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Why Google Protesters Were Right To Disrupt Wisdom 2.0

They say you can’t be neutral on a moving train.

So can you be mindful on a Google bus?


This weekend, as three Google presenters took the stage to discuss mindfulness and tech at the annual Wisdom 2.0 conference, they found themselves interrupted by a handful of protesters unfurling a large banner.


Shouting into a bullhorn, one protester (conspicuously less mellow than the others) began to chant:

“Wisdom means stop displacement!”

“Wisdom means stop surveillance!”

“San Francisco’s not for sale!”

google protest wisdom 2.0


After the protesters were yanked off stage by security, the Google presenters tried to recenter. “Check in with your body and see what’s happening. What it’s like to be around conflict with people with heartfelt ideas, that may be different than what we’re thinking.”

Sound advice, yes — very wise. And yet, something is missing.

What’s Not Present?

Something similar was missing, too, back in 2010 when I attended the first Wisdom 2.0 conference. All the talk about kindness, happiness, and well being (with twin values of creativity, productivity, and profitability) focused on the users and innovators of technology. There was never any mention of the people who manufacture the gadgets that techies then outfit with meditation bell apps. What about the mindfulness, happiness, and well being of the people mining coltan in the DRC, or the people assembling iPhones at the infamous Foxconn sweatshops?

I mean, if we exclude them from the picture, then yes, we can calmly check in with our bodies. Things look very mindful and peaceful. Very reasonable, polite, and progressive.

But such deep exclusion invites deep delusion. Something important is missing. Entire groups of relevant people are cut out of the conversation altogether.

The fact is that waves of gentrification have pushed thousands of low-income, disproportionately Black & Brown residents out of San Francisco, and now the city is courting wealthy tech companies (like the ones at Wisdom 2.0) to move in.

Are we just going to ignore the people who are being displaced? Act like we don’t know about this history?

Are we going to pretend that there’s nothing we can do about it?

Hopefully, our friends with the banners won’t let us.

The Tech Bubble

On one hand, of course you can be mindful on a Google bus. You can be mindful anywhere — that’s the point. It’s uber-portable spiritual technology.

And you might be mindful of your sensations, your stress levels, your breath. But are you mindful of the ways in which your presence is changing a neighborhood, a region?

I agree with critics who maintain that the tech buses and their riders are not the cause of gentrification, but more of a symptom. Ultimate accountability lies elsewhere. As Al Jazeera America writer Alexandra Goldman notes, the larger issue is that “many of San Francisco’s policy makers are more invested in pandering to the tech industry than in protecting low-income San Franciscans.”

Still, the buses as vehicles also reinforce the insulation and isolation of their passengers. As Allison Arieff pointed out in the New York Timesthe overall Google-dome approach to urban planning tends to reinforce the shielding mechanism that allows a blank-slate mentality to flourish among techie newcomers. As though nothing significant were here before you arrived. As though all that matters is what you are creating afresh. (Or discovering on Yelp.)

This is not true mindfulness. It’s selective awareness, optimized for pleasure.

In other words, ignorance.

And the problem is not just ignorance itself (though of course the irony of Oblivious Geniuses is part of what’s making this story go global). The problem is the consequences of this ignorance on the lives of working-class people. Because, like a transit version of the observer effect, these buses transform the city even as they traverse it. Research indicates that “rents within the walkable zones [of Google shuttle stops] rose up to 20 percent more rapidly than rents outside the walkable zones.” (And the median rent rose 12.3% in the past year.)

The Google buses may be sparing the air, but they’re also raising the rent — to prices that many long-time residents simply can’t afford. Hence the banner, the chants, the insistent disturbance. San Francisco is not for sale.

At least, we do not have to conceive of it that way. We have some choices here.

And that’s why I’m grateful to these protesters for disrupting the status quo, offering us the opportunity to rethink, reframe, and re-center. Especially re-centering the people excluded and minimized from the picture.

What if SF tech workers actually took up

the challenge of the Wisdom 2.0 protesters,

and redefined wisdom to include social justice?

What if wisdom did mean stopping evictions: from joining eviction protests & blockades to strengthening rent control policies? (For beautiful data renderings of an ugly history of displacement, check out this map and timeline of the Ellis Act.)

