February 17, 2014

Protesters crash Google talk on corporate mindfulness at Wisdom 2.0 conference

Alex Caring-Lobel

On Saturday morning at the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco, Karen May, vice president for "people development" at Google, was taken by surprise. Not long after she opened a panel discussion dubbed "3 Steps to Build Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way," protesters stormed the stage, unfurling a banner that read, "Eviction Free San Francisco." Lately, Bay Area activists have been blaming Google and other tech giants (and their allies in government) for displacing residents, and the annual gathering of Silicon Valley's mindful elite presented them with the perfect opportunity for protest

The crowd at first applauded ("Was this some kind of new Google performance art?"), but they soon caught on. Wisdom 2.0 cut the live feed and deleted the interruption from their video archive. Fortunately, someone in the audience captured a video of the scene:

Bill Duane, a senior manager at Google, attempted to neutralize the situation with "grace and compassion"—and more than a little condescension. He directed the crowd to "check in with your body" and "feel what it's like to be in conflict with people with heartfelt ideas" after a spirited tug-of-war for the banner concluded at the edge of the stage.

The Wisdom 2.0 team issued a rapid response, lauding its corporate sponsor for its kindness and compassion. Of course, only in a country where corporations are legally people could a corporation be mindful, too.

Policies that privelege tech companies like Google, Heart of the City activists write, come at the expense of local residents, and contribute to "displacement, privatization of public assets, for-profit surveillance, profiling, policing, and targeting of activist communities."

In an interview in the current issue of Tricycle, novelist and cultural critic Curtis White had a few things to say himself about Google's program and corporate mindfulness in general. The following is an excerpt:

As for Silicon Valley, it has a legitimate interest in the health of its workers, but it has little interest in [Simone] Weil’s notion of the "authentic and pure values.” Its primary aim is to bring Buddhist meditation techniques (as neuroscience understands them) to the aid of corporate culture, such as in the Search Inside Yourself program developed at Google. This is from the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute website:

Developed at Google and based on the latest in neuroscience research, our programs offer attention and mindfulness training that build the core emotional intelligence skills needed for peak performance and effective leadership. We help professionals at all levels adapt, management teams evolve, and leaders optimize their impact and influence.

Mindfulness is enabling corporations to “optimize impact”? In this view of things, mindfulness can be extracted from a context of Buddhist meanings, values, and purposes. Meditation and mindfulness are not part of a whole way of life but only a spiritual technology, a mental app that is the same regardless of how it is used and what it is used for.

. . . .

Bringing Buddhist meditation techniques into industry accomplishes two things for industry. It does actually give companies like Google something useful for an employee’s well-being, but it also neutralizes a potentially disruptive adversary. Buddhism has its own orienting perspectives, attitudes, and values, as does American corporate culture. And not only are they very different from each other, they are also often fundamentally opposed to each other.

A benign way to think about this is that once people experience the benefits of mindfulness they will become interested in the dharma and develop a truer appreciation for Buddhism—and that would be fine. But the problem is that neither Buddhists nor employees are in control of how this will play out. Industry is in control. This is how ideology works. It takes something that has the capacity to be oppositional, like Buddhism, and it redefines it. And somewhere down the line, we forget that it ever had its own meaning.

It’s not that any one active ideology accomplishes all that needs to be done; rather, it is the constant repetition of certain themes and ideas that tend to construct a kind of “nature.” Ideology functions by saying “this is nature”—this is the way things are; this is the way the world is. So, Obama talks about STEM, scientists talk about the human computer, universities talk about “workforce preparation,” and industry talks about the benefits of the neuroscience of meditation, but it all becomes something that feels like a consistent world, and after a while we lose the ability to look at it skeptically. At that point we no longer bother to ask to be treated humanly. At that point we accept our fate as mere functions. Ideology’s job is to make people believe that their prison is a pleasure dome. 

