February 19, 2014

Why I Disrupted the Wisdom 2.0 Conference

The organizer behind the demonstration speaks outAmanda Ream

The invisibility of the crisis in San Francisco right now is reminiscent of that of the AIDS epidemic. To quote from Vito Russo, a founder of the AIDS activist group ACT UP, film historian, and rabble rouser, it’s “like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches.” He lived in this city when it was a haven for political radicals, queer people, artists, and immigrants, when it was America’s great city of sanctuary.

“You look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices,” he said. “It isn’t happening to them.”

People are not dying, but they’re disappearing every day, from all over the city. The tech industry’s great economic boom is driving a housing crisis, with no-fault evictions increasing 175% since last year. The city doesn’t keep track of how many people live in these apartments, but the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project estimates up to 3580 residents were no-fault evicted in 2013.

I came to San Francisco like generations of people before me because I wanted to find the freedom to live out my ideals. And to practice the dharma—no other city has so many teachers and centers. It’s a great place to find the teachings of the Buddha. The tech industry, Google and Facebook and their peers, have adopted the culture of this place.

Just like the gentrification of a neighborhood where new, wealthy people displace people who have lived there longer, the dharma is undergoing a process of gentrification in San Francisco today. Lost is the bigger picture of the teachings that asks us to consider our interdependence and to move beyond self-help and addressing only our own suffering. The dharma directs us to feel the suffering of others.

The pace of displacement in the city’s Mission District makes whole sections of the neighborhood unrecognizable to people who lived there just a year before. With great respect for Sharon Salzberg, Konda Mason, and Shinzen Young, who taught this year at Wisdom 2.0, I ask the following question about the dharma on display at this conference: To whom is it recognizable?

While members of Eviction Free San Francisco held a banner across the stage, I handed out leaflets to the more than 500 attendees that read, “Thank you for your practice. We invite you to consider the truth behind Google and the tech industry’s impact on San Francisco.” 

At a conference like this, our action—a banner and a chant of “San Francisco Not for Sale” on a bullhorn—is only meaningful in the context of the larger movement to keep families in their homes, to save the city and the diversity we love, and to repeal the state law that allows for no-fault evictions, which create conditions for speculators and evictors to run wild for profits. We want to preserve an economically diverse city that works for all of us, not just the tech industry.

When I zipped up that banner in a bag to sneak it into the conference, I thought about the ways this action could contribute to a larger conversation among people of conscience about how to stop this crisis of economic inequality. But like our Mission District neighbors, the activists and the message of Eviction Free San Francisco were disappeared without a word, censored from the livestream of the event. As we were marched out of the hall by angry conference staff, the Google presentation carried on, asking the audience to “check in with their body” about the conflict. No one addressed the issues we were raising, not then or later on in the conference. It was a case study in spiritual bypassing.

It’s almost too easy to point this out at Wisdom 2.0. Most of the workshops offer lifestyle and consumer choices that are meant to help people heal from the harm, emptiness, and unsustainability associated with living under capitalism, but it does so without offering an analysis of where this disconnection comes from. The conference presents an evolution in consciousness of the wealthiest among us as the antidote to suffering rather than the redistribution of wealth and power.

We disrupted Wisdom 2.0 to make visible the struggle of eviction and gentrification that we and our neighbors are facing. The invitation still stands for the organizers, presenters, and attendees of this conference, as well as our new neighbors who work for the companies that put it on, to recognize our demands and engage with these social issues.

Before Google’s talk on corporate mindfulness at Wisdom 2.0, I sat there in my chair, a participant in a centering practice alongside other conference attendees. I felt connected. We were only different from them because we were preparing ourselves to take the stage as uninvited guests in order to ask the question that most needs asking in San Francisco right now: Who is included and who is excluded from this community?

Amanda Ream is a member of Oakland’s East Bay Meditation Center and is in the Dedicated Practitioner’s Program at Spirit Rock. She works as a union organizer in Bernal Heights, San Francisco.

View a video of the Google Wisdom 2.0 disruption here.

