Sunday, March 1, 2009

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

Sometimes, strange things happen to innocent people.  Especially when that innocent person is me.

One beautiful summer day in 2003, I was taking an afternoon walk in the grounds surrounding the Google campus, just minding my own business.  And then something strange happened to me.  A strong aspiration to save the world suddenly solidified in me, for no good reason at all.  I just stopped and made a solemn promise to myself that one day, if I achieve financial independence, I will dedicate my life to humanity.  For as long as I can remember, I have always had a desire to do something big and important for humanity.  It was a thought that existed as a constant, faint background buzz in my mind, it just never really solidified until that lovely summer day.  Why it suddenly did, I don’t have the faintest idea.

A year later, in 2004, the door of opportunity opened up for me.  One August day that year, I suddenly had real money.

Becoming financially-independent was a strange experience for me.  It literally happened overnight.  It started the evening before Google when public.  I went to bed at night, and when I woke up next morning, I was rich on paper.  I didn’t do anything different, all I did was go to sleep.  Wow.  This sleep thing really worked, I should do more of it.

I remembered what I did on IPO day.  I came to work in the late morning, read news about the IPO on the web, high-fived my co-workers, and then went back to work writing code.  That was it.  That day was little different from any other workday for me, except for the high-fives and a few very embarrassing seconds worth of victory dances.  Very surprising, I know.   You would think that an event as important as achieving financial independence would feel like the psychological equivalent of a major earthquake.  But no, it was almost a non-event on the day it happened.  It just didn’t “sink in”.

In retrospect, I think I was in denial.  I believe that, to some large degree, many of us were.  I remember telling myself that by the time *I* got to sell, *my* stocks would be worthless.  And then when I got to sell and my Google stocks didn’t become worthless, I remembered telling myself other excuses why all this good fortune can’t possibly happen to me.  Maybe I was going to lose all my money in some stupid ways, maybe I would be caught by some weird tax trap, and when I had a minor skin rash due to an allergy, I thought I was going to die a victim of some cheap cosmic humor (like, “Yeah, very funny, God”).  I think this denial is a defensive mechanism to protect us from disappointment.  We instinctively deny the sudden arrival of unlikely good fortune, so that we won’t be too disappointed when it all turns out to be a mirage.  I think that is why unlikely good fortune and unlikely great success take a while to “sink in”.

For me, it took a few months, mainly because I was prevented from selling the majority of my Google stocks until 6 months after the IPO.  But eventually, it sunk in.  Sometime in early 2005, it hit me.  I caught myself thinking, “Omigod, I actually have real money!”

I never forgotten the promise I made to myself, that when I became financially independent, I would dedicate my life to humanity.  So the first thing I did was to found a tiny family foundation dedicated to the modest mission of “Peace, Liberty and Enlightenment in the World”.

I didn’t want to stop at just giving my money away, though.  I was sure there was something more important I could do for humanity.  And I knew exactly what that something was.  I was going to try to bring about World Peace.

The basic idea was very simple.  Every prior effort at creating world peace has failed.  The reason is that people have tried to create world peace by imposing social or political structures upon people.  In other words, they tried to create world peace from the outside in.  That didn’t work.  My idea is to do the reverse, to create world peace from the inside out.  If we can find a way for everybody to develop peace and happiness within themselves, that inner peace and happiness is going to manifest into kindness and compassion.  And if we can create a world where most people are happy, at peace, kind and compassion, it creates the foundation for World Peace.

But how do we do that?  Does such a methodology even exist?  Fortunately, there is an easy answer to this question.  That answer is yes, such a methodology does exist, and it has already been practiced by various peoples for thousands of years.  It is the art of using contemplative practices to develop our minds.  Most of us know it as “meditation”.

