February 22, 2013

Who's Afraid of Wisdom?

Dr. Jay Michaelson

The Wisdom 2.0 conference, a four-day gathering of the Silicon Valley crowd to address the intersections of spirituality, mindfulness, and technology, is taking place this weekend. Author and conference attendee Jay Michaelson will be blogging his experiences at the summit here on the Tricycle blog throughout the weekend.

Wisdom 2.0Is California afraid of California?

At Day 2 of the Wisdom 2.0 conference, things got down to business.  Literally.  Most of the talks were about how mindfulness can make the work world more fulfilling, more productive, more sustainable, and just about more everything else.  Evan Williams, founder of Twitter and Blogger, said that meditation on the job is “not a perk that makes this a nice, fluffy place to work. It makes you better and it makes the company better.  We really believe in the hard science aspects of it.”

And yet, more than one Silicon Valley Bigwig told a fellow journalist not to use their names.  They said that to be publicly associated with meditation might make them seem less serious. Like they believed in UFOs or something.

Which is funny, because when you go through the roster of today’s speakers’ corporate affiliations—Cisco, Facebook, Google, more Google, Twitter, LinkedIn—there aren’t a whole lot of leading companies that aren’t represented.  Now, sure, these are the True Believers within these various firms.  But still, what are the Bigwigs afraid of, exactly?

In a weird way, I wonder if their (imagined) critics might be onto something.  Several times, in panels and private discussions, variations on same question kept coming up in conversation: what is the real goal here?  Is the goal to make unhappy vulture capitalists into happy ones?  Or, if mindfulness works, will it cause them to, well, reconsider being vulture capitalists at all?

I asked this to Jon Kabat-Zinn last night after his talk.  I mentioned David Loy’s recent open letter (noted on this blog yesterday) to William George, a longtime meditator also on the board of Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil.  The letter, entitled “Can Mindfulness Change a Corporation?” argued that if George were really seeing clearly in his practice, he couldn’t serve in good conscience on the boards of two corporations that have each been involved in highly dubious activities of late.  I asked Kabat-Zinn, who has consulted with numerous corporations and had just given a talk about mindfulness in business, what he thought.

Although he hadn’t read the letter, his answer was surprisingly similar.  “This whole issue of ethics is really important,” he said.  “It’s not like Goldman Sachs can just do a little mindfulness and then be driven by greed, hatred, and delusion all the more. That’s not mindfulness.  This is about restructuring things so that your business is aligned with the deepest domains of integrity and morality.  You can make money in the service of creation of wealth, but not lying cheating and stealing or cutting every corner.”  

Honestly, I was surprised by his answer.  Sure, it’s what one might expect from a longtime practitioner, son-in-law to Howard Zinn, and, not least, careful interview subject who knew he was talking to a Tricycle blogger. But if Kabat-Zinn is right, if serious mindfulness practice eventually erodes the foundations of certain businesses, aren’t the critics right to criticize?

The issue arose again this morning, in the panel with Evan Williams.  A questioner pointed out that Williams is no longer a twenty-something entrepreneur, maniacally focused on building his company; how can the values of balance, wisdom, and meditation be communicated to those who still are? 

Williams basically punted.  He agreed that he got interested in a more balanced approach to work when he got older, and that most meditators at his new company, Obvious, were older as well.  Indeed, it might be true that if you meditate and introspect, you’d get some perspective on your life—and thus forfeit your value as an out-of-balance, insanely driven worker bee at a tech company.

Kabat-Zinn, in our conversation, had made a similar point.  “I did some mindfulness work with a major Boston law firm back in the day, and people ate it up—and then a whole bunch of them left.  We have to be prepared for that…. These people were being given annual bonuses called ‘no-life bonuses’ because you had to work so many hours that you never saw your family.” 

Now, the whole point of many of today’s corporate-oriented speakers is that such work environments are ultimately unsustainable, and that "no-life bonuses" are actually a bad way to do business.  But is that really true?  Several of today’s experts insisted that it was, and offered a handful of statistics, but I’m still skeptical.  When I was younger and working at a dot-com, I put in 60, 80 hour work weeks.  My classmates from law school did the same at their firms.  The system is designed to make use of/leverage/exploit the energy of young workers, who are usually quite willing to put in the time, if there’s a chance of a Twitter-like payoff at the end.  Eventually, yes, most of us get tired of the rat race, and either move up the ladder or, like Bartleby and Billy Joel, move out. 

Does the fact that the system works make it right?  No.  But it does make its proponents right to worry that today’s meditators might be tomorrow’s ex-employees.  They depend on lives out of whack.  After all, it was Krishnamurti who said “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Jay Michaelson Dr. Jay Michaelson is the author of Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment (forthcoming 2013 from North Atlantic Books).

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celticpassage's picture

Mindfulness and meditation in the work place is nonsense. No capitalist is interested in it. If a true capitalist had her way, she would insist everyone work for minimum wage, 80 hours 7 days a week, and if they get too old or sick to continue, she would fire them. As the world population continues to grow, and jobs become more and more scarce, there will always be others to take the place of the fired lazy and uncommitted workers.