Chade Meng-Tan peace in my lifetime!

Last Wednesday I joined a bouyant crowd Camden Town Hall to hear Chade – Meng Tan explain  about how he got the coolest job title in corporate (Jolly Good Fellow – in Google Corp) America and his mission for world peace “in my lifetime”. I had recently bought a copy of Meng’s book and was curious to hear him in the flesh so to speak.

The evening was hosted by Action for Happiness, a great UK outfit that’s put on some stimulating talks featuring speakers from across the globe. I must admit to an unease with the use of the “happiness” as a goal statement. I know it almost invites us to define it and question it, which is useful but I still find myself being resistant to it.

I must have been in a sceptical mood because I had found myself with similar unease as Meng bounced onto the stage with his well rehearsed banter, stories and amusing slide set. With some mindful effort I did my best to watch my judging mind as well as listen to Meng’s story and explanation of emotional intelligence.

It is an extraordinary story too. Meng has made a journey from software engineer to one of the best connected evangelists for emotional intelligence and mindfulness on the planet. His book is endorsed by no less than ex president Jimmy Carter and the Dalai Lama!

Meng gave a cogent explanation of his 3 stage programme for emotional intelligence and want on to explain his extraordinary goal of world peace “in my life-time”. His conviction is that the development of the mind through conscious effort and neuroplasticity will become universally understood as beneficial in the same way that physical exercise made a similar journey from the early 20th Century. He believes we are two or three generations away from meditation being a commonplace activity whose usefulness is no longer questioned.

As for “in my life-time” Meng just wants to set himself and others a challenge.

Meng left a lot of time for questions and clearly relished to opportunity to connect with his audience. For me this is when my reservations melted away as Meng listen carefully and compassionately to a variety of questions, some very general and some very specific and personal. In each case gave a skilled answer or declined when he had none. His experience, knowledge and compassion came through. He knows his theory and practice too. I warmed to this man with a whimsical and self deprecating humour who is also so serious in his intent.

When challenged about what difference his courses have made at Google he was realistic “not much” I think he said. “Google is too big”. When asked if he worries whether he is worried that individuals and companies are coming to meditation motivated by money and profit .. he says he believes that the practice itself will undermine and and reorientate the practitioner for the good. Just as good practice will enevitably give you and advantage in life and business even if you do not have those as goals when you start.

This is part of an interesting theme touched on in my other blogs. Are bankers going to meditate and cease to be motivated by bonuses? Will they become new philanthropists?

If you want to check out Meng’s new enterprise .. it’s SIYLI  (silly .. get it!)

Thanks Meng

Groups in Mindfulness Based Training

Last week I made my first visit the Oxford Centre for Mindfulness. After a bleary eyed start at 5:30 I stepped of the bus close to Oxford Brookes University and made the short walk to the centre under the cherry blossom and in the company of Mark, one of the course participants.

This was to be a whole day in the company of other trainers looking at our work with “groups”. How they enhance learning, how they form, develop and dissolve. We were lucky to have one of the most experienced trainers in the field, Trish Bartley, leading the day. Trish works in groups with people diagnosed with cancer. She has literally written the book on the subject (see links) and movingly read out some quotes from her group members at a couple of points during the day.

Groups have always fascinated me. I have lead and taught them in work situations and in community arts contexts, and over time developed an some understanding of group work and game theory.  Whilst I’ve participated in mindfulness and therapy groups and lead many smaller mindfulness courses, I wanted to know more about leading larger groups.

Trish, of course, used the group itself to illustrate many of the points she was making She had us running/moving around at many points to emphasise how the body as well as the mind can be engaged in practice and learning. Regular “grounding” points brought us back again and again to our own perception of the moment.

The aha! moments, for me, were when she spoke about the “mutual” learning that takes place in a group. All too often we think of training as being one way transmission, but if the “trainer” is open and confident he or she is learning at every point too. Trish also asked us try and describe a group’s status as an animal: is it a plodding horse or an anxious meerkat? and what would it need? One for reflection but may be not sharing with the group in question.

Taking leave of the group Trish invited us to take a single bright red bead on a string bracelet away with us. Something she does with her groups to help the participants connect back to the learning and maybe prompt some practice. I wore mine on the way home and it now swings from my backpack a little reminder each time I zip and unzip my bag.


About Trish

Trish’s book

Master Classes


All Party Parliamentary Group – the mindfulness session.

Thanks to my friend Mark Jordan (from Herts County Council)  last week I was able to grab myself a place in Committee Room 9, in our very own Houses of Parliament, to witness a significant moment in the mainstreaming of mindfulness in the UK.

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Wellbeing and Economics (APPG) has been meeting since (tbd) discussing and taking evidence on the role areas, such as culture and labour markets might have in relation to the improved wellbeing of citizens.

This meeting, on April 8th, focussed on what was described as “a potential policy solution – mindfulness programmes”. In particular the application of mindfulness in the areas of health and education.

I shan’t attempt to cover the content of the meeting in this post. The APPG website already has an overview, including one of the presentations, and promises “full notes” of the discussion soon. (see links below)

What struck me was the very passionate interest from both the people that packed the room (about 150) the speakers and the parliamentarians who were involved. I knew that mindfulness sessions were being offered to MPs but didn’t realise just how popular they have become and what a fine mindfulness champion we have in Chris Ruane MP.