Meditation, at its simplest, is the training of attention.  With enough meditative training, one’s attention can become unwaveringly calm, stable and focused.  With that enhanced quality of attention, one’s mind can easily, and for extended periods, become highly relaxed and alert at the same time.  With that combination of relaxation and alertness, three wonderful qualities of mind naturally emerge, serenity, clarity and happiness.  How do those qualities come about?  Here’s an analogy: think of the mind as a snow globe that is shaken constantly.  When you stop shaking the snow globe, the white “snow” particles within it eventually settle, and the fluid in the snow globe becomes calm and clear at the same time.  Similarly, our minds are normally in a constant state of agitation.  With deep mental relaxation and alertness maintained over a sufficiently long duration of time, the mind settles into the first two of the three wonderful qualities, serenity and clarity.  The third wonderful quality, happiness, is not captured by the snow globe analogy.  In fact, it may be a little surprising and not entirely clear why that a relaxed and alert mind would automatically be happy.  It turns out, there is a very beautiful reason behind it.   Happiness is the default state of mind.  When the mind is unagitated, all we’re doing is allowing our minds to go back to its default, which is happiness.  (This amazing insight can be life-changing, for it suggests that happiness is not something we need to create, but something to simply return to.  Happiness is already there all the time, all we need to do is to allow it to emerge.  Fascinating stuff, but the details of which is beyond the scope of this post).

Inner happiness is a contagious quality.  When a person allows her inner glow of happiness to emerge and flourish consistently and frequently, people around her tend to respond more positively to her.  It’s very intuitive, if you meet someone who is often positive and smiling naturally, it becomes a lot harder to be nasty to her, it may even take real effort sometimes.  Hence, the meditator may find that her social interactions tend to become increasingly positive, and since we are all social creatures, positive social interactions have a strong tendency to create happiness within us.   A happy virtuous cycle thus establishes.  The meditator’s inner happiness improves her social interactions, which in turn increases her happiness, and so on.  As this cycle becomes stronger, the meditator may find herself becoming increasingly kinder and more compassionate.  Again, it’s very intuitive.  If the vast majority of our social interactions are very positive, it naturally leads our minds to increasingly like other people, and the more we like people, the more we instinctively wish for them to be happy and free from suffering, hence the natural strengthening of kindness and compassion.

In addition to this natural growth of kindness and compassion arising from inner happiness, there are meditational practices to develop and strengthen those beautiful qualities as well.  For example, there is a popular practice called Metta Meditation (Metta means “loving kindness”), where you  begin by bringing to mind someone you naturally have strong loving kindness towards (eg, a beloved child, a best friend or an admired teacher), wish that person well (perhaps by thinking aloud the words, “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you be free from harm”, and so on), and allow those emotions of loving kindness to “marinate” in your mind for a couple of minutes, and then bring up images of other people (a person you merely like, a person you’re neutral towards, and a person you dislike, in that order), wish those people well, and see how much feeling of loving kindness you can generate towards them.  The idea behind this practice is to break old mental habits and form new ones.  For example, if your mental habit everytime you think of Dick is to naturally generate a feeling of dislike, but if you use Dick as the final object of Metta Meditation everyday, then after a while, your mind may start to associate Dick with a positive feeling since everytime you think of Dick in that meditation, your mind was “marinated” in loving kindness and you were wishing him well.  After a while, you may find yourself no longer disliking Dick and you may have to find a new object for the last part of Metta Meditation.  (Eventually, you may even run out of people you dislike, which can be annoying for the purpose of this meditation, but is not a bad problem to have, really).  This and other meditational practices work best for a mind that has been trained to have a high level of calm, stable and focused attention.

My main point is this:  It is entirely possible to train and develop our minds to create inner peace, happiness, kindness and compassion.  The best part of this training is that we don’t even have to force ourselves to have those qualities, they are all naturally already within each of us, all that we need to do is to create the conditions for them to emerge, grow and flourish.  And the way to create those conditions is meditation.  With meditation, we allow ourselves to become much happier and much more compassionate people, and if enough of us do that, we create the foundation for world peace.

Hence, in a serious way that is almost comical, the secret active ingredient in the formula for world peace is something as simple as meditation.  It’s such a simple solution to such an intractable problem it’s almost absurd.  Except it may actually work.  World peace may actually be achievable in this way.

