Saturday, March 14, 2009

Life Story: Three Easy Steps to World Peace (Part II)

In August 2007, I told Lama Surya Das that I had a three-step plan towards world peace (see previous post, "Three Easy Steps to World Peace").  Lama replied in jest, "Three steps is too many, try doing it in one step".  

And I said, "Sure.  Venerable Sir, here is my one-step plan to world peace....  In three parts".  That was when my daughter elbowed me and said, "Yeah, very funny, daddy".

As mentioned in my previous post, my plan was to enable the people of the world to develop inner peace, happiness and compassion, thereby building the foundation for world peace, and to do so by making the benefits of meditation accessible to humanity.  The three steps towards achieving that are:

1. Start with me, be the change I want to see in the world.
2. Make meditation a field of science, just like medicine.
3. Align meditation with real life, make it useful and relevant for real people.

I talked about steps 1 and 2 in some detail in the previous post.  This post is about step 3.

I know of a historical precedence for step 3, and that precedence is exercise.  In 1927, a group of scientists started the Harvard Fatigue Laboratory (HFL) to study exercise.  I imagine it must have been hard back in the 1920s for a group of respectable scientists to decide to "waste" their careers studying something as "frivolous" as exercise, but they did it anyway.  Today, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see that their work has changed the world.  The pioneering work at HFL created the field of Exercise Physiology.  One of the most important things they discovered was that a fit person becomes physiologically different from an unfit person, so by exercising, you become much healthier and can operate much more effectively at a physical level.

Today, thanks to the contribution of those pioneers and others, exercise has acquired at least four important features:

1. Everybody knows that, "Exercise is good for me".  There is no more debate at all.  While it is true that not everybody takes the trouble to work out, even those who don't work out know that they should and that it is good for them.

2. Everybody who wants to exercise can learn how to do it.  The information is widely available, trainers are readily accessible if you want one, and most people probably already have friends who work out who can tell them how to exercise.

3. Most people can exercise at work, often encouraged by their employers.  Many companies have gyms and many people can exercise at work, because companies understand that healthy and physically fit workers are good for business.

4. Exercise is taken for granted.  Exercise is so taken for granted today that when you tell your friends you are going to the gym to work out, nobody looks at you funny and thinks you are some New Age crank from San Francisco.  In fact, it is now the reverse.  If you, for example, argue against the benefits of exercise, people look at you funny.


In other words, exercise has now perfectly aligned with the modern lives of real people.  It has become fully accessible to all, and humanity benefits from it.  I want to do the same for meditation.  I want to create a world where meditation is treated like exercise for the mind, possessing all four features of exercise discussed above:

1. Everybody knows that, "Meditation is good for me".
2. Everybody who wants to meditate can learn how to do it.
3. Most people can meditate at work, often encouraged by their employers, because it is good for business.
4. Meditation is taken for granted.  Everybody thinks, "Of course you should meditate, duh".


Once again, we return to the same question, "How".  How do I create a world where meditation is taken for granted like exercise?  Months of thinking and numerous false starts later, I found the answer, almost by accident.

The answer came when I read Daniel Goleman's best-selling book, "Emotional Intelligence".  I had a slightly embarrassing reason for taking the time to read that book.  My dear friend, Dr Larry Brilliant, who was then the Executive Director of Google.org, had been a close friend of Daniel Goleman for a very long time.  Dan was visiting Google to speak at a company-sponsored event, Larry was taking the opportunity to hang out with him, and he invited me to come along.  I didn't know much about Dan back then, but I was very excited because Larry is such a wonderful person that I consider any friend of Larry's to automatically be a friend of mine, and I was excited to meet a new friend.  Besides, Larry is one of those true bodhisattvas who worked his entirely life to serve humanity and save the world, so I suspected that anybody who is Larry's close friend probably has a golden heart like him too.

Out of courtesy to both Larry and Dan, I figured the least I could do before meeting Dan was to read his most famous book before I actually met him.  Reading that book gave me an "Eureka" moment.  I had found my vehicle for aligning meditation with real life, and that vehicle is Emotional Intelligence.

You see, everybody already has a rough idea what Emotional Intelligence (EI, sometimes known as "EQ") is.  More importantly, everybody knows that, "Emotional Intelligence is very useful for me".  Even without fully understanding EI, many people know or suspect that EI will help them fulfill their worldly goals in life, such as becoming more effective at work, getting promotions, earning more money, working more effectively with other people, being admired, having fulfilling relationships, and so on.  In other words, EI aligns perfectly with the needs and desires of modern people.

EI has two more important features.  Firstly, beyond helping you succeed, the greatest "side effect" of EI is greater inner happiness and increased empathy and compassion for other people, precisely what I wanted to achieve for the world in my plan for world peace.  Secondly, a very good way (and I suspect the only way) to truly develop EI is with contemplative practices starting with Mindfulness Meditation.

Eureka!  I found it!

The way to create world peace, then, is to create a Mindfulness-based Emotional Intelligence curriculum (which may even be the first effective EI curriculum in the world for adults), perfect it within Google, and then give it away as one of Google's gifts to the world.  The alignment is perfect.  Everybody already wants EI.  Businesses already want EI.  I can show them how to achieve it.  They can then become more effective at achieving their own goals, AND at the same time, create the foundations for world peace.