–Alex Caring-Lobel, Associate Editor

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Multisensorymel's picture

Just really grateful for this discussion. I think the magazine ought to do an article on the issue of what Chogyam Trungpa referred to as Spiritual Materialism or, as i often call it, "mcmindfulness" and just how relevant his thoughts and teachings on this subject are to today's issue. having started on my journey 14 years ago and now hearing young people around me discuss the 'trend' of mindfulness it appears to them as though every one else's reasons are disengenuous as well. So we have a whole lot of problems here. And it would be very useful to invite a number of serious practitioners, versus salespersons of a practice divorced from principles, to speak about the beliefs, values and foundations of Buddhism and its application to mindfulness.

ejcbsn's picture

Yes, a fundamental problem in this discussion is the confusion of "Buddhism" with "mindfulness." This is a confusion that was started and continues to be fostered by the "mindfulness based stress reduction" movement that John Kabot-Zinn started. Yes they acknowledge that the "mindfulness meditation" methods they teach are based on Buddhist practices, but they scrupulously avoid including anything about compassion or ethics in their teaching of those methods. But compassion and ethics are fundamental to Buddhism, they are not "add ons," and it is a grave error to call any practice that omits that emphasis "Buddhist." As many have noted in this discussion, it is entirely possible for people and groups to pursue mediation practices absent that emphasis, and to use those practices to further uncompassionate and even evil activities. That's what "black magic" is about.
Now because research has soon health benefits to the sort of mindfulness practices that Kabot-Zinn and his successors teach, this confusion has propagated through the medical and popular cultures, i.e. that cultivating "mindfulness" absent any emphasis on developing compassion and ethical behavior is somehow "spiritual." Thus the popular credibility of someone like Google's mindfulness people blithering on about being "mindful" and "feeling what its like to be in conflict," i.e. they join in and add to that confusion.
Long story short: practices of mindfulness or of any other kind are not "Buddhist" if they omit the development of compassion and ethics; and they will not automatically lead to the development of the same. Anyone who tells people different is damaging the Buddha dharma, which is actually a grave sin.

Danny's picture


DB's picture

I recommend this article by Wired magazines Noah Schactman about the mindfulness boom in silicon valley. Noah is a great journalist who normally coveres security issues for Wired's 'Danger room', but he took some time out to hang with meditation boys from google and facebook. the picture that emerges in my mind is not attractive. These folks strike me as egomaniacs. Limitless worldly power justifying fantatic claims of spiritual greatness, cut off from any thought of the downside of uber-capitalist develoment
judge for yourselves

Dominic Gomez's picture

If corporations can attain enlightenment it would look like a 19 billion dollar purchase of an app.

mrmojo's picture

In the above video what is the man in black trying to take away from the woman and why is he taking it away?

sujaypandit's picture

The video begins with a woman stating, "Mindfulness, the Google way." This alone is a disturbing trend. Co-opting Buddhist ideas to serve private economic purposes is not new, but Google and other companies should be ashamed. Bravo to the activists for organizing this demonstration!

marginal person's picture

"Of course only in a country where corporations are legally people, could corporations be mindful, too."
The legally declared mandate of any corporations is to advance it's self interest, regardless of who or what suffers.
If any person behaved the way most corporations do (i.e. callous unconcern for feelings of others, incapacity to maintain enduring relationships,and failure to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviour), that person would be diagnosed as a psychopath.
Western Buddhism and corporations, is this a marriage made in heaven?

marginal person's picture

I failed to mention that a corporation, unlike a psychopath, is theoretically, immortal.

Dolgyal's picture

Meanwhile the NKT (a tax-exempt real estate corporation) disrupts a religious teaching in San Francisco by an eminent teacher. Mostly WASPs in the small but noisy demonstration. Apparently a number of their leaders are open cross-dressers.

rpurser's picture

Yes, Zizek would agree

dpoake's picture

Wow! What a button pushing and thought provoking discussion. Do no evil?

DB's picture

Google is as dirty as a dirty corporation can get. There is no shortage of *evidence* to back up that claim. See http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/01/07/how-google-become-one-of-americas...
Yawn... Snooze... Did somebody say something about taxes and inequality? I'm busy discovering limitless consciousness within my heart. Soon waves of joy will wash over all the dirty and downtrodden. Perhaps child laborers in central africa haven't heard the good news yet, brainscans and neuroscientists are about to propel us into untold dimensions of subjective contentment. Someone really ought to tell them, no?

