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Putting Compassion to Work: Google, Gratitude and Getting Canned


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Essay by Erika Rosenberg, Ph.D. In 2009, I taught the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training Program at Google. My group of Googlers included engineers as well as people from various other technical and non-technical positions. Diverse in temperament and ethnicity, these folks shared a typical Googler profile: They were young, tired, overworked, stressed about deadlines, and smart. My task was to teach them how to become more compassionate using an accessible program of exercises drawn from Tibetan Buddhist meditation and Western psychology. First, however, I had to convince them that it was worth their precious time to learn how to stop, settle the mind, and open the heart.

Why should they bother? Because it works. Compassion can transform how we respond to the toughest stuff in life, making us not only happier but also more effective.

When facing adversity, we can either shut down or we can open up. Our immediate, defensive inclination is to close, to follow the seductive but narrowing pull of emotions such as anger or fear. Opening up is better for clear-headed decision-making and creative problem solving (so the data show). But it is difficult. It requires a good measure of self-compassion and a softness toward the situation and those involved.

I shared with the Googlers my real-life story about the benefits of staying with and opening up to adversity. It involved an incredibly difficult work situation to which I applied compassion simply because I saw no other option. The effects were so powerful that it convinced me to bring compassion to my most difficult situations, even when the urge to flee is overwhelming.

Several years ago, I was "asked to leave" a job that was really important to me -- my supervisor told me I'd need to be gone in six weeks! I was blamed for everything that went wrong in a crisis situation, and I felt scapegoated, furious, and compelled to clear my name. Strong emotions flooded my body and mind. All I wanted to do was get away. The possibility of coming to work the next morning felt toxic. But, still, I cared a lot about the project, so abandoning the work was not an option. I had to stick out those six weeks, but how?

I consulted my meditation teacher. She said, "You will not be able to right this wrong" (she was right), and so the solution was clear: I needed to practice compassion for this person and the situation in order to diffuse the anger. Anger and resentment cannot thrive in the presence of the love and concern you develop in compassion practice. I trusted my teacher, and frankly I had no idea what else to do to make staying tolerable. I gave it a try. I began to practice for the well being of all the people I worked with, for my supervisor in particular -- wishing her to be happy, free from suffering and pain, and to be safe and healthy. Every day as I drove to work, I practiced these sentiments over and over again. It was my daily meditation, it was my hourly meditation, and it was the background sentiment between my thoughts.

Almost immediately, I noticed changes within me. Instead of being bound with rage, I felt more space, more calmness. I felt oddly liberated, almost relieved. These feelings motivated me to engage with my work with renewed vigor and creativity.

What about the other people? Could my practice of compassion and love somehow impact how they behaved? Was I banking on metaphysical effects that I really didn't believe in? Yes and no. My compassion practice could affect others, but by psychology rather than metaphysics. Social interactions are shaped by what each individual brings to them. If one person (me) changes what is brought to the table, the relationship dynamics will change.

And they did change. Shortly after I started this practice I started noticing things going more smoothly at work. I started feeling warmth from some previously-distant colleagues. Eventually, even my supervisor commented on how I seemed different. Ultimately, at the end of the six-week period, I was asked to stay on the project.

I chose to leave anyway. Indeed, this is the punch line to this story, as it speaks to how compassion is strong rather than weak. Compassion for oneself and others supports the courage to be present with whatever life throws your way -- to hold your own and other's well-being in your heart. Liberated by the shackles of anger, my mind was free and clear. I knew that this was not a good environment for me. There were problems here I could not fix. I had to go. Clear headed, non-defensive, and profoundly grateful for this life lesson, I went on to reinvent myself. Again and again and again.

Published by permission from Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE)

Erika Rosenberg received her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of California, San Francisco (1994) and her B.S. in neuroscience from San Jose State University (1986). Dr. Rosenberg's scientific research has examined how our feelings are revealed in our facial expressions, how social factors influence emotional signals, and how anger affects cardiovascular health. Her work is published in a wide range of psychological journals and books, and she speaks at national conferences on the topics of emotions and facial expressions. Erika Rosenberg currently collaborates with other scientists on numerous projects in psychology, medicine, and computer science. Dr. Rosenberg served on the faculties of the University of Delaware and the College of William and Mary, currently conducts research at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis, teaches at the Nyingma Institute of Tibetan Studies in Berkeley and the Center for Compassion and Altruism, Research and Education at Stanford and offers workshops worldwide.

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