This past weekend in San Francisco some of the world’s greatest thinkers, visionaries and technologists gathered at the Wisdom 2.0 summit. CE writer Tom Bunzel was able to attend the entire weekend in person and shares some of the incredible moments and experiences that luminaries such as Eckhart Tolle, Karen May and Jon Kabat-Zinn helped to create.
I was blown away when I arrived at the conference center at the Marriott Marquis; over 2000 attendees had come to this sold out Wisdom 2.0 Summit to see luminaries like Eckhart Tolle, Arianna Huffington and John Kabat Zinn along with their counterparts in many high tech companies.
At first I was struck by the parallels between this event and the many trade shows and conferences I had attended as a tech writer –everyone seemed to have an “agenda” whether they were handling a booth, speaking, or in the audience. There were so many coaches, advisers, gurus, guides and so on building a practice that it seemed as though Mindfulness was just the latest product or service that might support our economy –like sustainable energy, technology, mass transport or fossil fuels…
But it didn’t take long to realize that there were many different levels at work here, and that while there is certainly an economic dimension to such a conference (imagine the costs involved alone), and there was the undercurrent of positivity and “feeling and doing good,” even deeper was an awareness that something very special was going on a much larger scale.
At every turn the deeper question was asked: What is it that Life/Awareness wants me to do?
Soren Gordhamer, founder and host of the Wisdom 2.0 Conference, and the author of Wisdom 2.0, (one of the first books to explore living with mindfulness and wisdom within the context of our modern technology age) set the tone during his brief welcoming address. He recounted the early days of his conference when there were just several hundred people who could barely explain their “reasons” for attendance at the conference, and at a much smaller venue. Later in the conference, when he introduced Eckhart Tolle, Soren also revealed much about his personal journey, that involved dropping many of the roles (husband, tech executive, etc.) that he had come to see as his identity. These are the sorts of questions that are only beginning to surface in corporate America –where “change management” and “listening skills” are still mainly seen as “strategies.”
Therefore, as Arianna Huffington said in her presentation (“Thrive: The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power” –upcoming book by same title), “we have reached critical mass.” A discussion of consciousness or wisdom is not just for quiet corners of cocktail parties away from the “realists,” but it is now also prevalent in the board rooms of major corporations. Aside from her new book, Arianna is also offering her own series of conferences, and a mindfulness app – GPS for the Soul – she says,
“what we need is a great course-correcting mechanism — a GPS for the Soul — because otherwise the consequences can be serious, in terms of our health, our relationships, our jobs, and even our country.”
To be sure to a certain extent it is still seen as another means of encouraging engagement and fostering productivity but especially among the younger exponents, many of whom scurried around this conference, a deep and abiding acceptance of circumstances as they are, rather than how they “should” be was eminently manifest. This was nowhere more evident than when a few conference volunteers turned out to be disguised protesters and took over the stage shouting “San Francisco, not for sale,” disrupting the Google presentation.
When the stage was cleared by another Wisdom 2.0 volunteer and a hotel union A/V guy, Bill Duane, senior of the three Google executives who were interrupted, put his teaching into practice and manifest great calm and indeed wisdom, suggesting everyone absorb the situation as it was, and feel whatever reactions it may have triggered within. He asked for a period of silence and reflection. Then he acknowledged the sincerity of the protesters in their own right and expressed compassion for the fervency of their beliefs and dedication. He referred to the presentation on the previous day made by the President of Rwanda, concerning the hardships of his country and the injustices and genocide that are part of human existence. And he asked for everyone to consider their own relationship to conflict and how they “show up” in periods of stress.
This was done in an atmosphere of grace and calm that eloquently modeled (in its silence) the notions of compassion, openness and sincerity that his group is bringing to Google.Duane garnered rousing applause from the audience of over 2000, each of whom had his or her own inner reaction to the unusual situation both validated and acknowledged without judgment, pontification or a sense of duality of “us” and “them.”
