intelligence (EI) curriculum.  It was created in Google with the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, and further refined with help from Stanford University.  Dr Daniel Goleman was our advisor.  We intended for it to be an effective EI curriculum for adults (perhaps the first of its kind in the world) that can be applied in the workplace and that is helpful both to increasing businesses profits and to people achieving more success in their careers.

Given that I had a reputation as a supposedly good engineer, I'd love to tell you that we had a strategic, carefully thought-out curriculum design process that decided on design principles first, followed by proper structure and format, and then content creation, eventually resulting in a flawless curriculum the first time it was released.  But no, it didn't happen that way.  We unconsciously followed Google's "launch and iterate" model, which meant first forming a team with the best and most qualified people you know, hammering together things that are most likely to work, launching it as "beta" to a bunch of innocent bystanders, figuring out retroactively what worked and what didn't work, and then rinse and repeat.  This process is especially effective for doing anything cutting-edge where there is no way for you to know in advance what will certainly work and what won't.

Out of this process, 3 "design principles" of SIY emerged retroactively.  Actually, everybody already had these principles in mind right from the beginning, but they were never stated formally until a few iterations later, and the iterative process itself helped us gain clarity and conviction in the principles.

The 3 principles behind SIY are:
1. Emotional skills are trainable
2. EI training starts with attention training
3. Work with emotions in the body

1. Emotional skills are trainable

When people come to a course that advertises itself as an "Emotional Intelligence course", most people expect it to be a behavioral course.  People expect to come to class to be told how to play nice, share the candy and not bite their co-workers.

We decided on an entirely different approach.  We begin with the assumption that Emotional Intelligence is a collection of emotional skills, and like all skills, emotional skills are trainable.  So we set out to create a course to train emotional abilities, and we feel that if we develop abilities, all behavioral issues go away.  For example, if a person can acquire the ability to overcome anger, then all behavioral issues involving anger go away.

Examples of skills we explore in SIY are:
- Responding to triggers.
- Conducting difficult conversations.
- Maintaining confidence during stress.

2. EI training starts with attention training

We began with the assumption that EI is trainable.  But how do we begin training?  We begin by training attention.  This may seem a little counter-intuitive at first.  I mean, what does attention have to do with emotional skills?

The answer is that a strong, stable and perceptive attention that affords you calmness and clarity is the foundation upon which Emotional Intelligence is built.  This quality of attention gives you a strong base for building Self-Awareness and Self-Regulation, the first 2 of the 5 domains of Emotional Intelligence that leads to all other domains of Emotional Intelligence.

An example of how attention relates to Self-Awareness:  Self-Awareness depends on being able to see ourselves objectively, and that requires the ability to examine our thoughts and emotions from a a third-person perspective.  Not getting swept up in the emotion, not identifying with it, but just seeing it clearly and objectively.  And this requires a stable, non-judging attention.

An example of how attention relates to Self-Regulation:  There is an ability called "response flexibility", which is a fancy name for the ability to pause before you act.  You experience a strong emotional stimulus, but instead of reacting immediately as you normally would (like slapping the CEO, for example), you pause for a split-second, and that pause gives you choice in how you want to react in that emotional situation.  That ability depends again on having a quality of attention that is unwavering and unimpeded at the same time.

How do you train this quality of attention?  The training method we use is something known as "Mindfulness Meditation".  "Mindfulness" is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as, "paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally".  (Thich Nhat Hanh defined Mindfulness very poetically as "keeping one's consciousness alive to the present reality", which we really like, but we found Jon's definition easier to explain to the engineers).  Mindfulness is a quality of mind that we all experience and enjoy from time to time, but it is something that can be greatly strengthened with practice, and once it becomes suffuciently strong, it leads directly to the attentional calmness and clarity that forms the basis of EI development.

(There is strong scientific evidence that meditation changes the emotional brain, including the ability to lower activition in the amygdala in response to a negative stimulus.  A topic for a future blog post).

3. Work with emotions in the body

Once we develop strong, stable and perceptive attention, what do we do with it to develop Emotional Intelligence?  Well, use it on the body, of course.  This again seems a little counter-intuitive.  Why do we want to do that?