PRobejsek's picture

The main opinion expressed in this article is that of Curtis White. It makes me sad to see that Curtis is apparently suffering from some unfortunate karma that forces him to see google and the firm's efforts to introduce mindfulness to its employees in an adversarial way. If we remember the teachings on emptiness it becomes immediately obvious that this effort on google's part is neither good nor bad from it's own side, it is empty of being either. What it's effects will be on the individual are entirely up to that individual's karma and nothing else. Therefore it is also a fallacious conclusion that "Ideology’s job is to make people believe that their prison is a pleasure dome." What makes people see their world in a specific way is karma not some exogenous thing like an ideology.

Finally, I for my part do not hear any condescension in the voice of Mr. Duane, what I hear is the voice of a compassionate practitioner who is mindfully accepting what is. So I conclude with a sincere wish that Alex Caring-Lobel, the Associate Editor responsible for the article, may come to hear it the same way because that would mean that he is perceiving a less violent, more compassionate world.

rpurser's picture

I am sorry PRobejsek, I do not remember the teachings on emptiness as having anything to do with excusing or ignoring unethical actions--in fact, this seems to be the sort of emptiness sickness, or grabbing the snake by the wrong end that Master Nagarjuna warned would cause a terrible slide into the extreme of nihilism. And emptiness and karma are independent of each other? Hmmm... that is new teaching to me. Who taught you that?

mbrowningvogel's picture

Even if they paid for Thich Naht Hahn to come visit one time, Google is member of ALEC. ALEC funded Stand Your Ground and other legislation legalizing gun violence, banning abortion and giving tax breaks to wealthy individuals and corporations. If Googlers want to learn Buddhism or Mindfulness (whatever they are...), they should start by doing a little metta for the families of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, since their works turns into money that Google gives to ALEC (and Ted Cruz, for that matter.). Then they should maybe learn the five precepts, with emphasis on the first and second precepts of not killing (and not funding laws that let killers go free), and not taking what is not given. These corporate perks may seem lovely, but they are paid for by Google's well known practice of sheltering their assets The Double Dutch and The Irish Sandwich: that is taking what is not being given. Even if Thich Naht Hahn came to your office one time. It's still stealing. Its takes strength and courage to look into the beautiful face of Sila. There is no mindfulness when you live in a non-reality of funding killing, stealing and thinking it's all ok because they paid Thich Naht Hahn to come to your office one time.

sharmila2's picture

it bothers me that so many commentators here seem to feel that a corporation (which, ultimately, is guided by real people) has to be 100% pure and noble before they are allowed to share the gift of the Dhamma. That attitude would suggest that you should also demand that people be already perfectly enlightened before you teach them. If the Buddha went out of his way to teach a serial killer, perhaps we could be just a little more tolerant toward staff at Google and other corporate giants?

rpurser's picture

Hello Sharmila2,

Well, that assumes that what is being taught in these corporations is the "the gift of the Dhamma." Big assumption.

Second, let's not put the Google trainers on stage at the same level of the Buddha...the Buddha taught Angulimala (serial killer), but guess what, he became a monk and renunciant. What will Google do any differently after people meditate two minutes before a meeting? Will they stop evading their tax responsibilities? Lay down their predatory invasion of privacy tactics? Keep funding ALEC?

sharmila2's picture

The "Us versus them" dichotomy that seems to be the underpinnings of this thread are actually what is against Buddhist teachings, not Google or the protesters. Each group did what was expected of their respective roles, and to pretend that only one is on the side of the Dhamma is inappropriate. The Buddha himself described a just king as one who "executes those who should be executed", indicating that he understood the constraints of society and did not expect civil leaders to be religious exemplars as well. People and corporations are a mixed bag, and any attempt - however small- to increase the ratio of wisdom to ignorance should be applauded. If even one person at Google is a little more mindful as a result of their programs then it will all have been worth it.

drleroi's picture

My guess is it will have a stealth effect. I think Jack Kornfield said, you cannot come home and meditate after a day of cheating and lying. The path is good in the beginning, good in the middle, good at the end. I suspect that any mindfullness training will arc toward the good.

