IN THIS EPISODE

In this episode, Nik shares the science behind how meditation can change your brain’s structure. He also outlines the research that convinced Google to incorporate meditation into their company because of its powerful effects on health and productivity. If you’re looking to re-center and relax, Nik leads a 10-minute mindfulness practice in the episode!

 

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Meditation leads to better resiliency, prosocial behavior, mindfulness, and focus. These are great qualities for productivity and happiness in the workplace.

ABOUT NIK

Nik Rama is a Principal Analytical Lead at Google, where he also leads mindfulness sessions as part of the gPause program. He is interested in the intersection of neuroscience and meditation, particularly how to use these practices to help reshape the mind, improve wellbeing, and accomplish goals.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Erik Gensler: Nik, welcome to the podcast.

Nik Rama: Yeah, thanks for having me, Erik.

Erik Gensler: So, talk to me about Google's history of meditation and gPause and what that program looks like.

Nik Rama: This started with a person named Meng. He was an engineer at Google and one of the very first engineers at Google, along with, like, Sergei and Larry. And he was really interested in mindfulness and meditation, really from a scientific standpoint; Google is a very data-driven company and him as an engineer, he was interested in the data. So, what's very cool about, in my mind, mindfulness—particularly, like, this Buddhist style of meditation—is that it's gone from coming from the Eastern sort of spiritual, religious practice and folks have brought it to America, like Jon Kabat-Zinn and other folks with the Insight tradition and brought it to a Western audience in a way that's more accessible, I would say. And I think the flavor of what Meng was trying to bring to Google was that … Sometimes, these practices can be off-putting. I think we've come a long way, you know, in the year 2021, than when we were starting off with this kind of stuff in the 1970s. But the great thing about being at Google is that we're a data-driven company, so if you can make an argument to someone that's backed in data, they'll probably listen to you. And so, he brought in a lot of folks, not just scientists, but also monks. And, you know, at the time, there was a lot of scientific studies happening in mindfulness. All these studies, they used gold-standard, randomized-control trials, and hundreds of these studies, so, they looked at like people who were hardcore monk meditators, who've meditated thousands and thousands of hours, but then, they also did studies on people who just started doing meditation and they had just done, like, an eight-week course of meditation. Definitely, drastic, different outcomes there, but the point was that they could see that there are benefits to doing these practices that could actually be quantified. So, that's how this program was developed. Really, four primary outcomes from these studies that the scientists saw. The first was around positive emotions. So, they saw that folks, compared to people who didn't go through an eight-week program—and maybe we could just focus on the people like me and you who are not monks and are just doing an eight-week program—they saw increases in positive emotions. They saw recovery from negative emotions—so, resiliency—they saw prosocial behavior and generosity—these are particularly linked with the compassion practices—and then, they saw just increases in mindfulness and decreases in mind wandering. So, that really goes to this concept of mindfulness and paying attention to the present moment without any judgment, they can actually see that that practice makes people happier. So, in a work context, you do want people at work who are positive, who are resilient, who are prosocial, who are mindful and can pay attention to a task that they're doing. These are all great qualities for productivity in the workplace and just also, generally, making people happier. So, he had created this program called Search Inside Yourself that taught people these concepts of mindfulness. And then, gPause is kind of the vehicle that we have to have weekly or bi-weekly meetings where folks just get together and just have some support in doing these practices.

Erik Gensler: So, is that, like, group-led meditation?

Nik Rama: It is peer-led. There's a number of folks at Google who are, like myself, who are experienced meditators or done some training and they can be there, but there's also folks who go through the program and just get more interested and want to volunteer with it. So, it's all peer led. That's right.

Erik Gensler: Nik, welcome to the podcast.

Nik Rama: Yeah, thanks for having me, Erik.

Erik Gensler: So, talk to me about Google's history of meditation and gPause and what that program looks like.