The first answer is, "Because we can".  Every emotion has a correlate in the body.  For example, some of us experience anger as a contraction of the chest, or a change in the pattern of breathing, or a tightening of the neck and shoulders and so on.  Every emotional experience is also a physiological experience.  More importantly, we can experience emotions more vividly in the body than in the mind.  Therefore, when we are trying to perceive an emotion, you usually get more bang for the buck if you bring your attention to the body rather than to the mind.

The more important reason to bring the attention to the body is that it affords us a high-resolution awareness of emotions.  What does "high-resolution awareness" mean?  In answering that question, let's ponder on an interesting question, "Are you able to detect anger the moment it is arising?".  This is an important question, because we may not be able to prevent anger from arising, and once it's in full bloom, we are usually unable to turn it off, but we can usually turn it off at its moment of arising, when it's small enough to be managable.  That is our window of opportunity.  Doing that, of course, depends on being able to detect that moment of arising.  That's what I mean by "high-resolution awareness", when your awareness is so sensitive across both time and space that you can watch an emotion as it arises or falls.  Can we do that?

Yes, we can.  And the way to do it is to apply powerful attention onto the body.  Using anger as the example again, you may be able to train yourself to observe your mind all the time and then catch anger as it arises in the mind.  However, in our experience, it is far easier and more effective to do it in the body.  For example, if your bodily correlate to anger is tightening of your chest, shallowing of your breath and tightening of your forehead, then when you're in an awkward social situation, the moment your chest tightens, breath shallows and forehead tenses up, you know you're at the moment of arising of anger, and that knowledge gives you the ability to respond in ways of your own choosing (eg, leaving the room before you do something you know you'll regret, or choosing to allow the anger to bloom if that's the right response for the situation).

Another important reason to work with the body is that it may help the development of empathy.  It is already known that the part of the brain known as the insula is related to the ability to experience and recognize bodily sensations.  People with very active insula, for example, are able to become aware of their own heartbeats.  There is also evidence that people with active insula tend to also have high empathy, which seems to make sense since the neural equipment we use to monitor our own feelings can also be used to monitor other people's feelings.  Finally, there is evidence that people who spend a lot of time paying meditative attention to their own bodies also strengthen their insula.  From our experience, we know that doing a lot of Mindfulness meditation on the body strengthens our ability to recognize bodily sensations.  We now have evidence to believe that it can strengthen empathy.

Last but not least, a good and useful reason to develop a high-resolution awareness of the body is to strengthen our intuition.  A lot of our intuition can come from the body, and learning to listen to it can be very fruitful.  Here's an interesting quote from Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink (also available at
In front of you, are four decks of cards--two red and two blue.  [....] What you don't know at the beginning, however, is that the red decks are a minefield. [....]  You can really only win by taking cards from the blue decks [....]. The question is: how long will it take you to figure this out?

A group of scientists at the University of Iowa did this experiment a few years ago, and what they found is that after we've turned over about fifty cards, most of us start to develop a hunch about what's going on. We don't know why we prefer the blue decks. But we're pretty sure, at that point, that they are a better bet. After turning over about eighty cards, most of us have figured the game out, and can explain exactly why the first two decks are such a bad idea. This much is straightforward. We have some experiences. We think them through. We develop a theory, and then finally we put two and two together. That's the way learning works. But the Iowa scientists did something else, and this is where the strange part of the experiment begins. They hooked each gambler up to a polygraph--a lie detector machine--that measured the activity of the sweat glands that all of us have below the skin in the palms of our hands. Most sweat glands respond to temperature. But those in our palms open up in response to stress--which is why we get clammy hands when we are nervous. What the Iowa scientists found is that gamblers started generating stress responses to red decks by the tenth card, forty cards before they were able to say that they had a hunch about what was wrong with those two decks. More importantly, right around the time their palms started sweating, their behavior began to change as well. They started favoring the good decks, and taking fewer and fewer cards from A and B. In other words, the gamblers figured the game out before they figured the game out: they began making the necessary adjustments long before they were consciously aware of what adjustments they were supposed to be making.

