buddhism, social justice

Mindfulness the Google Way: well-intentioned saffron-washing?

For the last few years there’s been a growing uproar in San Francisco rooted in dismay and anger over ballooning rents, historically high eviction rates, and other markers of the intense gentrification that has been happening for 15 years or so — if I choose the tech boom of the 90s as a convenient recent historical marker. The recent acceleration follows the recovery of the tech sector after the economic slowdown of the late aughts, with Google — who perhaps evilly, or at least against vigorous recent complaint, busses employees from SF down to their mothership on the Peninsula — occupying the current symbolic center. Here’s Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful piece on the issue and its history. And one from Eric Rodenbeck in Wired. The culprit isn’t just Google, of course, but they’ve become a stand-in for the corporate juggernaut of Silicon Valley that is turning the Mission from a relatively affordable mixed immigrant/artist neighborhood (I lived there for 7 years on $300/month rent! Absurd, right? I know.) to a groovy dormitory for software engineers and the boutiques that date them.

So last Saturday at Wisdom 2.0, a gathering of tech industry progressives inspired by Buddhism and American Buddhist celebrities (including some teachers I very much respect), protestors from Heart of the City interrupted Google’s presentation called “3 Steps to Build Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way” with a strong message about, essentially, Being Evil. Here’s some video, and an account of the event published in Tricycle (Wisdom 2.0 organizers apparently cut the live feed and deleted the interruption from their official video). Here, also, is an organizer of the protest, Amanda Ream, discussing SF’s rapid gentrification and Wisdom 2.0. She encapsulates the issue eloquently:

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.

Both Wisdom 2.0 and Google’s relationship to mindfulness need to be, and have been, critiqued. Here’s Richard Payne’s response to the protest, a short but precise analysis of “Corporatist Spirituality“, and Glenn Wallis’s, on Speculative Non-Buddhism, which is appropriately sharp, noting that the whole event could have been a Tutteji spoof. They’re right. Brand labels like “Mindfulness the Google Way” and “Wisdom 2.0” ring with narcissism, suggesting that these corporate variations on mindfulness and other “spiritual” practices are brilliant new developments rooted in ancient respected traditions but not bound by them. It is this claim — of simultaneous lineage and innovation — that I want to focus on. The importation of individualistic meditative method removed from its fuller religious context, both culturally and as a complete system of spiritual practice is characteristic of postmodern Buddhism and yoga both.

The protestors were essentially saying that one of the contexts that Google-type mindfulness (and by extension the so-called secular mindfulness movement) is very careful not to be bound by is ethics. I’ve written before on the dangers inherent in uncoupling meditation and teachings about the nature of reality from the ethical frameworks that in their religious forms they are intimately embedded in. And though this is an urban-scale ethical abuse (the tech industry’s complicity in gentrification) rather than a community-scale guru scandal, the principle is the same: a practice is taught that purports to be a grounded spiritual path, but in leaving out significant elements that actually ensure that a practice IS grounded, ends up reproducing harmful conditions that undermine the claims of its inevitably powerful and privileged boosters.

To the degree that this is the case, I will repurpose a term from the Indian press: Saffron-washing. Like green-washing, in which a corporation masks harmful eco policies in surface environmentalism (“Beyond Petroleum“…), when saffron-washing, a hip postmodern corporation is very visible in its Buddhist-inspired “Mindfulness”, masking harmful and less Buddhistic activities. Here’s what I’ll assert: they actually mean it — their promotion of mindfulness and healing, and that implies that two mind-states are not mutually exclusive: sincerity and denial. Sincerity because I do believe that the people promoting mindfulness in secular contexts, from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR to Google’s in-house system, Chade-Meng Tan’s Search Inside Yourself, truly want to offer something that will help people be happier and less stressed.

