CHRIS MCELHILL | Product Lead – Insight Timer, ex-Google

Jun 16, 2017

On today’s Show, we speak with Chris Mcelhill, the Chief Product officer at Insight Timer, the top-rated meditation app – with over 1,200 teachers, 2,000,000 meditators and 2,000,000,000 meditation minutes! Chris also spent 5 years with Google as its Global Product Lead. It’s a fascinating conversation around the science and business of meditation, coupled with a rare insight into the wonderful culture and pioneering spirit of Google.

“Be the one on the boat who is calm, even when travelling on bumpy seas”. – Jack Kornfield

Valuable Links and References


Background – History of Meditation

It is believed that meditation has been practiced since well before the commencement of written history, beginning with elementary meditation techniques such as stargazing or staring into a fire. When most people think about meditation, it is the eastern version that comes to mind. This is likely because the roots of one of the primary categories of meditation are in the Asian Dharmic religions, especially Buddhism and Hinduism. Also, modern media almost always portray meditation in an eastern context. Meditation can be secular in nature, and has been utilized as a beneficial practice by followers of virtually any belief system over the centuries.

The first written record of an actual meditation technique was put down 5000 years ago in Hindu scriptures. Building on this, Siddhārtha Gautama, also called Gautama Buddha (563 BCE to 483 BCE) was responsible for spreading meditation across the Asian continent during and after his life. However, the benefits of meditation didn’t remain limited to only Buddhists and Hindus. Cultures across Asia adapted meditation methods to compliment their own religious beliefs and spiritual practices, resulting in a broad range of meditation traditions and styles. Meditation in Asia is also a part of activities that have no base in religion, such as the martial arts. Yoga is an increasingly popular form of meditation, which incorporates certain physical poses in order to assist in centering the mind. The majority of eastern meditation styles are called “japa” meditation, which means that a mantra, word, or even sound is repeated in order to achieve the right focus. Other eastern styles employ focus on an object, concentration on breathing, or involve chakra meditation. Virtually all kinds of eastern meditation are recognized as having health advantages on a physical and mental level.

Western styles of meditation, including contemplation and prayer, began in ancient times as part of Greek and Egyptian mystery religions, Judaism, early Christianity and Islam, and extend into the practices of these paths today. In these religious traditions, Western style meditation plays a key role for many religious people, especially monks and other contemplatives. Pagan and indigenous religions also often include meditation training, mostly of the Western Visualization or contemplation type. In some form or another, meditation appears in just about every one of the world’s mainstream religions and spiritual pathways, aboriginal religions, Native American traditions, and of course, Dharmic religions.

Western-style meditation is comparable to eastern meditation, but many people accustomed to contemporary western society find it to be more practical and suited to their uses. Though the goal remains the same – inner awareness and self-improvement – its techniques include those that help the practitioner find guidance and understanding to reach a specific goal.

Business of Meditation

IN HIS 1905 book, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”, Max Weber credited the Protestant ethic with giving rise to capitalism. Now it sometimes seems as if it is the Buddhist ethic that is keeping capitalism going. The Protestants stressed rational calculation and self-restraint. The Buddhists stress the importance of “mindfulness”—taking time out from the hurly-burly of daily activities to relax and meditate. In today’s corporate world you are more likely to hear about mindfulness than self-restraint.

Google offers an internal course called “search inside yourself” that has proved so popular that the company has created entry-level versions such as “neural self-hacking” and “managing your energy”. The search giant has also built a labyrinth for walking meditation. EBay has meditation rooms equipped with pillows and flowers. Twitter and Facebook are doing all they can to stay ahead in the mindfulness race. Evan Williams, one of Twitter’s founders, has introduced regular meditation sessions in his new venture, the Obvious Corporation, a start-up incubator and investment vehicle.

The fashion is not confined to Silicon Valley: the mindfulness movement can be found in every corner of the corporate world. Rupert Murdoch has a well-developed bullshit detector. But earlier this year he tweeted about his interest in transcendental meditation (which he said, “everyone recommends”). Ray Dalio of Bridgewater Associates and Bill Gross of PIMCO are two of the biggest names in the money-management business, and both are regular meditators. Mr Dalio says it has had more impact on his success than anything else.