These values were first eloquently presented in the very first tech talk, “My Wisdom 2.0 Experience: Putting This Into Practice,” from Arturo Bejar, Director of Engineering, Facebook. He echoed many of the corporate presenters who said that when first confronted by these “revolutionary” concepts he thought they were bunk, but now he is a firm proponent of integrating three main components into all aspects of his organization and indeed his software:
- Being heard
A similar tone was struck in a powerful presentation entitled “The Rise of Meditation in Tech Community: One Man’s Journey from Seeing it as Bullshit to a Daily Practice,” by Le Web Cofounder, Loic Le Meur. He made the important point that it is not surprising that this movement has emerged so strongly in the field of technology where the “same people who created tech seem to now require ‘space’ and indeed the more we get connected the more we need meditation.” Le Meur admitted that for some in the high tech field there is still a stigma and a sense of shame for being “New Age” but that the obvious benefits of a mindfulness practices, as he himself has experienced them, are self evident. He also eloquently described how with practice he can “see myself getting angry” and retreat to “a space in my mind which I can access any time.”
Another amazing presenter was a personal favorite — Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness Teacher, author of numerous books, including two best-sellers: Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness, and Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. I was first exposed to Zinn as a subject in Bill Moyers’ book, Healing and the Mind and have found several of his online videos, including a session at Google, extremely helpful in my own meditation practice. He suggested that at this time it is dharma teachers who are truly changing the world—a world that is very confused and Zinn asked, “so who knows that you’re confused?” In Zinn’s practice, a point of attention is on witnessing your breath, and he echoed Eckhart Tolle when he said that if you were responsible for breathing you’d be dead. This suggests that a mindfulness practice connects intimately with a higher intelligence that “instructs” your entire body; Zinn suggested that the miracle of the various systems at work in the human liver is far more impressive than anything achieved by human science.
The essence of Zinn’s teaching may be that there is “space” for all aspects of our being within consciousness – “awareness can hold everything” – and when we make room for every part of our experience we recognize that we are already whole, and that at bottom there is nothing to attain. When he made the comment, “Meditation it’s not what you think” he suggested that mindfulness gently gets us beyond our “monkey” mind of compulsive thinking, and in touch with heat sutra. Within that space we connect with the truth of true nature –ultimate beauty of being –and the only “motivation” of meditation is presence –not to miss your life.
Zinn said that the origin of the word “suffer” is the same as to “carry,” suggesting that it is possible to simply put down or drop the many imperatives of the mind and find peace. Again echoing Eckhart Tolle, Zinn concluded, that besides sitting quietly in a posture, that the real meditation practice is how we live our lives in full connection with the present moment.
Toward the end of the first day I went to the opening reception and was a bit amazed to find a very loud band of drummers from Africa performing to the delight of the crowd; to me that seemed incongruous with mindfulness.
But when I mentioned that to a leadership coach from Silicon Valley (Rebecca Arora) she wisely suggested that the effect of the drums might be to get me out of my head and into my gut. Touche.
Saturday morning featured the Google panel with the three main proponents of mindfulness within the organization.
After the disturbance on Saturday morning, the leader, Bill Duane turned over the panel to Karen May, Vice President, Learning, Google, who was still reacting to what had occurred, but echoed Duane’s comments, and expressed pride that Bill was able to maintain the sort of clarity of purpose and inner acceptance of circumstances (even when challenging) that they espoused in their work at Google. The audience gave Bill a sincere round of applause – he had actually done what Jon Kabat-Zinn had suggested: bringing the presence practice into daily life. Karen also expressed her appreciation.
Aside about Karen: With over 20 years of professional experience as an organizational psychologist and leadership coach, Karen May joined Google in 2010 to head up the company’s learning, talent and career development programs. Karen oversees a global team that supports more than 28,000 Googlers in more than 60 offices in over 30 countries. The team implements a broad range of developmental offerings, including executive coaching, new hire on boarding, leadership development, and peer-to-peer instruction for Googlers of all levels, regions and tenure.
Karen said that there were several core values to the work their team was doing, but perhaps the key belief permeated Duane’s reaction (or non reaction) to the events of the morning: “honoring diversity and meeting people where they are.” Then she went on to expand the conversation beyond mindfulness to wisdom, compassion and community, the other core values of her teams vision. Equally important to the concepts mentioned was putting these ideas into concrete practice, through experiments among the team and then throughout the enterprise. They start every meeting with a meditation led by Bill, with attention to breath and a guided movement toward compassion and understanding.