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owlmonkey's picture

You're going to love this article, Amanda: http://www.businessweek.com/news/2014-05-28/to-make-killing-on-wall-stre...

On a related note, someone asked Ani Pema Chodron at a recent retreat what she thought of all the corporate use of meditation and in my opinion she thought of it as a kind of infiltration and might do some good. I share that view.

SDL's picture

How dare you compare what's happening in SF right now to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Are you f'ing kidding me? Leave it to some self-serving pawn of the unions who has NO CLUE about the wave of REAL death that swept the city to use it for her personal benefit. There's no comparison. Don't you have a rathole to OCCUPY?

amyvegan's picture

As a long time San Franciscan (1979), while I am also highly dismayed by the lack of affordable housing in my beloved city, I don't see tech companies pulling out for the "greater good" of we non-techies. Our city may actually now be lost to us. While "Google" (and posse) are taking away our privacy and creating a young elite that are pushing us old-timers away, there are also much larger and critical planetary issues to be concerned about: overpopulation, extinction of other species, non-sustainable energy, the torture and murder of billions of sentient beings for food, toxins in our ecosystem, etc... Mindfulness is also about acceptance. No amount of protesting will encourage tech companies to retreat. Google doesn't give-a-poop about my inability to live in the city any longer. While affordable housing here is being steamrolled by tech geeks towards eminent extinction, choose to focus on what you CAN affect that can benefit the planet, animals, your own health and sanity and that of your close community. As horrific as it sounds, accepting change and impermanence might also mean gathering your family and/or community together and packing it up and moving to Pacifica...or Portland... and being totally okay with that. xoxoxo amyvegan

bhb21's picture

If you really care, please take some time and education yourselves instead asking to use government to solve your problems. I recommended tthree outstanding free ebooks available through Students For Liberty (SFL): After the Welfare State and Why Liberty and the Morality of Capitalism.

The Morality of Capitalism: What Your Professors Won't Tell You combines the writings of renowned economists, philosophers, historians, policy experts, and entrepreneurs from around the world to make the case that not only do free markets "deliver the goods," but that a true free market capitalism is a just and moral system.

These are clear and highly readable, suitable for students and non-students alike, for newcomers to free enterprise. they were listed for free in the last newsletter of the organization below.
i hope this proves useful

Danny's picture

One may be tempted to ask, "what has any of this to do with Buddhism?"
I found a link for you, bhb21:

bhb21's picture

really sorry you didnt try to get more information - capitalism has good and bad adherents - just like sprituality - but that does not make it less relevent or important

danielhake's picture

Did the Buddha not say something like 'In order to be compassionate, I sometimes have to speak harshly?'

Looking back at an interview from last year with the Dalai Lama, I think he agrees with Amanda:

tonycochran87's picture

This is an excellent article. Many blessings to its author and those who support social justice.

earth2indy's picture

screw google

Mushim's picture

There's a stimulating discussion about gentrification going on at Colorlines on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/colorlines : "Spike Lee Gets Real About Brooklyn’s Gentrification"

shane's picture

I've read through this post with great interest and the responses, and in many respects don't feel its appropriate from here (Australia) to respond to the issues in San Fransisco. What gets a lot of media attention here though is that Google makes massive profits in Australia while paying minuscule taxes - and because if its capacity of shift money around the globe, that seem to be the case.....everywhere.

So, we're left with a hugely powerful multinational, and regardless of employees' commitment to "mindfulness" and other forms of community engagement, they don't engage in the one big act that is fundamental to social and community services - pay taxes. That probably won't change, at least in the short term, but what would be unreasonable in asking Google to provide significant funds so that a greater range of accommodation options are available in San Fransisco?