Nik Rama: This started with a person named Meng. He was an engineer at Google and one of the very first engineers at Google, along with, like, Sergei and Larry. And he was really interested in mindfulness and meditation, really from a scientific standpoint; Google is a very data-driven company and him as an engineer, he was interested in the data. So, what's very cool about, in my mind, mindfulness—particularly, like, this Buddhist style of meditation—is that it's gone from coming from the Eastern sort of spiritual, religious practice and folks have brought it to America, like Jon Kabat-Zinn and other folks with the Insight tradition and brought it to a Western audience in a way that's more accessible, I would say. And I think the flavor of what Meng was trying to bring to Google was that … Sometimes, these practices can be off-putting. I think we've come a long way, you know, in the year 2021, than when we were starting off with this kind of stuff in the 1970s. But the great thing about being at Google is that we're a data-driven company, so if you can make an argument to someone that's backed in data, they'll probably listen to you. And so, he brought in a lot of folks, not just scientists, but also monks. And, you know, at the time, there was a lot of scientific studies happening in mindfulness. All these studies, they used gold-standard, randomized-control trials, and hundreds of these studies, so, they looked at like people who were hardcore monk meditators, who've meditated thousands and thousands of hours, but then, they also did studies on people who just started doing meditation and they had just done, like, an eight-week course of meditation. Definitely, drastic, different outcomes there, but the point was that they could see that there are benefits to doing these practices that could actually be quantified. So, that's how this program was developed. Really, four primary outcomes from these studies that the scientists saw. The first was around positive emotions. So, they saw that folks, compared to people who didn't go through an eight-week program—and maybe we could just focus on the people like me and you who are not monks and are just doing an eight-week program—they saw increases in positive emotions. They saw recovery from negative emotions—so, resiliency—they saw prosocial behavior and generosity—these are particularly linked with the compassion practices—and then, they saw just increases in mindfulness and decreases in mind wandering. So, that really goes to this concept of mindfulness and paying attention to the present moment without any judgment, they can actually see that that practice makes people happier. So, in a work context, you do want people at work who are positive, who are resilient, who are prosocial, who are mindful and can pay attention to a task that they're doing. These are all great qualities for productivity in the workplace and just also, generally, making people happier. So, he had created this program called Search Inside Yourself that taught people these concepts of mindfulness. And then, gPause is kind of the vehicle that we have to have weekly or bi-weekly meetings where folks just get together and just have some support in doing these practices.

Erik Gensler: So, is that, like, group-led meditation?

Nik Rama: It is peer-led. There's a number of folks at Google who are, like myself, who are experienced meditators or done some training and they can be there, but there's also folks who go through the program and just get more interested and want to volunteer with it. So, it's all peer led. That's right.

Erik Gensler: And to be a good peer, to be a good boss, to be a good mentor, to be a good friend, you have to start with yourself.

Nik Rama: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I definitely agree with that statement. In my experience, I really can't show up for other people if I haven't shown up for myself first, yeah. And I do realize the irony where it’s just like, “Huh, that seems kind of selfish,” but they do have this concept of the bodhisattva. So, when they talk about enlightenment on the Buddhist path—I'm so far away from that that it's hard to even conceptualize what that's even like—but in this concept, the bodhisattva, he goes and gets enlightenment for himself first. So, he works on himself for herself first, and then, once they've done that, they don't just check out of the world after that and say, like, “Hey, I'm enlightened. I'm out of here.” They actually can't move on until they come back and make sure everyone else gets these benefits as well. So, that's, like, a really big part of the practice, is service and to take care of yourself first, but then also using that energy to help other people.

Erik Gensler: You said the monk that's like practicing all these hours. Well, it's easy to be mindful and at peace if you're, like, in beautiful nature by yourself, but, like-

Nik Rama: (Laughs) Yeah.

Erik Gensler: … keep that energy and, like, go visit your parents for, like, a few days!

Nik Rama: (Laughs) That’s so true! There's so many things, like with your parents and friends and your children, and that's all ripe for practice. It's difficult. So, I think the people who are doing it in the real world, yeah, I would say that that's a tougher road to follow than the monk mode.

Erik Gensler: Yeah (laughs), I think so, too. We're going to go into a meditation today, but before we do, let's talk about some of the different types of meditation that you practice.

