Searching for enlightenment
Is Google's 'school of personal growth' a spiritual boon or corporate fig leaf?
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 15 January 2009 15.00 GMT
Business initiatives trumpeted as selfless efforts to boost human welfare understandably evoke cynicism. The conflict between the profit motive and talk of employee wellbeing seems too tense to be soothed by a few in-house yoga classes, the traditional giant cheques handed out at local schools, or office recycling schemes.
So no doubt the news that Google is offering training to foster employees' spiritual growth will be met with some disdain, especially as this could well be the first example of a major modern corporation taking staff development into the transpersonal arena.
The story has emerged from a presentation made by Chade-Meng Tan, a former software engineer who now heads up the company's "school of personal growth", one of four faculties operating as Google University in a street adjacent to the firm's main Silicon Valley base. Speaking at the "Happiness and its Causes" conference in San Francisco, Tan suggested that the school's ethos could be a blueprint for workplace education. "Google wants to help Googlers grow as human beings on all levels," he said, "emotional, mental, physical and 'beyond the self'."
It is the final ingredient in this formula which is striking – Tan is a Buddhist, and the idea of people growing "beyond the self" sounds like an allusion to the Buddhist notion of "interdependent arising" – characterised by the insight that what we experience as "me" is not a separate, solid, unchanging entity but a fluid, evolving process that is inextricably connected to and interacting with the whole web of existence. This appears to be reflected in the courses on offer at the school, which includes classes on "the neuroscience of empathy" led by Stanford psychologist Philippe Goldin, as well as instruction in mindfulness meditation from Zen teacher Norman Fischer, who has been dubbed "the abbot of Google".
Google have otherwise remained coy about the curriculum, apparently forbidding Tan from giving interviews about it at the conference. Perhaps this reticence isn't surprising – aside from the usual objections of tokenism and hypocrisy (preaching openness does seem a bit rich in the light of Google's much-derided accommodation of Chinese internet censorship), charges are likely to include everything from surreptitious religious preaching to overindulgence in new-age flim-flam at the cost of better pay.
Nevertheless, given the choice between an employer that believes in and is willing to stump up for programmes aimed at employee enlightenment, and those for whom training is a tired series of numbing health and safety workshops, I know who I'd prefer to work for. With its emphasis on ensuring a creative environment – massage rooms, games consoles, exercise bikes and so on – Google seems to understand that far from being a PR sop, the provision of space and time for ideas and learning is essential for innovation, from which it will ultimately benefit.
The emphasis on evidence-based disciplines such as neuroscience and psychology suggests that the school's approach is based on the rigours of science rather than the superstition of church or crystal ball. At a time when many traditional religious institutional forms are associated with war, superstition, or scandal, or are failing to adapt to 21st-century life, it may be that our continued evolution is more likely to be spurred by organisations with a track record of cutting-edge services that improve the quality of lives and relationships.
This should not be a shock to Buddhists, whose tradition is not a revealed religion but more a set of observations and suggestions, which, while retaining their essence, naturally morph with their cultural surroundings. As the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche puts it:
As this wisdom mixes with the culture, psychology and language of a different country, new forms of expressing that same wisdom naturally come into being.
It seems that in the west, it is mixing most creatively with the fields of science, technology and communications – another example of the commercial appropriation of "interdependent arising" being the recent Orange "I Am Everyone" adverts.
Whether the Google initiative leads to further innovation, greater wellbeing and continued success, or turns into a cloak for materialistic greed, will depend largely on the company's ability to sustain a skilful and compassionate modus operandi in the midst of a corporate world dominated by self-interest. Having made its fortune through improving networks, it might understand better than most firms the glaring implications of interdependence - that sustained abundance is only possible through willingness to share it with others.
As to its capacity for wisely acting on that understanding and resisting the allure of corporate egotism – the very antithesis of going "beyond the self" – that very much remains to be seen.