About mindful mediation — A summary of “Search Inside Yourself” by Chade-Meng Tan (1/3)

Last year in October I finally got the chance to visit the lovely city of Zurich. For this, I jumped on a train and departed from Vienna central station early in the morning. The whole trip and stay turned out to be a bit of a “spiritual” retreat for me, which gave me time to reflect on my life.

As luck would have it, one of the friends that I met in Zurich was attending a program at Google, called “Search inside yourself”, around the exact same time I was soul searching myself. As a consequence, during our stay, she told us all about the program and how it positively influenced her life. We even participated in a “just like you” meditation, since she needed to practice for it.

Long story short, right after that experience I got curious and immediately ordered the book. And since I liked the book a lot, I also summarized it.
But because the summary got way longer than expected, I split it up into three-parts, according to the bullets of the following TL; TR section.
This section provides you with the core idea of the book and an overview of the three parts I individually summarized.

TL; TR:

To briefly describe the book, Chade-Meng Tan encourages you to practice attention training (i.e., mindful meditation) to “optimize” your life, see improvements in your well-being, and your career. To optimize your life it only requires you to follow these three steps:

  • Attention training (mindful meditation): is the basis of cognitive/emotional abilities, also known as the clear and calm mind, which facilitates emotional intelligence. (part 1)
  • Self-knowledge and self-mastery: look into your own cognitive/emotional processes. (part 2)
  • Creating useful mental habits: e.g., when you sincerely wish everyone to be happy and positive goodwill, then the rest will follow. (part 3)

Let’s start with part 1….

It all starts with emotional intelligence! But why?

One thing you often read in articles and which is also quite central to the book is emotional intelligence. To Chade-Meng Tan, as he reveals at the end of the book, emotional intelligence is a vessel to sell mindful meditation to the world. But why he wants to do this? Simply because he believes that this is the first step into the direction of:

  • a better work environment
  • being better humans
  • and world peace (his personal goal)

Or, as Chade-Meng Tan further explains, emotional intelligence aims to help you optimize yourself and is a skill that can be learned!
In the book, he gives an example of Philippe Goldin and cognitive-behavioral therapy, where only after 16 sessions, people with a social anxiety disorder were able to increase activity in the parts of their brains associated with…

  • …self-regulation
  • …linguistic processing
  • …attention when working with their own negative self-beliefs

Now, what’s emotional intelligence?

The ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions (Peter Salovey and John D.Mayer)

Or Daniel Goleman structures it the following way:

  • Self-awareness: knowledge of one’s internal states, preferences, resources, and intuitions
  • Self-regulations: management of one’s internal states, impulses, and resources
  • Motivation: emotional tendencies that guide or facilitate reaching goals
  • Empathy: awareness of others’ feelings, needs, and concerns
  • Social skills: adeptness at inducing a desirable response in others

Notice that the first three are about yourself (intrapersonal), the last two are about others (interpersonal). This means that keeping yourself in check has a huge impact on how easily you achieve emotional intelligence. Or for short, start with yourself!

And what are the benefits?

  • Better work performance: since emotionally intelligent people share attributes such as strong achievement drive, high achievement standards, ability to influence, conceptual thinking, analytical abilities, an initiative in taking on challenges, and self-confidence
  • Better leadership: the book names a study with US Navy leaders, which shows that the best leaders are the ones who show high emotional intelligence. The ones who are outgoing, warm, and smiling people,…
  • Getting closer to happiness: to build the conditions to our happiness — e.g. Matthieu Ricard says that it’s a skill that can be trained.

But how to get started?

The key is to train your attention to get a calm and clear mind. Having a calm and clear mind then helps you to be self-aware and examine your thoughts and emotions. Being more self-aware further helps you to also understand other peoples’ thoughts and emotions and builds the foundation for emotional intelligence. This foundation can then be used to expand the space, which Viktor Frankl described as: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space”, and stop at the right moment.

For this, the first step to expand this space is to train your attention by practicing mindfulness meditation, which is:

paying attention in a particular way: purpose, in the present moment and on-judgmental!” (John Kabat-Zinn )

or

keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality (Thich Nhat Hahn)

The idea behind it is simple. First, train your quality of attention. Then when you have gained strong clarity and stability you direct this to the physiological aspects of emotion to perceive them with high vividness and resolution, which builds the foundation of emotional intelligence.

Breathing as if your life depends on it

In the earliest Buddhist texts, mediation was called “Bhavana” or “to cultivate” and was mental training and not magic and as Chade-Meng points out. While many types of meditation exist, to develop emotional intelligence, the book focuses on mindfulness meditation, which itself focuses on training:

  • Attention: taking possession of the mind
  • Meta attention: attention of attention, it’s the ability to know when your attention wanders away. A good analogy to this is riding a bicycle, where you do lots of micro recoveries to keep the balance. This would be meta attention. When done often this becomes continuous and creates balance.

When both become strong you enter a state where you’re relaxed & alert at the same time. Or “where calmness, clarity, and happiness emerge”.
To understand it better the book gives the example of a pot of water that is full of sediments. When shaken, the water is cloudy, when put at rest, the water begins to be clear again. In another example, the book compares mediation with “exercise of the mind”. Where growth, just like with physical training, comes from overcoming resistance, which could be your thoughts or emotions that cloud your mind. Chade-Meng then tells us that this is where the “magic” happens because when you are calm and clear happiness tends to arise. Why? Because according to the book this is the default state of mind or more poetically put the deep calm ocean beneath the rocky waves.