What if wisdom meant donating all income after $80,000 to a strike fund for victims of wage theft — a problem rampant in the service economy? (Seattle’s new Socialist city councilmember provides a ready example, giving away HALF her income to strengthen local struggles and live more like the average worker.)

What if wisdom meant organizing your co-workers to demand that your company pay in to SF’s public services,  refusing tax breaks and instead investing in the well-being of all city residents — especially queer youth, folks on the street, and other oppressed and marginalized groups?

What if wisdom meant using some of your $100,000-a-year, intellectual-worker salary to keep Marcus Books, the nation’s oldest Black bookstore, from being priced out of its own space in the historic Fillmore District?

What if wisdom meant stopping deportations of the undocumented and increasingly unafraid immigrant community (some members of which are almost certainly cooking your food and cleaning your buildings)?

What if wisdom meant countering capitalist-driven gentrification with a demand for the collective Right to the City, and democratic forms of community development?

What if tech wisdom had less to do with sparkle…

…and more to do with redistributing wealth & power in one of the nation’s most expensive cities?

What if mindfulness enhanced not only our personal well being…

…but also our attunement to the collective well-being?

I see from the Wisdom 2.0 web site that they also had some sessions on corporate responsibility, social change, etc. So who knows — maybe someone at the conference proposed the above ideas, or similar ones. (Let me know!)

Where I am certain is that you BPFers have other, brilliant ideas for re-centering wisdom to include social justice: in San Francisco, or in your own town. And some may have disagreements or corrections on what I got wrong.

Regardless, let’s hear ’em! And let’s keep up the compassionate confrontation.

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Comments (43)

  • Murray Reiss

    I don’t own an iPhone, smartphone, tablet but I do own a computer on which I am dependent for much of my self-employed freelance income. So I have to ask myself, and all of us tech-dependent beings, how do we include the mindfulness, happiness, wellbeing of the people mining coltan in the DRC, many of them children, the victims of the wars for control of the rare earths and minerals that make our tech devices work (many of them women, many of them victims of rape), the poorly paid overworked sweatshop smartphone assemblers, without whom none of out high-tech tools and baubles would even exist, what are the questions towards including them that would be analogous to your questions around the effect of tech company workers moving in on San Francisco? (And you really need to read Rebecca Solnit’s article on all this in the current London Review of Books — I’m assuming your question took the “What if wisdom meant …” form because you were riffing off the Wisdom 2.0 conference, but wouldn’t wisdom realize that none of what you’re asking of it can be accomplished without an accompanying compassion?

  • Michael

    Interesting how you focused on what Buddhism teaches us as the interdependent nature of existence. We are not always aware or can be in our unenlightened state to the chains of events that is set off by our decisions.

    But ultimately we are responsible for how we act to what Karma presents us.

    Example,You focused on buses which were done with I am sure good intentions. Google planners did not forsee local landlords raising rents. Yet you hold them responsible for the landlords’ actions.

    Should the rent issue be addressed? Yes it should, I agree. Holding Google responsible is the wrong direction. The action of the landlords are their own.

  • Mushim

    This article in the San Francisco Examiner gives more information about why the community is protesting Google worker shuttle buses and their effect on the SF Mission District neighborhoods:…/protesters-board…/Content… I hope the Wisdom 2.0 participants would thoughtfully, and if I dare say so, mindfully consider the issues that the community is trying to highlight — that Google worker shuttles are evidently using San Francisco MUNI bus stops without any financial contribution to the city, and that housing prices have soared near the bus stops used by the Google shuttles.

    Something that might be helpful would be for all tech companies’ leadership to receive training in Cultural Humility. See the excellent 4-part (brief) video series on this topic on YouTube: (part 1) The principles of Cultural Humility include recognizing and mitigating power imbalances, institutional accountability, and respectful partnerships.