This insight led me to one of my Eureka moments.  I have found my life’s goal.  My life’s goal is to make the benefits of meditation accessible to humanity.  Note that I’m not trying to bring meditation to the world.  I’m not even trying to bring its benefits to the world.  All I intend to do is to make its benefits accessible to the world.  That’s all.  The way I see it, all I’m doing is opening the door to the treasure room and telling people, “Here, all this previously hidden treasure you can now see, feel free to take any of it that you want, or not”.  I am merely a door-opener.  I’m so confident that the transformative power of contemplative practices is so compelling that anybody who understands it will find it irresistible.  It will be like offering the secrets of health (e.g. hygiene, nutrition, exercise and sleep) to unhealthy people who previously didn’t know them.  Once people understand and begin to experience the benefits of health, there is no going back, it’s just too compelling.

But, how?  How to make the benefits of meditation accessible to humanity?  The answer to that question is something I half-jokingly call Meng’s Three Easy Steps to World Peace.


Step 1: Start with Me

The first step is the most obvious, I need to become the change that I want to see in the world.  Towards this end, I came up with an almost measurable goal for myself, that by the end of my lifetime, I want to create in myself the capacity to be kind to everyone all the time.  I want to become like the Kindness Channel, all kindness, all day.  (“Next, on the Kindness Channel, ‘When Kindness Strikes’.  Coming up at 9, 8 central”).  It’s an audacious goal, but hey, if I’m audacious enough to try to save the world, I’m audacious enough to attempt this too.


Step 2: Make Meditation a Field of Science

To become widely accessible, meditation needs to become a field of science, the same way medicine became a field of science.  Like meditation, medicine had been practiced for countless generations, but ever since medicine became a field of science starting the 19th century (beginning, perhaps, with Pasteur's research into micro-organisms), everything about medicine has changed.  I think the most important change was access.  When medicine became scientific, it became greatly demystified, new tools, equipment and methodologies become available, and training and certification of service providers greatly improved.  In other words, a lot more people gained access to good medicine.  I want to see the same thing happen to meditation.

Back in 2005/2006, I decided this is where I can make an important contribution.  I am scientifically-minded, I am a very successful engineer, I am familiar with meditation as a practice, I am highly intelligent, and I have money.  Perhaps this is where I belong.  I started my adventure by writing an email (more of a mini-manifesto) to my Buddhist friends explaining that meditation needs to become scientific and inviting all to initiate an effort to make meditation training "data-driven".  The response I got back was completely underwhelming.  Some people didn't think making meditation scientific was very "Zen", others liked the idea but were not particularly excited by it.

I finally found one person excited by it.  One of my friends, Tenzin Tethong, forwarded my email to Dr B. Alan Wallace.  Alan replied to me immediately and told me how excited he was about it, and that he has been working on a very similar effort for the past six years.  Why?  Because the Dalai Lama told him to!  I was amazed.  None of my meditating friends (many of them men and women of science) were excited by the marriage of meditation and science, but the Dalai Lama was.  It was then that I knew I was on the right track.  Surely His Holiness and myself cannot both be wrong at the same time.

Alan and I became good friends very quickly.  After a while, through learning more about Alan's work and related research by other scientists, I concluded that given the Dalai Lama's enthusiastic support, this effort is going to move forward with or without me.  This effort is in good hands.  I decided to do nothing more here beyond providing financial support, and focus my personal energy on step 3 Below.


Step 3: Align Meditation with Real Life

For the benefits of meditation to become widely accessible to humanity, it cannot just be the domain of bald people in funny robes living in mountains, or small groups of "New Age" folks in San Francisco.  Meditation needs to become "real".  It needs to align with the lives and interests of real people, the Joe the Plumbers of the world.  This, I suspect, is the most important of the 3 steps, and the one where I can make the most impact.  But how?  That's a topic for another post.

(Read Part 2 of this story)

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