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Can Mindfulness Change a Corporation?

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The letter that follows is self-explanatory. Last October I sent it to Mr. George three different ways – to two email accounts and by post to his office. Unfortunately, he has not responded, so after some deliberation I’ve decided to express my concerns publicly.

I want to emphasize that the issue is not personal: that is, I’m not attacking Mr. George himself, who (according to what I’ve read and heard about him) seems to be a nice, well-intentioned fellow. The basic problem, it seems to me, is that one can be well-intentioned and yet play an objectionable role in an economic system that has become unjust and unsustainable – in fact, a challenge to the well-being of all life on this planet. Mr. George is an important figure in the “mindfulness in business” movement: as well as being a professor in Harvard’s MBA program, he has written some influential books that emphasize the importance of ethics and mindfulness in the marketplace. His position therefore highlights some concerns I have about the role of the “mindfulness movement,” and also has broad implications for socially engaged Buddhism generally. I’ve written elsewhere about the fact that today the traditional “three poisons” of greed, aggression, and delusion have become institutionalized as our economic system, militarism, and the media. If so, what does that imply for our engaged Buddhist practice?

David R. Loy

16 October 2012
William George
George Family Office
1818 Oliver Ave.
S. Minneapolis, Minnesota 55405

Dear Mr. George,

We haven’t met, but I’m taking the liberty of contacting you because you are in a position to contribute in a valuable way to an important debate that is developing within the Buddhist community in North America. (I’m a professor of Buddhist and comparative philosophy, and also a Zen student/teacher.)

The UK Financial Times magazine of August 25‐26 included an article on “The Mind Business” that begins: “Yoga, meditation, ‘mindfulness’… Some of the west’s biggest companies are embracing eastern spirituality – as a path which can lead to bigger profits.” You are mentioned on p. 14.

William George, a current Goldman Sachs board member and a former chief executive of the healthcare giant Medtronic, started meditating in 1974 and never stopped. Today, he is one of the main advocates for bringing meditation into corporate life, writing articles on the subject for the Harvard Business Review. “The main business case for meditation is that if you’re fully present on the job, you will be more effective as a leader, you will make better decisions and you will work better with other people,” he tells me [the author, David Gelles]. “I tend to live a very busy life. This keeps me focused on what’s important.”

I was initially struck by your position (since 2002) as a board member of Goldman Sachs, one of the largest and most controversial investment banks. Researching online, I learned that you have also been on the corporate board of Exxon Mobil since 2005 and Novartis since 1999. I also read that you participated in a “Mind & Life” conference with the Dalai Lama and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, on “Compassion and Altruism in Economic Systems.” These discoveries led to my decision to contact you, in order to get your perspective on what is becoming a crucial issue for Western Buddhists.

The debate within American Buddhism focuses on how much is lost if mindfulness as a technique is separated from other important aspects of the Buddhist path, such as precepts, community practice, awakening, and living compassionately. Traditional Buddhism understands all these as essential parts of a spiritual path that leads to personal transformation. More recently, there is also concern about the social implications of Buddhist teachings, especially given our collective ecological and economic situation. The Buddha referred to the “three poisons” of greed, ill will, and delusion as unwholesome motivations that cause suffering, and some of my own writing argues that today those three poisons have become institutionalized, taking on a life of their own.

I do not know how your meditation practice has affected your personal life, nor, for that matter, what type of meditation or mindfulness you practice. Given your unique position, my questions are: how has your practice influenced your understanding of the social responsibility of large corporations such as Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil? And what effects has your practice had personally on your advisory role within those corporations?

Goldman Sachs protest: Financial Reform Now!

Hundreds of taxpayers rallied outside the Goldman Sachs DC office in November 2009 to deliver a letter for their CEO, Lloyd Blankfein demanding he forgo paying out its multi-billion dollar bonus pool and instead use that money to help the millions of families facing foreclosure. Photo: SEIU International

Those questions are motivated by the controversial – I would say problematical – role of those two corporations recently in light of the various ecological, economic, and social crises facing us today. As you know, the pharmaceutical giant Novartis has also received much criticism. (In 2006 Novartis tried to stop India developing affordable generic drugs for poor people; in 2008 the FDA warned it about deceptive advertising of focalin, an ADHD drug; in 2009 Novartis declined to follow the example of GlaxoSmithKline and offer free flu vaccines to poor people in response to a flu epidemic; in May 2010 a jury awarded over $253 million in compensatory and punitive damages for widespread sexual discrimination, a tentative settlement that may increase to almost $1 billion; in September 2010 Novartis paid $422.5 million in criminal and civil claims for illegal kickbacks.) However, my main interest is with your role on the corporate board of Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil, and how your meditation practice may or may not have influenced that.