  • nathan

    Michael, regardless of whether Google’s planners failed to recognize the commonplace consequence of their actions – gentrification – or if they simply didn’t care, the fact is that they are part of the problem. Placing the blame solely on the landlords is to to dismiss the interconnected nature of the causes and conditions. Too many in the US seem to think that corporations are neutral entities that have little or no responsibility to the places they do their business, or locate their operations. That essential a corporation like Google can purchase a piece of property, start shuttling piles of workers in and out of the surrounding neighborhood, change traffic patterns, increase general interest/demand for living and working in that neighborhood, which influences the landlords, who are mostly in it to make money anyway, and suddenly you have rising rental rates and building costs, driving out tenants, small businesses, and poorer home owners. And actually there’s almost always another player in the mix here – the local government. Who sees attracting big business to poorer neighborhoods as a “solution” both to addressing the need for more jobs, but also the physical concentration of poverty in an area. This stuff is not only often orchestrated, but the results are frequently not only predicted, but welcomed by the elite.

    Katie points to these different players in San Francisco. I’ve witnessed a different, but similar feeling gentrification slowly unfold around our new light rail train in St. Paul, MN. The same thing happened when Portland built it’s light rail. And so it goes.

    The danger, in my view, is failing to unearth and uphold the various players behind these situations. Focusing too much on Google could become a problem, as not only are other tech companies doing similar things, but the local govts and absentee landlords wouldn’t be pressured enough to shift what they’re doing.

    That’s why all of this is so challenging. Because it requires seeing the different pressure points, figuring out how to address each of them effectively, and also coming up with new visions to replace what’s present now.

  • Murray Reiss

    Nathan writes: “That essential a corporation like Google can purchase a piece of property, start shuttling piles of workers in and out of the surrounding neighborhood, change traffic patterns, increase general interest/demand for living and working in that neighborhood, which influences the landlords, who are mostly in it to make money anyway, and suddenly you have rising rental rates and building costs, driving out tenants, small businesses, and poorer home owners.” Which is what’s happening all over the world, wherever there’s a valuable resource to be extracted be it digital skill, tarsands oil, shale gas, tantalum … You see it in Fort McMurray, Alberta, you see it in Montana, and who sees it from the most vulnerable place are the indigenous people who are usually just barely holding on to what little land and traditional way of life they’ve got left and now have to deal with, basically, chemical warfare, elevated cancer rates, poisoned fish and moose, you name it. All to fuel the engines of capitalism so it can produce the latest cheap product we’ve just got to have.

  • Ji Hyang

    Visited some points of this conversation at City Center dining room last night. Now I see the conversation spans great distances–


  • Arthur

    I wasn’t at the conference, but I personally believe that generosity/dana should be the first lesson when teaching mindfulness. As far as I can see that seems to be laking within this process of gentrification and displacement.

  • wswdt20

    Some thoughts on San Francisco, via a detour through Tibet.

  • Richard Modiano

    The Wisdom 2.0 facilitators missed a chance to engage mindfully with their critics here. Instead of letting the cops throw the protestors out they should have re-focused their training on deep listening and heard them out. Maybe they’ll think of that next time.

  • Marilyn Vogel

    Thanks so much for publishing this statement, BPF. I and some of my friends have been very concerned about how corporate appropriation will affect our regional spiritual community. I am really happy to read that other practicioners are finding this same path recognizing injustice and vowing to end it. Even if the people that fail to see the injustice are innumerable. You have really inspired my faith. For the record, Google is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which funds, among other things, Stand Your Ground laws. Google also pays a corporate tax rate of 10%, in spite of its net worth of $394 billion.

  • nonnie

    I went to this conference–wanting to listen and learn–and was there when the protest happened. I agree with Kate’s points, her acknowledging the initial “sound advice” of the presenter.. & the deep exclusion that is happening.

    and I want to add some bits to this conversation: I wished the protestors had a clearer message to convey as they clearly weren’t going to get the call & response thing going in that crowd & had some air time to make some good points–which I was truly interested in hearing. I know there were others in the room who did not know what the protest was about, but who would have benefitted by a more coherent message. the people I talked to after wrote it off as confusing & “angry noise”. Kinda felt like a missed opportunity.. If we are going to be critical of others, we also need to look critically of how we go about making change. Some of the points about wage sharing etc might have been good seeds to drop in that scenario.