To get there, the book provides a model:

process model for meditation
process model for meditation
  • it starts with intention, which is supposed to form habits.
  • Attention is the guard, which stands at the gate and watches all your thoughts and emotions that pass by. However, he doesn’t intervene. He just affirms the “come and go”.
  • And if these thoughts are fantasies or ruminations, which shout at the guard to distract him, he simply affirms them and let them go.
    In such cases, by bringing back the focus on your breath, you try to regain your attention.
  • Then when you become aware of your attitude you shift it in the direction of self-directed kindness and curiosity. Or also called the loving grandmother’s mind, who loves you just as you are.
  • At last, you keep reminding you of your intentions.

But which posture type am I?

People often wonder about in which posture they should meditate.
The simple answer in the book, while they all come with their advantages and disadvantages, is that it doesn’t matter, as long as you are comfortable:

  • Sitting in a lotus position (maybe uncomfortable at first)
  • Sitting on the chair (might be the easiest to start with)
  • Lying on the floor (easy to fall asleep)
  • Walking with your head down (interesting, but hard at first)
  • Eyes open / eyes closed (focus vs. falling asleep)

Suggestions for your first mediation

Take a deep breath, lifting your rib cage. Letting go of the breath, let the shoulders drop while the spine stays gently in place. Thus embodying the flow of a river and the stability of a mountain, simultaneously.

To work with distractions the book suggests to:

  • acknowledge, experience without judging or reacting (create space between stimulus and reaction)
  • and if you need to react (do it, as long as you…) continue maintaining mindfulness.
  • Let it go!
  • And if you remember only one thing then this “breath as if your life depends on it”

Mindfulness without a butt on a cushion

According to the book, after the first few mindful mediations, the next step would be to generalize it and integrate mindfulness into your everyday life.

It states that the more you master your attention during formal sittings, the easier it gets to focus on neutral things. Our attention has this tendency to gravitate towards pleasant or unpleasant thoughts. And this is how one can evolve:

  • From mindfulness at rest to mindfulness during activity
  • From self-directed mindfulness to other-directed mindfulness

To describe mindfulness during activity read the following quote:

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle. (Thich Nhat Hahn)

Or in short, try to experience everything as if it is a miracle. From looking at leaves at things to chewing and experiencing your meal. In this regard, the book introduces you to walking meditation.

Other-directed mindfulness, which is guaranteed to improve your social life, is to apply mindfulness toward others for the benefit of others. This means, give your full moment-to-moment, non-judgmental attention to others. And every time your attention wanders away, bring it back. The book calls this mindful listening or if its two ways mindful conversation.

For this, you create space for the other person. For instance, by listening to others and not intervening. All you are allowed is to acknowledge them with phrases like “I understand” or “I see”. In such conversations, you can also utilize looping, which is replaying what you understood and heard. Or dripping, which is controlling your thoughts and emotions during such conversations.

Sustaining the practice

The book also guides how to sustain your practice. It tells you that the first few months are hard because forming new habits requires effort and discipline. It again compares mediation to physical exercise, where the beginning is also hard but then results in having more energy, suffer fewer sick days, get more stuff done, and simply look better. With meditation practice, you become happier, calmer, more emotionally resilient, more energetic and people tend to like you more. To overcome the first time, the book recommends to:

  • Get a buddy, external commitment reinforces the chances of sustaining the practice
  • Do less than you can, don’t sit too long that it becomes burdensome, do a little bit less than possible to keep it fun.
  • Take a mindful breath a day: if you remember anything, then to do a breath a day, forming the simplest habit possible.
  • Have expectations before the meditation, not during! Having them before avoids distractions during the mediation.
  • Use lightness to reinforce mindfulness: bring full moment-to-moment attention to joyful experiences such as reading with you kid (joyful mindfulness).

Focused (closed) vs. Open Attention

After these tips, the book closes the first part of the book by describing the difference between focused and open attention. An analogy to these two is “strength” and “stamina”.

  • Focused attention is “strong and unwavering”, one that cannot be distracted.
  • Open attention “meets any object that arrives at the mind of senses”.

In mindfulness meditation, one experiences both types.

  • Focused attention is the bringing back of your moment-to-moment attention part.
  • Open attention is the non-judgmental affirmation of thoughts about stimuli.

One can train both individually. Again, the book compares it to physical exercise, where one does cardio first and then changes to resistance training (e.g. pushups).

You can do the same during your formal sitting practice where you first focus on your breath (focused) and then also incorporate parts where you let your mind go and experience (open). Training them individually helps you to train your meta attention (attention of attention).

To be more aware of when your attention wanders away. The book says that “it allows to find the balance of your effort”. To make the whole mediation training easier and more fun the book encourages to “switch” between levels (e.g., 5min, 10min..) to make it sometimes easy and sometimes hard, like a video game, played on different levels.

If you made it until here… stay tuned for part 2, which I gonna post next week!

Hi, I’m a Product Management enthusiast at Dynatrace, a dad, a husband, and an idealist who believes that we can make the world a better place.