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Mindfulness goes hi-tech in Singapore

The start-up world can be a very spiritual place, it turns out
President Reuven Rivlin attends the funeral of Singapore's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, accompanied by current Prime Minister Lee Hasien Loong. (photo credit: Courtesy Ministry of Communications and Information, Singapore)
President Reuven Rivlin attends the funeral of Singapore's first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, accompanied by current Prime Minister Lee Hasien Loong. (photo credit: Courtesy Ministry of Communications and Information, Singapore)

“Why is Google interested in Mindfulness? Because developing skills in emotional intelligence reduces friction in the workplace.  And that’s good for everyone.”

Shortly after lunch on day two of the inaugural Wisdom 2.0 Asia conference, senior google manager Bill Duane took the stage.  Bill currently boasts the job title “Superintendent of Wellbeing” at the tech behemoth, coordinating a plethora of in-house self development options for its 30,000+ employees. Before establishing himself as the chief advocate of Google’s in-house mindfulness efforts, Duane was the lead production engineer for Gmail — not exactly a lightweight.

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I had previously met Duane at several other Wisdom 2.0 conferences hosted at across the world.  Established to help discover how to “live with more wisdom, awareness, and compassion in the digital age,” Wisdom 2.0 is the “who’s who” of the burgeoning corporate mindfulness movement.  Its flagship summit in San Francisco draws in over 2,500 people as senior executives from Twitter, LinkedIN, Facebook, and Ford Motors talk strategy with spiritual practitioners from a range of world traditions.

Here in Singapore, the organization tried its hand spreading this postmodern confluence of technology and spirituality to Asia.  Duane laid out Google’s multifaceted efforts at optimizing employee well being, and as a result, productivity.  There is “Search Inside Yourself”, Google’s 20-hour in-house mindfulness training program.  Following its publication as a best selling book, the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute has established itself as a leading provider of corporate mindfulness solutions.  Other in-house Google initiatives include mindful {silent} lunches, Google meditation Hangouts, pre-recorded meditations to be played at the start of meetings, and “detaching days” dedicated to day long meditation respites from technology.

2The 500 person predominantly Asian audience earnestly soaked all this in with a keen, if not mutedly wry eye.  Singapore is not San Francisco.  Continuously voted as the World Bank’s “Best Place to do Business”, Singapore’s high-octane business culture is buttressed by strict, if not draconian, government policies (see the country’s ban on chewing gum and similar restrictions on personal autonomy).  Along with the other “East Asian Miracle Economies”, Singapore attributes its success to good old fashion hard work, stability, loyalty, and respect to authority.  This has left little room for the video game arcades, nap pods, and Digital Detox retreats weaving together the contrarian social fabric of Silicon Valley.

Nevertheless, participants from over 30 countries flocked to Singapore to learn how mindfulness could improve their personal and professional lives.  The conference kicked off with a talk from UCLA-based neuroscientist Dan Siegel.  Starting with hard science was a strategic move for a movement in constant battle against cerebral minded skeptics.  Dr. Siegel delivered a survey of the academic literature supporting mindfulness’ capacity to transform the brains, immune systems, attention spans, relationships, and sense of well-being of its practitioners.

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The conference was not destined to remain in the domain of the left brain for long.  Nearly half of the speakers led the audience in some form of mindfulness practice.  Meditation Guru and bestselling author Jack Kornfield guided participants in an hour of “good heart” meditation to open up the second day of the conference.  Judging from the comments in public feedback forum, as well as a number of personal conversations I had with conference goers, this was one of the most impactful sessions of the entire conference.

STARTUP Nation and The Crossroads of East and West”

The ethno-geographic irony of the whole affair was not entirely to be glossed over: Westerners teaching Asians Buddhism.  Both Kornfield and Siegel, two fine specimens of Western/Ashkenazi extraction, made mention of what a privilege it was to restore the indigenous cultural heritage to Asia.  The past 50 years sent Westerns to the East in search of Nirvana, and Easterners to the West in search of consumer paradise.

Where does that leave us here in the Middle East?  Jews have always been at the nexus of trans-global exchange.  The historical kingdom of Judea was geographically positioned as the intersect between the Asian/European/African trade.  In exile, Jewish communities shuttled ideas, capital, and best practices across the diaspora, and by extension, to their surrounding environs.  In the present day Israeli revival, Tel Aviv is widely regarded as the most important tech center in the world outside Silicon Valley.  Jerusalem was just voted the hottest new start-up hub on the globe.  So was there any Israeli presence to be found at Wisdom 2.0 Asia?

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For better or worse, that task was left to me.  I came representing Wisdom Tribe, the Jewish contribution to the corporate mindfulness and personal development space.  A mere 6 months old, we have already hosted events in Israel, Los Angeles, and San Francisco profiling top Jewish thought leaders and their contribution to improving lives across the world.  Our website, WisdomTribe.Global aims to be a hub of digital and experiential learning opportunities; we produce “Ancient Wisdom Optimized for the Digital Age.”

For a movement heavily dominated by Asian spiritual traditions, the entrance of Jewish wisdom has been a welcome surprise.  While attending Wisdom 2.0 Europe at Google headquarters in Dublin this past fall, I had a chance to tell  “Superintendent of Wellbeing” Bill Duane about our work.  He relayed to me his excitement and support in making mindfulness more accessible to a wider audience, and the dangers of the movement falling into a “cryptobuddhist agenda” (though he is Buddhist himself).

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So what does Jewish Wisdom for the digital age look like?  For starters, a group of 15 Jews and non-Jews experiencing a mindful Shabbat meal in Singapore’s Jacob Ballas social hall.  This was our third “Wisdom Shabbos” event, meant to highlight the weekly contemplative practice of eating, drinking, and exchanging words of wisdom that is so part and parcel of the Jewish tradition.  (see flyer below and this article for Wisdom Shabbos San Francisco). No business talk, no money exchanged- Shabbos is given over completely to the present moment.  Participants were all too happy to leave their smartphones at the door, and immerse themselves in the NOW of the Shabbos experience.

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Not to say Jewish wisdom demands a withdrawal from the business world.  In fact, the encouragement of business, innovation, and capital are core tenets of the Jewish tradition.  It is this entrepreneurial spirit that brought Jews to Singapore in the first place.  The prominent Baghdadi Jewish families that continue form the staple of Singapore’s Jewish community made fortunes by establishing trading posts in Baghdad, Bombay, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore in the 19th Century.  In fact, in a 2007 MA Thesis at the London School of Economics, I argued that it was their cultural institutions that fostered the trust networks, or social capital, which enabled them to transact more efficiently, with less friction.  And that, Mr. Duane, was good for everyone.  

In a world dominated by ubiquitous technology — wearables are just the beginning, just wait for implants — people are increasingly seeking something deeper to ground their minds, bodies, and yes, even souls.  Meditation, yoga, and other mindfulness practices have become part and parcel of Silicon Valley’s tech culture.  If history serves us right, we shouldn’t be surprised to see the Jewish people tossing a blow away product into the ring.

About the Author
Yaakov Lehman writes on the intersection of spirituality and technology. He is CEO of Wisdom Tribe - a next level Torah Media company delivering "Ancient Wisdom, Optimized For The Digital Age". Yaakov travels the world teaching Torah Wisdom, as well as learning from top thought leaders technology, education, and design. Yaakov earned a B.A. in Global Studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara where he founded an annual 3,000 person music and arts festival. He went on to earn an M.A. in Global History from the London School of Economics and an M.A. in Global Studies from the University of Vienna, where he specialized in East Asia.
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