bhb21's picture

i hate articles like this with a socialist message. that message is" what i think is more important than what you think" in this case because i care more about social issues. you live in a capitalistic society as promised by our constiution. that means change is ever present and all must adapt. if you cant keep up or dont like it you cannot force everyone to adhere to your "feel good" tenants.
as has been pointed out, most of the problems have been caused by SF government policies. this is not capitalism at work - it is cronyism! When governments inhibit the free market this is what you get - the priviledged that have worked to get government benefits get to take advantage, and then everyone else must make do. now all it appears you want to do is replace their ideas with yours - not a good solution. i for one do not agree with your ideas. the only way to impliment them is for you to try to use the forces of government and take your turn at the troff or find a voluntary solution using capitalism to try to win enough support in form of dollars for your ideas.
too many people try to use their religion to show they are the "most right." i believe that brought us the crusades and the many other forms of persecution we have witnessed throughout history - not a stretch when using her logic. who wants to go there?

bubbathepirate's picture

please show me where "capitalism" is mentioned in the constitution.

echevallier1's picture

Huh? what planet are you from exactly???
Did you ever hear of "lobbyism" ?... The Capitol is full of these wonderful successful companies (who you seem to worship) which "doesn't influence the gorvernment". Hahaha! What a joke.
They are indeed inhibiting democracy itself...
And pplease, please, please for pity sake, stop using the word "socialism" aor chek it on a GOOD dictionary...

bhb21's picture

thank you for making my point. if government did not over reach and have the ability to dictate, lobbyists would have nothing to lobby for. in 1900 3% of GDP was spent by government, now it is 37%. are we better off? - no. everyone now looks to government to protect them and look how well they do. as an example welfare did not exist until 80 years ago. before then people did not die in the street. we took care of each other through churchs or other groups. then we stopped getting personally involved and expected government to do it - they are inefficient and end up promoting free money instead of work. we need to be involved in helping each other - that dharma also helps us. don't get me started on the big war machine or the tarp money or nsa or ... big government is not the answer. keep it to the limitied constitutional functions and we will all grow according to our work - both materially and spirtually

Rob_'s picture

Just to let you know. Wealthy elites were quite capable of influencing government in 1900 too. As a matter of fact, the alliance of wealth and power is as old as dirt regardless of country or political ideology. I have no idea where you get these rosy notions that capitalism is somehow a fix for this.

Some other things happening around your beloved 1900. No 40 hour work week (more likely around 60 hours), no overtime, child labor, horrible working conditions (that wonderful lack of regulation!). Life expectancy around 47 years, as opposed to around 76 now. But hey, I guess you don't have to worry about saving up for retirement. Such freedom!

If there are any "benefits" that I missed circa 1900, please let me know.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Your tax dollars at work: "I call them like I see them, despite the cheers or the boos from the crowd.” (AZ Gov. Jan Brewer, after vetoing a bill yesterday that would have given business owners the right to refuse service to gay men, lesbians and other people on religious grounds.)

bhb21's picture

private business should be able to serve or not serve anyone they wish - as we should be able to use or not use their services - a loss of business is much better educator/corrector of bad practices.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"We reserve the right to serve refuse to anyone."

Rob_'s picture

Where in your mythical world does capitalism not influence government? This "free" market your such a fan of does it's best to influence government policy, and is pretty successful at it. By the way, the Constitution does not "promise" capitalism.

For a fine example of the free market I suggest you revisit the history of the gilded age. That's about the best example of capitalism without restriction. It's not as noble as you seem to be imagining.

bhb21's picture

of course it influences, that is cronyism! you look for a scape goat, in this case google when the real problem in this case is SF government.
no it does not name it or promise capitalism but how else does minimal government - this is described - work?
nothing is perfect - capitalism is the closest to allowing real freedom of choice and with our non-forced correct choices - spiritual development comes.

Rob_'s picture

I never mentioned Google nor am I looking for a scapegoat. It sounds like your scapegoat is the government. If you abhor cronyism, which you state in this case was contributed to by capitalism, than why are you promoting capitalism? Don't bother answering. You're a walking contradiction. Initially you claim the Constitution promises capitalism, now you admit this isn't the case. Perhaps you should spend a little more time formulating your ideas instead of shooting from the hip by attempting to support your beliefs with untruths.

bhb21's picture

our education system is sorely lacking. the expansion of government over and above the minimal functions described in the constitution is what allows cronysim to function. who got all of the TARP money? Big business and banks - they should have been allowed to go under - that is how capitalism works. inefficient use of capital is not rewarded.