It is important to note that in developing our Emotional Intelligence, we are not suppressing our emotions.  In a class I taught recently, one woman raised a very important question.  She wanted to confirm that when we talk about "turning off anger", for example, we were not actually talking about suppressing anger.  The analogy she used is a fire alarm.  Anger is like a fire alarm, it is unpleasant, but it yields useful data and suppressing it may create unintended consequences.  I think she is right.  Using her analogy, I would say that SIY is not shutting down the fire alarm.  In fact, in SIY, we actually learn to hear the alarm better, AND at the same time, we develop the ability to not be under its control AND we create the choice to turn off unnecessary alarms (eg, false alarms) anytime we want.  Our emotional development begins with more awareness, not less.

In Part II, I will talk about how we actually structure SIY and what we put into it.

(Continued on Part II)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Collection of Personal Growth Talks

Here is a collection of some of the most popular publicly-accessible talks in Google relating to personal growth.  This list is compiled by my very capable associate, Jenny Lykken, who works with me in Google University's School of Personal Growth.


  • Karl Diesseroth: Cracking the Neural Code: Tools from the Deisseroth laboratory have been used to optically deconstruct Parkinsonian neural circuitry, setting the stage both for cracking the neural codes of normal brain function, and for re-engineering neural circuits in disease. 

  • Daniel Siegel: MindSight: The New Science of Personal Transformation: This interactive talk examines two major questions: "What is the mind?" and "How can we create a healthy mind?" We'll examine the interactions among the mind, the brain, and human relationships and explore ways to create a healthy mind, an integrated brain, and mindful, empathic relationships.

  • Thomas Lewis: The Neuroscience of Empathy: Author Dr. Thomas Lewis discusses "The Neuroscience of Empathy" and how it applies to collaboration and understanding others.

  • Philippe Goldin: Cognitive Neuroscience of Mindfulness Meditation:  Philippe examines the effect of mindfulness meditation practice on the brain systems in which psychological functions such as attention, emotional reactivity, emotion regulation, and self-view are instantiated.

  • John Medina: Brain Rules:  How does the brain work?  How do we learn? What exactly do sleep and stress do to our brains? Why is multi-tasking a myth? Why is it so easy to forget--and so important to repeat new information? Is it true that men and women have different brains?  John tells you.

  • Richie Davidson: Transform Your Mind, Change Your Brain:  Richie explores recent scientific research on the neuroscience of positive human qualities and how they can be cultivated through contemplative practice.

  • David Rock: Your Brain at Work:  David takes advantage of the latest research in neuroscience to explain what happens to our brains in different work situations and how we can optimize our effectiveness at work by understanding our brains.

Emotional Intelligence
  • Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence: Daniel Goleman discusses the basics and importance of emotional intelligence and his book "Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships."

  • Philippe Goldin: The Neuroscience of Emotions: The ability to recognize and work with different emotions is fundamental to psychological flexibility and well-being. Neuroscience has contributed to the understanding of the neural bases of emotion, emotion regulation, and emotional intelligence, and has begun to elucidate the brain mechanisms involved in emotion processing. Of great interest is the degree to which these mechanisms demonstrate neuroplasticity in both anatomical and functional levels of the brain.

Meditation and Mindfulness
  • Matthieu Ricard: The Inner Conditions for Authentic Happiness: If happiness is an inner state, influenced by external conditions but not dependent on them, how can we achieve it? Ricard examines the inner and outer factors that increase or diminish our sense of well-being, dissect the underlying mechanisms of happiness, and lead us to a way of looking at the mind itself.

  • Jon Kabat-Zinn: Mindfulness Meditation: In this session, Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the world's leading experts on the science of mindfulness meditation, leads a discussion on meditation and a meditation practice.

  • Jon Kabat-Zinn: Mindfulness, Stress Reduction and Healing:  Jon describes the revolution in medicine that has integrated the mind back into the body and developed a remarkable range of practices for integrating one's experience, reducing stress, healing the body, coping more effectively with emotions such as anxiety, anger, and depression, and cultivating greater well-being and happiness.

  • Robina Courtin: Be Your Own Therapist: We spend our lives being seduced by the outside world, believing without question that happiness and suffering come from "out there." This deeply held misconception is at the root of our dissatisfaction, self-doubt, anger, depression, anxiety, and the rest. By becoming deeply familiar with the workings of our own cognitive processes through introspection and learning to deconstruct them - truly, being our own therapists - we can loosen the grip of these neuroses and grow our marvelous potential for contentment, clarity, and courage.

