An Invitation to Search Inside Yourself

By Meg Levie, MA

It started with an audacious idea. Chade-Meng Tan, an early Google engineer, was contemplating what to do next. What he came up was simple, in a way: help create the conditions for world peace, in his lifetime. How to do that? His answer: help create the conditions for inner peace by sharing the benefits of mindfulness and meditation with people on a massive, Google-y scale. And whatever program he created, it had to have enough hard evidence to win over smart, skeptical engineers. He called up a few friends who were stars in meditation, psychology, neuroscience, and business, and in 2007, the Search Inside Yourself program was born.

I first saw the program being taught at Google in 2011. I had spent the last 15 or so years devoting myself to Zen practice, and for the previous few years also had been learning to teach mindfulness in the business world. But something was different about the Search Inside Yourself program. Something about the humor that Meng brought that made it accessible. Something about the insistence on backing up as much as possible with the latest scientific research. And something else, too: the breadth of what was offered—from meditation to emotional intelligence to applications for business and leadership—and the depth. The people teaching the program had done the work, and they knew what they were talking about from personal experience and wanted to share it. And this was Google. There was a very real sense that it was possible to change the world. Over the past six years, I’ve been teaching SIY internationally through the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI), the non-profit that was created to help make the program available beyond Google. (And yes, SIYLI really is pronounced “silly.”)

Meng wanted to share the benefits of mindfulness and meditation, and some of those benefits show up under the category of emotional intelligence, a set of competencies that can have positive effect both in personal and professional life. Wanting to be more emotionally intelligent is great, but how do you actually do it? SIY is based on the understanding that emotional intelligence is trainable, and mindfulness—the cultivation of awareness through consciously attending to experience with an attitude of kindness and curiosity—is the primary method.

The SIY program is based on five domains of emotional intelligence, inspired by the work of Daniel Goleman, who was the first to popularize the notion of EI through his books Emotional Intelligence (1995) and Working with Emotional Intelligence (1998). In the SIY framework, the five are

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Motivation
  • Empathy
  • Leadership

Self-awareness is the foundational competency, the one that supports all the others. It’s about being aware of your experience in the moment, as well as your habits and tendencies over time. As Dr. Goleman described it in a recent post, “you understand your own emotions and their impact on your performance. You know what you are feeling and why—and how it helps or hurts what you are trying to do. You sense how others see you and your self-image reflects that larger reality.” He goes on to say that it gives rise to a realistic self-confidence based on an accurate sense of your strengths and limitations, as well as clarity on values and sense of purpose. And as one SIY participant noted from her own experience, “When you become more self-aware you become more tolerant and compassionate, and it leads to better relationships with family, friends, and in the workplace.”

Self-regulation builds on that foundation. In challenging situations when we have strong emotions, learning to manage them (rather than control them or act blindly according impulse) becomes an invaluable skill. In my experience teaching, often I’ve had students report that they surprised themselves. One young woman described a situation in which a partner in a business negotiation suddenly made an unexpected demand. “I heard myself saying, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting. I’m going to need some time to consider that and then get back to you.’ I know that before, I just would have lost it.” We can learn to see emotions, even difficult emotions, as useful information, and train to work with them skillfully.

The next domain we consider is motivation—what do you really care about and what drives you? In SIY we take some time to explore values and talk about what kinds of factors lead to a truly sustainable happiness, drawing on Dr. Martin Seligman’s work in positive psychology. As a highlight, we offer an extended journaling exercise that gives participants the opportunity to imagine the life they might be living five years out. I like to present this exercise as an invitation to play and explore, knowing that many satisfying possibilities exist in every life. It’s a chance to get beyond our often-unconscious assumptions about what’s possible and to think more creatively. One of my favorite real-life stories around this exercise is that of our friend Peter Bostelmann. Peter was an engineer at the tech giant SAP when he took the SIY course and first did this exercise. In it, he imagined himself five years out as the director of mindfulness for SAP. At the time, SAP had no mindfulness program at all, much less a director. Inspired to start talking to people and to pilot programs, he now serves as Director of SAP Global Mindfulness Practice, and through a successful train-the-trainer program, the SIY program has been taught to over 6000 people at more than 40 locations at SAP worldwide, with measureable results for employee engagement and well-being. (If you’d like to hear more about Peter’s success, there’s a link to his TEDx talk at the end of this post.)