DB's picture

One obviously CAN come home and meditate after a day of cheating and lying. It happens all the time. We could add killing and just about everything else to the list. Do you know what place on earth has the longest running unbroken tradition of Buddhism? The Island nation of Sri Lanka. Take a look at Sri Lanka. Ethnic cleansing, terrorism, a corrupt gangster government. I'm not saying any of those problems are the fault of Buddhism. But it is naïve to assume that tossing the holy water of mindfulness in the general direction of a problem constitutes a sufficient response to that problem. If we care about the corporate takeover of democracy then that issue will have to be tackled directly, not vis-à-vis spacing out on the empty heart or whatever.

tanyamic2's picture

You're so right. Plus we can all call ourselves Buddhist, meditation gurus or whatever we like, but what we each choose to DO is no reflection on the practice of meditation or the Buddhist teachings.

As for Sri Lanka, some blame the government, some blame the LTTE - founder of suicide belts and female suicide bombers - for 25 years of strife but Buddhism arrived in the 3rd century BC so there are plenty of other centuries to consider.

Michael D. Austin's picture

Thanks, Tricycle, for posting this.

That Google was represented the way it was at Wisdom 2.0 will make me recommend that no one ever support Wisdom 2.0. Google is well-known to be a massively-powerful company which takes pains to hide its agenda. Anything "the Google Way" will hide destructive policies which suit only Google's stockholders and no other masters.

Start with a simple news story with massive ripples, that Google has donated to the American Legislative Exchange Council - http://www.bustle.com/articles/10403-where-do-companies-donate-money-goo.... For those of you who don't understand the underpinnings of ALEC, you've some reading to do if you want life-affirming, compassionate decisions for your children. Our ignorance is what kills and maims millions. Follow the money and power.

Google can have my compassion as soon as they stop hiding their agendas. Wisdom 2.0 will never receive my thought that they have a compassionate, life-affirming structure -- as long as they shill for Google and companies like it. Wisdom 2.0 has sold out to cancerous over-growth.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Blackwater announced the introduction of mindfulness into their tactics and weapons basic training course. The new mindfulness training (they hope) will slow the ever-increasing number of civilian casualties that the company racks up in Iraq and Afghanistan" (Tricycle, 4/1/13) If it works for them, it can work for any machine.

DB's picture

That article about black water was an April fools joke but I'm not sure if it was very funny . Military units do in fact train with meditation see the work of former spy Elizabeth Stanley and mind fit tm. They train active duty soldiers for chillin and killin. The hippie dream of spirituality increasingly resembles a Woodstock reveiller after a fist full of brown acid

Dominic Gomez's picture

When I trained in martial arts meditation was for becoming mindful of the hits you were about to receive as well as dispense.

DB's picture

If you watch some of the videos with Captain Thomas Dyer US military Buddhist Chaplin. Dire mentions that Buddhism has a long history of helping soldiers in battle . I can only imagine he is thinking of the Vietnamese and Japanese? I am not sure how that's supposed to be a positive reference point for American Buddhist or soldiers.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Extracting mindfulness from Buddhism is like catching sharks just for the fins. It likely wasn't Buddhist teachings that helped soldiers in war but rather mindfulness of the firefight. And as for Asian and American soldiers, remember that there are culture and belief system differences. Americans encountered the enemy from the lofty position of liberators and defenders of democracy, God and country. Asian wars arose more from animalistic needs: greener rice fields on the other side of the fence, or simple survival from threatening warlords.

Michael D. Austin's picture

Well stated, Dominic Gomez.

nowakb's picture

It’s so easy to slip into an us or them mentality. Mindfulness is not a magic pill and medicine takes time to take root. That doesn’t diminish it’s utility.

Google had amazing opportunity they let slip by! Can you imagine if they had let the protesters join the show? Recognized the needs they were expressing through their actions and done a demonstration of “mindful mediation”. Mindfulness, Buddhist or otherwise, has a speech component and perhaps evicting protesters while they hold an eviction free banner was not the most skillful way to handle the situation. Just so on the cushion - when letting go isn’t letting go but repression it’s better to switch objects.