  • Charlie Halpern: Practicing Wisdom in the Obama Era: In this talk, Charlie draws on the main theme of his book— that the practice of wisdom is necessary to make our work in the world effective and sustainable. He discusses the reasons that wisdom is particularly urgent in dealing with the unprecedented challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. He illustrates his points with personal stories of his career as an institutional innovator and his interactions with Ralph Nader, the Dalai Lama, Barack Obama, and others.

  • Shaila Catherine: Focused and Fearless: A Meditator's Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm, and Clarity: Focused and Fearless speaks to ordinary meditators who wish to attain non-ordinary states with ease. It offers a creative and contemporary slant to this ancient path of happiness and wisdom.

  • Dr. Villy Doctor: Managing Stress and Psychosomatic Disorders Through Meditation: This practical session on meditation teaches the technique of awakening the subtle energy from the position of the nervous system and the energy centers using positive affirmations to attain self-realization. 

Update 9/18/09:  Added talks by Philippe Goldin and John Medina.

Update 12/6/09:  Added talks by Richie Davidson and David Rock.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Funny Thought: Lie your way to physical attractiveness

If you lie about something often enough, it eventually becomes the truth.  The Bush Administration has already demonstrated this to perfection, of course.

Based on this insight, I'm conducting a psychological experiment.  The experiment is I take a generic, plain-looking guy, lie repeatedly that he's very good-looking, and then see when people start thinking of that guy as physically attractive.  The subject I chose for this experiment is me.

Which is why I keep lying about how good-looking I am.  The theory is if I do this often enough, eventually you'll think to yourself, "Wow, Meng suddenly looks very attractive today, I don't know why".

And when that happens, let me know, so I can collect the data.  I'm very scientifically-minded, even thought I'm obviously very good-looking.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Random Thought: When I become CEO, you get to slap me for $100

When I become the founding CEO of a company (which will soon grow into a large and very successful enterprise, of course), there are 3 principles I want to institute:

 1. Compassion as the Prime Directive
 2. Make it impossible for the CEO to ignore employee sentiment
 3. When the company wins big, everybody wins big

1. Compassion as the Prime Directive

Google's Prime Directive is "Don't be Evil" and Google has shown that it is possible to be non-evil while still making a crapload of money.  I want to push that envelope.  I want to go beyond not being evil, to show that a company can be compassionate and still make a crapload of money.

Truth be told, I don't really know what it means for a company to be compassionate.  I suspect this is something that takes a lot of trial and error to figure out.  But I don't think figuring out the exact answer is so important.  What I think is more important is that stating such a principle encourages people to think about it and measure themselves against it in every action and decision.  Even more importantly, perhaps, it gives them permission to question decision-makers and hold them to a high ethical and altruistic standard (like, "Hey, I don't think this is a compassionate decision, boss").

2. Make it impossible for the CEO to ignore employee sentiment ("Slap the CEO")

It's important to find a way to make it impossible for the CEO to ignore what everybody else is feeling. The best idea I can come up with so far is to create a system to allow any employee to anonymously slap a fine on the CEO.  Here's how it works:

  • Any employee can use the internal system to "slap the CEO" anonymously.
  • Everytime an employee does that, the CEO automatically gets $1000 deducted from his paycheck.
  • To "slap the CEO", the employee has to state what the CEO is doing wrong, what he/she should have done instead, how he/she should correct it, and why it's important for the company.
  • This is not for free.  Doing this will cost the employee $100, which is automatically deducted from his/her paycheck.
The idea is that doing this costs the employee real money, so it's not done frivolously.  Which also means that whatever the issue is must have really angered or bothered the employee, so it's important for the CEO to know.  And if the CEO gets a lot of "slaps" in a short period of time, it's something he/she cannot ignore because it's costing him/her real money (50 slaps in a week is $50,000, which is real money even for a CEO).

3. When the company wins big, everybody wins big

Back in the old days when my current employer was a small company, I observed that there was no politics amongst the engineers.  Whenever there was important crap that needed to be done, somebody just went ahead and did it.  Nobody needed to be ordered by managers, and nobody gave a second thought about receiving credit or looking good to the boss.

