A Sense of Something Greater: Zen and the Search for Balance in Silicon Valley

A Sense of Something Greater: Zen and the Search for Balance in Silicon Valley


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Welcome to Silicon Valley’s search for fulfillment and purpose beyond devices, money, and power. 

With worker stress at an all-time high, particularly in the fast-paced technology industry, it’s no surprise that Google, Salesforce, and Apple have adopted mindfulness and meditation into their workplace culture. Studies show mindfulness practice increases emotional intelligence, reduces stress, and enhances health and overall well-being.
A Sense of Something Greater goes deeper than the current mindfulness trend, into the heart of Zen practice. For Les Kaye, Zen is more than awareness––it’s also “the continued determination to be authentic in relationships, to create meaningful, intimate, intentional bonds with people, things, and the environment.” Kaye’s teachings are paired with interviews with current tech employees and Zen practitioners, conducted by journalist Teresa Bouza. A Sense of Something Greater is an essential book for business leaders, mindfulness meditators, and Zen practitioners alike.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781946764218
Publisher: Parallax Press
Publication date: 09/25/2018
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Les Kaye worked for IBM in San Jose, California, and for over thirty years held positions in engineering, sales, and management. Les started Zen practice in 1966 with a small group in the garage of a private home. He was ordained a Zen monk by Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki in 1971. In 1985, he was appointed teacher at Kannon Do Zen Center in Mountain View, California. His first book, Zen at Work, includes stories of how his own meditation practice enhanced the quality of his life and work. He and his wife Mary live in Los Altos.
Teresa Bouza is a journalist with extensive experience in Europe and the United States, most recently covering technology and innovation in Silicon Valley. She has worked for The Wall Street Journal as well as Spain’s global news agency EFE and the Spanish business daily Cinco Dias. Bouza has a master’s degree from Columbia University and was a Knight Fellow at Stanford in 2012.

Read an Excerpt


The Price of Progress

Pitirim Sorokin barely escaped execution by the Bolsheviks. After being arrested for anti-communism and condemned to death, he was freed by Lenin and allowed to return to St. Petersburg University, based in part on his highly regarded academic work in criminology and sociology. Four years later, in 1922, he got into political trouble again and this time was banished, eventually migrating to the United States. In 1930, Sorokin was invited by the president of Harvard University to be the first professor and then chair of its new sociology department.

From 1937 to 1941, he published his monumental four-volume Social and Cultural Dynamics: A Study of Change in Major Systems of Art, Truth, Ethics, Law, and Social Relationships. Through pictures, tables, charts, and graphs, Sorokin vividly illustrated the cyclical nature of civilization's worldview over a period of three millennia. From the data, Sorokin postulated two major trends throughout recorded history: the ideational, where people envision reality as spiritual by nature, and the sensate, where materialism prevails. Sorokin interpreted contemporary Western civilization as sensate, dedicated to technological progress, and he prophesied our fall into decadence and the emergence of a new ideational or idealistic era. His visionary work forecast the turmoil of today's world.

Sorokin's model of cyclical change offers evidence that the growing interest in spirituality of the past hundred years, including the growth of Buddhism and Zen in the West, isn't just a fad, but that society has reached a tipping point recognizable by the loss of transcendence and absence of a sense of inclusion in a larger whole. Our sensate society, emphasizing objectivity, ambition, power, admiration, entertainment, and other characteristics of individualism, has overdeveloped to the point of losing its soul and its caring, compassion, humility, generosity, and patience.

We haven't been mindful of the downside of affluence, how it can spoil us and make us lose sight of what we cherish and what enables us to feel nurtured. We've allowed our striving for wealth, pleasure, and excitement to distort our values. When we don't attain the lifestyle we seek, or gain it but then lose it, we run the risk of becoming angry and resentful, a painful demonstration of the Buddha's teaching of desire as the cause of human suffering.


Success and Spirituality

Despite success in their chosen fields and bright prospects for their families, many people in tech, medical, legal, business, and academic professions feel anxious when they reflect on what's happening in their lives. Comments I hear in coffee shops and quiet conversations include: I need to find some balance. There's no break in my schedule. I feel overwhelmed. I feel saturated with technology. I don't know what success means anymore.

