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Keep calm and do nothing

The here and now is the place to be. Mindfulness is a loose term to cover a raft of meditation regimens designed to enhance attentiveness and it has become fashionable with a generation trying to cope with technology, without being consumed by its power to distract.

The US Marine Corps is testing Mind Fitness Training to help soldiers relax and boost ‘emotional intelligence’’, the current buzzwords. Companies such as Nike encourage employees to sit and do nothing, and offer classes showing them how to do this. Arianna Huffington, earlier this year, started a mindfulness conference, a page dedicated to the subject on the Huffington Post website and a ‘GPS for the soul’ phone application with a built-in heart sensor. Her employees might be more relaxed if she actually paid them.

The hunger for solace is particularly prevalent in the furnace of the digital revolution. Facebook co-founder, Dustin Moskovitz, has spoken  about modelling his current software start-up, Asna, after lessons learned from yoga classes. Padmasree Warrior (great name), chief technology and strategy officer at Cisco,detailed analogue weekends devoted to family, painting, photography and haiku.

Mindfulness was introduced to westerners by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist leader who said: “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”

Of course, the architects of the electronic age approach the issue of mindfulness as if it were an engineering problem.“

“This isn’t the old San Francisco hippie fluff,” said Chade-Meng Tan, a Google engineer who laughed about the demand for an in-house course he created called called @Search inside yourself’. The seven-week class teaches mindfulness. It means spending 10 minutes with eyes closed on a gold-threaded pillow every morning, or maybe listening to your mother-in-law for once. “Whenever we put the class online, it sells out in 30 seconds,” said Mr Tan.

Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies verify the benefits of mindfulness training; meditation thickens the brain’s cortex, lowers blood pressure, can heal psoriasis and “it can help you get a promotion,” said Mr Tan.

Companies like Goldman Sachs also hire Mr Tan and his team to teach techniques like  pausing before sending important emails and silently wishing happiness on difficult co-workers.

Loic Le Meur, a French blogger, recommends a meditation app called Get some headroom, which bills itself as the world’s first gym membership for the mind. “It’s a way to have a meditation practice without feeling weird about it,” he said. “You don’t have to sit in a lotus position. Yo just press ‘play’ and chill out.”

He was speaking at a conference called Wisdom 2.0, in September, in San Francisco, founded by Soren Gordhamer, to examine how we can live with technology without it consuming us. He now has extensive waiting lists for his events..

Mr Gordhamer said the the desire is rampant for ‘non-doing’. “What the the culture is craving is a sense of ease and reflection, of not needing to be stimulated or entertained or going after something constantly. Nobody’s kicking out technology, but we have to regain our connection to others and to nature, or everybody loses.”

The first Wisdom 2.0, in 2009, had prominent speakers from technology and ‘wisdom’ communities, but was relatively small, with 325 attendees. By 2012, the waiting list was 500, with keynote speakers including co-founders of Twitter, Facebook, eBay and Paypal.

At a Wisdom meeting in September, Waiter Roth, CEO of of a tech startup called Inward Inc., was demonstrating a stop-smoking app he had made for the iPhone. Mindfulness has made him more competitive, he said. “Not only do I put fewer things on my to-do list, but I actually get them done and done well. It’s like I’ve learned that to be more successful, I must first slow down.”

At his first Wisdom 2.0 conference in 2010, Arturo Bejar, Facebook’s engineering director, sat in the back row. But after hearing the author and meditation teacher, Jon Kabat-Zinn, say that if people fully saw each other, they would get along better, he was inspired. He decided to integrate that idea into his work handling content concerns from Facebook’s billion users.

This year Facebook introduced emoticons to capture a broader range of human feelings, along with a gentler formula for settling tension between users. Previously, someone tagged in a dodgy Facebook photo, could flag the image as offensive and hope the other person would remove it. Now, a form pops up with options like, ‘It’s embarrassing’, ‘It’s inappropriate’ and ‘It makes me sad,’ along with a polite request to take the photo down.

“We didn’t realise how hard it was to feel heard in electronic communications, but now there are mechanisms for being more expressive and thoughtful,” he said.

A site called whil.com encourages visitors to turn off the brain for 60 seconds by visualising a dot.

“The hour-and-a-half yoga break is too much for most people,” said Chip Wilson, a co-founder. “Getting away from the chaos of work and technology even for one minute is all you really need to feel refreshed.”

If that’s too much of a time waster, Mr Tan said a single mindful breath a day can lead to inner peace.

Strange names, strange ideas.

Nigel Phillips



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