Rob_'s picture

Whose education system? Do you know where I was educated? Regardless, quite bold of you to imply I'm uneducated when you have already demonstrated your own ignorance about the Constitution.

Danny's picture

"our ed. system is sorely lacking". I finally agree here with something you wrote, bhb21.

You say, "that is how capitalism works". You may think this is how it SHOULD work, but it hasn't worked that way in the past. Just take a look--really--our system could not have survived this long without it.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"I hate articles like this..." “It is said that good medicine tastes bitter." (Dharma Teacher Chih-tu)

bhb21's picture

not good medicine my friend - you are trying to impose your concept of what should happen, imposed with governemtn force. Is that how dharma works? our choices make us what we are - not you forcing your choice on me. (regular guy bruce)

mrmojo's picture

Capitalism at it's finest. Free choices ?
I know conspiracy nut.
Police arrest people all the time on conspiracy charges but conspires don't exist. Yea right.



bubbathepirate's picture

You are a very interesting mix of Buddha and Ayn Rand.

Dominic Gomez's picture

As you are free to believe, Bruce. The Law works in strange ways, doesn't it?

Magda's picture

Thank you, Amanda, and all who disrupted the farce of googlymind 2.0. Even if only one person in the audience woke up with your interruption, that's a gift.

Mushim's picture

"Is San Francisco losing its soul? The big pay cheques of the tech boom are changing the City by the Bay as Twitter and Google millionaires take over its bohemian haunts. Could this be the end of the city as we know it?" Zoë Corbyn reports for the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/23/is-san-francisco-losing-its...

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thanks for posting this, Mushim-san. I grew up in the City and moved to Seattle in 2003. As an artist, I'm kinda glad I did, though I do miss the sunny Mission District!

Mushim's picture

You are welcome, Dominic-san. I have lived in Oakland, California for 23 years, and it seems as though part of what's happening in the bigger picture involving San Francisco is that Oakland is becoming more and more a place where many artistic, creative, social-justice oriented people are establishing homes, studios, small businesses. My family member who works in a tech company in San Francisco (and who is definitely nowhere near being nouveau riche) takes the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train into San Francisco every day in what is probably around a half hour commute. Not all tech workers need to live within a few blocks of their workplace in SF as long as public transportation systems work well enough.

albill's picture

Unless Google somehow has the ability to convince the government of San Francisco to allow the housing to be built that the government is blocking, supply and demand says that prices will go up. Blaming people who have high paying jobs (or the companies that employ them) for a dysfunctional government isn't really mindful or the Dharma.

What is the crime of the people working for Google here? Having a good job? Some of the comments above say they need to reflect on what they have done wrong. What exactly is that? Should they feel guilty for making good money or for paying what the market determines the rent or purchase price of a home should be?

There is too little housing. Period. Full stop. Very little is being built and people continue to move to the Bay Area because it has good jobs and is an attractive place. You can point at the people and say they're the problem or you can point at the companies that hire them and say that *they* are, but that isn't the source of the problem. This is simple economics and the people with the power to change things already run San Francisco.

Douglass St.Christian's picture

I'm not sure what guilt has to do with this discussion, though.

Responsibility, on the other hand, is important.

The "law" of compassion is built, at least as I understand it, on a vow to take responsibility for our actions, fully and effectively. Compassion is the heart of the heart of mindfulness, though clearly not the version promoted by Google -- and it was a presentation by Google-ites that was disrupted.

So suggesting that people with "high paying jobs or the companies that employ them" are corrupting the notion of mindfulness by not accepting responsibility for their actions, as compassion would seem to require, is mindful. As for it being "the Dharma", I am reminded of a line from a poem by WS Merwin:
. . . I have not
the ancients’ confidence
in the survival of
one track of syllables
nor in some ultimate
moment of insight . .

I will leave claims about what is or is not "the Dharma" to wikipedia, or even better perhaps, to the "law" of supply and demand, though reading Adam Smith before trotting out that bromide might be a responsible thing to do.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Of course Google can convince SF government to allow affordable housing to be built. It's simply following corporate money and those corporations' desires.

albill's picture

You really don't know much about how the San Francisco government works or its policies, do you? I suggest reading up. No, it isn't as simple as "Google gives them a bunch of money and they'll do it." The SF government is actively blocking people building housing.