eshaneh's picture

I hope you will listen to Thich Nhat Hanh's talk, "The Horse is Technology." http://tnhaudio.org/2013/11/16/horse-technology/ . He talks about his day of mindfulness at Google headquarters starting around 24 minutes in the talk. Thich Nhat Hanh's talk shows that the situation is not so black-and-white. Yes, it was hypocritical of Google to treat the protesters without respect or empathy. Of course, in a just world, Google would consider the protesters claims and take them seriously. At the same time, taking meditation practice out of Google's programs is not likely to remedy matters, and at this point, it would likely be distressing to Google personnel because it seems a lot of people working at Google (at all levels) really do want to practice meditation as a form of self-care. We Buddhists have to come to terms with the fact that mindfulness meditation is one of the most effective forms of mind-body medicine right now, and in that capacity, it is likely to help reduce suffering. And we need to also find ways to help mindfulness meditation instructors in the corporate world include teachings on "right mindfulness." The importance of ethics cannot be understated in teaching mindfulness. If we really want to do something to change the situation, we need to reach out to mindfulness instructors who are teaching mindfulness in corporate settings. We can suggest it is all a problem of capitalism. Let's be realistic. Corporations are going to be around for a long time. So let's do what we can to ensure that "right mindfulness" is being taught within corporations.

Michael D. Austin's picture

Eshaneh - I liked your discussion of ethics. Let begin with having Google come clean with its hidden support of destructive 501(c)(4) organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council? That Wisdom 2.0 pulled the video of the talk off-line is absolutely indicative of a hidden agenda from both them and Google. People and companies make mistakes. The trick and growth comes in cleaning them up gracefully.

eshaneh's picture

If we Buddhists could agree and follow through on what the right action is to help encourage more ethical behavior among corporate CEOs/managers, I think we would be able to have an impact. "Having Google come clean" would require a lot of work. If you and others are willing to do the work, I think we could at least get Google management's attention. The "how" of getting Google's to acknowledge its ethical missteps is something that would necessitate coming together and finding common ground in our approach. If you are interested, let's talk about it (ironically, through the Google+ community on Engaged Buddhism).

teknozen's picture

If we are lured into appreciating meditation practice, and other technologies for accruing wisdom in a corporate environment, thinking that at the very least, the participants are cultivating mindfulness, we ought remember the mindfulness program at Monsanto. Did meditation at Monsanto produce a deeper understanding of how their products were not in the best interest of the Earth and all it's beings? Did it call into question the wisdom of using RoundUp (now suspected of mass killing butterflies and bees)? Did it produce an extended sense of compassion and reverence for life? No, no, and no.

Michael D. Austin's picture

Good work, Teknozen.

samitchell's picture

I don't know, horse. It seems to me that, yes, in principle you're right that there's a difference between "Buddhism" and "mindfulness." But it's also easy to draw a causal link between the two at Wisdom 2.0. Another speaker at the conference, describing the mindfulness practices of Medium, makes repeated reference to John Kabat-Zinn who, while explicitly distancing his MBSR program from Buddhism proper, also admits that he originally learned mindfulness in a Buddhist context. So it might not be Buddhist anymore, but one could argue that it wouldn't be here at all if it weren't for Buddhism to begin with.

(See this for the piece about Medium: https://medium.com/p/df4b03f67d69)

However, way more important (to me anyway) is the later part of this report on the construction of ideology. This splitting of hairs about "Buddhism" and "mindfulness" makes for fun, abstract, academic debate, to be sure. But the cat's out of the bag. Buddhism/mindfulness is out there, it's having an effect on our world, and whether it's Buddhism or not might not matter as much as the larger of issue of whether or not we're okay with this particular type of cultural change. Let's talk about that.

So thanks, Tricycle, for bringing it up.

theworsthorse's picture

It is important to distinguish "Buddhism" from "mindfulness". First, mindfulness meditation is not an exclusively Buddhist practice. Second, what corporations teach as mindfulness has little to do with Buddhism or, as near as I can tell, any of the spiritual lineages with a mindfulness practice tradition. To suggest otherwise is to confuse form and essence.

That corporations like Google have latched onto mindfulness practice as a tool for building good corporate citizens is not surprising; that's what the people that run corporations need to do to insure their survival: find tools that help them achieve their aims. The participation in the process by so-called Buddhists, given the aim of the path, certainly should be surprising but, unfortunately in this day and age, is not.

Jakela's picture

I find that Google et al's approach to mindfulness is similar to their approach to everything: What's in it for me.
Not Buddhist, not dharma--not nice, Google.