The Wisdom 2.0 conference, a four-day gathering of the Silicon Valley crowd to address the intersections of spirituality, mindfulness, and technology, took place this past weekend. Author and conference attendee Jay Michaelson blogged his experiences at the summit here on the Tricycle blog throughout the weekend. Today’s post covers the last day of the conference, which was yesterday.

Let’s Get Real

Wisdom 2.0Yesterday at lunch, the friend I was eating with had to run to a meeting, so I stayed outside basking in the California sun. (Today I return to 20-degrees-and-rainy New York.)  Naturally, I eavesdropped on the conversations around me, including two people at the table sharing stories of their military service. Improbably, one of them looked a bit like a goth, with short black hair and makeup, and I wondered what had brought them to Wisdom 2.0.

Turns out the “goth” was Meg Pinasco, a former Marine whose presentation today was probably the best in the entire Wisdom 2.0 conference, and a healthy reminder of why it’s so important and so frustrating.

Pinasco, “born in the middle of nowhere, Oklahoma,” served for several years in the unit guarding President George W. Bush. As she shared today, she was sexually assaulted while serving, and subsequently suffered from PTSD as well as other trauma-related conditions. Making matters worse, her superiors chose not to pursue her case, and, like other veterans, Pinasco was afraid to go to the VA for fear of being labeled as damaged goods. She was eventually put on cocktails of meds, which she says didn’t work, and eventually hit bottom, ultimately attempting suicide and landing in the hospital.

Following her release from the hospital, Pinasco found her way into a program called “Honoring the Path of the Warrior,” which included mindfulness and meditation, as well as a five-day retreat at the Tassajara Zen Center. “I thought meditation was for crazy hippies—no offense” she said to the laughs of the crowd. “But this program saved my life.” Her depression lifted, her twice-nightly nightmares decreased in frequency and intensity, and by the time the program was over, she said, “I was ready to live my life again.”

Coming on the heels of two days’ worth of tech millionaires, celebrity idolatry, and high-powered networking, Pinasco’s story—and those of her fellow panelists—reminded me of why we bother with this meditation thing in the first place. Dukkha is not the self-inflicted stress of a technology executive; it’s the real stuff, the kind of suffering that merits the Pali word’s original meaning: brokenness, stuckness. I’m delighted, really, that mindfulness can also relieve the stresses of privileged, fortunate people. But Pinasco’s story, simple as it was—indeed, it is entirely un-unique—moved me to tears.

To top it off, the panel of veterans, moderated by Congressman Tim Ryan, was followed by an aw-shucks presentation by a young girl who had managed to raise over $400,000 to fight child slavery by selling lemonade and soliciting donations. The customers “give whatever’s in their heart, and we give the kids freedom,” she said. Wow.

Rachel Bagby, the “sound artist” who opened Wisdom 2.0 back on Thursday night, said in the following session, “Let’s get real.” And indeed, Marianne Williamson took up the challenge, peppering Congressman Ryan with policy points like a radical William F. Buckley. This, too, felt deeply refreshing. I’m sure some in attendance expected Williamson to tell us we could meditate our way to world peace, but in fact her message was the exact opposite: that we have to translate our dharma insights into voting, organizing, repealing Citizens United

“The Buddha would not have become enlightened had he not seen human suffering,” Williamson said. “In the Old Testament, slavery precedes the Exodus to the Promised Land. In the New Testament, there’s the suffering on the cross.”  Real suffering—the kind Pinasco experienced—that’s what animates those of us who not only meditate but teach, or write, or evangelize on the dharma’s behalf. And that’s probably why so many of us are ambivalent about gatherings like Wisdom 2.0.

And yet, I don’t want to end this final dispatch from the Concourse Center in San Francisco on the all-too-easy note of mocking a straw man. For some people, sure, mindfulness simply greases the wheels, and makes an already fortunate life that much more pleasant. But I don’t think that is true of most of the folks at Wisdom 2.0, or its organizers. At worst, corporate mindfulness is a gateway drug that will bring some minority of practitioners into a more meaningful engagement with the reality of life. But I think it’s better than that. I think that for a significant percentage—maybe significant enough to make a real difference—it will lead to the conclusion that Rilke drew from gazing at a statue of Apollo. Not that you must visualize your happy place. But that “you must change your life.”