There were a number of reasons why that happened (eg, people liked and respected each other).  I think the most important reason was that, like in most start-ups, we each had a meaningful amount of stock options.  Because of that, everybody was keenly aware that if the company were to become very successful, we would each become very successful too.  Hence, it didn't really matter that the boss didn't pat your back for what you did, or if working for the common good interfered with your promotion (because doing the more important stuff for everybody's benefit took time away from your "real job"), all that mattered was making the company wildly successful, because that common good clearly led to handsome rewards for oneself.

Given this insight, I want to create a system where great success for the company leads necessarily and unambiguously to great rewards for everyone.  The best idea I can think of is to share a significant portion (10%?) of annual profits equally with every employee.  The sole variable is the number of days you worked in the year.  So 2 people who worked the entire year will get exactly the same profit-share, and one person who worked half the year will get exactly half the profit-share of the person who worked a full year.  It's as simple as that.  Everybody from CEO to receptionist gets the same amount.  This is in addition to your fair-market salary, of course.

Ten percent can end up being a lot of money.  If the profit per employee per year is $250,000, for example, 10% is $25,000 for each person, which is a meaningful amount of money for most people.  And if the company hits jackpot and makes a million dollars per employee, everybody hits a $100,000 jackpot.

The most important feature of this system is that there is no committee of managers hiding in a room somewhere deciding how much pork to allocate to each person based on perceived relative contributions.  The link between profit per employee and one's own reward is unambiguous and not subject to petty office politics.  When the company wins big, everybody wins big.  That's it.  And that feeling can be a powerful motivator towards common good.

Yes, this system has obvious downsides (eg, the free-loader problem, which needs to be solved) and would probably take us a few iterations to get it right.  However, the idea of a system that unambiguously links great company success to great personal reward immune to office politics is just too compelling to dismiss.  I, for one, would be willing to try it out with the future multiple millions in annual profits of my very successful multi-billion-dollar-company-to-be.

Caveat Emptor

I am obviously not (yet) a successful CEO.  So if I were you, I'd just ignore everything I say, as usual.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Funny Thought: Expecting Mother

There are a number of parking lots around the Google campus labeled "EXPECTING MOTHER".

Sadly, I never get to park in those lots, because whenever I'm in Google, I'm never expecting my mother.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Random Thought: Three Assumptions at Meetings

Back when I used to chair meetings with more than 3 people, I liked to start every meeting with what I call the Three Assumptions.

1. The Greater Good Assumption. We assume that each of us is in this meeting to serve the greater good, each motivated to achieve something beyond satisfying our own selfish desires.

2. The Transparency Assumption. Given Assumption 1, since we are all here for the greater good, we therefore assume that none of us has anything to hide. Hence, we assume that each of us is transparent in intention and communication.

3. The Reasonableness Assumption. Given Assumptions 1 and 2, since we are all serving the greater good and have no hidden agenda, we therefore assume that we are always reasonable. Even when we disagree intensely, we are doing so for good and honest reasons.

(And after stating the 3 assumptions, I usually invite all to abide in 30 seconds of silence to generate the conditions for inner calmness).

Of course, none of these assumptions may actually be true. For example, somebody in the room may be a real jerk. But I like the idea of starting a meeting with these assumptions about ourselves and other people around the table. My hope is that starting with positive, altruistic assumptions may actually lead to positive, altruistic behavior.

If you decide to try this at your meetings, please feel free to let me know how it works for you. That includes you, Barack. Yes, and Joe too.

Meng in the News: Google Searches

"World peace - expressed without irony - is the recurring theme for Meng".

Link to article:

(Above article refers to this post: Three Easy Steps to World Peace)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Funny Thought: My "Vacation" Message

I just returned from a long vacation. Here's the "out of office" message I've been using:

I'm on vacation until 8/17/2009. If you can't reach me, please don't think I'm dead, especially if you're from payroll (if you're not from payroll, I don't really care what you think. Except you, boss).

During my vacation, I will ignore most of my incoming emails. Why? Because being on vacation, I'm likely to be frolicking on a beach or something, and reading emails is incompatible with frolicking. I MAY read your email, but try not to hold your breath.

If your request is important, please email me again after I return. If your request is not important, please send it to /dev/null, it will be taken care of in the most appropriate way, I promise.