After motivation, we move into the interpersonal with an exploration of empathy. Very simply, we’re wired to be social. I feel what you feel. This is part of our basic hardwiring as a species that evolved in communities, but evidence suggests that it, too, can be enhanced through training. A simple body scan exercise can increase self-awareness and emotional regulation skills, with the added benefit of the ability to feel and understand more of what another person is feeling.

Interesting research that has been emerging the past few years, largely through the work of Dr. Tanya Singer at the Max Planck Institute on the difference between empathy and compassion. One way to think about it is that empathy creates the basic connection of understanding what another is feeling, and compassion adds the additional component of the wishing someone well and that they be relieved of pain and suffering. While empathically connecting with another in pain activates your own pain network in the brain, research suggests compassion depends on different networks, those associated with pleasure and pro-social behavior. This distinction my lead to promising strategies for preventing burn-out among care-givers and other helping professions.

A recent addition to the program is self-compassion, as articulated by Dr. Kristin Neff. Her research makes a compelling case that that self-compassion can be a powerful approach for helping us learn from our mistakes and move forward most effectively. And like the other emotional intelligence capacities in the program, it is a skill, and it can be trained.

And finally, leadership. What do we mean by a leader? In SIY, it’s not dependent on the title on your business card. In the sense that everyone has influence, everyone has the potential to lead.

Participants explore the idea of leading with compassion. Rather than being soft, it can mean having the courage as a leader to have the hard conversations, to stay connected and committed even in the midst of challenges, and empowering others to lead. As the CEO of an emerging tech company put it,

As a leader, I feel I owe it to my team to model the behavior that I expect of them. When I start to see that part of my commitment to practice is a commitment to others around me—in that as I become more grounded, aware and calm, I am a better model for those around me—it becomes a source of self-encouragement to keep practicing.

As part of leadership we also focus on integrating emotional intelligence skills through a powerful method known as Difficult Conversations, as developed by the Harvard Negotiation Project.

Throughout the program, the power of real communication is a big “a-ha” for many participants. I like to think of mindfulness as listening in and listening out. By learning to “listen in” on the experience of your own body and mind, you are more able to “listen out” to various levels of communication that are happening as another person is speaking—content, facial expression, tone of voice, and body language. Often after experience an exercise on mindful listening, participants share how the impact it had on them. One man shared with the group, “This is the most meaningful conversation I’ve had at work, and I’ve been here for 15 years.” Especially in these politically polarized times, the ability to really hear each other and find connection is a skill we can’t afford not to develop.

Looking back, what I’ve noticed after teaching mindfulness and emotional intelligence for the past 10 years is a greater understanding of the importance of heart—especially compassion and self-compassion. And a lot more people are practicing—for most groups, we no longer have to make the case as strongly that mindfulness is beneficial and something people should try. Mindfulness has entered into cultural awareness in a way that few could have predicted ten years ago. Many people have already experienced it, and want to make mindfulness and emotional intelligence a more regular part of their daily lives. In terms of sharing the SIY program beyond Google, currently more that 20,000 people have attended the course in 100 cities globally.

Is it changing the world? I can’t say for sure, but I do know that wherever I go, I sense a deep hunger, not just for tips and tricks to be more focused and productive at work (as useful as those can be), but to live a life that’s meaningful, and satisfying, with real relationships. To be the same person at the office that you are at home. To make a positive contribution to the world and to connect with ourselves and each other, at home, in our communities, and at work. Search Inside Yourself offers the possibility to step in that direction, and I’m glad to be part of it.

Link to TEDx talk with Peter Bostelmann, Director of SAP Global Mindfulness Practice:

You can experience this exceptional program at the Garrison Institute, March 1-3. Click here to read about Michelle Maldonado and Simon Moyes’ upcoming retreat.

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