Karen suggested that at the outset the team’s work was basically an experiment among themselves. What they found initially surprised them; the most skeptical member of their team turned out to be one of the strongest proponents of their practices – he said that he had observed that “he was a better person” after several weeks of engaging in the practices. He was fervent in wanting to take these practices directly out into all of Google but the team was more restrained and worked with other elements including gratitude exercises, Tai Chi sessions, and eventually they produced 15 master-led meditation videos; all of these offerings were completely optional for Google employees but have been increasingly popular and widely adopted. Karen emphasized that the key component of the corporate culture fostered by these techniques is a “posture of respect” for divergent viewpoints and backgrounds, which again resonated with the response by Bill Duane to the protests that began the session.
The third member of the Google team at the Wisdom 2.0 Summit was Meng Tan, whose title is “Jolly Good Fellow, Google.” After a successful 8-year stint in Engineering and 2 years as Google EDU’s Head of Personal Growth, he now serves with Google’s Talent Team. His current mission is to “Enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace.”
Meng’s focus is on developing skillful “champions” of mindfulness within the organization who can both model and teach the various techniques. Beyond such masters, he emphasizes that each member of the Google community develop his or her own practice of serenity and wisdom (bottom up). As an engineer he also contends that explaining the science behind these practices will more easily enable proponents to extend the benefits of mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or whatever practice they choose (if any—all is voluntary) to others and it will proliferate organically throughout the organization.
Meng’s dream is a time when everyone at Google (and beyond) is “wise and compassionate and can deepen their practice in harmony with the company, their families and the world at large”
Bill Duane concluded Google’s presentation with these suggestions for fostering these techniques in any organization:
- Build mindfulness support among true believers
- Consistently espouse best values
- Note the cognitive improvement that unfolds
- Create supportive networks to continue these practices
- Manifest ethical leadership at all levels
Another fascinating session was “The Mindful Workspace: Proximity, Compassion, and Generosity” presented by Jonathan Rosenfeld, Ph.D. who, has been advising businesses, non-profit organizations and government agencies for over 20 years and brings a psychological and systemic perspective to change management. (Change management is a buzzword that is used by many consultants in their work with organizations and it is refreshing to see the principles of greater wisdom applied to the field)
Generally the concept has been to align goals with that of management –which would essentially be greater profit. Many of the coaches and consultants that presented at the conference, echoing Rosenberg’s principles, are bringing the deeper needs of all employees into focus so that change is seen as an empowering movement and not so fervently resisted. Rosenberg mentioned two things which I particularly liked –he reminded the audience of the Greek notion of philocracy,
Philocracy – the power/rule of love; love as a governing principle.
Philocracy is a system of conscious organization. It is the assumption that what you love and understand you will also manage well. Philocracy assigns responsibility only within each person’s sphere of wisdom -the area in which they can demonstrate conscious love”
In addition, Rosenberg put this in terms our tech-imbued world can understand, calling this a “new operating system.” We might think of it as “uninstalling” a bottom line mentality and replacing it with a new human-centric program to allow for organic change management.
Mid Saturday was the first official lunch break and it provided the opportunity to meet some of the 2000 fellow attendees. When one considers the scope of the conference, much of it was actually watched on giant screens unless one could get close enough to the stage. But a major attraction was the “scene” itself, and lunch provided a great chance to meet like minded souls.
I encountered a company from Pasadena that teaches mindfulness practices, Tools for Peace (TFP) is dedicated to strengthening and supporting emotional and social intelligence as well as academic and professional success. TFP has partnered with over 20 organizations, universities and schools. TFP developed Stop, Breathe & Think (SB&T), a step-by-step mindfulness, meditation and compassion-in-action curriculum that guides participants through a variety of mindfulness activities, personal reflection and group discussion. Participants begin with an introduction to mindful breathing, a basic building block of mindfulness, and build upon that skill by following a three-step process. I also exchanged cards and later had drinks with a fellow writer, Kartik Subbarao, who is another engineer who has “awakened” and written a book on “Enlightening Technical Leadership.” All in all, for me, Saturday afternoon was amazing.