A few months ago, I conducted a workshop on the relevance of Zen practice for twenty professional women, ranging in age from their early twenties to their early eighties. They were well-educated, intelligent, hard-working, confident, well-organized, socially skilled, and had lively senses of humor. I asked them to consider the question: Reflecting on your good fortune in life, why are you attending this workshop? What's going on with you these days?

Their responses were posted on easel paper and discussed as a group:

- Need to find inner peace and reduce the anxiety and panic that has become commonplace.

- I'm trying to do demanding personal skills to maintain sanity.

- Prepare for next phase of life.

- One child launched into career, next is graduating soon, husband looking toward retirement in a few years.

- Family issues.

- Juggling house repairs.

- Learn ways to de-stress and rejuvenate.

- Organize calmly.

- Feeling distracted with so many different goals, tasks, and things to get done.

- Not feeling settled.

- Can't turn my mind off unless I am sleeping; I can't sit still.

- Deeper self-understanding.

- Desire to fully appreciate my life and those in my life.

- I am here — in this room and in this place in my life — to learn.

- More practice on how to be present.

- To be in community and enjoy people's company.

- To have quiet time, to look at what's next.

- Interested in Zen, inner calm, and peace.

- I experience feeling more alive and engaged with others as a result of meditation practice and wish to enrich that practice even more.

- Onslaught of electronic stimulation.

- Anxiety among those I love.

- Health issues linked to stress.

- Believe in mindful living and deep meditation.

- To be in charge of this hectic life.

- Learn to incorporate mindfulness to lessen worry and stress.

- I'm a marriage and family therapist. I work with pre-teens and teenagers and would like some ideas how to help them be mindful in their everyday, chaotic lives. I myself have been practicing meditation since I was ten years old, but I get in the trap of the rat race and forget to be mindful.

- To focus 100 percent on task at hand.

- Better sleep.

- Instead of life going by in a blur, how can we better savor the moments of each day?

This list expresses a range of feelings — being overwhelmed, isolated, and out of balance, seeking peace and wanting to fully appreciate life. These women were beginning to think about the spiritual dimension of life and to explore the question of Zen practice and how it relates to work and family. Their comments illustrate that success and good fortune do not, in themselves, address questions of meaning. In fact, we all experience these existential questions and long to be free and live authentically.

In the midst of the demands and pressures of modern life, how do we find the conviction to reflect on these issues? For many, a walk in nature, Sundays in church, or practicing yoga are times when these issues can be addressed. For some, the best medicine is to sit still and be quiet, to meditate on a consistent basis. The motivation to find a place to express and explore questions of meaning emerges out of an intuitive trust and a dim but growing understanding that we are spiritual beings, that there is something greater, that our individual and transient life is a facet of something infinitely large, and we want to touch it, to be intimate with it. We are carried to spiritual practice not just by confusion and concern for creating order in our daily lives, but also by a profound sense of our true nature and of what life can be.

Out of doubt and discomfort, we seek balance, so the pace of modernity doesn't rob us of our humanity. Riding our galloping horse, not knowing how to get off, unaware of the landscape as it whizzes by, the first question is: How can I slow down?


I Just Have to Do My Part

Interview with Andy Narayanan

Andy Narayanan completed his chemical engineering degree at the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, India, and his MBA at the University of Chicago in 2005. He worked in leadership positions at large and small companies. After more than a decade he sensed that something was missing. He started meditating on his own in 2010 and began formal Zen practice in 2014. Now in his early forties, he is currently working on a new venture in artificial intelligence while being an advisor to other startups. He is married with two children.

Teresa Bouza: What kind of work do you do?

I work as a product executive in a technology company. I'm an entrepreneur at heart who likes building technology products and companies. I enjoy conceptualizing an idea to solve a real-world problem, bringing people in to a team to transform the idea into a real product that is useful and then helping the world understand the usefulness of this product. Impacting people's lives by creating products that they can benefit from is fulfilling. For me, this is the essence of entrepreneurship and work.

How did you start Zen practice?

It started with my concerns about work, the work environment we have in this country. I think we need a different approach to how we think about work, and how people work together. Like most people, the way I approached work was influenced by what I was taught in schools and in work environments, which is to work through a very logical decision-making process. You go to business school, and learn the different things about how to run a business. Then as the leader of a company, you demonstrate strength; you lead people by being out in front. That's the way I was taught. It got to a point where I wasn't happy about what I was doing. I was working and had a good career. I was in leadership positions in AI companies, but it didn't feel right for me. Something was missing. I needed to step back. I did a lot of soul-searching in terms of "Why am I doing this?" "Why am I working so hard?" "Why do I want to build companies?" "What is this thing?" I realized that work is important, and I'd created my own companies, but I was questioning why I was doing it.