Nik Rama: There's probably three types of meditation that I practice and they all kind of work together. The first is a concentration practice, and that's when we just take our mind and we're very focused and concentrated on a particular object of attention. The second is what I'd refer to as mindfulness, and this is sort of an open awareness. So, you're not concentrated on a particular object, but you're just kind of aware of everything. And the third would be loving kindness, which are the compassion practices. So, as I mentioned, like, all of these things work on different parts of your brain, and we've had a new concept, in the last 10 to 20 years, of neuroplasticity, and this was not something that we knew before. We used to just think that the brain was like, “You're an adult. This is your brain and it's not changing. It might degrade, actually, when you get older.” But we know, now, that that's not true; you can actually make changes to your brain through some of these practices, through the concentration, mindfulness and loving kindness/compassion practices. So, the way this works is, you’re changing chemical signals that we have in our brain, changing the structure that we have in the brain. So, that's why with these practices, it's more important to be consistent with them. So, when I was first starting, I did just five minutes a day and making sure I did it for 30 days in a row. That's more important than sitting down and doing, like, an hour or 30 minutes because of the structural train changes that happen in your brain. And then, also, that goes into functional changes. The more you use certain parts of your brain, the easier it is to use that. So, the mindfulness practices, they've actually shown that it increases matter in your brain, the gray matter, which actually enlarges the size of a particular area of the prefrontal cortex, which is something that's unique to humans. We're one of the only species that has a prefrontal cortex and that lets us plan for the future and it's also responsible for focus and attention and motivation and impulse control. So, mindfulness is, that's one thing it’s very good for. The second is that it decreases the size of something called the amygdala, and the amygdala is this portion of your brain that's responsible for the fight or flight response. And it's very interesting because when we were caveman [sic], our fight and flight was around a lion, you know, and now my flight is like my boss or my client yelling at me or something.

Erik Gensler: An email, a Slack (laughs).

Nik Rama: Exactly. Yeah, exactly. But you know, our bodies, we don't know that.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Nik Rama: And so, we still get that stress response, you know? So, when we're talking about stress, the smaller your amygdala is, the less stressed out you're going to be, or the less you're going to have that response. And then, the compassion practices, those are shown to increase … we can call them your emotional IQ. So, emotional regulation, empathy, and responses to that. So, in the interest of time, we'll do a mindfulness practice. Mindfulness really just means paying attention to the present moment without judgment, but that could be anything. And so, for this meditation, we'll start off by doing a body scan, so that'll just be mindfulness of the body and paying attention to that; and then we'll work into mindfulness of the breath, so, then, we'll use the breath as our object of our mindfulness; and then it will switch into the open awareness, so we'll try and drop the object of meditation and just see what comes up. And, again, I'll just speak from my experience, it's difficult to do these practices. Like, I'll concentrate on my breath, and then it's like, “Oh, I forgot to do this thing,” or, “Oh, man, I shouldn't have said that to that person,” or, “Maybe I shouldn't have said that. When we were talking before. I should've worded that something …” You know, all these thoughts are gonna come up. It's your mind. That's its job, is to think, but that's the practice. The practice is really just going back and forth between that. Meditation is like going to the gym for my mind and it's a skill. Like, this going back and forth, it’s like playing an instrument or something. I play guitar, and when I first started learning the scales, it's really hard, and then, after a while, you can just start doing it and it becomes easier. And I think that's the same way with meditation, too.

Erik Gensler: And you're not failing if you think of something because that's what your brain does. It's … the skill is not grabbing onto it. It's like-

Nik Rama: Totally, yeah.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, so, like, I hear a lot, like, you're the blue sky and the thoughts are clouds and the clouds are going to pass and you just got, you know, let them pass and not grab onto them. And if you grab onto them, that's okay. I've heard you just like name it, “Thinking,” and then, “Thinking,” like nonjudgmentally calling it, “Thinking-”

Nik Rama: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Erik Gensler: … and then, like, go back.

Nik Rama: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: And that was really hard for me when I first started becuase you want to be good at meditation.

