What made you look at the connect between mindfulness and the business environment?
I feel that if even a seriously flawed person like me can benefit so profoundly from mindfulness, I know others can too, and I want to help everybody in the world become peaceful, happy and compassionate. I wanted to start with the workplace, because that is where adults spend most of their waking lives. I quickly realised the implication of doing this. If inner peace, inner joy and compassion become widespread in the world, then it creates the conditions for world peace. World peace! That's how important this is. I had to do this.
The only question was how? I eventually figured it out: We need to align inner peace, inner joy and compassion with success of individuals and companies. In other words, if we can help people and companies succeed in a way that inner peace, inner joy and compassion are the necessary and unavoidable side effects, then those three qualities will spread. And I feel that one way to achieve that is with an effective mindfulness-based curriculum for emotional intelligence for adults. That was why I led the creation of Search Inside Yourself, which uses mindfulness and other meditative techniques to train emotional intelligence.
What were the crucial milestones in the journey of siyli.org (Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute)?
Our first big milestone came in 2007. That's when the Google University was founded and they were looking for home-grown curricula for Google employees. By sheer coincidence (or karma?), at that same time, I was gathering top experts on fields relating to corporate mindfulness and we had created a mindfulness curriculum (which we jokingly called "Search Inside Yourself", or SIY). All we needed was a platform to launch it from. And again, by sheer coincidence, one of the experts had a close friend who was a close friend of Google's newly hired Director of Google University. And everything suddenly came together and Search Inside Yourself, which was at that time a highly experimental program, had its first successful pilot.
SIY quickly became the most popular class in Google. Classes would fill up within 30 seconds of opening, and the demand overwhelmed my team's ability to deliver. We needed to train more teachers. So I started writing down in detail what I taught in class, and I soon realized I was actually writing a book, so I turned it into a book project. I asked for 13 weeks of unpaid leave from Google to write the book. My manager Karen asked, "Do you realistically think you can write an entire book in 13 weeks?" And I said, "I don't know, but I know one way to find out." She approved my leave. But Karen was right, I wasn't able to write the book in 13 weeks, it took me 14.
At the same time, I co-founded a non-profit institute called the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI, pronounced "silly") to bring SIY out to the world, with Google's blessings. Google donated all intellectual property relating to SIY to SIYLI. And the rest, they say, is history.
SIYLI (siyli.org) is entering India in alliance with Thank You, India. What are your expectations and challenges from the Indian audience?
I like to think of it as returning a small gift in gratitude for a big one. Most practices we teach in SIYLI can trace their roots back to India. India has given the world a perfect, beautiful gem. I, for one, am extremely grateful for it. It changed my life. In the West, what we did with India's gift was to make it more applicable to the lives and context modern people find themselves in. We're not "improving" on India's gift, because it's already so perfect there is no way to improve on it. Instead, we made it more understandable to modern people and more applicable to the modern context. I hope these things that we did are also useful and relevant to modern people in India. How would you define "mindfulness"?
How is it different from other practices like yoga, qi gong?
Mindfulness is defined as paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. In other words, mindfulness is a specific way of paying attention, and "mindfulness meditation" means practicing that particular way of paying attention.
Mindfulness, then, is a purely attentional quality. Because of that, it is also the foundation of all other practices that involve attention. In Buddhism, for example, we say that mindfulness is the "salt" of meditation. Just like salt is used in almost all cooking, mindfulness is used in almost all meditation practices, because almost all forms of meditation require clear, present-moment attention.
It is also used in practices like yoga and qigong. In qigong, for example, part of it is physical (involving moving of the body), part of it is energetic (involving movement of energy between vital points in the body), but while doing all that, you need to pay total attention to the present moment, which means all of it involves mindfulness.