[Note for further exploration: SIY is much more indebted to Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence than to mindfulness. I suggest that it succeeds in exactly what it wants to do: help employees be less stressed and more productive. Maybe the only dissonance here is that some of us on the outside still want it to be MORE Buddhist and take on values alien to its agenda just because it is a distant descendent of Buddhist practice. Am I just the traditionalist (fundamentalist) kid who learned Classical music and thought that my peers who played Pop or New Age music were betraying the profound heritage of Bach? In this true story, it’s clearly me that was deluded, hypnotized by an ideology of European hegemonic cultural power, not them. What if it’s the same with Secular Mindfulness? If I don’t mind that it has very little to do with the Buddhism I love (read: “identify with”), then I get much less dissonance in, and less upset about, Google’s offering. It’s not Buddhism in any way, so why complain about it as such? I’m now free to complain about what it IS, not what it ISN’T.]

And denial because within the tenets of progressive spiritual practice, it is implied that it is fully possible to deepen in one’s awakening process while embedded in a capitalist system. Slavoj Žižek, quoted in Wallis, nails it:

The ‘Western Buddhist’ meditative stance is arguably the most efficient way for us to fully participate in capitalist dynamics while retaining the appearance of mental sanity. (“From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism“, Cabinet, 2001)

As has been said many times, you can be mindful while riding a Google bus or even firing a gun, and mindfulness will help you be happier while doing either. But as in the parable of Milarepa, who used yogic power for harmful ends before coming to Buddhist practice, mindfulness — if that means a system of attentional training, as in Kabat-Zinn’s definition,

[Mindfulness is] paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally… it is an appreciation for the present moment and the cultivation of an intimate relationship with it through a continual attending to it with care and discernment.” (Kabat-Zinn’s definition, from Hart, Ivtzan, 2013)

does not imply any specific ethical position. And so it’s relevant to ask what is being taught and to what end. The issue I feel is not that Secular Mindfulness programs somehow are not Buddhism (they’re not), or don’t lead employees to greater well-being and spiritual awakening (they can), or that they aren’t worth doing (they are). But if we don’t interrogate their assumptions and agendas (ideology by any other name would smell as… ideological), we’ll fall into exactly the hegemonic stance that Žižek, Payne, and Wallis rightly decry.

Calling Google-style mindfulness programs “sincere” is a much softer stance than some of the critique out there of this event and these kinds of programs, I know. Do they condition the kind of disengaged passivity that Žižek and others claim — mindfulness as opiate for the self-actualization-oriented masses? So much of contemporary Buddhism focuses the attention “inward”, and situates the causes of suffering in reactivity rather than material conditions. The well-known teaching on the Second Arrow is a case in point:

But in the case of a well-taught noble disciple, O monks, when he is touched by a painful feeling, he will not worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. It is one kind of feeling he experiences, a bodily one, but not a mental feeling. It is as if a man were pierced by a dart, but was not hit by a second dart following the first one. So this person experiences feelings caused by a single dart only. It is similar with a well-taught noble disciple: when touched by a painful feeling, he will no worry nor grieve and lament, he will not beat his breast and weep, nor will he be distraught. He experiences one single feeling, a bodily one.

Having been touched by that painful feeling, he does not resist (and resent) it. Hence, in him no underlying tendency of resistance against that painful feeling comes to underlie (his mind). Under the impact of that painful feeling he does not proceed to enjoy sensual happiness. And why not? As a well-taught noble disciple he knows of an escape from painful feelings other than by enjoying sensual happiness. (SN 36.6, trans. Nyanaponika)

Am I being trained not to “resist (and resent)” direct harm caused me by an abuse, and only to focus on practicing non-resistance to the feeling and renunciation of sensual happiness in relation to it? In other words, to let go of aspirations for improvement in material conditions in favor of a change in attitude? This teaching underlies much contemporary dharma: that the cause of suffering is personal reactivity. Now, as a student and teacher who has found much benefit through practicing with my own patterns of reactivity, I totally honor this teaching as powerful medicine for a certain illness. But I don’t think it tells us how to act when faced with public harm. Should we be like the fictional martyrs in the Parable of the Saw?