In case of an absolute emergency that requires my immediate attention, my teammates know how to contact me. Bribe them. Tell them they look beautiful. Say they look almost as attractive as Meng.

Examples of "absolute emergency":
- You are the President of the United States.
- You are Celine Dion.
- You urgently want to give me a billion dollars.
- Your party at the Playboy Mansion cannot start without me.
- Evil forces intent to destroy the world today (Note: not AFTER my vacation, but today) and you think I'm the only one who can save the world.
- You discovered that I'm The One, and you must find me before the Agents to give me that "blue pill, red pill" speech.
- All of the above.

During my time away, I will refrain from becoming evil. But if I do become evil, I promise I will grow a goatee and rub my hands in a sinister way when I speak. And if I capture a superhero sent to stop me, I will painstakingly explain my evil plans in detail to him/her before handing him/her to my snickering, incompetent goons.


(PS: Too lazy to stalk me physically? Try stalking me online by following my blog: )

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Funny Thought: Manifestation

Not my original funny thought, but a funny story I heard in China.

A Chinese Buddhist teacher used to tell his friends that he thought Jesus Christ was a manifestation of Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

He realized that many of his Christian friends were very offended.

So he changed his story. Now he tells his friends that he thinks Guan Yin is a manifestation of Jesus Christ.

And now, everybody is happy.

(Related: I had no access to Blogger in China, which is why I wasn't able to post for the last 3 weeks.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Funny Thought: Living Will

I'm surprised that the "Living Will" I signed did not offer me the option I really wanted.

What I really wanted is that, in the event that I'm incapacitated, either due to disease or accident, I want my body parts replaced with bionic implants that give me super speed, super strength and super vision, and then I want to be revived. That way, I'll wake up a superhero.

I don't even care if it costs me six million dollars.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Funny Thought: Price of Land

I once read that at the height of the Japanese real estate bubble in the late 1980s, the land occupied by the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was worth more than all the land in all of California.

If I were the Emperor of Japan, I would have sold the palace and bought California.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Funny Thought: 汤圆

(My first writing in Chinese in more than 20 years, please feel free to laugh at me. 已经二十多年没有用华文书写了。写得不好,请多包涵。我的华文这么差,肯定笑掉您的大门牙,西班牙,葡萄牙)

昨天在餐馆, 订购一碗 "姜汁汤圆". 上菜时才知道, 原来一碗只有一粒汤圆. 一碗才一粒! 真是搞笑.

Waitress 小姐说, 汤圆可以附加购买, 要多少都行, "只要放得下就行".

我就说, 多几粒我肯定放得下.

因为我是男子汉, 大丈夫, 拿得起, 放得下.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Funny Thought: Taking Refuge

I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Sangha.

And here in Singapore, I take refuge in air-conditioning.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Funny Thought: My Net Worth

Many years ago, when I was still a half-starving graduate student, I attended a talk at Sun Microsystems by one of the Sutherland brothers (I can't remember which one, I think it was Ivan). Mr Sutherland started his talk by asking, with a show of hands, how many people predicted in the early 90's that the Internet would be huge.

I, of course, raised my hand. I was the only one. Mr Sutherland pointed at me and asked sacastically, "So, how much are YOU worth?"

Without missing a beat, I answered, "Twelve dollars and fifty three cents. But that was before lunch".

The only person in the room who didn't find that funny was Mr Sutherland.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Misc: Mingyur and Meng

Mingyur Rinpoche's honorific is the Very Venerable Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. When I first heard of it, I thought to myself, "I wonder how it must be like to be the guy who is Only Slightly Venerable". And then I realized, that guy is me.

I got to spend a meaningful amount of time with Mingyur Rinpoche on 21 May. This was made possible by kindness and generosity of a group of people, including Mei Yen Ladle, Marie Chuang and Mingyur Rinpoche himself. Thank you!

I walked away even more impressed with Mingyur Rinpoche than when I last met him as part of a large audience (see this post). The depth of this man's mind and practice feels almost unfathomable to me. Talking to him feels like talking to a wise old sage. The entire time we were conversing, I kept forgetting that he's a young man. I feel deeply humbled, but in a way that greatly strengthened my own self-confidence, which I think is the best way to be humbled.

Here are some notes I took from our conversation which I think would be interesting and useful for all, minus anything that might be private to either of us. I make no guarantee that my notes are accurate, mostly because I'm an old and stupid.