Since you have been on the Goldman Sachs board for a decade, you are no doubt very aware of the controversies that have dogged it for many years, and especially since the financial meltdown of 2008. There are so many examples that one hardly knows where to begin. In July 2010 Goldman paid a record $550 million to settle an SEC civil lawsuit, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. In April 2011 a Senate Subcommittee released an extensive report on the financial crisis alleging that Goldman Sachs appeared to have misled investors and profited from the mortgage market meltdown. The chairman of that subcommittee, Carl Levin, referred this report to the Justice Department for possible prosecution; later he expressed disappointment when the Justice Department declined to do so, and said that Goldman’s “actions were deceptive and immoral.” Perhaps this relates to an ongoing issue: a “revolving door” relationship with the federal government, in which many senior employees move in and out of high‐level positions, which has led to numerous charges of conflict of interest. It may be no coincidence that Goldman Sachs was the single largest contributor to Obama’s campaign in 2008.

In July 2011 a suit to fire all the members of Goldman’s board – including you – for improper behavior during the financial crisis was thrown out of court, for lack of evidence.

Controversy ignited again this year when a senior Goldman employee, Greg Smith, published an OpEd piece in the New York Times on “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs” (March 14, 2012), writing that “the environment [at Goldman Sachs] now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.” He blames poor leadership for a drastic decline in its moral culture – which is especially interesting, given your own teaching emphasis on the importance of leadership. In just the few months since that OpEd, however, Goldman has been fined in the UK for manipulating oil prices, and in separate U.S. cases has paid $22 million for favoring select clients, $16 million for a pay-to-play scheme, $12 million for improper campaign donations, and $6.75 million to settle claims about how it handled option claims. Such fines seem to be acceptable as simply another cost of business, rather than a spur to change how the company conducts business.

Please understand that I’m not criticizing you for these illegal activities. Being on the board, you are not usually involved in day-to-­day management. However, I would like to know how you view the “toxic environment” at Goldman Sachs, and the larger social responsibilities of such a powerful firm, in light of your own meditation practice. And since you have been on the Goldman board since 2002, how do you understand the responsibility of a board member in such a situation, and what role have you been able to play in affecting its problematical culture?

The Board

What is the role of a corporate board member in critical times such as ours? Photo: Shawn Kelly


I am also curious about your position as a board member of ExxonMobil since 2005. It is reportedly the world’s largest corporation ever, both by revenue and profits. According to a 2012 article in The Daily Telegraph, it has also “grown into one of the planet’s most hated corporations, able to determine American foreign policy and the fate of entire nations.” It is regularly criticized for risky drilling practices in endangered areas, poor response to oil spills (such as the Exxon Valdez in 1989), illegal foreign business practices, and especially its leading role in funding climate change denial.

ExxonMobil was instrumental in founding the first skeptic groups, such as the Global Climate Coalition. In 2007 a Union of Concerned Scientists report claimed that between 1998 and 2005 ExxonMobil spent $16 million supporting 43 organizations that challenged the scientific evidence for global warming, and that it used disinformation tactics similar to those used by the tobacco industry to deny any link between smoking and lung problems, charges consistent with a leaked 1998 internal ExxonMobil memo.

In January 2007 the company seemed to change its position and announced that it would stop funding some climate-­denial groups, but a July 2009 Guardian newspaper article revealed that it still supports lobbying groups that deny climate change, and a 2011 Carbon Brief study concluded that 9 out of 10 climate scientists who deny climate change have ties to ExxonMobil.

Even more important, the corporation’s belated and begrudging acknowledgement that global change is happening has not been accompanied by any determination to change company policies to address the problem. Although there has been some recent funding for research into biofuels from algae, ExxonMobil has not moved significantly in the direction of renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind power. According to its 2012 Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040, petroleum and natural gas will remain its main products: “By 2040, oil, gas and coal will continue to account for about 80 percent of the world’s energy demand” (p. 46). This is despite the fact that many of the world’s most reputable climate scientists are claiming that there is already much too much carbon in the atmosphere, and that we are perilously close to “tipping points” that would be disastrous for human civilization as we know it.

In response to this policy, I would like to learn how, in the light of your meditation practice, you understand the relationship between one’s own personal transformation and the kind of economic and social transformation that appears to be necessary today, if we are to survive and thrive during the next few critical centuries. How does your concern for future generations express itself in your activities as a board member of these corporations (among others)? Are you yourself skeptical about global warming? If not, how do you square that with your role at ExxonMobil?

Let me conclude by emphasizing again that this letter is not in any way meant to be a personal criticism. From what I have read and heard, you are generous with your time and money, helping many nonprofits in various ways. What I’m concerned about is the “compartmentalization” of one’s meditation practice, so that mindfulness enables us to be more effective and productive in our work, and provides some peace of mind in our hectic lives, but does not encourage us to address the larger social problems that both companies (for example) are contributing to. Today the economic and political power of such corporations is so great that, unless they became more socially responsible, it is difficult to be hopeful about what the future holds for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

What is the role of a corporate board member in critical times such as ours? I would much appreciate your reflections and your experience on this issue.