Dominic Gomez's picture

It's complicated, for sure. But Google has ways to get around it:

Douglass St.Christian's picture

Google and mindfulness leaves, at least for me, a terrible taste in my mouth and an even more terrible foreboding. Two comments from a recent piece in The Guardian, about Google and its plans:

"Google has bought almost every machine-learning and robotics company it can find, or at least, rates. It made headlines two months ago, when it bought Boston Dynamics, the firm that produces spectacular, terrifyingly life-like military robots, for an "undisclosed" but undoubtedly massive sum."


"And the woman who headed the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the secretive US military agency that funded the development of BigDog? Regina Dugan. Guess where she works now?"

I mention this only because the fact Google is giving talks on "mindfulness" is ironic.

albill's picture

"Google" isn't giving talks on mindfulness though.

miller's picture

Thank you Amanda and team for reminding us that wisdom without compassion is a lame duck.
Google: You may be practicing mindfulness, but what about ethics and compassion? How do you treat your neighbors? How do you treat your fellow citizens? How do you treat everyone from all over? SHAME ON YOU? That, of course, is not anything special about you, Google, it's all of you corporate persons. All of you have got to shape up: Protect environmental justice everywhere! There is a story of when Padmasambhava first came to Tibet. Supposedly, demons controlled the country at that time. He tamed them and turned them into protectors. You guys are acting like demons around here, sucking the life out of people and the land. But, you too are subject to impermanence and will change. And we wish that you will become protectors of life and justice or vanish!
As for us, we may want to consider renunciation: Leave the palace of San Francisco. Renounce Google and it's fellow slick bullies.
Lastly, I've read "All wisdom is plagiarism, only foolishness is original". So much for Wisdom 2.0

aewhitehouse's picture

Technology, Inc. vs. Social Justice, Inc. grudge match.

awilson's picture

I sympathize with the cause, but I think that Ms. Ream & co. may be jousting windmills in attempting to influence the price of housing in San Francisco. Supply and demand will likely remain a powerful force in human financial affairs for the foreseeable future.

At times, the boddhisatva's vow sounds like a great calling. At other times, it sounds like the codependent person's need to focus on others in order to avoid looking at the self. One of the great conundrums of Buddhism, and likely the reason why social activism can be so problematic in the context of Buddhist practice.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The "bodhisattva's vow" is to work for the happiness of others by teaching them the Law of the universe. When this vow is deleted from the equation the 3 innate poisons of greed, belligerence and ignorance are unimpeded. Buddhism, mindfulness, etc. becomes a facade.

mattbard's picture

.... politics and buddhism.....very slippery slope. wise, enlightened counsel is required.... the morphing of monks in thailand and burma into potent movements that had starts in benign social concerns. power can and does corrupt. 2.0 dharma !? really kinda laughable. ... I lived in SF for years, the towns is always and constantly changing...remember the "gay boom " of the seventies?..lotta poor folk got priced out of neighborhoods...........so it goes with each wave of influence and money, and the so called "looking for opportunity" folks. I live in the country now days and you couldn't give me SF - it ain't all that.... crowded, expensive and not as interesting as it used to be. a tiny drop in the ocean...matt

bubbathepirate's picture

All is impermanent. Google bus' take over of city streets may be impermanent as well.

Dominic Gomez's picture

I grew up in the Mission when it was changing from Irish/German immigrants to Latino American ones. The kids of the former started getting better educated, making more money and moving down the Peninsula. Wouldn't it make more sense for Google to house their employees in a company "Googletown" in Mountain View? (Google up "Levittown"). The nouveau riche can then reverse their commute and drive north to SF (where the Creatives live and work) during their free evenings and weekends to get culture.

albill's picture

Except Mountain View explicitly won't allow more housing to be built either. What is your next suggestion? People are going to live somewhere and if they can pay more than the next guy, they'll outprice them. Supply and demand...