The Wisdom 2.0 conference, a four-day gathering of the Silicon Valley crowd to address the intersections of spirituality, mindfulness, and technology, began yesterday. Author and conference attendee Jay Michaelson will be blogging his experiences at the summit here on the Tricycle blog throughout the weekend. 

Like many future Buddhists, I played ultimate Frisbee in college. Back then, there was a movement to make Ultimate an Olympic sport—a movement that ultimately failed because the hippies who made up the Ultimate Players’ Association didn’t want their countercultural niche invaded by the mainstream.

A lot of dharma practitioners, I think, feel the same way. We’re clearly at an inflection point in the Western dharma right now: the last twenty years of secular, mainstreamed mindfulness will likely be nothing compared to the next twenty, not with healthcare, technology, and even the military coming around to the hard data on mindfulness’ effectiveness. And that gives rise to ambivalence. On the one hand, meditation might just save the world, and mainstreaming it is how that will happen. On the other hand, what will be the price of this wider embrace?  Just how crass, cheesy, or watered-down will things have to get?

For these reasons, Wisdom 2.0 is the conference many Buddhists—including one reviewer from this magazine last year—love to hate. As I type these words on my Netbook, desperately trying not to be a buzzkill, I’m sitting with contradictions: serenaded by an uber-California “social artist” telling us to open our hearts while awaiting a program of millionaires and celebrities, half-envying and half-loathing the sense that some of the people here are filthy rich. Or maybe my cynicism is just cultural. As my friend Bara Sapir whispered in my ear during the opening serenade, “you can take the girl out of New York, but you can’t take the New York out of the girl.”

At the opening session, Wisdom 2.0’s founder and visionary Soren Gordhamer asked people from overseas to identify themselves. Of the 1700 participants present (up from 700 last year), a decent percentage stood up. What drew these people, I wondered, to fly across oceans and pay $800 for a conference whose content, as Gordhamer pointed out, is all streaming online for free? 

Personally, besides blogging about the conference for Tricycle, I came because Wisdom 2.0 is part of the massive, fascinating, and still-TBD dharma explosion that I write about in my book, Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment, which will be out in October. Others, no doubt, are here for networking: my aforementioned friend Bara runs a holistic test-prep agency that uses meditation to soothe the nerves of her students. Most of the people we met were likewise dharma professionals. 

Or maybe Jon Kabat-Zinn got it right during the opening panel: “I’m here for one purpose only—but I don’t know what it is.”

Congressman Tim Ryan, also on the opening panel, raised the bar a bit higher: “If we can bring mindfulness, compassion, empathy and attention together, we can change our country and our world for the better. Nobody is comfortable with what’s happening right now. And at a conference like this you don’t just get ideas—you get an opportunity for those ideas to meet talent and wealth and make a big difference.”

After the panel, I asked Congressman Ryan to elaborate, and he answered me quite frankly: “I hope that the people who have the means recognize that mindfulness and some of these other alternative therapies are having a significant impact in transforming schools, prisons, the healthcare system, veterans who need our help, a military that needs this, and so on.  What we need to do is ramp it up through foundations and corporations who can push it out into the world. And to have that being expressed in a room where you have some of the highest concentration of wealth in our country is a heck of an opportunity.”

So maybe that’s the real value of a gathering like this: convincing the digital entrepreneurs not to dig mindfulness, but to dig into their pockets to support it.  Maybe the very-San-Francisco glitz and rhetoric is just the necessary wrapper for delivering a challenge, rather than a bromide, to the billionaires by the Bay: if you’ve seen the benefits of mindfulness in your meditation room, take up the charge to bring it into prisons, put it online, and spread it to the kinds of people who would have been even more cynical about the opening program than I was.

That’s a message I can get behind.  On the all-star opening panel, spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson threw down the gauntlet.  “The digital world can do so much good,” she said.  “I just hope people in the technology world can feel on a mission here to ask the deep moral questions.  Because if you don’t ask these questions, they get decided for you…I hope we won’t be self-congratulatory this weekend.”

I guess we’ll find out.