Say Ommm to a happy workplace

Woo woo aside, Wisdom conference on mindfulness leaves a feel-good afterglow

A mass meditation session held at Gardens by the Bay as part of the Wisdom 2.0 Asia activities. The conference, at the vanguard of the mindfulness movement in business and popular in the US, was held in Asia for the first time last week.
A mass meditation session held at Gardens by the Bay as part of the Wisdom 2.0 Asia activities. The conference, at the vanguard of the mindfulness movement in business and popular in the US, was held in Asia for the first time last week. PHOTO: COURTESY OF WISDOM 2.0 ASIA

Everything is going nicely at the conference when suddenly, the American on stage says the most terrifying thing.

"Everyone, please turn to the person beside you. Share what you've learnt," he says, soothingly (almost every speaker here is some flavour of soothing). He is oblivious to the deep social panic he is causing. He might as well have asked me to squawk like a chicken. Can't he see that this isn't San Francisco?

Too late. The man sitting next to me turns around. There is nervous eye contact. The moment is as horrible as I feared. His mouth opens and he introduces himself, as do I. It becomes slightly less horrible. He is from the Philippines. His wife made him attend with her, but like this forced moment of interaction, the event as a whole is turning out to be far less gruesome than he feared. The experience has been, in fact, quite useful. I agree with him. To my relief, host and emcee Soren Gordhamer does not compel us to hug.

At first glance, the Wisdom 2.0 Asia business conference seems to combine everything that might make the average executive retch.

Business jargon sees its activity as war by other means - competitors must be destroyed with killer products that dominate the market battleground or there will be blood on the balance sheets and so on. Very macho and dramatic stuff.

This conference meets that taboo against spirituality in the workplace head-on. On the surface, the saffron-scented, wellness-tinged, New Age-y topics on offer seem more suited to a spa than a conference for executives.

But the event is at the vanguard of the mindfulness movement in business, a trend that began, naturally, in the hipster environs of Silicon Valley and is now making headway into traditional corporations like Ford, Nike and American Express. For the first time since the conference was launched in 2009 in the Bay area, a branch event is being held in Asia.

In Wisdom 2.0 Asia, for example, there is a session, Leading From Compassion, taught by Zen priest Roshi Joan Halifax. Google is presenting a case study it taught line managers about empathy and compassion leading to better staff retention and performance.

In short, the blend of data-driven research and incense-infused insights aims to show you how to heal yourself, heal the world, and kick your team's performance up a notch.

The event kicked off last Wednesday with a mass meditation event at Gardens by the Bay, held in a room in its Flower Dome but which included a walking meditation tour of the garden, as members of the public looked on.

The next day, Shaolin monk Shi Yanran gives a demonstration of qi by bending a spear with his throat, then leads the crowd in Shaolin calisthenics.

As one participant says to me, the amount of "woo woo" here is not for everyone, using the slang for a belief in the intangible, associated with the gullible.

At the conference proper, last Thursday and Friday, the odour of woo woo can be strong. At one session in the sold-out room of 600 at the Suntec City Convention Centre, Buddhist master and million-selling author Jack Kornfield leads a session of guided meditation. Fair enough - but things get a little weird when he tells us to imagine a being of light, then hold a conversation with it.

"Let yourself be surprised as this luminous being comes to visit you," he says. I am indeed surprised, by having to talk to myself in the third person, even if it - or me - is glowing. Afterwards, Mr Kornfield says it is all a light-hearted exercise designed to expose the sage within. However, I am not sure I am qualified to give myself advice on anything.

But that is not to say that there is no self-awareness of the faintly bizarre idea of optimising work performance by chatting with pulsating beings of light. During the Google case study, more than one speaker addressed the counter-intuitive notion of marrying the pursuit of quarterly targets and the practice of compassion.

You might have sensed, as I have, that bringing the spiritual into the corporate world is a little

idealistic in motive and woolly in definition. From the talks, I sense that it is a big tent that embraces a lot of concepts, almost too many. Words such as emotional intelligence, wisdom, compassion, loving kindness and ethics are used in a vague and interchangeable way, although the academics and corporate and spiritual leaders at the event do their best to make them concrete.

After all, the most famous and financially successful Zen practitioner of them all, former Apple chief executive Steve Jobs, was known for tearing colleagues apart with his volcanic rages. The late former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in his later years took up meditation with the help of one of the conference's speakers, Benedictine monk Laurence Freeman, but as far as we know, Mr Lee's famous pragmatism stayed.

For the participants, however, the gulf between theory and practice, if it existed, was small.

Mr Steven Shum, 57, a general manager with Johor-based property developer Tanah Sutera, is part of a delegation of 11 attendees, composed of a mix of faiths and races. Through the example of a few managers some years ago, mindfulness at work took root and grew.

"Our bosses never asked us to do it. It grew from the bottom up," he says. Customers today demand authentic behaviour - real smiles from the heart, not stiff grimaces from a training manual. Compassionate caring in the workplace takes care of that, says Mr Shum.

For Mr Shum, the journey began with the book Search Inside Yourself, written by Singaporean, early Google employee and 2015 Nobel Peace Prize nominee Tan Chade-Meng.

The self-help bestseller about the mindfulness practice he helped create at Google makes Mr Tan, 44, a rock star at the Wisdom 2.0 Asia, founded by Mr Gordhamer and co-chaired by Mr Tan. Google's Jolly Good Fellow - that's Mr Tan's official job title - is mobbed everywhere he goes. Everyone wants a picture or his signature in their copy of the book.

As an indication of how different this event is from others, it ends not with a mad rush for the

exits or a clamour for parking redemptions, but with testimonials. Over a dozen participants volunteer to speak glowingly about the event. I've never seen an outpouring of gratitude like that at any event. While the positive vibes are nice, I catch myself checking my watch.

After the closing, I pry an exhausted Mr Tan from the throng of fans. I've never met the man, but he greets me with a hands-clasped namaste gesture, followed by a sudden and unexpected hug.

"We can sit over here," he says, pointing to a patch of carpet in a quiet corner of the lobby. He plonks himself on the floor cross-legged, back against a wall, while I sit-kneel beside him.

We talk about his celebrity status here ("Whatever I can do to bring happiness to people," he says), whether he thinks he is part of a movement packaging rich ancient spirituality into sterile consumer products ("I see it as a reframing. Wisdom has been the domain of full-time practitioners, almost always mixed with religion... I'm taking it away from mysticism, making it useful for modern people."), if Google's status as an exceptional company makes mindfulness practice inapplicable to other organisations ("The practice has to be adjusted for each company... but parts of it are universal.").

We end the chat, and he, Nobel Prize nominee for his co-chairing of the Billion Acts Of Peace initiative, lets me know it has been an honour to have met me. Me. We get up to say goodbye and he hugs me again. It is beginning to feel less awkward.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2015, with the headline Say Ommm to a happy workplace. Subscribe