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.)

Too many of these conferences and speakers conflate wisdom with well-being, enlightenment with ease, and compassion with comfort.

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.

Artwork by Sophia Chang.
Artwork by Sophia Chang.

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.

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