Monks, even if bandits were to savagely sever you, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, even then, whoever of you harbors ill will at heart would not be upholding my Teaching. Monks, even in such a situation you should train yourselves thus: ‘Neither shall our minds be affected by this, nor for this matter shall we give vent to evil words, but we shall remain full of concern and pity, with a mind of love, and we shall not give in to hatred. On the contrary, we shall live projecting thoughts of universal love to those very persons, making them as well as the whole world the object of our thoughts of universal love — thoughts that have grown great, exalted and measureless. We shall dwell radiating these thoughts which are void of hostility and ill will.’ It is in this way, monks, that you should train yourselves. (MN 21, trans. Buddharakkhita)

Students constantly ask, after teachings on renunciation like these, or the practice of Karma Yoga in the Bhagavad Gītā, what they actually suggest we should do in actual life situations. I do not think that these teaching parables necessarily imply a quietistic stance, but that their teachings on non-reactivity (vairagya) must be understood in the context of the full ethical and relational training they were presented in. Inner calm and non-reactivity can be a powerful support for vigorous social action when it is intimately connected to the practices of non-harming, supporting qualities like patience, steadiness of purpose, non-distraction, and compassion. When uncoupled from ethics, mindfulness — in its popular form as a non-reactive present-moment awareness as suggested in the Google presenter’s triage response to the protestors — is in danger of becoming an opiate. The “Simile of the Saw” is a teaching partly about what to practice when in an impossibly painful situation. It says nothing about how to deter the saw-wielders or bring them to justice, presumably holding the standard Pali Canon view that those who commit such violence will be reborn in unhappy destinations (hell realms).

What if the Buddhist reliance on karma to redress all ills (since everyone will inevitably, but in unpredictable ways, experience the appropriate results of their actions) is the same kind of ideology as the right wing vision of the “Free Market” as ultimate judge and executioner: businesses that don’t act in accord with people’s well-being will be shunned, and therefore bankrupt? The “market” as self-correcting meta-economic actor, karma as self-correcting meta-action principle?

To the extent that Google is savagely severing San Francisco, limb by limb, with a double-handled saw, let’s not wait for karma to catch up with Google, as it inevitably must. Not allowing them to saffron-wash their agenda is a first step. Amanda Ream and Heart of the City, you rock. Let’s hold the beautiful practices of attentional training and emotional intelligence wisely, re-coupling them with the ethical foundations of the tradition they are inspired by. If you can be mindful while riding a Google bus, you can certainly be mindful while blocking one.

[And, inserted a week later, here’s Joshua Eaton in Salon, taking it to a fuller reflection on the gentrification of American Dharma. This needs to be discussed more in our sanghas. Class inequality in Western convert Buddhism is as important as the currently trending racial diversity, and gets much less attention.]

16 thoughts on “Mindfulness the Google Way: well-intentioned saffron-washing?”

  1. Justin F says:

    Interesting. But this seems to be based on what you believes mindfulness should be for rather than what it is for (here). To my knowledge, corporate mindfulness doesn’t have any effect – one way or the other – on the ethics of, or economic, social or environmental consequences of corporate policies. Surely that’s a matter for individual and especially board-level ethical conscience in combination with state regulation. And of course protests and consciousness-raising activities play a part. Does Google’s running group teach ethics?

    And how easy is it to teach a particual set of ethics to people (who may have quite different political/social attitudes and who, perhaps quite rightly, may feel patronised by someone else imposing their values)? Real consciousness raising takes time and changing social attitudes takes time and isn’t best handled in a mindfulness group.

    1. seanfeit says:

      Hi Justin, I agree with your last sentence, but want to challenge your second. I hear you saying that a corporation’s internal wellness trainings have no effect on their larger ideologically-charged actions in the community. Much of the critique around the SIY program challenges exactly this assumption.

      It is not just about what Google’s program teaches its employees, which might be ideologically innocuous (though I don’t think it is), but that they are being very public about their mindfulness activities. So when they get on stage to trumpet their Wisdom, essentially, I think it is quite justified to challenge them on a very concrete ethical failure.

      The SIY program, as I said, looks wholesome enough. But I recognize that when mindfulness techniques are taken out of their original context (Buddhism), some of the protections embedded in that context may be lost. In this case, as is often so, ethics was the loser. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to teach ethics, but since everything carries ethical content, whatever wellness method a corporation teaches will automatically reflect their ethical stance.