What got the mindfulness wagon rolling was the 1960s counter-culture, which injected a shot of bohemianism into the bloodstream of capitalism: witness the rise of companies such as Virgin, Ben & Jerry’s and Apple, whose co-founder, Steve Jobs, had visited India on a meditation break as a young man, and who often talked about how Zen had influenced the design of his products. But three things are making the wheels roll ever faster.

The most obvious is omni-connectivity. The constant pinging of electronic devices is driving many people to the end of their tether. Electronic devices not only overload the senses and invade leisure time. They feed on themselves: the more people tweet the more they are rewarded with followers and retweets. Mindfulness provides a good excuse to unplug and chill out—or “disconnect to connect”, as mindfulness advocates put it. A second reason is the rat race. The single-minded pursuit of material success has produced an epidemic of corporate scandals and a widespread feeling of angst. Mindfulness emphasises that there is more to success than material prosperity. The third is that selling mindfulness has become a business in its own right.

The movement has a growing, and strikingly eclectic, cohort of gurus. Chade-Meng Tan of Google, who glories in the job title of “jolly good fellow”, is the inspiration behind “search inside yourself”. Soren Gordhamer, a yoga and meditation instructor, and an enthusiastic tweeter, founded Wisdom 2.0, a popular series of mindfulness conferences. Bill George, a former boss of Medtronic, a medical-equipment company, and a board member at Goldman Sachs, is introducing mindfulness at Harvard Business School in an attempt to develop leaders who are “self-aware and self-compassionate”.

Many other business schools are embracing mindfulness. Jeremy Hunter of the Drucker management school at Claremont university teaches it to his students, as does Ben Bryant at Switzerland’s IMD. Donde Plowman of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s business school has even tried to quantify the mindfulness of management schools themselves. The flow of wisdom is not one-way: Keisuke Matsumoto, a Japanese Buddhist monk, took an MBA at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad and is now applying its lessons to revitalise temples back home.

As for its exploitation as a business, Arianna Huffington runs a mindfulness conference, a “GPS for the soul” app and a mindfulness corner of her Huffington Post. Chip Wilson, the boss of lululemon, a seller of yoga gear, has set up a website,, that urges people to turn off their brains for 60 seconds by visualising a dot. (“Power down, power up, and power forward.”)

Does all this mindfulness do any good? There is a body of evidence that suggests that some of its techniques can provide significant psychological and physiological benefits. The Duke University School of Medicine has produced research that shows that, in America, an hour of yoga a week reduces stress levels in employees by a third and cuts health-care costs by an average of $2,000 a year. Cynics might point to the evidence that a walk in the countryside has similar benefits. They might also worry that Aetna, an insurer which wants to sell yoga and other mindfulness techniques as part of its health plans, is sponsoring some of the research that supports them. But it seems not unreasonable to suppose that, in a world of constant stress and distraction, simply sitting still and relaxing for a while might do you some good.

The biggest problem with mindfulness is that it is becoming part of the self-help movement—and hence part of the disease that it is supposed to cure. Gurus talk about “the competitive advantage of meditation”. Pupils come to see it as a way to get ahead in life. And the point of the whole exercise is lost. What has parading around in pricey Lululemon outfits got to do with the Buddhist ethic of non-attachment to material goods? And what has staring at a computer-generated dot got to do with the ancient art of meditation? Western capitalism seems to be doing rather more to change eastern religion than eastern religion is doing to change Western capitalism.

One of the things that impresses me most about Insight Timer is its agnostic, non-conflicted approach to helping meditators find the right teacher and technique to suit their individual personality and needs. It genuinely looks and feels like an approach, which is committed to preserving the authentic nature and purpose of mindfulness and meditation. Perhaps this is indeed why they are the top app, supported by meditators and meditation teachers alike (and increasingly the target of questionable practices of competitors, who by their very actions, highlight their complete ignorance of the true purpose of this ancient practice).


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