When I am at a party, the question I dislike the most is “What do you do?” I often challenge the other person by responding, “I live joyously and consciously. That is what I do.” But the very idea of living joyously and consciously is hard to grasp, let alone sustain, amid the demands of a high-tech workplace.
I get at least 200 or 300 emails a day, each one a data fragment asking me to respond in some fashion. My grandfather, who was a rice farmer in a small village in India, probably had to respond to four or five pieces of communication a day. For him, once the sun went down and the cattle were back in the shed, the rhythm of life changed. Not in Silicon Valley, where I work—the rhythm is 24/7. There is no dial to turn down and say, “I want a bit less of it.” So you have to accept that these are the conditions you are choosing to have, and then ask, “In the midst of this, how can I be peaceful, happy and content?”
The fact is that technology is like fire. Ever since we’ve discovered fire and known how to harness it, we’ve found it exceptionally useful. You can cook your food with fire; you can melt and blow glass with it. But if you misuse it, you can burn yourself or raze an entire city to the ground. Technology is a powerful tool—but whether you use the tool to be productive or destructive, to live with peace or chaos is up to you.
At Google, where I work, we are building amazing technologies like self-driving cars, Google Glass and Google Plus. But the most important technology that every human being has access to is right within us: our body, our mind, our consciousness. On the outside we have the Internet, on the inside we have what I call the inner-net. That’s the connection you need to make if you want to live a truly conscious life. And there are simple steps you can take to connect, starting right now.
Communities of employees at Google—”Googlers”—organize themselves into groups that center on different interests. We have Gayglers, Jewglers and Carpooglers. I started a group for Yoga called Yoglers with just one student, but word spread and it has become a larger program across many Google offices. When you practice yoga, you’re asked to bring your complete, 100-percent awareness to your body and your breath. If you practice regularly, you stay more aware, and you make choices driven by that. The quality of your interactions improves. You stop checking your email when someone is talking to you. You become a more conscious human being.
Yoga can be practiced all the time, like meditation. Every single moment of every day I try to be mindful, whether I am engaging with a janitor, a chef, an engineer, or a marketing colleague. I do set aside time for specific practices, and for the Yoglers class I teach, but in truth, every moment of every day is my inner work.
What if you don’t have a yoga or meditation program at your work? It’s simple. Go book a conference room. Sit, close your eyes, and start meditating. It doesn’t matter if only one person shows—or if no one does. If you sit there for 60 seconds and watch your breath, you have just started a meditation program. You don’t need a budget or resources. Someone just needs to step forward and do it. Someone, perhaps you.
What’s essential to realize is that you don’t need to withdraw from the outer world in order to create a peaceful space in your inner world. There is a story in the Bhagavad Gita in which the warrior Arjuna looks across the battlefield and refuses to fight. He says, in effect, “My friends are in the other army. I can’t battle them.” And Krishna replies, “You must. In your role as a warrior, you need to battle and do so with honor.” I think Krishna is saying that this world is not to be avoided, but engaged. Some people think that they can find peace and avoid conflict—like, say, the stress of being passed over for a promotion—by going to live at a monastery or an ashram. But I have been to many ashrams and seen that these issues follow you. You think that the director of the ashram should have promoted you to be senior teacher. We tend to think, “I have my work life, then I have my spiritual life,” but the same person with the same body shows up everywhere.
The challenge, of course, is to engage the world without getting entangled. A lovely metaphor that I grew up with in India is that of the beautiful lotus flower. It always floats on top of the water, even though the roots are mired in the mud below. When water falls on a lotus leaf, it gently flows off like dewdrops. The message in the metaphor is that we can be involved in life and work without being mired in it. We can let our problems roll off us. We can float to the top.
Gopi Kallayil works for Google, but the opinions expressed here are his own and not Google’s.