15 July 2013

Ian Gawler Blog: Geeks turn to meditation – the three top reasons why

It is lunchtime in Google’s main office and all is profoundly quiet, bar the occasional sounding of a meditation bell. Yes, the computer whizzes have left their machines silent, taken the lead from the renowned Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh and are enjoying a moments peace; a moment of mindfulness during one of their bi-monthly “mindful lunches”.

This week we investigate why the geeks here at Google, and across the way at the Facebook and Twitter offices, are turning increasingly to mindfulness and meditation and how they are benefiting. Then what to eat to offset Alzheimer’s, while Beyond Blue features meditation against anxiety. But first

Thought for the day
Before one studies Zen,
mountains are mountains and waters are waters;

After a first glimpse into the truth of Zen,
Mountains are no longer mountains 
and waters are no longer waters;
After enlightenment,

Mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.
                                                                                    Old Zen saying

Personal peace, company productivity, community altruism. Quite a package. But it does seem that the real purpose of meditation is beginning to dawn in the major hi-tech companies. Sure it helps with inner peace. Sure there is lots of research now that confirms how significantly meditation can improve everything from raw intelligence to creativity, productivity and social behavior in the workplace. But what is the point? Is it only about making more money? Where does it all lead to?

David DeSteno is a professor of psychology at Northeastern University in the USA. Speaking in a recent New York Times article, he comments

Gaining competitive advantage on exams and increasing creativity in business weren’t of the utmost concern to Buddha and other early meditation teachers. As Buddha himself said, “I teach one thing and one only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” For Buddha, as for many modern spiritual leaders, the goal of meditation was as simple as that. The heightened control of the mind that meditation offers was supposed to help its practitioners see the world in a new and more compassionate way.”

So in Silicon Valley, where meditation and mindfulness have become the new rage, it is not just about inner peace and getting ahead. There is the realisation that more is on  offer. Meditation is about developing compassion and altruism. It is about finding meaning and purpose at work and in life.

We can all take heart. At Google, more than a thousand staff have been through their "Search Inside Yourself" mindfulness training program developed by Chade-Meng Tan, one of their engineers. Another 400 are on a waiting list and in the meantime take classes like "Neural Self-hacking" or "Managing your Energy". A labyrinth for walking meditation, similar to the one by the river at the Foundation has also been built.

Next, the cofounders of Twitter and Facebook have incorporated contemplative exercises and meditation sessions into normal working hours. Around 1,700 people attended the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco recently, lured by the promise that meditation "can be used to augment individual performance, leadership and productivity". Top executives from Linkedin, Cisco and Ford featured among the keynote speakers.

Examining the question of compassion, DeStano, and colleagues conducted an experiment soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science. They took first time meditators through an 8 week meditation course and found that the meditation increased the compassion response threefold.

DeSteno adds “recent findings by the neuroscientists Helen Weng, Richard Davidson and colleagues confirm that even relatively brief training in meditative techniques can alter neural functioning in brain areas associated with empathic understanding of others’ distress — areas whose responsiveness is also modulated by a person’s degree of felt associations with others”.

So perhaps meditation is coming back to its roots. Sure, all its benefits for very real day-to-day things like training the mind to be better at whatever we do makes every good sense, but there is more on offer – becoming better at who we are, and how we be!

1. New York Times: 5th July 2013, GRAY MATTER: The Morality of Meditation - Focusing the mind makes us more likely to help others in pain.

2. Wired: Enlightenment Engineer

Eat smart, avoid Alzheimer’s
There is a growing body of research that suggests meditation and other mind training exercises can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, but now a new study demonstrates that a high-fat, high-glycemic-index diet increases the risk significantly. Happily, a low-fat, low GI diet protected against the disease according to a new study published by the American Medical Association.

Researchers assigned 47 older adults, some of whom already had mild cognitive impairment, to either a high-fat, high-GI diet or a low-fat, low-GI diet.

Within four weeks, the high-fat diet increased the production of lipid-depleted Aβ, a protein linked to Alzheimer’s risk. The low-fat diet had the opposite effect. An accompanying commentary in the journal supports the finding that dietary choices can affect brain chemistry quickly and effectively.

1. Hanson AJ, et al. JAMA Neurol. Published ahead of print June 17, 2013.
2. Blacker D. Food for thought. JAMA Neurol. Published ahead of print June 17, 2013.

Beyond Blue gives Meditation a plug – read the quote and smile! Times are changing, often in rather cute small steps!

Meditation: Studies show meditation can reduce stress, help put you in control of your thoughts, help you find a purpose in life and bring peace of mind. And if it doesn't work for you, at least you'll have yourself a nice nap.

REFERENCE: Beyond Blue Man Therapy: Click here and go to M for meditation


  1. Great bog Ian. It's amazing how you manage to stay so up to date when you have such a busy schedule of talks. It's incredible how many different ways meditation can be helpful to people.Maybe it's the hope of the world! If we were not hard wired somewhere for compassion and altruism then these characteristics would just be random and not increased with meditation.

  2. Good to read that progressive corporate cultures here in the US are adopting meditation, and I appreciate seeing research into the impacts of meditation.