It turns out that over 50 MPs have participated in courses held in Westminster and that new courses are oversubscribed. In a recent article Chris says he hopes it will eventually start influencing policy “the more we can develop mindfulness at the heart of government the more mindful policies we can develop”. Heady stuff perhaps given the very unmindful nature of our political system, yet we know there is a growing appetite for a different way of doing things both among the electorate and the elected.

Prof Willem Kuyken (Exeter) gave a lightening introduction to mindfulness (see his slides on the APPG site) and was followed by Dr Jonty Heaversedge who described his own experience of introducing mindfulness within the London Borough of Southwark, where his practice is based. Later on in the question session it was telling that a participant from LB of Brent voiced dismay that in her borough almost no such availability of mindfulness existed for its inhabitants. This I feel just points up just how patchy availability is in the UK. Similarly we learned that schools around Bangor (close to the Centre for Mindfulness) are involved in a project to make mindfulness widely available. Clearly very different from the rest of the country.

This theme of availability and capacity came up again and again during the meeting. It was one of primary challenges identified: Developing a “stock” of experienced mindfulness teachers, whilst maintaining standards; developing public awareness and building a sound evidence base.

Regarding an evidence base someone made the remark that because the benefits were often diffused say across mental wellbeing, family and relationships as well as life long health, that this made it hard to build a business case in the usual way. It seems to me that business cases can have wide objectives but perhaps the point is that responsibilities are split across agencies who are looking for benefits in “their” area.

The session gave Richard Burnett, from the Mindfulness in Schools, a great opportunity to talk about his brilliant project. dot.Be is the name of the programme they have designed and training courses for teachers are being held across the UK and in Europe. Richard had everyone make an energetic hand clap and asked them to stop and fully become aware the resulting sensations. This is one of the exercises used with school pupils to explore attention and focus. A novel way of working experientially, I thought.

For me the meeting was illuminating in many ways: for example some discussion focussed on the danger of mindfulness being a “happy pill” or “sticking plaster” that is used to help people cope with the symptoms of an unhealthy society whilst lowering their motivation to improve the situation.

Chris Ruane pointed out early on that nothing (including mindfulness) should hinder all our efforts to change a society that creates mental and physical health issues in the first place. Prof Kuyken commented that mindfulness far from bringing about “happy states” often illuminated uncomfortable ones. The point was made that mindfulness well practiced, developed feelings of empathy and that empathy can drive action.

I left the meeting and walked out past the oddly wrapped up statues of the great and the good (?) of previous centuries wondering what they would have made of mindfulness. We have had no (major) revolutions in our history .. could it be that this is the start of a deeper revolution .. one starting in each individual. One can dream 😉


Interview with Chris Ruane

Gods and hungry ghosts

The discussion about the corporatisation of mindfulness is getting interesting. Thich Nhat Hanh has joined in the discussion during his recent visit to US where he held workshops at, among other places, Google and The World Bank. His view: that as long as business leaders practice “true mindfulness” it does not matter if the intention is triggered by a desire for bigger profits, because the practice will “open their hearts” and will develop their desire to end the suffering of others.

He goes on to say (or so it is reported) that having the wrong intention e.g. wanting lots of money, will bring about only be an “imitation” of mindfulness – “you will not have touched its true purpose”.

I can understand this but I am not sure it will prevent the self-help industry for business people offering a shallow version of the practice and for many to be satisfied with it’s limited benefits. The 7 Effective Habits of Successful People will not, I suspect, be quickly replaced by the 8 Fold Path.

Mark Leonard uses the following analogy (I paraphrase – apologise if inaccurate) “If you are throwing life rings to drowning people you do not ask their politics/intentions before rescuing them”

At the time it made me think of an old thanka (wall hanging) I have of the Buddhist “Wheel of life”. It’s a complex early teaching aid but part of it depicts the six realms of being: gods, demi gods, human, animal, hell and hungry ghosts. In each realm the Buddha is shown bring the dharma (teaching) and pointing the way off of the turning wheel.

I got to thinking that we have our own gods and demi-gods these days. Wealthy business people who wield enormous power through their companies and technologies, we have even called some of them “Masters of the Universe! Perhaps Thich Nhat Hanh was just visiting their realm and pointing the way – throwing them a life ring.

Would I prefer to keep meditation unsullied by the world and kept in monasteries. No I think not. It has and will survive misinterpretation in the past. A taste of something beautiful is a powerful thing.

Another news story caught my eye this week that I feel has some resonance. Caroline Murphy is the heir to the Murphy Group (building contractors). She took a proposal to her board to hand the company to the 3,500 staff creating a worker co-op, albeit more like John Lewis. She would have ceded her £40m personal stake in the company creating a staff share ownership scheme. The board and shareholders rejected the proposal. Caroline said she was inspired by her fathers philosophy “ you can only sleep in one bed and only wear one pair of shoes at a time” (coincidentally my own father had his own version but it involved the number of shirts you can wear)

Caroline looks like she will be working for courses outside of the business including workers rights. Here is a business woman taking brave and radical action, and giving away her wealth, to change a business. What happened .. the shareholders blocked it. Maybe they are in the realm of hungry ghosts? – beings who are never satisfied no matter how much they have or eat.