Sincerely yours,

David Loy
646 Quince Circle
Boulder, CO 80304

David Robert Loy is a professor, writer, and Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition of Japanese Zen Buddhism. His writings and workshops often focus on the interaction between traditional Buddhism and the modern world, especially the social implications of the Buddhadharma.

Top photo: Blue board room by zen Sutherland

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Comments (33)

  • Richard Modiano

    Mindfulness as such has no moral or ethical dimensions, and it seems to me naive to believe that meditation of any sort will improve one’s moral character. Our nature allows all kinds of behavior. Under some circumstances any one of us could be a gas chamber attendant or a bodhisattva. There’s a huge indoctrination system designed to make us unaware of the institutional constraints under which we behave. That’s what propaganda and regimentation are all about. Living and working within the framework of these institutions erodes the moral character and prevents you from looking at what you yourself are doing. Under some circumstances people can be very moral. But they’re acting within institutional structures, constructed systems in which only certain options are easy to pursue while others are very hard to pursue.

    In the case of Mr. George, he has an obligation to serve his company and its share holders, and part of his obligation is to maximize profits and ensure the continued existence of Goldman Sachs. This is the nature of business under capitalism, grow or perish. In an interview with Bill Moyers George Soros flatly stated that business was amoral.

  • charles

    This is an amazing piece. Many thanks to David. And to BPF!

    Richard, I think that you and David might agree that mindfulness “has no moral or ethical dimensions.” I think his point is that, while “mindfulness” has no such dimensions, *Buddhism* does.

    David’s article inspired me to read more about Mr. George. I found something of a manifesto by him here:

    It does seem to be written by a well-intentioned guy…but also a very confused, or at least selective one. First, he makes it clear that he is practicing mindfulness and not Buddhism: “I have meditated regularly for more than thirty years, not as a religious or spiritual practice, but as a personal discipline to relieve stress.” But at the same time, he wants to claim that the practice has inherent moral and social benefits: “It has helped me become more self-aware and more compassionate toward myself and others” and “Its ultimate goal is to create a more harmonious and peaceful world for all to live in.” He wants it both ways–and it seems that the only way to do that is to limit the scope of mindfulness itself.

    For George, mindfulness is a largely internal affair, a way to understand one’s emotions and motivations. As a “mindful leader” in the corporate world, attention to the present moment expands to include one’s investors, and not much further. Unmindful leaders, he says, all too often “have placed self-interest ahead of the well-being of their organizations…then refused to take responsibility for the harm caused to the people they served.” But mindfulness “enables them to be fully present, aware of themselves and their impact on other people, and focused on achieving the goals of their organizations.”

    That’s a pretty limited view of the field of mindfulness, and of who a mindful leader should be “serving.” Compare it to Alan Senauke’s (who sees, I think, little distinction between mindfulness and morality):

    “The unique tools of mindfulness allow us to see what is right in front of us. Sometimes that view is close and sharp, sometimes long and wide. Yet whatever comes into view is connected, entwined, engaged, with all else in fabric of the universe. So, mindfulness is also a matter of responsibility. How to see mindfulness itself in these terms, and how to communicate it in our temples, schools, institutions, and society is the everyday work of Buddhadharma.”

    Ultimately, I think one can bring *Buddhist* mindfulness into the capitalist business world only by severely constraining what present awareness is allowed to be aware of. I’m not even sure what George describes should be called mindfulness of any sort. Once the focus of an ExxonMobil board member expands beyond the (hierarchical, labor-exploiting) organization and its investors to, say, the people dying as a result of its policies in Indonesia or Nigeria, all bets are off and you’re gonna need a truckload of delusion to pretend you’re aware of yourself, your impact on others, or anything else.

    I’m not sure if mindfulness is amoral, but I’m positive capitalism is immoral.



  • Sooz Appel

    Sila is the basis of our Buddhist mindfulness practice. We’re not just asked to be mindful; we’re asked to practice Wise Mindfulness. It is from our ethical center (the precepts, the 3 jewels, awareness of the 3 poisons) that we practice and conduct ourselves in our daily lives–in commerce, in community, in relationships.

    Thank you, David Loy, for writing this and bringing to the conversation the challenge of how we bifurcate our lives between on the cushion and in all our dealings with the world. The questions are not just for those who sit on corporate boards; the questions are for all of us as we interact, as we decide how we earn our money, how we spend our money, if we invest our money and if yes, where…and the list goes on.

  • Rachel

    I think this letter challenges us to think about this differently. One important tenant of Buddhism is interdependence, interbeing, as Thich Nhat Hanh calls it. If we compartmentalize our meditation practice from the rest of our lives, we are not allowing that teaching to take hold in our lives. Plus, as David points out, Buddhism isn’t just meditation. It includes ethical guidelines that, again, require us to look more deeply. Thus, separating mindfulness from morality/ethics is denying this interbeing of the teachings.

