The selective awareness of Wisdom 2.0

Take an ancient practice, remove it from its context, strip away its ethical imperatives and sell it for a profit. Is the goal of the corporate mindfulness movement to comfort the already comfortable? 

Darrin Drda
16 April 2014

Credit: All rights reserved.

Every February or thereabouts, representatives from tech companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and PayPal gather in San Francisco for Wisdom 2.0, a conference that aims to unite mindfulness with technology. Over the course of several days, high-profile digerati interact with spiritual luminaries like Eckhart Tolle, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Joan Halifax, to explore topics such as ‘mindful management,’ ‘conscious leadership,’ and ‘wisdom in the workplace’ through speeches, dialogues, and group sessions.

Founded in 2009 by Soren Gordhamer, the conference is a heady stew of the digital and the spiritual that leaves some attendees satisfied, and others feeling severely malnourished, keenly aware that important ingredients are missing. As Amanda Ream, a community activist and longtime meditator writes on Tricycle, a popular Buddhist website:

“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.”

In terms of audience demographics, the people who Wisdom 2.0 could benefit most directly - namely stressed-out, hyper-connected ‘techies’ - are vastly outnumbered by smiling, smartly-dressed meditation teachers and life coaches hoping to snag some  high-paying clients. Yet this imbalance merely accentuates a much more conspicuous absence: people of modest means who can’t afford the ticket prices that approach $1000 apiece.

Addressing the affluent audience of Wisdom 2.0 in 2013, best-selling author, speaker, and aspiring politician Marianne Williamson spoke truth to privilege with the following words:

“Let me tell you something ladies and gentlemen: no spiritual leader person is going to come here and be a dancing monkey to help a bunch of rich capitalists talk about the fact that they can have a more compassionate workplace and meditation rooms while not dealing with the moral calling and the moral invitation of our species to deal with the fact that we have so much and so many have so little…Only in modern America could we come up with some ersatz version of spirituality that gives us a pass on addressing the unnecessary human suffering in our midst."

Later in her fiery sermon, Williamson invoked the phrase “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” which Cosmo Lang, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, upheld as the goal of religion. If this is true, one wonders whether the goal of Wisdom 2.0 is simply to comfort the comfortable, a question that could be posed about the corporate ‘mindfulness’ movement as a whole.

Perhaps the suffering Williamson was referring to concerned the thousands of people (mostly of color) who were being forced to flee San Francisco, where rents and no-fault evictions have skyrocketed in recent years due to an influx of wealthy employees from technology companies. Or perhaps she was reminding these same designers, programmers, and users of digital devices about the people overseas who mine the precious metals required for electronic gadgets, or who assemble them. Whatever the context, the elephant in the room - economic disparity - was dragged from the shadows into the spotlight. Perhaps not coincidentally, Williamson did not appear on the roster of speakers for Wisdom 2.0 in 2014.

Nor did this year’s conference contain any talks or workshops on gentrification, despite this issue being front and center in San Francisco at the time. In the months prior to Wisdom 2.0, a series of demonstrations had been directed at the buses that transport Google employees from their homes in San Francisco to their jobs in Silicon Valley. In an apparent response to this glaring omission from the program, several anti-gentrification activists stormed the stage during a panel entitled “3 Steps to Build Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way.” They unfurled a banner reading “EVICTION-FREE SAN FRANCISCO” and shouted “Wisdom means stop displacement! Wisdom means stop surveillance!”

As the protestors were being ushered offstage, panelist Bill Duane (the Senior Manager of Google’s “Well Being and Sustainable High Performance Development Program”) asked the audience to “check in with their bodies,” saying, “Let’s be with what it’s like to experience conflict…with people with heartfelt ideas who may be different than what we’re thinking.” Although conference organizers praised the presenters for handling the situation with grace and compassion, one of the protestors described the reaction as a “case study in spiritual bypassing.”

In a follow-up article, Katie Loncke, a supporter of the protest, wrote that “This is not true mindfulness. It’s selective awareness, optimized for pleasure. In other words, ignorance.”

Such selective awareness has also been described as “McMindfulness” - a kind of ‘fast food for the soul’ that provides a quick hit of relaxation, while offering little in the way of lasting spiritual nutrition, challenge or self-growth. Take an ancient practice, remove it from its context, strip away its ethical imperatives, and sell it for a profit. This seems to be the brand of mindfulness that is spreading throughout the corporate world, where the focus is almost necessarily on boosting productivity, maximizing efficiency, and ultimately raising the bottom line - not on raising consciousness or alleviating the suffering of all creatures great and small, both human and nonhuman.

In fact, one could argue that corporate profits come at the direct expense of many of these creatures, from disappearing animal species to displaced communities to underpaid workers. In this sense, corporate mindfulness serves mainly to reduce the stress and assuage the guilt of powerful and wealthy people - to ‘comfort the comfortable.’  

Of course, a counterargument could be made that even a diluted meditation practice holds some transformative power, at least for those who are dedicated to venturing beyond relaxation. Delving into discomfort, and confronting questions about our own identity are fundamental aspects of authentic spirituality. Yet any such benefits to a select few elites must be weighed against the terrifying speed at which human communities and natural ecosystems are being ravaged by global capitalism, with its need for endless exponential growth.

Echoing the concerns of climate scientists, a recent NASA-funded study warns that “global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.” Although the technology industry rests heavily on information and other intangibles, considerable resources are required to manufacture and ship computers and smartphones, and to maintain the millions of servers to which they are connected, not to mention the mountains of electronic waste that are generated through planned obsolescence.

How the global ecological crisis will be addressed in Gordhamer’s most recent venture, Wisdom 2.0 Business, remains to be seen, but it seems unlikely that many guest speakers will advocate a de-growth economy or speak out against capitalism itself.

What’s missing from Wisdom 2.0, and much of the broader mindfulness movement of which it forms a part, is an ecological and sociopolitical awareness that can confront the converging crises of our day.

The stakes are high, as are the moral standards to which influential people should be held, especially those who gather under the banner of “wisdom.” In the face of the largest challenges ever faced by humanity, we need an ethical operating system that’s decidedly more robust than Google’s famous slogan, “Don’t Be Evil.” This is little more than a cartoon commandment rendered Orwellian by a giant corporation with close ties to the global military-industrial-surveillance complex.

Is a more positive injunction like “Be Mindful” any better? Not when mindfulness excludes a comprehensive sense of compassion and social justice, without which wisdom is all but meaningless.

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