      I have looked through the excerpts of the Search Inside Yourself book that are available online, and don’t see much mention of social values, community responsibility, or traditional ethical principles like non-harming. So, unless I’m missing something, we can analyze that omission, and the focus on individual clarity and productivity, as being indicative of the corporation’s values. The reason why the W 2.0 fracas made such news was mostly because their reaction to it was standard non-compassionate: make them shut up and go away, and not a more mindfulness-oriented response like conversation.

      1. banburyzen says:

        Hi, thanks for responding,

        We are in agreement that Google’s programme has little or no prescriptive ethical content. Much of your reply makes this point in various ways.

        I hear you saying that a corporation’s internal wellness trainings have no effect on their larger ideologically-charged actions in the community. Much of the critique around the SIY program challenges exactly this assumption.

        This is what you say in your original piece and you repeat this claim in various ways in your reply – and I’m no fan of big, powerful corporations or of US-style capitalism – however I can’t see anywhere this claim is supported.

        I can’t see any demonstration that teaching mindfulness without also telling people how to behave, leads to ‘worse’ ethical behaviour, in any way that would differ from a running group or a needlework group or a Friday curry group that lacked prescriptive ethical content. Why not have prescriptive ethical content with everything?

        Unless a practice grants special power and/or responsibility (say, a dangerous sport or a medical practice or childcare) then there seems hard to justify additional ethical instruction.

        So, unless I’m missing something, we can analyze that omission, and the focus on individual clarity and productivity, as being indicative of the corporation’s values.

        OK, well I’m sure they do have corporate social responsibility values too, but OK. Google aren’t going to pay for or support courses that support the idea that Google’s presence is bad. But I still don’t see why mindfulness-related activities should be called out instead of eg their public speaking group.

        The reason why the W 2.0 fracas made such news was mostly because their reaction to it was standard non-compassionate: make them shut up and go away, and not a more mindfulness-oriented response like conversation.

        It could have been handled better, yes. But I think that responding to a situation like that in real time is very hard. Wasn’t it being led by Meng? I don’t think he’d be in a position to have a conversation with people protesting about the effect of Google’s effect on house prices and demographics. And it wouldn’t be his place.

        But I recognize that when mindfulness techniques are taken out of their original context (Buddhism), some of the protections embedded in that context may be lost./blockquote>

        Why do meditation/Buddhist-derived practices need special protections, that say, classes for making cupcakes don’t need?

        Thanks,

        Justin

        1. seanfeit says:

          Hi Justin,

          To the extent that SIY is like any other employee wellness group like running, needlework, or curry, you’re right: it would not require added ethical content. But my critique of G, as you recognize, is founded on the dissonance between two actions: policies that are contributing to the gentrification of SF, and cultivating its image as a progressive organization with an industry-leading mindfulness program. You’re asserting that they have no direct connection, and I’m asserting that they do. Not in what the employees are doing in the group itself — as I said, I think it’s probably a good program (with a caveat, below) — but in how it is being used as propaganda.

          I’m not concerned with the non-Buddhist-ness of SIY, or how far it’s evolved from its Buddhist roots. I am concerned however with Google using the Buddhist roots of its program to burnish its image as a humane progressive company. When it shows up at W 2.0 trumpeting its mindfulness, however (and yes, Chade Meng Tan was there, and Karen May, but a friend of mine who was there said that the person speaking at the moment of the protest was Bill Duane, who I don’t know, but my friend says he’s a strong dharma practitioner and a good guy), but is unwilling/unable to respond gracefully to a direct critique of its policies (where was their Emotional Intelligence??), then I’m calling them out as not walking the very talk that they were there on the stage promoting.

          Also, a clarification: when I say “some of the protections embedded in that context”, I don’t mean that the practices (mindfulness, say) need protection. They don’t. I mean that the ethical framework of the full path provides a protection for the practitioner. Mindfulness taken out of context is maybe an ethically neutral method for calming anxiety and focusing on the present moment. Fine. But these methods in their Buddhist context — which has sufficient cultural weight right now to be a selling point for Google, thus their presence at W 2.0 — are not ethically neutral. They are embedded in a system of renunciation and inquiry that would at least impel the corporation to look at the results of its actions.