    Arguing that this is just “the nature of business under capitalism” is ignoring that capitalism itself exists in various forms and is not always as life-alienating as the super-capitalism in the US. Plus, if there truly were “pure” capitalism – the “grow or perish” kind you write about, Richard – Goldman Sucks wouldn’t exist anymore. Remember that government bailout? That prevented a lot of financial institutions from perishing because their businesses had not been sound (even ignoring ethical considerations!). Looking at that and understanding it is also interdependence.

    The indoctrination system’s brainwashing you write about includes twisting things into system justification: “This is just how things are and we are powerless to change anything.” I think David’s letter is intended to break through that and wake us up…

  • Richard Modiano

    Both state capitalism and monopoly capitalism are predicated on extracting profits through accumulating surplus value. The ultimate purpose of a corporation is not to perform public services or produce goods but to make as large a profit as possible for the investor. Steel magnate David Roderick once said that his company “is not in the business of making steel. We’re in the business of making profits.” The social uses of the product and its effects upon human well-being and the natural environment win consideration in capitalist production, if at all, only to the extent that they do not violate the profit goals of the corporation.

    This relentless pursuit of profit arises from something more than just greed–although there is plenty of that. Under capitalism, enterprises must expand in order to survive. To stand still amidst growth is to decline, not only relatively but absolutely. A slow-growth firm is less able to move into new markets, hold onto old ones, command investment capital, and control suppliers. Hence, even the biggest corporations are beset by a ceaseless drive to expand, to find new ways of making money no matter what the cost to the environment or to the quality of life of their workers.

    So what form of capitalism is not based on market competition and increasing profits for owners and investors?

    As for Goldman Sachs, Goldman’s fourth-quarter profit of $2.89 billion or $5.60 a share, recorded last month was not only well ahead of last year’s performance, but it also handily beat analysts’ expectations of $3.78 a share, according to Thomson Reuters. JPMorgan Chase also reported a strong profit of $5.7 billion for the fourth quarter, up 53 percent from the previous year. This spectacular recovery was made possible by the infusion of tax payer dollars because business owns the Federal Government.

    As for waking up, all of us socialists, Marxists and Wobblies have been awake to the destructive capitalist juggernaut since since we read volume I of Capital (or at least Wage, Labor and Capital) and we’re in it for the long haul. The Industrial Workers of the World of which I’ve been a member since 1974 has had success organizing Starbucks workers.

  • Rachel

    “So what form of capitalism is not based on market competition and increasing profits for owners and investors?” Uhm, the monopolistic capitalism in the US is not based on market competition! As you wrote yourself: “This spectacular recovery was made possible by the infusion of tax payer dollars because business owns the Federal Government.” Exactly my point: Goldman Sucks would not exist in the “grow and perish” capitalism you describe.

  • Richard Modiano

    Prior to 2008 banks failed at the rate of two per year with their assets acquired by larger banks; since 2008 the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) closed 465 failed banks with assets acquired by competing banks including Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan among others. Further, the survivors are in competition with their overseas rivals as well as with each other while the Federal Government serves as a referee, intervening when necessary so that they don’t devour each other.

    Turning to other industries, Six movie studios receive 90% of American film revenues. The television and high speed internet industry is mostly an oligopoly of seven companies: The Walt Disney Company, CBS Corporation, Viacom, Comcast, Hearst Corporation, Time Warner, and News Corporation. Four wireless providers (AT&T Mobility, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, Sprint Nextel) control 89% of the cellular telephone service market. This is not to be confused with cellular telephone manufacturing, an integral portion of the cellular telephone market as a whole.

    Healthcare insurance in the United States consists of very few insurance companies controlling major market share in most states. For example, California’s insured population of 20 million is the most competitive in the nation and 44% of that market is dominated by two insurance companies, Anthem and Kaiser Permanente.

    Pharmaceutical companies have become multinational. There has been an estimate of 10,000 mergers and consolidation of Pharma companies in the industry in the past four years. Companies like GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca were formed by mergers for the stated purpose of specializing in a few areas in research and development. In reality such mergers have resulted in less drugs being developed and the Pharma companies requesting extension time for their patents. The increase of sales globally and the selling of drugs across country borders has not resulted in a decrease of prices for buyers. We can all attest to the fact that here in the United States prices are artificially high when compared to prices in Mexico and Canada.

    The tendency of late capitalism is toward oligopoly arrived at through “survival of the fittest.” I recommend Robert Reich’s “Supercapitalism” for a detailed discussion.

  • Rachel

    Richard: I am confused… Is your comment a response to something someone else wrote here? If so, could you clarify what you were responding to?

    Btw, i used the term “supercapitalism” precisely in reference to Robert Reich’s work…

  • Richard Modiano

    I’m soapboxing Rachel, an old Wobbly stand by once you have someone’s attention.

    Returning to the heading, “Can Mindfulness Change a Corporation”, my answer is that it cannot. As others have noted, without an ethical context mindfulness is little more than mental gymnastics that has the benign effect of lowering blood pressure and cultivating emotional balance.

