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The Art of Mindful Networking
The clinicalization of spirituality, which seems to reduce it to a matter of physical and mental health, is a common feature of these conferences. While there is some good data suggesting that mindfulness and meditation can have a beneficial impact on individual health, that shouldn’t be confused with wisdom. Too many of these conferences and speakers conflate wisdom with well-being, enlightenment with ease, and compassion with comfort. A quick review of history’s great spiritual figures—the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad being among the best known— shows that they often rejected their own ease and comfort in pursuit of higher wisdom, or sacrificed themselves for a higher purpose once they found it. The journey from sacrifice to enlightenment is codified in religious traditions that range from Native American Sun Dance rituals to Tibetan practices of solitary meditation in caves.
If the subject is wisdom, those reams of blood pressure reports and magnetic resonance studies aren’t as meaningful as their champions claim. “The hours of folly are measured by the clock,” wrote the poet William Blake, “but of wisdom, no clock can measure.”
As at so many gatherings in the digital delta, the discussion at Wisdom 2.0 often confused the medium with the message— or, as they say now, the “platform” with the “content.” Digital technology—computers, cell phones, the Internet—are indeed a breakthrough in human communication, much as printed books, radio, and television all once were. But if the purveyors of those technologies were equally convinced they were revolutionizing the human experience, they left no record of it. The printing press played a central role in the Protestant Reformation, but it is hard to imagine Gutenberg sponsoring a gathering to praise the new wisdom he was bringing into being through his invention. Television pioneer David Sarnoff never tried to book Gandhi into a meeting room to praise the revolutionary human potential of his medium. What is it about digital entrepreneurs that creates such excessive self-regard? A greater sense of history—of block printing in the spread of Buddhism, or books in the democratization of Christianity— would provide these conferences with greater context for discussing newer technologies.
The “awareness” at Wisdom 2.0 too often lacked the “wisdom” and “compassion” organizers promised. The many hagiographic references to Steve Jobs praised a digital pioneer who became, of course, extremely wealthy. Jobs’s turtleneck-wearing, quasi-Buddhist persona was a natural fit for this crowd. But few attendees showed any interest in the tragic world of workers at the Chinese factories who built Jobs’s Apple products. According to independent reports, their lives were made much worse because Jobs chose to ignore reports from aid groups and others about working conditions there.
It’s a shame. Conference organizer Soren Gordhamar has written a book, also called Wisdom 2.0, and he’s a good writer with many useful things to say. It’s unfortunate that the conference didn’t stick more closely to the themes he explored in the book, which asks good questions about the balance between online time and “real life,” the medium’s untapped potential for aiding personal growth, and the challenges of being human in a digital age. You could build a good conference around those questions. The digital generation has few maps to guide it through the new territory wrought by its technology, and support and kindness are always worth sending toward any group of people trying to find their way. But this approach won’t meet their needs any more than it will meet society’s.
Some speakers spoke to those needs eloquently. Jon Kabat- Zinn openly discussed social issues in a way that challenged the insular nature of the gathering. Representative Tim Ryan, a member of Congress from the struggling Ohio Rust Belt, offered a refreshing break from entrepreneurial self-congratulation to discuss the value of mindfulness in urban settings and among children from impoverished families. Congressman Ryan, who has written a book called Mindful Nation, was generous in his assessment of the conference when I spoke with him a few months afterward. It’s “progress,” he said of the conflict between entrepreneurial acquisitiveness and mindfulness.
But the surprise challenge to self-satisfied cocooning came from Eckhart Tolle. I haven’t read much Tolle, who had always struck me as a nebulous and New Agey figure, but he led a meditation exercise masterfully. Tolle told a story about the usefulness of silence—one that ended with a friend sending him a blank text message. That led to the joking idea of an app that sends blank text messages to iPhone users at intervals throughout the day. More importantly, Tolle’s remarks brought a broader awareness into the room. We need a new social order, he said in a soft voice, and a new banking system. These systems have been created by the old egoic consciousness, he added. What’s more, said Tolle, we could drown in an excess of information and suppress creativity through an excess of thinking. These words challenged both the self-satisfaction and the economic goals of many conference attendees, and in doing that, Tolle provided a glimpse of what gatherings like this can be— and what they must become, if they are to be meaningful.
Instead, Wisdom 2.0 featured too many words like those that appeared on a conference whiteboard: “Can the soul learn to tweet?”
Wisdom is not necessarily synonymous with comfort, or better health, or even happiness. If Wisdom 2.0 had addressed the sometimes painful conflict between technological growth and human needs, it would have been forced to challenge its attendees, its speakers—and yes, its corporate sponsors. It could be argued that this, and not feel-good sessions for acquisitive millionaires, is the work of wisdom. Philosophers like Mortimer Adler, along with later thinkers like the economist Kenneth Boulding, created a simple hierarchy, known as DIKW, that was applied to early thinking about computer technology. It stood for Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom, with data at the lowest rung on the ladder and wisdom at the highest. Each of these rungs is important. But data and information are not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom.
One week after the conference ended I found myself at a different gathering, this one a gathering of Sufi musicians in South Africa, where I had traveled to follow the work of an aid group working with HIV-positive Zulu villagers. A young Sufi singer from Mauritius made a striking observation. “All prophets in history,” she said, “came to upset the social order, not reinforce it.” That should be the goal of Wisdom 2.0 or any other gathering that claims to pursue true innovation—because insight is disruptive, wisdom upsets the old order, and mindfulness must inevitably lead us to confront those aspects of ourselves we’d rather bury in self-congratulation.
“Wisdom,” said William Blake, “is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy.” That market isn’t a great place to “network” with potential customers, or to find venture capital for your next start-up company. But if these conferences genuinely want to promote wisdom, they’ll need to go there eventually.
Richard Eskow is a writer, consultant, and musician, who is a senior fellow with a public policy group. A Tricycle contributing editor, he also contributes regularly to The Huffington Post.
Artwork by Sophia Chang.
This version of "Buying Wisdom" has been revised to correct inaccuracies or clarify points Soren Gordhamar, the founder of Wisdom 2.0, alerted the editors to:
This is the third annual Wisdom 2.0 conference, not the second.
Two quotes, one from Eric Schiermeyer, a founder at Zynga, and the other from a venture capitalist whose views are supportive of Schiermeyer's, were conflated in the print version.
Schiermeyer's words were:
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.
The venture capitalist's words were:
People today want to be millionaires, so we should market spirituality together with the ability to become a millionaire.
The print version reads:
… when a venture capitalist said that “people today want to be millionaires, so we should market spirituality together with the ability to become a millionaire.” “What’s the worst that could happen?” Schiermeyer continued. “You’d have a lot of mindful millionaires. That would be a good thing.”
A quote in the print version, attributed to one of the conference's organizers, reads:
“Every generation is different. Who cares how they’re different? Let’s meet them in that place where they’re different.”
The correct quote, spoken by Soren Gordhamar, is:
"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."
Zynga was incorrectly listed as a sponsor. It is not. Eric Schiermeyer, a founder of Zynga and conference participant, is a supporter, and the text has been adjusted to reflect that. Paypal was not a sponsor.
Tricycle and the author regret these errors.