          Lastly, Emotional Intelligence and mindfulness are not of the same ethical weight as needlework or another hobby. They are intimate behavioral trainings. They teach us how to respond to suffering and pain. And so if a training program emphasizes passive witnessing, for instance, which is a great technique for neutralizing intense emotion, why wouldn’t it be a very useful tool for an authority eager to defuse potential employee organization or anger? This is exactly the “opiate” argument, and I do think it has some merit.

          Thanks for being in the conversation with me. I hope this clarifies.

          Warmly,
          sean

          1. Justin says:

            my critique of G, as you recognize, is founded on the dissonance between two actions: policies that are contributing to the gentrification of SF, and cultivating its image as a progressive organization with an industry-leading mindfulness program. You’re asserting that they have no direct connection, and I’m asserting that they do. Not in what the employees are doing in the group itself — as I said, I think it’s probably a good program (with a caveat, below) — but in how it is being used as propaganda.

            OK, thanks for clarifying. First, since you are the one (or one of those) raising an objection, really the onus is on you to demonstrate the connection. Second, I’ll have to admit to being less than 100% conversant with all the ways that Google describes its programme in marketing etc. but unless Google claims that its programme makes you a more socially conscious / socially responsible person (which would surprise me) then there is no dissonance. If it ‘merely’ claims that it may make you more emotionally intelligent, more calm, perhaps even maybe a bit kinder to friends, family and colleagues (for example) that isn’t really the same thing. Ethics and compassionate behaviour are not simple, one dimensional things. And it seems unlikely (although I’ll concede this point if you can correct me) that Google has promoted it’s SIY programme with the claim that it make you more socially aware – let alone that it guarantees that you will instantly become immune from being socially unaware.

            …is unwilling/unable to respond gracefully to a direct critique of its policies (where was their Emotional Intelligence??), then I’m calling them out as not walking the very talk that they were there on the stage promoting.

            I agree that this doesn’t appear to have been handled well at the time. But I think your judgement is rather harsh. It was an awkward position (for some Google etc employees who can’t speak for Google’s social responsibility policies) to be put in. Did they claim to be infallible with respect to emotional intelligence (or PR 🙂 )? Seems unlikely.

            But these methods in their Buddhist context — which has sufficient cultural weight right now to be a selling point for Google, thus their presence at W 2.0 — are not ethically neutral. They are embedded in a system of renunciation and inquiry that would at least impel the corporation to look at the results of its actions.

            I’m not sure I follow the logic here. Google’s programme is ethically neutral (except in so far as increased emotional intelligence is ethical) and Google presents it as ethically neutral. It is at least loosely associated with Buddhism and (as far as I’ve seen) this is how it is presented. I don’t see any misrepresentation. Is a vague association with Buddhism (not that I see Buddhist organisations as immune to ethical issues) from a programme that is clearly positioned as secular and not promoting any particular value-system, religious or otherwise, really so bad?

            Lastly, Emotional Intelligence and mindfulness are not of the same ethical weight as needlework or another hobby. They are intimate behavioral trainings. They teach us how to respond to suffering and pain.

            Yes, they are intimate behavioural trainings and in so far as mindfulness increases emotional intelligence and in so far as emotional intelligence makes people more compassionate (which is another question) that – I’m sure you’d agree – is a good thing. I don’t think they tell us how to respond to pain and suffering (that could only come from a set of prescriptive ethics), but they do give an understanding of ourselves and others that may inform how we respond and give us more choice in how we respond.

            And so if a training program emphasizes passive witnessing, for instance, which is a great technique for neutralizing intense emotion, why wouldn’t it be a very useful tool for an authority eager to defuse potential employee organization or anger? This is exactly the “opiate” argument, and I do think it has some merit.

            Mindfulness was not taught to me (I’ve also practiced Buddhism) as being about ‘passive witnessing’ so much as awareness of one’s own otherwise automatic reactions and thus reclaiming the choice as to how to respond, including the choice to be passionate, angry, outraged, stressed etc. But when these things become disfuntional we can recognise that and choose to respond differently.