  • Katie Loncke

    Hi all, just wanted to check in and appreciate some of the responses so far, because I think we’re getting at some important myth-busting around the potential of corporate mindfulness to bring about “a more harmonious and peaceful world for all to live in.” (Thanks, charles, for finding that manifesto.)

    As we speak, there’s a conference going on here in Northern California called Wisdom 2.0, that seems to deal with similar themes (right now on the livestream: “Applied Wisdom In Business Life”). The speaker is discussing the need to balance “small steps and big leaps,” with no moral or ethical framing, at least in the beginning of the talk that I’m hearing.

    Seems like we all agree that mindfulness *properly understood* must imply responsibility and morality. I also wonder about the relationship between mindfulness and democracy. Mindfulness, at least in the US context, seems to really lend itself to this strong individualism in the culture — whether entrepreneurs, or nonprofit leaders, legislators, etc. But I’m curious what would happen if we brought mindfulness more into conversation with how to build healthy, functional democratic processes, rather than enlightened leadership. (Talked about this recently with a dharma friend of mine; want to shout them out but it might be awkward because of their job? But if you’re reading this, T, I’m thinking of you! :)

    Richard, I appreciate the economic info shared, but please try less for soapboxing and more for engagement with people’s arguments and questions. Not that soapboxing is never okay, but it’s not the kind of online dialogue we’re really going for.

    For what it’s worth, my understanding is that worldwide, capitalism includes both competitive elements (based largely on a falling rate of profit) and monopolistic elements. I’m not really sure why we’re viewing them as mutually exclusive? And correct me if I’m wrong, Richard or Rachel, but I wasn’t seeing Richard’s first argument (that’s just how capitalism works) as a fatalistic one, but as an assessment that capitalism is just generally harmful, and not worth trying to reform. Instead, Wobblies want to “build a new world in the shell of the old,” based on a democratic, classless society. Am I getting that right? Also, I think the argument goes that, even in places and times where the harm of capitalism seems less acute or “alienating,” if we look deeply we can always find harm and exploitation in the creation of surplus value — another way of saying, unpaid labor performed for the profit of someone else.

    Okay, sorry to leave it there, but really gotta go! I wonder whether we could brainstorm next steps to take to grow this conversation, using Mr. George as a focus, but dreaming up more coordinated ways of BPF to air concerns with superficial “mindfulness for better business” ?

  • Rachel

    To take your question, Katie, on how to air our concerns in a more coordinated way, maybe we could figure out some things we could say… Pointing out the inherent harm in capitalism is probably not going to get us far because it tends to bring up defensiveness… I think we all agree that our concern is the uncoupling of mindfulness from ethical grounding because it leads to phenomena like using mindfulness to support capitalism, a system that is at root life-alienating.

    So how can we voice that concern in a way that is engaging? Let me try to formulate this and others can improve/dismiss/challenge… “When i hear mindfulness used within business, i feel very uncomfortable because i have concerns about how many businesses treat people and the planet. Could you let me know what kind of ethics you teach together with mindfulness?”

    Ough. That sounds pretty weak, so please see this as a starting point! Although part of the “weakness” is to avoid simply pushing the other person into defensiveness (“but capitalism isn’t that bad!”). I also tried to avoid using trigger words like “capitalism”… And also, this is meant as a way to start a dialog, so it’s definitely not the last statement (hopefully…)

  • Richard Modiano

    ” I wasn’t seeing Richard’s first argument (that’s just how capitalism works) as a fatalistic one, but as an assessment that capitalism is just generally harmful, and not worth trying to reform. Instead, Wobblies want to “build a new world in the shell of the old,” based on a democratic, classless society. Am I getting that right?”

    That’s right Katie. Capitalism always finds a way to transcend whatever reforms are applied to it, so in that respect I am fatalistic about creating a “capitalism with a human face.” We have to go beyond capitalism.

    At this point let me add that I don’t Marx’s teleology convincing, that socialism inevitably will emerge from capitalism, though I agree that the productive capacities unleashed by capitalism can be harmonized with living on earth in a balanced and non-exploitative manner, but only the conscious efforts of humans acting in solidarity will bring that about. As it says in the opening paragraphs of the preamble to the IWW constitution:

    “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

    “Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.”

  • Richard Modiano

    “I also tried to avoid using trigger words like ‘capitalism’…” Interestingly, Marx never used the word capitalism in his economic studies. Instead he talked about the “bourgeois mode of production.” Personally, I’ve found the use of “bourgeois” more agitating than the use of capitalism.

    That said, I think Rachel’s idea of directly addressing the issue by asking what kind of ethical parameters are being taught with mindfulness is the best approach.

  • charles

    As I think about how to “air our concerns,” I find myself wondering exactly what my concerns are. I mean, I don’t really care much one way or another if a bunch of CEOs are sitting on cushions in their corner offices–just as I don’t begrudge them their blood pressure medication (well, not too much). I’m not even sure how much I worry about them, so to speak, sullying the good name of mindfulness by linking it to (and perhaps using it to justify) nefarious practices.

