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Search Outside Yourself: Google Misses a Lesson in Wisdom 101

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The Wisdom 2.0 conference, held earlier in February in San Francisco, claims to bring "wisdom, purpose and meaning" to social media and technology corporations and startups. Integrating wisdom is "not a nice extra," say the conference's organizers, "but an absolute necessity to a vibrant and sustainable society." They define wisdom as "learning to focus, to truly connect, to empathize." It's a definition of wisdom that anyone can, quite literally, buy into.

On Saturday morning, at the start of a panel on Google's corporate mindfulness program, a local group called Heart of the City took the stage with a megaphone and a banner that read "Eviction Free San Francisco." The protesters' message? A lesson in "Wisdom 101" for Google: Pay for your impact on housing and public infrastructure, fund affordable housing, public transit and eviction defense and stop your for-profit surveillance, among other demands. Heart of the City and residents of San Francisco neighborhoods who have seen soaring rents and mass evictions with the influx of Silicon Valley high-earners are continually aggrieved by the company, whose corporate chartered buses have made rents along its routs skyrocket.

Amanda Ream, who was one of the social activists involved in the protest, and is also Buddhist practitioner at the East Bay Meditation center, summed up the basic moral bankruptcy of the corporate mindfulness fad:

Most of the workshops [at Wisdom 2.0] 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.

What kind of response to the protesters was made by the wise, connecting, empathic, mindful conference organizers and Google sages on stage? They instructed everyone to search inside yourself (the name of Google's mindfulness program) and forced the protesters off the stage. A beefy guard engaged stage right, in an embarrassing tug-of-war with the activist banner-holder, who won the match. As "Heart of the City" said the next day, "Google and conference leaders proceeded to talk about 'wisdom and mindfulness' but failed to address the grievances of Bay Area communities or the company's own hypocrisy in purporting to be 'mindful.'"

The interruption now a mere passing thought, conference participants were then directed to perform a simple meditation "to embrace the moment, without judging it good or bad." This is how to practice mindful condescension: Rising above any conflict or discomfort in the actual, socially-constructed world that disrupts my world. Besides, the moment is already gone -- it's a new moment now, and aren't we supposed to be staying present in each of those? In the next guided moment, everyone was asked to consider his or her relationship to the conflict.

Wisdom 2.0 later congratulated Google for its "leadership" in handling the protest, allowing for others' viewpoints and being comfortable with the fact that other people see things differently -- as long as we don't have to consider that their viewpoint might impact our inner peace and that our own wise viewpoint might in fact be wrong. According to this damage control communiqué on Tumblr, the Google panel went on to demonstrate how to develop one's own practice. It shared how a Google senior executive, after a few months of doing a two-minute silent meditation before meetings, said, "I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm a better person for those two minutes. So I'm all for it." A "better" person in just two minutes, indeed. Think of the possibilities! Of course, Google already has. For them, "a better person" is someone who buys into the corporate culture -- and feels good about it.

Many in the mindfulness -- and Buddhist -- community have been seduced by what Google and the Wisdom 2.0 crowd is doing. After all, it's mindfulness, and maybe it will make corporations kinder, gentler capitalist entities. But mindfulness has escaped its moral moorings. Without a principled anchor, mindfulness is a renegade technology on the loose, and the conspicuous absence of an explicit ethical framework in corporate mindfulness programs reflects and mirrors the already fraught relationship these businesses have with regards to social and environmental responsibility.

In the case of the events at the Wisdom 2.0 Conference, mindfulness meditation is dispatched to efface the dissatisfied, the protesters and the content and meaning of their message. There is absolutely no recognition of the other and their world. If we just breathe and remain calm and centered in the present moment, they will go away and we can return to business as usual.

The practice of mindfulness, and certainly if it is infused with wisdom, is not merely a passive and nonjudgmental acceptance of the status quo. The Google emissaries demonstrated for us that their form of corporate mindfulness is at best a privatized spirituality, narrowly conceived as a practice for searching only inside your self, encouraging a "spiritually correct" form of passivity, quietism and dissociation from societal malaise. Bill Duane, who is the senior manager of Google's Wellbeing and Sustainable High Performance Development Programs and was the leader of the impromptu meditation following Saturday's demonstration, has bought the old '60s adage of just be here now hook, line and sinker. This old wine in new bottles, what Dharmavidya David Brazier has termed "here-and-now-ism" rhetoric, accounts for much of Wisdom 2.0's head-in-the-sand spirituality. Clearly, Wisdom 2.0 participants didn't think they'd encounter critical questions into the complex nexus of institutional realities contributing to social dukkha. It also seems that Marianne Williamson's scathing critique of the tech industry's self-congratulatory backslapping at last year's conference fell on deaf ears. She reminded the crowd of Martin Luther King's statement "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." For now, it appears that Wisdom 2.0 would rather remain silent, as they are admittedly uncomfortable in having a dialogue that challenges or calls into question how the very corporations parading mindfulness may be implicated in the causes of suffering and stress.

This demonstration illustrates what Kevin Healy refers to as an "integrity bubble." It is based on an ironic paradox: Corporate mindfulness training offers employees some relief and personal benefits in the form of stress reduction and improved concentration while mindlessly ignoring the externalization of structural inequalities. The corporate mindfulness elite took advantage of a "moment for practice" in the midst of what could have been an authentic and perhaps even wise encounter with its shadow side. Google has shown the world how corporations can create glimpses of integrity -- providing a well-protected bubble of peace, calm and self-satisfaction -- while undermining the achievement of integrity, social justice and equity in society at large.

This is yet another example of the McMindfulness meme that has made its way into the belly of the corporate beast. Other critiques have surfaced, such as Richard Payne's "Corporatist Spirituality," Glenn Wallis's "Mineful Response and the Rise of Corporatist Spirituality," Sean Fiet's"Mindfulness the Google Way: Well intentioned saffron washing?" and Justin Whitaker's "Mindful of Your Immorality?."

In "This Is Water," his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace urged his listeners to become mindful of the implicit cultural context of meanings and values, the "water" in which we swim unaware for much of our life. We can then make better moral choices, Wallace said, based on universal compassion and caring relationships. Mindfulness as part of a wisdom tradition such as Buddhism can encourage a deep examination of our relationships and moral values -- the water that surrounds us. Without that we lack the necessary insight and awareness to make wise, moral choices. The Wisdom 2.0 crowd appears to show no interest in examining the water in which it swims. What they insist on calling "wisdom" does not extend beyond corporate cultural values. The admirable actions of Heart of the City members and their revealing video bear witness to the fact that for the Wisdom 2.0 crowd, mindfulness is merely an industrial tool.