Nik Rama: (Laughs)

Erik Gensler: And like, that's not the point; the point is to keep trying, so …

Nik Rama: (Laughs) Yeah, that judgment is everywhere. At least for me, that voice in my head is, like, constantly judging everything. When you just notice that you're judging things and you can kind of step away from it and say, “Wow, that's interesting.” So, I love that you brought that up. It's all about compassion for yourself and when people say, like, “Meditation is hard,” or “I'm not a good meditator,” that's okay. That's what it is.

Erik Gensler: If you meditate for 10 minutes, which is, like, the max I can do, it's like if I get like two of those minutes that I feel like are really, I've just been the blue sky and, like, not attached to clouds and, like, eight minutes, I'm on the clouds, that's pretty good for me (laughs).

Nik Rama: That’s amazing.

Erik Gensler: And, like, I just know myself and it's like, well, I did the 10 to get the two, you know? Sometimes I get five. Sometimes I get 30 seconds cause my mind is just so racing.

Nik Rama: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: But that's the nature of the practice, I guess.

Nik Rama: Yeah. I find so many parallels to so many things in my life. Like, especially the gym and going to work out. Just showing up for your life, you know what I mean? That's, in my experience, is showing up is half the battle, you know?

Erik Gensler: Totally. I mean, they say that about the gym. It's just, like, you have to make it into a habit. So, you have to do it long enough where you don't think about it. But, sometimes, when I don't want to go, I just know I have to put myself in that situation and then it will happen. So, like, the hardest part-

Nik Rama: Yeah.

Erik Gensler: And you build the habit … Talk about, like, building your brain function; habits are to the point that you don't have to think about them anymore. You just sort of, like, do them. And so, like, the gym habit … Or, like, if your routine changes, like for COVID, my routine totally changed. And, like, I lost that consistent gym habit and I had to force myself to, like, rebuild that habit-

Nik Rama: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Erik Gensler: … so it became a habit again. But I have to say, I've not been successful with doing that in meditation in my life. Like, I will do it for a while and then it'll fall off and then I'll start again. And so, I'm glad we have this meditation today cause it’s gonna continue my multi-day streak (laughs) that otherwise wouldn’t happen today, so this is good.

Nik Rama: (Laughs) Yeah, I think … When I was first starting off … I think it helps to have an accountability buddy and I had one of those. And so, we check in all the time and he also asked me, he was like, “You should try and to meditate every day. What's the maximum, you can meditate every day? I actually said the same thing to you; I was like, “Ten minutes.” And then he said, “Okay, just cut that in half. Just give me five minutes.” So, then, I was already like-

Erik Gensler: Totally.

Nik Rama: … “Well, I already said I was going to do 10 minutes. I can certainly do five minutes at some point in my day.” So, yeah, and to me, now, it's become like one of these things that it just, if I don't do it today, I'm going to feel a little off. It's like drinking a cup of coffee or something.

Erik Gensler: That’s great.

Nik Rama: You know, it’s my routine.

Erik Gensler: I like that, five … I might take that five-minute thing and just say, “You know what? I'm not doing 10.” If I do five, I lower the bar, then I can probably do it.

Nik Rama: I also think it's okay to not do that, to just be kind to yourself and just say, “Hey, I don't feel like it today, and that's okay.”

Erik Gensler: Mindfully (laughs)

Nik Rama: Mindfully, yeah.

Erik Gensler: So should we jump in?

Nik Rama: Let's jump in, yeah. Let's do it. Let's take a seat, to anyone who's listening. Just take a seat wherever you'd like. It can be in a chair. It could be on the ground. Could be lying down, but just wherever you are, just get settled. And if it feels right for you, just inviting you to close your eyes. And we're just going to take a moment now to just check in with our body. Just notice, notice how you're feeling right now.

(Pause) Just anything that's coming up, it's all good.

(Pause) And moving on from those emotions and feelings in the body, I want you to pay attention to the parts of your body and just noticing your feet, feeling your feet on the ground, that connection to the floor, the floor going to the earth. And then, just moving up and feeling your legs, feeling your hands, maybe, rested in your lap or wherever they are, just feeling. Feeling your hands and what those feel like. Moving up to our torso, feeling your torso, feeling your left arm, from your biceps down to your hands to your fingers, and then, going over to your right arm, just feeling what that feels like.