Therefore, as Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO, Huffington Post presented a session after lunch titled (“Thrive: The Third Metric: Redefining Success Beyond Money & Power” –upcoming book by same title), and confidently proclaimed, to tumultuous applause, “we have reached critical mass.” A discussion of consciousness or wisdom is not just for quiet corners of cocktail parties away from the “realists,” but it is now in the board rooms of major corporations. 2013 year was the year well-known CEOs “came out” as meditators. And these techniques are no longer considered “far out” or “New Age;” but rather when actually applied they can bring a profound level of awareness and insight to even challenging circumstances—even apart from their usefulness in the ordinary world of meetings, agendas and productivity. Arianna says that it is
“time to redefine the notion of success from a two legged school of money and power. They may hold us up temporarily, but sooner or later we’re going to topple over. We need a third leg –a third metric for defining success –to truly thrive. That third metric, she writes in Thrive, includes our well-being, our ability to draw on our intuition and inner wisdom, our sense of wonder, and our capacity for compassion and giving.”
According to her, the third metric is composed of four pillars:
- Well being
She suggested that instead of resumes we shape our lives according to what may become our eulogies –not how hard we work or worldly accomplishments but how we live. She said that Wisdom 3.0 is about applying these principles to a life shaped from the inside out; she quoted Rumi who said we should “live life as though everything is rigged in our favor.”
Arianna shared a personal story that she said might well have an analog with many in the audience –that her shift was precipitated by tragedy and a low point where daughter almost died from cocaine addiction. She refers to such moments as pivotal “entry points” into our journey or path of growth and enlightenment. When she herself collapsed from exhaustion at one point, she realized that there is “no success” in “lying in a pool of blood in my house.” Arianna concluded by urging those present to “embrace your entry point” and as a symbol of community actually gave out her “personal” email address; not surprisingly it’s email@example.com
This was followed by a candid conversation between the singer and songwriter, Alanis Morissette and Dan Siegel, Mindsight Institute. Dr. Siegel is currently clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and he is the founding co-director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. An award-winning educator, he is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and recipient of several honorary fellowships.
The pair was openly enamored of one another and were both colleagues and friends. They talked about receptivity and openness in both the therapeutic space in which Dr. Seigel works and the creative world of Ms. Morissette. They discussed the essence of “connection” and conscious conversation, Alanis saying that “at my best I am nothing,” meaning that she is open to what the world and other people are bringing.
Dr. Siegel said that “conscious communication is renegade experience of neural communication” because monologue to monologue is the American way based on individualism, which leads to non-listening and the preparation of what one will say next, rather than a space for what is. So to actually be open during dialog is “renegade,” in its being counter to much of our conditioning toward self-protection and even aggression. Alanis concurred, adding that “aloofness is the survival strategy in Hollywood” and the conversation moved on to the way today’s technology is used as a buffer between people. To text is to avoid real contact and to hide –and in many ways to give in to a fear of real connection.
Both said that it is important to be able to “articulate without interruption” and Dr. Siegel used the concept of “integration as the basis of wisdom” –meaning the ability to be present with all parts of our selves (not just the formative mind) in order to connect. Integration is basis of peace and compassion. He mentioned his brain research which confirms the potential for digital media to disconnect us from ourselves; we become addicted for two reasons –for pleasure to release dopamine and for obsession (clicking on email).
Many therapies bring relief but not healing –integration is a means of creating “Connectones” or integrative fibers within the brain that reduce chaos and foster harmony. He wondered about Alanis’ experience and asked, “what does songwriting feel like?” – eliciting a “non mental but physical response.” She described it as “somatic” –a way to actually take love in and said that there is no real “choice” in the matter for her – it is an “existential imperative” to create.
But when Dr. Siegel asked whether she experienced healing whether in writing or performing, she said that she did not –the creative process was not experienced by her as a means of healing but perhaps more of being “heard” and receiving without judgment.