When did this happen?

About five years ago, after twelve or thirteen years of professional experience. I did everything people suggest that you should do. I went to good schools, the top business school. I got good working experience. I followed that path.

What would you say you were looking for?

I was looking for a meaning. It was then that I turned to meditation. I read many books and tried different approaches, and I finally decided to show up at Kannon Do. I had an "Introduction to Zen" session and started sitting. After attending some retreats, I had my first formal meeting with the teacher, Les. After a period of meditation, I asked him, "Can we chat?"

I found myself saying to him, " I don't know why I am doing the work I'm doing. What's the meaning of work? What's the value of zazen? I want to meditate, but I don't know why." He didn't give the answers I'd hoped for. He just said, "These are very deep questions. Let's continue to talk and sit together and see what happens."

Each time we met, I asked very logical questions, just as I've always done. "How do I know meditation is working? When am I going to see progress? How long is it going to take? If by a certain time it doesn't work, does that mean I'm not fit for this?" And he said, "I don't know." But there was something about the way he said it or maybe there was a calmness in what we were doing. There was something about it. I didn't know why I was coming back, but I wanted to come back. There was really no reason why I had to come back the second time, the third time, the fourth time, the tenth time. I just decided to show up.

That was two years ago when I first came to Kannon Do, but my search had been on for five years. I had been thinking about this issue in the way you build companies. You are the leader, and it's all about you as a person. You have to be the visionary; you have to be strong; you have to protect the rest of the company from any bad news. You carry a heavy burden; we're taught that you become a leader by being the Superman.

And slowly I realized that's not who I am. The more my journey started unwinding after I started practice, I realized that I was human. I have emotions. Some days are hard, and some days I'm very happy about what's happening. What the practice helped me do was slowly stop reacting to those things and just start observing them. I saw it was less about the individual and more about observing what's happening. When I started doing that, I noticed some changes in how I react to situations.

What kinds of changes?

My approach to leadership was changing. I had a moment when it was like, "It's not about you. Things just pass through you. You're just one among everything, whether it's emotion, work, output, anything. You're there to do what you are supposed to do." That's how I felt, and it felt great. The pressure began to fall off. I didn't have personal responsibility for everything — building the big business, launching the next product that's going to make millions of people happy. I didn't have to be the one person who makes money and makes everybody happy with their paychecks and bonuses. It didn't have to be only me. I'm just one of the many variables that's making it happen, and I just have to do my part.

That was a very different moment for me, and subsequently I realized that it's less about the traditional leadership style and all the things I'd thought about. It's not about being this fearless leader or knowing everything. It's about understanding the power of everything around you and doing your part, seeing how you can channel and help others. That's the role of a leader.


Monastic Practice in Everyday Life

American culture has been transformed during the past hundred years by the rapid growth of technology and the increasing abundance of material goods. We've witnessed phenomenal advances in communication, health, safety, and comfort, at the cost of possession-obsession and a need for entertainment 24/7. Smartphones allow us to send and receive emails and news at any time, while we ignore those people right in front of us.

When a culture becomes consumed by materialism, its spirit diminishes. Fulfilling material desires isn't enough to provide meaning. It's always accompanied by an empty feeling. When we're more concerned with what we have than who we are, we lose the ability to distinguish between what looks good and what is beneficial. Deceived by appearances, we become slaves to fashion and opinions. Owning fashionable things might be reassuring, but while we're in pursuit of them, we need to be careful not to shortchange reflection, humility, and intimacy.

"What's the point of my life? How do I want to live?" Spiritual practice begins when we recognize the ephemeral nature of pleasure and the ways attachment to a particular outcome can distract us from living fully with what is. In spiritual practice, we seek what's real, beyond ideas of right and wrong. We want to get to the heart of the matter.

People's ideas about spiritual practice vary greatly. Some are skeptical of the whole realm, concerned it might diminish creativity and drive, interfere with normal life, or be too austere. These concerns are baseless. Material and physical comforts are not inherently bad. Having fun and feeling satisfaction can be terrific. Working and connecting with others can be a joy. It's just that problems arise when we're overwhelmed by or addicted to pleasures, possessions, and the unrestricted ability to do whatever we like, at any time, regardless of others' needs. Consumerism stimulates our desires and attachments and interferes with our clarity, relationships, and peace of mind.

