Meditation and Silicon Valley

“All the woo-woo mystical stuff, that’s really retrograde,” says Kenneth Folk, an influential meditation teacher in San Francisco. “This is about training the brain and stirring up the chemical soup inside.”

This excellent article at San Francisco, as the title suggests, is about meditation in the tech community. Beneath that it’s about the practical application of this powerful tool of the mind in an anxiously data-driven world. Beneath that it’s about selling the most ancient, inexpensive and available mental health tool there is to a community that might be perceived as a “tough sell.”

Perhaps the most damaging misconception about meditation is that it is difficult. What if we forgot all the ideas about spiritual enlightenment (what is that anyway?) and brought it back to good, old-fashioned chilling out? There is a law in science which states “That which can be observed cannot be you.” In meditation, we observe the mind. During stress or depression we are so heavily identified with our thoughts that we are lead by them, often down a rabbit hole of anxiety and distraction. If, in meditation, we learn to observe our thoughts and that they are not us, we can gain distance from the play of the mind. This detachment allows us to choose for ourselves where we place our attention. We train our brains to run cleaner and faster. We train our bodies to relax and heal themselves. We habituate systematic “chilling out” and can begin to conceive what all the mystical mumbo jumbo was about in the first place.

Repeated studies have demonstrated that meditation can rewire how the brain responds to stress. Boston University researchers showed that after as little as three and a half hours of meditation training, subjects tend to react less to emotionally charged images. Other research suggests that meditation improves working memory and executive function. And several studies of long-term practitioners show an increased ability to concentrate on fast-changing stimuli. One paper cited by the Google crew even implies that meditators are more resistant to the flu.

But Googlers don’t take up meditation just to keep away the sniffles or get a grip on their emotions. They are also using it to understand their coworkers’ motivations, to cultivate their own “emotional intelligence”—a characteristic that tends to be in short supply among the engineering set. “Everybody knows this EI thing is good for their career,” says Search Inside Yourself founder Meng. “And every company knows that if their people have EI, they’re gonna make a shitload of money.”

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