            I think your claim of a sinister “opiate” effect is based on ignorance of what mindfulness practice is. Passivity or quietism is a criticism that has been levelled at Buddhism for a long time too. And I think such tendencies exist, but in my experience this was worse in Buddhism than in mindfulness which seemed far more about integrating practice with real life, the permissability and value of anger and stress rather than ‘withdrawing from the world’ and an idealisation of calm and quiet.

            I think this misunderstanding does exist (to outsiders and a few practitioners) although it can be quite easily addressed. But I’m not aware of any evidence of decreased political engagement among those who meditate.

            Also problematic is the assumption that for there to be a net ‘harmful’ (from your point of view) effect it would somehow have to be a ‘magic bullet’ that somehow only targetted the political engagement of socially aware, liberal, egalitarian types like you (I infer) and me and leaves the passions of neo-liberals, selfish capitalists, neo-nazis and revolutionary communists intact.

          2. seanfeit says:

            [sorry for delay! busy school & teaching week…]

            First, since you are the one (or one of those) raising an objection, really the onus is on you to demonstrate the connection.

            The connection is not about what’s in the program itself. It’s that in the middle of a very public controversy they are presenting at a “Wisdom” conference, and then dealing poorly with an intervention. It’s not the presenter’s fault — he was startled (I would have been too), and he did ok, trying to lead the crowd in a mindful/meditative response, but I totally understand how that response was then seen as facetious and insincere (even though I do read it as sincere… just not very… sensitive to the issue).

            Is a vague association with Buddhism (not that I see Buddhist organisations as immune to ethical issues) from a programme that is clearly positioned as secular and not promoting any particular value-system, religious or otherwise, really so bad?

            It’s not bad at all. Secular mindfulness is a fine postmodern practice. But no matter what it promotes itself to be, it’s not value-neutral — because Nothing Is. Every program bears the conditions of its creation. And so Buddhist mindfulness is held within the framework of the precepts, preventing it from becoming abstract or disconnected from the community. Corporate mindfulness is held within the framework of the business model, which is unable to respond to the community in ways that threaten the profit motive. So even if it’s a great program for the employees, it’s still subject to the ethical framework of its context. It’s that context that I’m criticizing, not the person presenting (as I said, I have friends and teachers who work in programs like this, and spoke at this conference), who was just doing their job in a challenging moment!

            I think your claim of a sinister “opiate” effect is based on ignorance of what mindfulness practice is.

            I’m referring to pop Marxism here (“Religion is the opiate of the masses”), so I figured it didn’t need explanation. Mindfulness itself isn’t necessarily quietistic, though I do believe that a certain renunciation of political entanglement is good for practitioners, but if a company is actively promoting practices that incline toward non-protest, I have to wonder if there’s a — not necessarily consciously Evil, but maybe just convenient — implied benefit for the company. (cont…)

          3. Justin says:

            …also, if mindfulness (as taught by Google at least) really did have an “opiate effect” on employees, this would be disastrous for employee motivation and thus performance. I can’t see Google sanctioning such a programme or failing to foresee this problem with it’s evil “sedate the workers” plot. Or is this another thing that their “magic bullet” somehow avoids?

            And of course my final point above parallels the question – even if a set of ethical principles was taught in their programme – which one should it be? Of course you want it to be based on compassion and broadly humanitarian, liberal and egalitarian principles. So would I. But why should we get our say? Those on the right would complain about the bias, the brainwashing of the workers with leftist propaganda. Is it really Google’s place or the place of any secular mindfulness teacher to instruct people what sort of social/political attitudes they should have. What of those who feel alienated by that or simply aren’t interested? Should they be excluded? It seems entirely appropriate and respectful to remain ethically neutral and leave specific political and social choices and attitudes to the individual.

            Also, adding to what I said above re. the event leaders’ response (or lack of) to the protest – as employees of Google in a public forum, it would be (or at least likely would be seen as) unprofessional for them to imply that they speak for Google by engaging the protestors in dialogue. It would be a difficult position to be put in.