(Pause) And then, moving your attention to your spine, feeling your spine, giving you that support, support going up to your shoulders. Feeling your shoulders. A lot of times, we hold some tension in our shoulders. So, just inviting you to just, to let go of any tension, relax anything that you're feeling there. Feeling your neck, relaxing your neck. Moving up to your head, feeling your face, just relaxing anything, any tension you're holding in your face, and feeling the top of your head.

(Pause) And then, just taking another scan just throughout your entire body and noticing any areas that you feel any tension and just inviting you to just let go of that and just really relax into your body.

(Pause) And I'd invite you, now, to take a deep breath. So, we can take a deep breath together on three. One, two, three, breathing in; and then breathing out through the mouth (sighs), just letting it all go.

(Pause) And then, just notice your breath.

(Pause) What does that feel like? Nothing to control, nothing to do, but we're just taking that seat as an observer and just bringing that curiosity. What does that, what does the breath feel like in your body?

(Pause) Where do you feel the breath? Can you feel it in your nostrils? Do you feel it in your chest, expansion, in and out? Do you feel it in your, in your belly? Just taking a moment, and I’d invite you to pick a spot where you feel the breath the most, and let's just take a moment to really concentrate on that part of your body, wherever you feel the breath the most. And we'll just take a moment, now, to do our practice of mindful concentration on the breath.

(Pause) And, again, if you notice that you are lost in thought, some emotions are coming up, that's natural. That's the job of your mind. As Erik was saying before, maybe think of them as clouds in the sky. We don't have to attach to it, you can just just be aware of it. And then, just, gently, bring your attention back to the breath. And really, that is the practice.

(Pause) You’re just practicing that skill of allowing our thoughts and feelings to come up, without attachment, without judgment, just being aware and just noticing.

(Long pause) Now, I'll invite us to drop the breath as our object of concentration and just let your awareness be open. Just let whatever is coming up for you right now … See what's coming up. Has that quality of awareness or the things that are coming up, has that changed for you since we started? Is it the same? Is it different? Again, we're just being aware and just noticing, without any judgments, and that is the practice.

(Long pause) Now, at this point, I'd like you to take that awareness and bring it to a feeling of gratitude and just give yourself some thanks for taking this time to be with yourself and to practice. And whenever you're ready, you can open your eyes and allow yourself to come back to your surroundings.

Erik Gensler: Thank you for that. I feel like I just woke up from a nap (laughs).

Nik Rama: Yeah (laughs). I'm very into the science of this stuff, but they have done the MRI studies and found that you go into gamma waves when you go into meditation, which are similar to the waves that you find when you're sleeping. So, you can actually become well rested by doing a meditation practice.

Erik Gensler: Wow.

Nik Rama: So, it's a good time-out if you're feeling stressed or tired or overwhelmed, just to do this practice and come back a little bit refreshed.

Erik Gensler: You've inspired me to keep going, so thank you.

Nik Rama: Well, if you, Erik, if you want to ever meditate together, I'm always up for it, so (laughs) …

Erik Gensler: All right. I do need an accountability partner, clearly.

Nik Rama: (Laughs) Yeah.

Erik Gensler: So, typically, in our podcast, the last question we ask is what we call our "CI to Eye moment,” and the question is, if you can broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and boards of thousands of arts organizations, like, what advice would you—given what we talked about—what advice would you provide to them right now?

Nik Rama: I would say that there are so many great benefits to these sorts of practices that we've talked about, the positive emotions and resiliency that comes from engaging in these practices, and also the social behaviors and mindfulness and non-judgment that allows people to be more creative, more innovative, and just leads to a better work environment. So, I'd really encourage leaders to look into these sorts of programs and bring these programs into the workspace. And, like you had said at the beginning of this program, Erik, bringing the people that we are outside of work and the people that we are inside of work together is so crucial and important, and I think one of the lessons we can learn coming out of COVID is how important that is for an organization. So, by bringing these sorts of practices, we can help cultivate that in the workplace and cultivate that in our personal spaces. So, I would just encourage everyone to take a look at these practices and find the benefits for themselves.

Erik Gensler: Nik, thank you so much.

Nik Rama: Thank you, Erik.