Monastic training offers little of this kind of comfort or pleasure. Monasteries are often located deep in the mountains, where there can be long spells of wet and cold, with temperatures remaining in the twenties, no TVs or smartphones, little free time, and no variation in the prescribed daily routine. Yet, after a while, the mind learns to let go of hoping for "something else" and accommodates itself to this seemingly Spartan life. Monastic training helps us give up striving and become satisfied, even delighted, with basic necessities. The crunch of a carrot at mealtime becomes music, and a closeness develops with nature and other people.

The monk's life provides a mirror for the mind to see itself, to recognize its attachments, and clarify desires and delusions so they can be accepted, and ultimately, let go. The rigorous schedule teaches us how to work on the grounds and on ourselves at the same time. Practice for a time at a monastery can be a great resource. Yet not everyone can take the time from everyday responsibilities to spend weeks or months in monastic seclusion. So we have to learn to practice — to find the mirror — in ordinary circumstances.

The vital ingredient for practice is not a special place. It is the need for courage to accept what we discover about ourselves. It takes determination to continue to stay with the truth of who we are when events are painful and distractions abound. We can practice anywhere, anytime, including our workplace — with its creative energy and stresses — if we remain serious about understanding the truth of our life, beyond appearances. Most importantly, we must face our tendencies.

In his 1973 book, Small Is Beautiful, British economist E. F. Schumacher writes, "[The insights of wisdom] ... enable us to see the hollowness and fundamental unsatisfactoriness of a life devoted primarily to the pursuit of material ends, to the neglect of the spiritual." When people recognize the limitations of material possessions and comforts, they seek balance, and they often turn to spiritual practice to find it. A life confined to affluence and excitement leaves nothing to fall back on when we get lost. Spiritual practice can guide us back onto the path toward life's larger meaning.


Excerpted from "A Sense of Something Greater"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Les Kaye and Teresa Bouza.
Excerpted by permission of Parallax Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword Natalie Goldberg xiii

Preface xv

Prologue xxi

The Price of Progress 1

Success and Spirituality 3

I Just Have to Do My Part Interview with Andy Narayanan 6

Monastic Practice in Everyday Life 10

Scrubbing Spiritual Viruses 13

Impostor Syndrome Interview with Dave Redell 16

A Sense of Something Greater 21

Mind without Boundaries 24

The Source of Compassion 27

Admitting You Don't Know Interview with Colleen King Ney 30

Right Effort 36

Authentic Life 39

Choosing Wisely Interview with Dan Geiger 42

No Longer Exclusive 47

Something's Missing Interview with Bonnie Sarmiento 50

"Attention, Attention" 55

Gift-Giving Mind 58

Off with Their Heads Interview with Travis Marsot 60

The Problem of Excitement 63

The Meaning of Zazen 66

Who Are Zen Students? 69

That's What Zen Will Do for You Interview with Victor Legge 72

No Need for Cleverness 78

Dharma in the Ordinary 81

You Just Have to Care Interview with Scott Williams 84

Natural Way of Life 89

Did You See the Gorilla? 92

Connecting with What's Important Interview with Brenda Golianu 95

The Enlightened Mind 101

Affirmation 103

Soul-Searching 106

How Can I Help? Interview with Paul Slakey 109

Nothing to Attain 113

Planning the Present 116

The Power of the Practice Is in the Streets Interview with Randy Komisar 119

Zen and Character 127

The Freeway Always Clears Up Interview with Jean-Louis Gassée 130

Is That So? 136

Lost in Transition 139

Giving Up Toys 143

I Know the Work I Should Be Doing Interview with Ken Simpson 146

What's in My Best Interest? 151

A Comma in the World Interview with Jayashree Mahajan 154

Wow Moments 159

Epilogue: Technology Needs a Partner 163

Appendix 1 Zen Practice 169

Appendix 2 The Meaning of Forms in Zen Practice Contributed by Phuong Ertley 176

Appendix 3 A History of Kannon Do: A Zen Meditation Center in Silicon Valley 180

Notes 185

Acknowledgments 189

About the Authors 191

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