=== NOTES ===

Transforming Difficulties

Rinpoche: Difficulties are good things, they help us in our spiritual growth. The secret is to transform our difficulties into growth. There are 3 steps:

1. Shamatha (calm abiding). Apply shamatha, and with that stable mind, bring awareness to the difficulty. Make that difficulty an object of meditation.

2. Compassion. Apply compassion to self. Also use our difficulty to understand the difficulty of others, taking that opportunity to grow compassion. Practice tonglen.

3. Insight. Look into the true nature of the difficulty. See its emptiness, and create an union between that difficulty and awareness / clarity.

Me: I'm not sure what "creating an union of difficulty with awareness" means. It sounds to me like moving from craving into perception, and then into sensation, and then into just awareness itself. (In other words, knowing that my difficulty is not me, but merely sensations and thoughts in my body and mind). Is that right?

Rinpoche: That is precisely right.

Dealing with Monsters

We also discussed my Monsters poem. Rinpoche thinks it's a very good approach, the only issue with it was my implicit expectation that when the monsters are hungry, they will leave. I agreed and changed the poem slightly to address that issue.

Rinpoche also thinks it's good to treat monsters as our friends, since they help us in our spiritual growth (see above).

Sleeping Meditation

Me: Why is Sleeping Meditation not more widely practiced? What are the main difficulties?

Rinpoche: Sleeping Meditation is actually a difficult practice. Its main difficulty is the obvious one: that you lose stable attention near the point of sleep.

Therefore, it's good to have a firm meditation foundation first: start by developing a strong ability to maintain a stable attention. (ie, with sitting practice).

The best time to practice Sleeping Meditation is when you're in a situation where you're sleepy but don't want to fall asleep. For example, when you're dozing off in the middle of a boring meeting. Another good time is during sitting meditation.

The Future of Buddha Dharma

Me: In your opinion, what is the future of Buddha Dharma in the world? What is your own role?

Rinpoche: The practice of Dharma is essentially 3 things:
  1. Calm Mind
  2. Open Heart
  3. Seeing True Nature
It's all about Awareness and Compassion.

Buddhist practices are increasingly being studied and scrutinized by science. This is a very good thing. Subjecting Buddhism to scientific rigour will help make its benefits more accessible to the world.

The other thing we need is community. Having communities of practitioners help people with their practice, and that's lacking right now.

My (Rinpoche's) role is to bridge authentic Tibetan Buddhism to the scientific community and the modern world.

Dharma and Technology

We discussed the use of technology to help more people benefit from Dharma.

The main thing on my mind is Shamatha. I feel that Shamatha is not just extremely valuable to modern people in and of itself, it is also the basis of all deep practices. Hence, if we can invent technology to accelerate Shamatha development by a factor of 10 or so, it'll greatly benefit humanity. Rinpoche agreed. He thinks it currently takes about 2 years to fully develop Shamatha, and that's too long for most people. We both agree that such technology may be possible, since Shamatha is a "gross mind" phenomenon and is, hence, measurable in the brain, but neither of us knew how to do it yet.

Rinpoche would love to see a computer game based on Compassion. I would love that too, but neither of us knew how to do that yet.

Lots of opportunities to be explored.

Other Things

We discussed many other things, but I didn't take good notes. Here are some bits and pieces I scribbled down that may be useful.

- The Buddha strongly discouraged his students from talking about their own spiritual attainments, but we can all talk about "gross level" attainments. These include mental peace and tranquility, emotional intelligence, concentration, empathy and shamatha (ie, things I teach in my classes). There is no harm in open discussions of these. But beyond "gross level" attainments (eg, things at the "subtle level" and beyond), it's best not to tell people that you attained those (except for your own teacher). Part of the reason is it encourages pride and ego in the practitioner, which can hold him back. Part of the reason is there is no satisfactory vocabulary for people without the requisite experiences (ie, most people). And part of the reason is since it cannot be described to most people, it causes them to cast doubt on the practitioner himself (like, "what on earth is this guy talking about?").

- It is possible that attainments at the "subtle level" and beyond may not be meaningfully measurable in the brain. (Note: This is just a theory). That may prove to be the limit of scientific study in meditation, sort of the meditation equivalent of Heisenberg Uncertainty.