They discussed gadgets and how texting can be both a way to use tech to withdraw but potentially also for raising integration if it becomes the means for a deeper way of connecting and becoming linked to one another. Here Dr. Siegel made perhaps one of the key remarks (for me) of the entire conference when he suggested (as a scientist) that his studies in the brain and the apparent “nonexistence” of a coherent self has led him to the realization that there is “no reason the self should be bounded by our skin. We are ‘not the body’. The self is both me and we and ultimately a new, and perhaps third entity, a MWE.”
Coming from an eminent scientist this kind of blew my mind because in my own experience of meditation and the practice of daily acceptance I have had insights into the reality (not the metaphor) that who “I am” is truly not bounded by my physical form. It doesn’t last, it is quickly “rationalized” and “integrated” within the material view that is still the societal norm, but to hear a scientist articulate the concept so clearly was truly a revelation.
The afternoon continued with a presentation by Tony Hsieh, CEO, Zappos.com. Tony Hsieh is an American internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist. Tony talked about how Zappos and other new startups are starting to leverage the Downtown Project in Las Vegas to accelerate innovation, productivity, “Return on Community, and Return On Luck.”
Then the audience crammed in for what for me was the highlight of the conference, a talk on “The Power of the Present Moment, A Meditation,” by Eckhart Tolle. I had never seen Eckhart “in person” and my seat was not great –but it was interesting because I went early and everything was already taken but in the last moment a woman gestured to a guy in front of me that the seat beside her was available, even though it had a coat draped on it. I quickly confirmed it and sat down. Soren introduced Eckhart and said that a standing ovation was not called for –and that he “would prefer to feel your presence.” I could sense the incredible appreciation and love that greeted Eckhart Tolle when he humbly and modestly took his seat.
He started with what he called the deepest question one may ask, which echoed many of the other presenters – to “ask what life wants from you.” Then he began to describe a three-step process of becoming “conscious” and emphasizing that each person can only arrive at a stage relative to his conditioning and being.
How to abide in presence?
The first step is simple Awareness –I am here. Noticing what is–paying attention to our surroundings, and then our constant habit of thinking begins to quiet. Most of our attention is on the endless stream of thoughts, he explained. “And most of it useless!” The second step is noticing what else is happening around you –and recognizing the wonder of it –sensing an appreciation for the many forms that exist –but again doing so without labeling or thinking but simply acknowledging the infinite variety of nature apart from one’s commentary about it. Eckhart’s third stage is even deeper –to begin to inquire and sense “what is it that knows” or notices all of these things? Or rather what is it besides the content of our thoughts or perceptions, but instead is the subjective container of these experiences.
For example, he continued, in sensing hands, how do I know them? Our thoughts demand attention but if we close our eyes, do we need a thought to know that our hands are there? Can one begin to sense a vibration or energy within the body that is beyond thought –that indeed perceives thought along with sensation, feeling and external forms?
This recognition of Being is “no thing” and what Jesus called “the Kingdom of Heaven.” “But who understands Jesus,” Eckhart joked, “only a few Buddhists.” Eckhart also reemphasized the practice of these concepts – he said that “presence is a state that you can only know by experiencing it, he says. You cannot “conceptualize it.”
“The essence of you is inseparable from the essence of the present moment. The essence of now is ultimately who you are”
Karen May of Google then returned to the main stage for a “One-on-One with Eckhart Tolle: Awakening in the Digital Age.” Karen noted the enthusiasm and calm of the audience and mentioned how unusual it was to be able to lead a meditation by teaching and instill an actual and tangible experience in those present. She attributed this to Eckhart’s presence and spontaneity –the live freshness he brought to the occasion, and then “in a gesture of presence” she actually tore up her own notes with laughter and appreciation from the audience. She asked Eckhart about the apparent contradiction between his emphasis on dropping one’s “personal story” or commentary by the voice in the head and the use of stories in an organization to foster respect for diversity and communication.
Eckhart suggested that in one’s communication one should look deeply at the other person and not at one’s story about them, or their story –to not confine one’s connection to such a story. A big part of this would be not to think while conversion but to listen deeply –that the gift of one’s true attention is perhaps the greatest one can convey. Eckhart said that “usually you only get this from a dog.” He suggested that communication become the “personal and spacious dimensions dancing” and that one acknowledge both.
