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Google’s former mindfulness guru steps down from nonprofit over ‘inappropriate behavior’

No one will say what he did.

Chade-Meng Tan speaks at the Asian Leadership Conferencein Seoul, South Korea, in March 2013. CREDIT: Chade-Meng Tan via Facebook
Chade-Meng Tan speaks at the Asian Leadership Conferencein Seoul, South Korea, in March 2013. CREDIT: Chade-Meng Tan via Facebook

The founder of Google’s employee mindfulness program quietly resigned last month from a nonprofit he cofounded, citing “inappropriate behavior” from his past.

Chade-Meng Tan stepped down as chair of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI), which promotes mindfulness and emotional intelligence, at the board’s request after a third-party investigation into the unspecified behavior, the organization said in a statement on July 19.

The news is a dramatic turn for a man whose position at Google and ideas about building happier, more compassionate companies won him a best-selling book, Search Inside Yourself; a TED talk at the United Nations; appearances alongside the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist leaders; and a $7.5 million home in Santa Cruz, Calif.

“[Tan] fully cooperated with the investigation and has expressed remorse for his past conduct,” the statement read; “however, we hold everyone associated with the organization to the highest standards of professionalism.”

The behavior that triggered the investigation occurred before Tan cofounded SIYLI,  according to the statement.

Tan said in a blog post on his personal website, also published July 19, that he “spoke and acted with some people in ways” he thought were socially acceptable but now realizes were “disrespectful and hurtful.”

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“To all I have caused hurt in the past in any way, and to those I have let down, I ask sincerely for your forgiveness,” Tan said in the statement.

Tan and the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute both declined multiple requests for comment.

Tan joins a growing list of meditation and mindfulness teachers who’ve left their organizations under scandal. Sakyong Mipham stepped back from leading the Buddhist group Shambhala International last month pending an investigation into multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and sexual assault. Noah Levine took leave from the Buddhist community he leads, Against the Stream, in March under a similar cloud.

Tan cofounded SIYLI with Marc Lesser and Philippe Goldin after he left Google in October 2015. In a statement after this story was published, Google said it does “not comment on individual employees.” Lesser told ThinkProgress he does not have more information on why Tan stepped down. Goldin referred a request for comment to SIYLI.

Reached for comment, four of SIYLI’s ten board members referred ThinkProgress’ requests to the organization. The remaining six did not respond.

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“The SIYLI board was informed every step of the way,” Monica Lee, a spokesperson for Thrive Global CEO and HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington, told ThinkProgress by email before referring a request for comment to SIYLI’s CEO, Rich Fernandez.

“Please contact Rich Fernandez, the CEO of SILYI for more information,” Richard Davidson, director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in an email. “Thank you.”

“Thank you for your interest in SIYLI and Chade Meng-Tan [sic],” Rhona Magee, a professor of law at the University of San Francisco and a fellow at the Mind Life Institute, said by email. “Unfortunately, I don’t have anything to add to the explanatory statement that has been publicly released.”

Fernandez, the SIYLI CEO and board member who previously led Google’s executive development team, declined to comment.

Tan’s official title at Google was Jolly Good Fellow. He started at the company as an engineer in 2000, according to a 2012 profile in The New York Times. He moved to the company’s human resources department after starting Search Inside Yourself, an internal mindfulness course for Google employees on that became wildly popular within the company and inspired the title for Tan’s first book.

The course and Tan’s ground-floor beginnings at Google made him a celebrity within the tech giant. A tradition developed where celebrities, and politicians visiting its Mountain View, Calif., headquarters had to get their picture snapped with Tan — a wall at Google, called “Meng’s Wall,” was lined with photos of Tan smiling next to people like President Barack Obama, Muhammad Ali, and Bill Murray.

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Tan developed a minor celebrity of his own as mindfulness boomed in the business and management spheres. He traveled the world to speak about mindfulness at conferences and seminars.

“I don’t want to sound megalomaniac, but my whole life is about doing something for the world, from as far back as I can remember,” Tan told The Times in 2012.

And yet Tan struck a far more modest tone in the statement he released on his website after stepping down from SIYLI’s board last month.

“I had a lifelong goal of reducing, even eliminating suffering in the world, yet here I find myself, on the giving end of suffering,” he said. “I am saddened by this and will reflect deeply on it.”

Do you have information on Chade-Meng Tan? Contact reporter Joshua Eaton by email at jeaton@thinkprogress.org or by Signal at 202-684-1030.

CORRECTION (8/22/2018, 3:08 p.m. ET): This story has been corrected to reflect that four out of ten SIYLI board members referred ThinkProgresses’ request for comment to the organization, while the other six did not respond.

UPDATE (9/12/2018, 4:28 p.m. ET): This story has been updated with comment from Google.