          4. seanfeit says:

            Hmm. I do think I get what you’re saying about “magic bullet”… Like I’m saying that the SIY class is a specific tool for G to seduce liberals into a quiescent passivity so they won’t protest. That would indeed be magic! Let me try to be more precise, by quoting more than just myself on the “opiate” thing. Here’s the abstract of a recent journal paper (http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=545580066244251;res=IELHEA — sorry that it’s a pay paper, unless you have university access):

            There is no dispute that mindfulness can be an effective therapeutic method in the clinical treatment of a variety of psychological disorders. However, Geoff Dawson and Liz Turnbull argue that more critical reflection is needed of the social and cultural contexts of mindfulness, and the unintended consequences that arise from its contemporary adaptation into the fields of psychotherapy and psychology. What are the consequences of the practice of mindfulness in isolation from a Buddhist context that integrates wisdom and ethics, inquires into the roots of narcissism and cultivates compassion? Reduced to a psychological technique, mindfulness can become another palliative to reduce symptoms of distress without sufficiently addressing the deep causes. Modern forms of alienation arguably are the root causes of pervasive feelings of depression and anxiety. A radical inquiry into and a deep understanding of the myth of the self-enclosed individual leads to the death of narcissism and the end of alienation. Are we willing to question critically the interconnections of psychology formed by and functioning within economic and social structures that condition these modern forms of alienation and suffering?

            It’s this “palliative” that doesn’t address “deep causes” that I’m speaking to. And so in this vein, I see G’s presence at W 2.0 itself as a palliative in the same way. It feels good, and the program basically IS good, but doesn’t address deep social issues that are happening, and so perpetuates a harmful system by default if not by design.

            What kind of ethics would be relevant in a secular mindfulness program? I can’t categorically say. It would depend on the intent of the program. But because I understand ethics to be methods for deep inquiry into suffering and wise action, I do see most major ethical systems in the world as being essentially incompatible with late stage, resource-intensive capitalism, which only functions because costs (environmental, labor) are externalized. (The current pope seems to agree with me…) But without going that broad, Emotional Intelligence training can (and does) include basic guidance in honesty, respect, and kindness. I’m sure the G program does. And I’m sure some employees take that to its logical conclusion and question their own industry. We all make compromises, and I don’t begrudge anyone making compromises to keep their good job (to a point).

            All I’m saying is that if the Google reps at W 2.0 had been both more attuned to the current crisis AND more securely established in the very practices they were there celebrating, I think the event, with protest, would have come off way better for all concerned.

            Thanks again for engaging. I respect your questions and challenging of me, and hope my attempts to respond have felt helpful.

        2. onlinewithzoe says:

          actually making cupcakes would require an awareness, a gratefulness for all those who have brought these ingredients to this moment, the abundance of my life to have them, a consideration for sharing with those who do not. It is a silly response to a silly question but even silliness requires the full practice of my Buddhist Mindfulness.
          There is no time when or why it would lapse.

          1. seanfeit says:

            Mindful cupcakes are my favorite flavor. 🙂

  2. Ron says:

    Very interesting exchanges…I appreciate the dialogue.

  3. Savitri says:

    I have not read through all of the exchanges, but basically I get that you were not at Wisdom 2.0 to see the encounter around Google, nor to hear the other very interesting and thought provoking talks during those two and a half days. Of course it is not perfect, but this push toward more consciousness and awareness in our lives is not a bad thing. And there was some very interesting questioning of ethics and values in the talks given by Tony Hsieh, Arianna Huffington, Eckhart Tolle, Congressman Tim Ryan (who wrote Mindful Nation and still got reelected in Youngstown, Ohio), the President of Ruanda, and the list goes on – and it was all live streamed for free and is available to watch and judge for yourselves. Certainly some provocative talks and conversations raising important questions about how we live, what this life is about, and how we learn to be more conscious in this time of easy distractions and visible violence.

    1. seanfeit says:

      Hi Savitri,

      True, I wasn’t there. And I’m sure many things about the event were lovely, as you’re saying. My intent here is to discuss some of the broad social and political implications in what happened. An event like this helps us as practitioners and citizens to look more deeply at what our culture is creating, and my reflections are meant to encourage that deeper look.

      Warmly,
      sean

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