Our “collective story reinforces our roles” which in a corporate environment is necessary up to a point but can also inhibit spontaneous communication. Presence is the key and Eckhart reminded the audience about Ram Dass’ statement on enlightenment –“If you think you’re enlightened, spend a week with your family.”
Similar tests of presence obviously abound in meetings and the corporate world. Eckhart said that it is important to always keep in mind that “one can only behave at one’s level consciousness” and that presence can best be practiced in brief encounters and initially when there is little at stake. Try to put down the cell phone and truly engage with the clerk in the grocery store and bank, and notice the difference in energy that ensues.
When Karen asked for more ideas about meetings, Eckhart said that if necessary, “you can be the only one (truly) present at a meeting, but cautioned against the Egoic trap of taking oneself as ‘enlightened’ as a feeling of superiority.” “Choose to be present with complete attention,” he said, “not fueling conflict or group unconsciousness.”
Karen and Eckhart then engaged in a discussion of how gadgets can both foster and distract from communication – at that point a cell phone rang and Eckhart wondered, “is it mine?”
The audience roared. He cautioned that gadgets can indeed “fill up our mind” which is the antithesis of true mindfulness –he dislikes that term preferring “presence” because he is a proponent of using the mind only for vital tasks and otherwise disengaging the voice in the head. On that point he said he does now text, but he has invented “spacing” or sending an empty text message, which has flummoxed some of his friends.
He reminded the audience of Arianna Huffington’s practice of making her bedroom a gadget free zone, to avoid the burnout that can ensue when our devices take over. He made fun of email in his own inimitable style by modeling how when an email comes in, we can react automatically by “assuming that every message is urgent and important. They aren’t.” As he did this he hunched over an imaginary device, feigning typing with his thumbs, as he looked furtively upward and around as though in deep thought and agitation by the necessity to reply to every message he had received.
He cautioned against the addictive aspect of gadgets, like cell phone and compared them to TV which also makes people addicted to thinking and ultimately they suffer; especially with television or media which suggests that the future holds a promise that can never be fulfilled. “Don’t let children get lost in digital world.” He stressed again that the ultimate lesson is that only the present moment is true Life. All else is illusory. Karen asked him what give him hope and Eckhart replied, “this moment” (with the audience – he gestured around the vast room), and they concluded.
My final experience was in what might have been “the largest yoga class ever in San Francisco,” led by Gopi Kallayil who is the Chief Evangelist at Google for Brand Marketing. Prior to that he was Chief Evangelist of Google+ for Brands, and previously he worked on marketing the company’s flagship advertising product, AdWords, in the Americas and Asia Pacific.
Gopi called the human body the most advanced technology we know, and gave a glimpse of a “portable yoga practice” that would enable participants to “instantly change state intentionally.” Before the Sunday lunch break he demonstrated and led the audience in a series of yoga postures from beginner to moderately advanced, and modeled conscious breathing. Gopi reiterated that all of these techniques are now made available to Google employees on a voluntary basis.
This overview only the scratches the surface of what comprised the Wisdom 2.0 Summit. In the exhibit hall there were many products, services and practitioners including InterAxon, the makers of Muse headgear, a “hardware” company that reprograms the brain’s “software.” Muse combines training sessions to help you manage stress and calm your mind with real time feedback on your brain’s response to the training. This allows you to track and improve your brain over time so you can enhance the mental skills you already have and do more with your mind than you ever thought possible.
Muse uses sensors to detect and measure your brain activity, just as a heart monitor measures heart rate. This activity is converted into information you can track on your tablet, smartphone or PC via Bluetooth This information is given to you in both audio and visual form so you can see and hear your brain’s performance in real time.
As I mentioned, beyond the sessions and exhibits one of the most profound things to stand out at Wisdom 2.0 was the energy and vitality of 2000 like minded souls. Finally, I also had the chance to lead a “hosted conversation” which attracted two new friends to a discussion of my own passion, the connection between software and genetics.
As I left San Francisco, I felt deeply that this conference was an event that truly “Life was calling me” to attend. Namaste.
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