    My concerns are with the nefarious practices themselves: how to end them and the harm they cause. What is the point of trying to “convince” ExxonMobil board members that mindfulness and ethics can’t be separated? Is it so that they might practice a gentler form of capitalism? But none of us really think there is such a thing, right? Just different ways of displacing and disguising and distributing the harm (less egregious exploitation in the North due to more intense surplus value extraction in the South, etc).

    Does it make more sense to “defend” mindfulness against co-optation by unethical institutions? To try to get individual humans to behave more ethically within unethical institutions? To dismantle the institutions that depend upon, generate, and maintain unethical practices?

    I wonder how hard David Loy was trying to “awaken” Bill George himself. Maybe his letter was aimed more at a different audience, one that he was more likely to convince, or at least affect–people who might be or become interested in dismantling the institutions Mr. George supports, and thus who might actually care about the relationship between mindfulness and ethics. That would bring us back to Katie’s question about bringing “mindfulness more into conversation with how to build healthy, functional democratic processes, rather than enlightened leadership.”

    Raise our concerns to who? Why?

  • Rachel

    Charles: Thank you SO much for this comment! It sharpened how i’ve been pondering “all of this” and reminded me of an exchange i had just before the one-and-only engaged Buddhism retreat at Spirit Rock. Sharing a meal with people who attended another retreat, i mentioned that i was attending the engaged Buddhism retreat to deal with the despair i was (and still am) feeling about the state of the world. The guy i was talking to responded with something like this “oh, i don’t feel despair! I can sense that the consciousness is shifting because so many people are meditating now! we can only really change ourselves…” I was dumbfounded. And angry because i didn’t know how to respond. I wanted to shout “nothing is getting better! the ice caps are melting faster than predicted and we’re increasing our CO2 emissions! inner change isn’t enough!”

    So, to me, it’s more people like this who i want to reach who are aware on some level that the status quo isn’t working and yet seem to not connect the dots. And as i type this, i also want to know how to respond to people who tell me that i am being judgmental when i claim that others aren’t connecting the dots, that they are just having another way of seeing things and bladibla like that.

    To put it differently: How do we reach people in their delusion and motivate them to change before things get way worse?

    (And on the Marxian tangent: I listened to a fascinating interview with Richard Peet a couple days ago who argues that the industrial capitalism has been replaced with finance capitalism, which is even more parasitic. The interview can be found here: )

  • Rachel

    Sorry… One more thing: Soapboxing doesn’t seem to motivate change. If we were (mostly) motivated by rational argument, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Plus, talking at people (which is what soapboxing tends to turn into) loses people’s interest. I mostly only scanned what you wrote, Richard, and picked out a few things i could come up with something to say about… We probably could spend hours debating this and not get anywhere…

    So, how do we get our points across in a way that actually gets people to act differently? In my case, i’d like to see more people move their money from the Big Banks and start shopping locally, which, imo, could move us toward a more resilient way of living… And as frustratingly small as these changes are, i can’t even motivate people to do that… It’s “too hard,” “too complicated,” they are “too busy”…

  • Richard Modiano

    “Soapboxing doesn’t seem to motivate change.”

    On the contrary Rachel. The IWW has a very successful history of effecting change through soapboxing. It was the basis of our successful free speech fights in several US cities:

    As for persuading the bosses, don’t waste your time. Organize your work place instead. The rank and file workers created the Starbucks Workers Union without changing Howard Shultz’s mind. Fellow workers have won higher wages, guaranteed hours, and Martin Luther King Day as a workers holiday at several shops.

    Then there’s the entire subject of non-violent confrontation to consider.

  • Rachel

    George Lakoff has done quite a bit of work on the ineffectiveness of rational argument… When someone hangs onto a political argument because of fear, all the data in the world won’t convince them otherwise. Ironically, some of the right think-tanks have used Lakoff’s ideas very effectively.

    If i had soapboxed the guy at the retreat, i don’t think i would’ve gotten anywhere. Actually, i think i probably *was* on a soapbox and his discussion-ending “it really isn’t the way you say it is” indicates how little that worked. To me, now, the question isn’t whether or not soapboxing works (it might, after all, in some circumstances) but rather how do i reach someone like this guy, someone who i think could be reached (unlike the CEOs…)? How can i break through his delusion? And also: Is it okay to claim that he’s deluded or is that an ethically questionable judgment on my part?

  • Richard Modiano

    For the guy at the retreat another tact is the Socratic dialog where you interrogate his position: “You say that because more and more people are meditating they’ll come to their senses and then do something about CO2 emissions. Will the tipping point come first for world wide awakening or will the ice caps melt before that happens? How will the shift in consciousness alter power relations between the haves and the have nots? How soon before the shift in consciousness manifest itself in the workplace? How has your meditation practice addressed global warming? Etc.”

  • Rachel

    Wow! I love these questions! They really seem to go to the heart of the matter and are worded in a way that might raise some consciousness, too.

