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The Art of Mindful Networking
Outside a conference on mindfulness for the Silicon Valley crowd stood a corkboard and a pad of yellow Post-it Notes. There, in keeping with the conference’s “Wisdom 2.0” name and theme, attendees were invited to write down their thoughts on creating a “global wisdom culture.” There were 50 or 60 suggestions on the board, mostly for things like online platforms to encourage “lateral communication.” But something was missing, I thought. I grabbed a pen, tore off a Post-it, and added a word that was conspicuously absent from the board: Wisdom.
I know: It might seem like a cheap shot. It’s just that, well, even the very name of the conference seemed off somehow. In the tech world, “2.0” is used to note a newer, better version of the original product. Upgrading the world’s wisdom teachings is a pretty heady ambition. Maybe an inflated sense of self-importance is simply to be expected when an executive from one of the organization’s corporate sponsors, himself a speaker at the event, says things like “Wisdom 2.0 is, quite possibly, the most important gathering of our times.”
Really? The most important gathering of our times? Not the Yalta Conference, or Nixon in China, or the UN Special Session on Nuclear Disarmament? Can’t we at least give the Kyoto talks on the environment an honorable mention?
There’s a revolutionary, fast-paced, and transformative wave sweeping through the elite cultures of the 21st century—but it’s not what its boosters think it is. It’s a wave not of technology but of narcissism, and it’s cresting at the intersection of wealth, corporate power, and guilt, as the rich and wannabe rich nourish their acquisitive drives with expressions of self-love. The third annual Wisdom 2.0 conference was suffused with the same self-satisfied glow that’s found at corporate feel-good events like the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting, events where powerful and wealthy elites come to network, schmooze, and congratulate themselves on their own generosity and understanding. Every other presentation at the Clinton gathering seemed to feature images of impoverished African children dancing in water from their village’s new well, while almost entirely missing was any discussion of the role some of the corporations represented there played in creating that poverty.
The Wisdom 2.0 conference provided the same kind of balm for the corporate conscience, but in a different way. While there were some excellent speakers, too many presentations merely offered purveyors of frequently mindless online pastimes the chance to convince themselves that they’re really promoting mindfulness.
If “mindfulness” is to create genuine change in our society, it must involve being mindful of more than just our own need for comfort, good health, or serenity. It must entail being mindful of the social and economic forces that allow some to prosper while others struggle, forces that promote and perpetuate certain behaviors and thought patterns while discouraging or suppressing others. Without that awareness, “mindfulness” will quickly descend into another luxury item that permits the few to ignore the impact of their behavior on others. If they are to attain the significance to which they aspire, conferences like Wisdom 2.0 must open themselves up to a broader kind of awareness than they can achieve by promoting a feel-good, tunnel-vision version of “mindfulness.”
The gathering, which was held February in a hotel and conference center in Silicon Valley, was presented as an exploration of the intersection of modern technology and ancient spiritual traditions. Its theme, according to the website, was “living with awareness, wisdom, and compassion.” It featured well-known Western Buddhist teachers like Jack Kornfield, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Roshi Joan Halifax. The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle was also one of the featured speakers, and some newer figures on the scene, like psychologist and mindfulness teacher Kelly McGonigal (her website tells us it is “where science and compassion meet”) and her sister, my former colleague Jane McGonigal, whose work on computer gaming and social change has made her a rising media star who has been profiled at length on shows like Fareed Zakaria’s CNN program. (Our chat was interrupted in mid-sentence by a couple of investment consultants eager to “network” with her; it was that kind of event.)
Wisdom 2.0’s sponsors and supporters have included such tech giants as Google, Yahoo! and Facebook—and it shows. Their support helped organizers gather this constellation of Western mindfulness luminaries, often pairing them with executives from sponsoring corporations in sessions that felt like awkward blind-date dinner conversations. The “Zynga Meets Zen” session, for example, featured Roshi Joan Halifax and Eric Schiermeyer, a founder of the online game company Zynga, and himself a Wisdom 2.0 supporter. The roshi seemed to bristle slightly as conference organizer Soren Gordhamar introduced Zen and gaming on seemingly equal terms—but it could be argued that she didn’t bristle enough. “There is a kind of brilliance in Zen,” said Gordhamar, “and a different kind of brilliance in games....”
Gordhamar’s remark seemed to equate Zen Buddhism’s accomplishments with those of a company whose most notable achievement is the Facebook game FarmVille, but Schiermeyer was not one to see any incongruity in the comparison. Rather, he went on to effusively praise his own venture’s capacity for “clarity and insight.” Schiermeyer, like many other speakers, pushed the idea that mindfulness can and should be marketed the same way companies like Zynga market FarmVille, or with the same techniques they use to motivate their owners and employees—through acquisitiveness and need, or what Schiermeyer called “the technology of incentive.” There is a world in which the works of Dogen and Eisai as human achievements are indistinguishable from a game that encourages users to buy and trade pastel-colored animals on social media sites. To attend conferences like Wisdom 2.0 is to enter that world.
Like last year’s Buddhist Geeks conference, the meeting also included a lot of talk about “branding.” Schiermeyer’s bent for motivational selling proved to be popular, never more incongruously so than when he said that “if somebody wants to become a millionaire, which a lot of people do, and ... you can convince them that the best way to become a millionaire is to adopt these practices in a directed, conscious way, then you'll end up having a bunch of really conscious millionaires."
A venture capitalist in the audience agreed, telling me afterwards that “people today want to be millionaires, so we should market spirituality together with the ability to become a millionaire." He defended Schiermeyer's position. “What’s the worst that could happen? “You’d have a lot of mindful millionaires. That would be a good thing.” Unfortunately, comments like these may have been inevitable, since conference organizer Gordhamar was occasionally given to saying things like "there's a place for the authenticity of a lineage and a practice ... and there's this other voice which says No, but every generation is different, let's just go wherever they're putting their attention, who cares where the hell they're putting their attention, let's meet them there and let's be very creative in how we can incorporate it ... both potentially have a place."
Is that so? What about the matter of motivation? What matters isn’t just whether you’re mindful but also what you are mindful of. If your awareness is centered on money and comfort, does that help anyone else? Does it help you?
The Wisdom 2.0 conference and its organizers were also promoting a technology-centered vision of mindfulness like that reflected in the Buddhist Geeks podcast and conference, websites like Indranet, and a growing cottage industry of techno-spirituality books, blogs, and software products. At their best, these sites and gatherings can represent a kind of democratic leveling of differences among participants. We saw this, for example, at the Buddhist Geeks conference, where, much as they do on the Internet itself, attendees mixed without regard to name recognition, status, sect, or practice. But at their worst, Buddhist technophiles confuse science with spirituality and information with insight, and in the process, they overlook their own best opportunities to make a real contribution to society.