How I feel as an Indian Meditating in Silicon Valley

Image courtesy: siliconvalleywellness.com

I grew up in a spiritual household, where everyone always spoke about consciousness, bliss, realization, Truth etc., quite casually.

Growing up, it was difficult to pretend that I didn’t enjoy having conversations and debates about the mind, consciousness and Vedanta. My high school friends used to consider me uncool, so I shut off that part of me until I graduated from college. When I moved to Berkeley for graduate school, I realized that it was not only cool to be spiritual but that there were actual organizations that were dedicated to eastern philosophy.

One could major in Buddhism at UC Berkeley!

Over the course of the first semester, I had brought out my mantra counter, gone to the Hare Rama Hare Krishna temple and Paramahamsa Yogananda center and had started meditating. It was exhilarating at first to bump into shops selling Ganesha statues and incense in the US.

I then moved to the Valley for my first job and imagined that things would be different. More clinical, if you will. But then I saw meditation rooms at major Silicon Valley companies and knew all was well with the world! One of the things I still love about Silicon Valley is that meditation, yoga, herbal teas, consciousness hacking, happiness technology, mindfulness etc. are all commonly used phrases (sometimes mentioned in the same breath)- even at work.

Meditation, particularly, is so mainstream in the Valley that people at work don’t even bat an eye if I tell them I’m taking a meditation break. At one company, some meetings begin with a ten minute group meditation session.

I feel like my life has come a full circle.

A story I heard from my grandfather when I was a kid dictates how I think about happiness to this day:

One day, a dog was chewing on a bone. After several hours of chewing on it, he tasted something: his own blood. The bone had cut his lip.

He had never tasted his own blood before and mistakenly thought that it was the bone’s flavor. He loved the metallic tang it produced and craved it more and more!

So, he chewed the bone more and more, hoping to taste more and more of the metallic substance.

Once the bone was stripped down to nothing, he went in search of another bone. He braved hunger, tiredness and pain to go in search of more bones, simply to taste his own blood again. What a silly dog!

After the story, my grandfather would proceed to say “We are all dogs. We have an unlimited supply of happiness within us, but we go in search of it elsewhere”.

Although the analogy began to break down when I said “But the dog NEEDED something to cut his lip so he could taste his blood”, I guess I could make my peace with the overall message.

Anyway, I digress.

The weird thing about practicing meditation and pursuing eastern philosophy in the Valley is that there is so much cognitive dissonance. Example, I can believe that happiness comes from within and that objects are simply illusions etc., and still feel perfectly comfortable walking into a Tesla store and buying the latest model while sipping on a $6 latte. The thing is, the Valley views inner peace as it would view any kind of technology problem; in a goal oriented manner. The goal of corporates is, as expected, capitalistic, i.e, to enhance productivity of employees so that businesses can function better and make more money.

Companies are therefore investing millions in enhancing the emotional intelligence of its employees through meditation and other practices. Of course, the deadlines on the ROI are pretty tight and the practices are ‘lean’. For example, what would be an hour long meditation technique at home is now a 10 minute crash course that can be accommodated during a Lyft ride from Sunnyvale to Mountain View. The downside with meditation being so narrowly focussed is that the core of the practice and the underlying intention can get lost. In ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts, meditation techniques were prescribed for people to realize the underlying sameness of all living things. It was meant to be an equalizer which would eventually lead people to value objects less and to view compassion as the essence of life.

Moreover, meditation was mostly taught, for free, under the guidance of a guru/teacher who knew what was best for the student. From what I have heard, it required an uncharacteristically high level of trust and a complete lack of skepticism from the student. These days, meditation is commercialized in India as well, with each holy man/woman selling their own brand of practices. For example, Art of Living is a hugely popular and rather expensive meditation program. Pathanjali is a popular FMCG brand owned by Baba Ramdev whose primary claim to fame is that he teaches yoga on day time television.

Nevertheless, as an Indian learning meditation on Headspace and in “mindfulness programs” at work, I feel like, I imagine, an American would, while drinking coffee at a Starbucks in India. Don’t get me wrong, I love that the world has taken an ancient practice of mindfulness and personalized it in new and interesting ways. But, I cringe at the commercialization and oversimplification of meditation. FYI, Basics 2 pack is unlocked only if you complete Basics 1 on Headspace. Oh, also, you have to pay 60 bucks a year to access the higher level packs. The SIY (Search Inside Yourself) meditation popularized and owned by Google, is 1500 dollars and is offered as a 2 days long workshop. Meditation and mindfulness are the new organic, non-GMO foods of America, in that they are available only to the rich.

Isn’t there a certain hypocrisy in the super rich preaching buddhist practices to the rest of the world when the Buddha was born out of the ashes of renunciation?

I'm a product manager living in San Francisco with a heart that refuses to leave Chennai! I enjoy writing about product management, technology, and food.

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