  • charles

    I like that sort of Socratic method as well. Especially if the questions are genuine…or if we can convince ourselves, at least momentarily, that we don’t know the answers, that this is actually a joint exploration, and not a passive-aggressive battery of trick questions.

    On the other hand, we do know the answers, or at least some of them, and faux-spiritual “openness” sometimes seems to waste a lot of time.

    Or maybe the thing that worries me is less how we, um, dispel delusion in the individuals we engage, than the usefulness of the model (shared by most flavors of engaged spirituality) of an incremental, soul-by-soul conversion. The problems we face are massive and systemic. The force that confronts them probably must be as well.

    Buddhism seems to have a lot to say about one-to-one “transmission,” but does it have anything to offer the question of *mass* movements, *social* forces, *class* struggle, etc?

  • zhiwa

    I find all of this fascinating and relevant, but am especially interested in the issue of despair Rachel raises. In fact, the retreat guy she labels as “in denial” actually has a valid point – there really is a conscious shift happening, but it seems her despair is based upon this shift not happening in what she interprets as a timely manner. We should really spend some time unpacking all this. Briefly, consciousness collectively will shift in response to the kind of global/survival urgency we are confronting, but there is no need to go into that in great detail (see Joanna Macy, consider the current Pluto/Uranus aspect, etc.). Unfortunately, it is likely very true that it will not, in point of fact cannot, shift and manifest change on the scale and in the timeframe necessary to avert global ecotastrophe. This is primarily true because there is a 30 year time lag between our collective “action” (e.g., emissions) and the climatic “effects” (e.g., increasing disorder and the associated dislocation). So even if the shift happened tonight while we were sleeping, and everyone woke up tomorrow and decided to do the right thing, we still have a 30 year window of deterioration and dislocation staring us in the face. So this gets to the heart of being a Buddhist, does it not? I’ve been an eco-activist for almost 20 years, and en “environmentalist” for 30. I’ve seen so many activists burn out, and I think I understand the cause. It isn’t so much that they have savior complexes (i.e., conflate individual and collective karma) as it is they are attached to a particular story, or to be more specific, to seeing a specific kind of change in a specific time frame that is coterminous with their own lifetime. I developed a technique called “the gospel of hopelessness” where I asked them to consider all their worst fears being realized in the near term, and consider what the appropriate personal response would be in the short term in light of that coming catastrophe. Most sensitive, virtuous people, Buddhist or not, reach the same conclusion: I’d do the same thing because it is the right thing to do. Right Action. There is nothing in the 8 fold path about “right result”, you know? Right Action is not contingent. Then I would suggest what if all of this that we see as catastrophic is, from the planets perspective, a necessary correction, or in Buddhist terms, a kind of purification by fire? After all, nobody really pretends that this planet can support 7 billion human beings and counting. And what if, after all that, a new age will dawn and we are planting the seeds for that new age right now? In other words, have you actually studied the Shambhala myth? We live in this degenerate age (that is not specific to Shambhala), and the forces of darkness prevail (that is), but will eventually consume themselves. Out of the ashes etc. It’s a redemptive myth, and death/rebirth and redemption are not always pretty processes. But as Buddhists, we have to do our best to see things as they really are, and not how we would like to see things work out in our lifetime. For me personally, this is actually a liberating view. I am not fooling myself. We are embarking on a time of incredible dislocation and suffering. Guess what? Samsara! (Oh yeah!). Working on my own mind is unquestionably the most important task, as I am ill-equipped to be of much help. At the same time, given the exigencies of this dark day and age, I can’t justify withdrawing into a cave, either. So I do all I can to develop my mind through my practice and through becoming increasingly engaged in the world and structuring my activities in it in a way that will allow me to respond appropriately to the suffering that surrounds me and will continue to surround me. We can do volunteer hospice, we can acquire counseling skills, we can continue working for social change to lessen the impact of this intense negative ripening collective karma, we can help spread the dharma in skillful ways (assisting our teachers etc). And we can find peace within along the way. Am I soapboxing here? Or preaching to the choir? Om Ah Hum…

  • Richard Modiano

    “We can do volunteer hospice, we can acquire counseling skills, we can continue working for social change to lessen the impact of this intense negative ripening collective karma, we can help spread the dharma in skillful ways (assisting our teachers etc). And we can find peace within along the way.”

    Why not organize your work place too? The place to start is at the point of production.

    But there’s still the question of what to do when some people are hurting and others who have power don’t care? How do we make narrow, busy, and self-righteous people understand that other people exist?

    It was exactly for this problem that Gandhi and his followers in the United States A.J. Muste and Martin Luther King Jr. devised and experimented the strategy of active massive non-violent confrontation, both non-violent resistance and aggressive non-violence. In my opinion, this is the only strategy that addresses all aspects of the situation. It challenges unconcern; it attacks institutions and confronts people as well. It personalizes the conflict so that habitual and mechanical responses are not easy. It diminishes strangeness. It opens possibilities for the narrow to grow and come across, instead of shutting them out. It interrupts the downward spiral of the oppressed into despair, fanaticism and brutality. Most important, it is the only realistic strategy, because it leads to rather than prevents the achievement of a future community among all the combatants. We will have to live together in some community or other. How? In what community? We really do not know, but non-violent conflict is the way to discover and invent it.