When I finally met Dan, I could hardly contain myself.  I was passionately explaining my world peace plan to him, almost banging on the table.  I was going like, "This is world peace we're talking about, Danny, world peace!".  Dan was visibly a little uncomfortable.  There he was, coming to Google and meeting a bunch of Larry's friends and co-workers for the first time, and then there's this crazy young guy with a funny job title wanting to create world peace with him.  The scene was a bit comical.  Yes, the road to great achievements is often paved with moments of comic absurdity.

Dan and I subsequently became friends.  Through Dan's and Larry's connections, I got to know two more amazing people, Mirabai Bush and Norman Fischer.  Mirabai was the Executive Director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, a very compassionate woman who is a very close friend of both Dan and Larry and whom, like Larry, gave her adult life to the service of humanity.  Norman is perhaps the most famous Zen Master in America today.  I was especially impressed by Norman.  He is very wise, intelligent and knowledgeable, and he is deeply spiritual yet very grounded in worldly reality and very good at applying deep practices to daily life.  Norman just radiates depth and wisdom.  It's hard not to be impressed by him.  With Dan, Mirabai and Norman, I now had people with the curriculum expertise.  All I needed after that was to convince somebody in Google to sponsor this course, which Google University eventually did (the details of which is a good story for another time).

Under the sponsorship of Google University, Mirabai, Norman and myself worked together to create a curriculum for a Mindfulness-based EI course (actually, it was mainly Mirabai and Norman, I was just an ignorant little engineer sitting in the room with the wise ones), while Dan became our Advisor, offering us the gift of his expertise and wisdom.  Sitting in a room with both of them, Mirabai was like a mini bodhisattva radiating her compassion, while Norman was like a mini arahat radiating his wisdom.  Mirabai and Norman did this work under contract for Google and, officially, they reported to me.  Having a mini bodhisattva and a mini arahat reporting to me, one sitting on my left and the other on my right, I felt like a mini buddha.  (Yes, please feel free to worship me, thank you very much).

While curriculum development was going on, I formed an extremely diverse all-volunteer team to implement the course.  The team consisted of Joel Finkelstein, a massage therapist, David Lapedis, a recruiter, Dr Hongjun Zhu, an engineer, Rachel Kay, a learning specialist, and myself, the Jolly Good Fellow of Google.  Dr Peter Allen, the Director of Google University, was the patron saint of the project and an active participant.  Members of the team were promised absolutely nothing in return for their thankless, unpaid hard work, except the opportunity to save the world.  Surprisingly, they all wanted in.  Amazing what people will do for world peace.

The name of the course was Search Inside Yourself (SIY).  The name was suggested by Joel.  Everybody laughed when he suggested it.  I didn't really like the name at first, but my philosophy is that if everybody laughs, it must be the right thing to do.  So I agreed to it.

From October to December of 2007, we ran SIY for the first time in Google.  It was, by most measures, a very successful pilot.  That success allowed us to run subsequent, much improved iterations.  (The details of SIY is the topic for another post).

And, thus, all three parts of my plan for world peace were now in place.  It was now simply a matter of execution.  It was like having put a ship together, all we had to do now was to actually sail it to where we needed to go.  What started as an impossible dream in 2003 to create world peace has become an actionable plan by the end of 2007.  My life is very strange.

6 comments:

  1. Hi Meng,

    I found about you thanks to Google Tech Talks. I am deeply grateful to you for your initiative to invite people like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Alan Wallace, Philippe Goldin and especially Matthieu Ricard and making those talks available to anybody with access to the Internet. They've been the spark that introduced me to Buddhism and, most importantly, meditation.

    Your three-step program to world peace, surprising as it is, actually makes a lot of sense. I will follow it closely while it unfolds.

    Once again, thank you very much. I wish you all the best.

    David

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  2. Hi again,

    Re-reading your last two posts made me notice that there's no mention of introducing meditation/EI into the schools like physical exercise already is. I don't know if this is omission is intentional. If it is I would like to know your rationale.

    Best wishes,

    David

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  3. Hi Rigel,

    Good question. The short answer is, I haven't figured out how to teach EI to kids. Some considerations:

    1. I suspect there must be a lot of differences between a EI curriculum for kids and one for adults. Eg, I imagine an EI curriculum for kids to be largely behavioral (eg, why you should not hit the smaller kids), which would be entirely counter-productive for adults. In contrast, the SIY curriculum for adults involve a lot of self-discovery, such as discovering one's own deepest inner values, and I'm not sure if kids are equipped to do that.

    2. For SIY to work, it must be entirely voluntary by the participant. SIY involves a lot of attentional training, and the only way it'll work is for the participant to work with her own attention. This is not something that can be forced. It's not clear to me how to convince kids that "resting attention on your breath" is worth their time and energy.

    So, for now, I'm concentrating on adults and when I'm successful with that, I'll see how I can reach kids. :)

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  4. Hi Meng,

    I loved reading this! Are you still running SIY at Google? If so, I think its time I sign up.

    Sharno

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  5. Keep on creating my friend. You are a beautiful reminder of what is possible when we create with passion and from our truth.

    Love,

    David

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  6. I just read the article in this month's Shambhala Sun about your program. Is there any way for "lay" people outside of the Google universe to get involved or trained to teach SIY? I'm extremely excited about what you're doing and am drawn to find out more. Namaste.

    Meg

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