- When practicing Shamatha and Jhana: Let go, and never give up.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Funny Thought: Building Walls

One of the things I'm known for is my celebrity wall ("Meng's Wall") at the Googleplex.

When people tell me I've got a great wall, I would joke (with an almost made-up Chinese accent), "I Chinese, I build great wall".

When I was showing off my wall to Maya Lin, I told her, "See, we Chinese, we build great walls".

To my relief, Maya seemed amused.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Funny Thought: Reaching for the Moon

I figured out how to reach the moon.

1. Give fiddle to cat.
2. Ride on cow, get cow to jump, but a little lower than usual.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Funny Thought: Karma Offset

I should really be a vegetarian, for the good karma. But I enjoy the taste of meat too much, especially sashimi. What to do?

I figured out a solution: Karma offsets. All I have to do is to pay a meat-eater to become a vegetarian, in order to offset my own bad meat-eating karma. Maybe I can even create a world market for karma credits.

See, you CAN have your karma and eat it too.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Random Thought: Relaxing Your Way to Concentration

One of the biggest surprises in the development of samadhi (concentration) is the insight that samadhi arises from letting go.  Letting go gives rise to relaxation.  Relaxation gives rise to calmness (of mind).  Calmness gives rise to (mental) stability.  And stability gives rise to samadhi.  So, ultimately, deep concentration doesn't come from holding the mind down with great effort, but from letting it go.  Like many things in Buddhism, this insight is initially very counter-intuitive, but once you understand it, it leads you to discovering new exciting possibilities within your mind.

One week ago, I led a short guided meditation on exploring this relationship between relaxation and concentration.  The participants (all seasoned meditators) found it very helpful, so I decided to share it with you here.  Posted below is the script I wrote and used for the guided meditation.  I hope it's useful for you as reading material as well.

=== SCRIPT ===

We will now explore the relationship between relaxation and samadhi.  We will first rest our minds in a state of alert relaxation, and once our minds are sufficiently at rest, we'll invite the arising of samadhi, and see how that works out.

Let us begin by sitting comfortably.  Sit in a position that enables you to be both relaxed and alert at the same time, whatever that means to you.

Let us now take 3 slow, deep breaths.  Taking deep breaths injects both energy and relaxation, so it is always good to start meditations with a few deep breaths.

Now, let us breath normally, and rest our mind by bringing gentle attention onto the breath.  If you like, you can visualize resting the mind on the breath.  Allow the breath to be a resting place, an abode, or a cushion, or a mattress, and let the mind rest on it, very gently.

Let us give our minds a few minutes of relaxation.

(Long pause)

Now, let us see if we can arise samadhi in our minds.  The way to do that is NOT to force the mind into samadhi.  Instead, we do it with an invitation.  We gently invite the mind to transform  relaxation into concentration, if it wants to.  If it doesn't want to, that's ok too.  This invitation is given in the spirit of kindness and generosity, to be accepted or declined at will.  Either way, it is fine.

Let us now give our minds a very kind and gentle invitation to give rise to samadhi from calmness and relaxation, if it wants to.  If it doesn't want to, it's fine too.  This is just an invitation.

(Medium pause)

If, instead of samadhi, creativity and energy arises in your mind, that is ok too.  Let us allow this energy to be, and allow it to nourish us in any way that it wants.  Just rest our attention gently on the breath while we allow it to happen.

(Short pause)

If, instead, tension and difficulty arise in your mind, that's ok too.  Just allow it to be, and bring Mindfulness and Compassion to it.  Our responsibility for this sitting is not to control our minds, our responsibility is to generate Mindfulness and Compassion.  Just rest our attention gently on the breath, and continue to give our minds a generous offering of Mindfulness and Compassion, whatever state it wants to be in.

(Long pause)

As we approach the end of this sitting, let us bring our attention back to the present, resting our minds gently on the breath, and becoming aware of all thoughts and sensations as they arise.

(Short pause)

Let me invite you, if you want, to close this session with a dedication.  

I aspire to dedicate all my efforts today to the peace, happiness and enlightenment of all sentient beings. 

Countless are all sentient beings, I aspire to love them all.

(Short pause, ring bell to end session)