    Non-violence is aggressive. Since the injustices in society are mainly in the institutional system even though the personal agents might be innocent or even quite sympathetic, it is necessary to prevent the unjust institutions from grinding on as usual. It is necessary not to shun conflict but to seek it out. So Gandhi, Muste and King were continually inventing campaigns to foment apparent disorder when things apparently had been orderly.

  • Richard Modiano

    “Buddhism seems to have a lot to say about one-to-one “transmission,” but does it have anything to offer the question of *mass* movements, *social* forces, *class* struggle, etc?”

    Well, Thich Nhat Hanh has developed some tactical devices like deep listening to add to the repetoire of non-violent confrontation. As for deriving a strategic theory of revolution from the Buddhadharma, I’m not sure that it’s necessary. Actual revolutionary out breaks (and wild cat strikes too for that matter) occur spontaneously without advanced planning; even the Cuban Revolution developed in an ad hoc manner.

  • Rachel

    Thank you so much for what you are contributing to this discussion, charles! Once again you formulated something that i’ve been chewing on: “The problems we face are massive and systemic. The force that confronts them probably must be as well.” Yes! Exactly! We don’t have freaking time to go slow. Yes, climate scientists have been wrong: Things are far worse, much faster, than they predicted. (And i totally know why because that’s how modeling & forecasting works – and i spare you those details…).

    For me, that is exactly where my despair stems from: I see the massive multiple train derailings we’re heading for (ecological, social, economic) and don’t see a force equally strong (or stronger) that could possibly stop this (i think, zhiwa, you picked that up in my comment, too). So i oscillate between despair, learning how to survive post-crashes, and trying to change other people (always hearing the little voice “how do you know you’re right?”).

  • Lisa Lindsley

    Thanks for the posts and the comments. I understand the despair. My personal experience with mindfulness leads me to hope that someone like William George would realize through meditation that he is doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons; for example, he is seeking approval and love by seeking wealth and power; or seeking safety when we are never really safe. It is disappointing that this does not seem to have happened, and alarming that mindfulness might be marketed as a tool to make too-big-to-fail banks and their greedy executives (with whom I have some professional experience) all the more effective at collapsing our economy again.

  • Dawn Haney

    Another take on mindfulness & corporations (including a reference to this article):

    Mindfulness goes corporate — and purists aren’t pleased: How the Buddhist tradition has been marshalled to grow profits and productivity by Anne Kingston

  • William

    Thank you for these posts and viewpoints. I am finding them challenging and somewhat inspiring.

    My background is in the healing arts. I therefore often use my understanding of the mind/body as microcosm of global issues. Example, if I was to put poison into my body, what would it do? I then extrapolate that answer to issues such as global warming…..perhaps this is an overly simplistic way of exploring complex issues. Yet, there you have it.

    So, in the context of economics, my question is “If I sit in mindful awareness, what does that do my mind/body”? Well, the research is pretty clear, it seems to profoundly contribute to a healthier state. By “healthier state” I am not talking simply of less physical disease but also mental disease. People seem to be less “greedy”, less narcissistic, more sarisfied with less. Their tendency to “comfort eat” diminishes and the neurotic patterns tend to also decrease. A balanced nervous system seems to rely more an a moral compass than on the figh/flight mechanisms of our more animalistic tendencies to make decisions.

    I really know nothing about Mr William George other than the little I have read from David Loy’s letter to him. I just know that from my own Buddhist/mindfulness practice, that mindfulness alone seems to have a profound effect on my waking up to my own neurotic patterns around money, sex and work. I also suggest that in this unsatisfactory/stressful samsaric human realm, a mindful mind in business, is a better proposition that an unmindful mind in business. I also feel that when neurotic corporate people approach the challenges of transitioning from old out dated economic models to more holistic and inclusive models, mindfulness becomes even more pertinent. I venture to say that it would be virtually impossible to make the changes we must make in most of the sectors of society, with out mindfulness. The exploration of ethics in corporate circles is also best addressed with mindfulness.

    May be this is more a conversation about our fear of turning the Dharma into some sort of consumeristic rationalisation. Some sort of dilution of the Dharma or as Chogyam Trungpa would
    Say, “Spiritual Materilism”. These are valid concerns, yet what to do? Do we turn up into the corporate world and teach Buddhism or is it best to turn up into the corporate world teaching mindful ethics, action and speech? Have we not seen that corporations do become more ethical, more compassionate when leadership changes. Have we not already seen this occurring in corporate America already? (A YouTube clip of Jack Kornfield interviewing the head of the Ford Motor company)

    Mr William George may very well be a mindful pebble dropping into the turbulent greedy ocean that is often found in corporations.

    So, maybe I am missing something here, and I would love to hear from others.


    William Federico

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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