    But what really disappointed me was when the “spiritual” leaders (Brother Stendhal Rast, Sharon Salzburg, Jon Kabbat-Zinn, Eckhart Tolle, etc) were asked for input or wisdom on how to navigate the technology–what they wanted to offer leaders in these groups –about how to make it healthier, kinder,,etc… none of them had much to say. Tolle did talk about a “dystopian future” if kids today only interact with technology. Rast was clearly happy his gratitude site gets 10,000 hits a day..but there wasn’t any constructive advice for a room full of people who possibly could make positive technological changes by hearing their advice. Or about displacement or worker’s rights…THAT was disappointing. SO whilst I agree with making corporations more responsible, etc I would love to hear the warm brilliance of the Buddhist community offer up advice to the technology community about how to make it better, including social justice & enviro issues.. Perhaps next year BPF could join the conversation with some great advice. They clearly need it–and are asking for it.

    I didn’t hear the whole conference– but I was inspired by 2 women speakers (change makers in my book-inc grappling with the issues of their impact)-one who started “kickstarter ” and the other who started “” who spoke about the impact of their sites– & the “” founder clearly talked about employees using that vehicle to help their corporations change for the better. She knew who she was talking to. I thought that was powerful, one of the better sites I’ve heard of.

  • Murray Reiss

    I think the starting place for the tech community to begin to grapple with “how to make it better” is to frankly acknowledge that their enterprises are firmly embedded in an economic system called capitalism that simply cannot function without exploiting both nature and human beings. They could then go on to ask how many of their products are truly needed? And of those, how many really have to be upgraded with new & improved versions every year? And, always, asking at what cost to the planet and to those at the very bottom of the production process? Sometimes the best, in fact the only, way to make something better is to stop making it at all.

  • anon

    I love Buddhism. But honesty compels me to point out that American Buddhism is the new religion of the one percent. It would be quite interesting if someone wrote a book about how that came to be. I think Kabbat Zinn and some others made a conscious decision to package Buddhism in secular scientific language and promote it to elite academic and business audience’s. They did a bang up job. No doubt with the best intentions. Enlightened plutocrats will be coming to our rescue any day

  • Richard Modiano

    Richard K. Payne of the Institute for Buddhist Studies in Berkeley has some interesting observations at his blog: Excerpt: “Having stripped mindfulness of its Buddhist identity (and let me note in passing that this is an analysis of the social dynamics of Buddhism specifically and religion more generally in present-day US and not some sectarian counter-claim intended to defend the integrity of Buddhism—which is quite able to take care of itself), the second step is that mindfulness is then presented as something that one wants to adopt so as to be a better, happier, more productive employee—or perhaps out of the simple desire to belong amongst such a techno-hip, upper middle class crowd.”

  • Belinda G

    anon who are you? this is one of the pithiest little gems i’ve read in a while! maybe if not the book, you will write a blog post on this? my guess is that K-Z and others decided to do as you suggest because they felt the dharma would gain more traction and be more transformative than if it were packaged in asian moralism (yeah yeah sila and all that…whatevs) perhaps their hopes have been proven deeply wrong, at this point in time. and as you say, thank goddess for those enlightened plutocrats. they’ve been working so hard, and doing so much, and just look at how great things are turning out!

  • Amy Zucker Morgenstern

    “a blank-slate mentality . . . As though nothing significant were here before you arrived. As though all that matters is what you are creating afresh.”

    There is a word for this approach to human communities, and it has a long, tragic history: colonialization.

    Those of us who live in the city (as I do) are obliged by morality and mindfulness to ask: are my decisions those of a community member or a colonizer? If I move into a building made vacant for me by the eviction of a responsible renter, I am colonizing the neighborhood I profess to love. It is painful, this awareness of the network of mutuality. But it can change us. What if Google put its wealth and influence into creating a housing policy that benefited all, especially those currently being colonized? Opposing the Ellis Act would be a start.

  • Kogen 古 元

    Weaponizing the Dharma 2.0

  • Kogen 古 元

    But seriously, does anyone have advice for what a google techie should do to not become the land gentry? What’s realistic?

  • anon

    A realistic plan would be to support Google employees through a Network external to the Google organization that promotes justice. Such an organization could take the form of a WikiLeaks type group. Or it could be a trade union. Doing this would require non-adversarial communication with Google employees and discovering what issues they would like to bring to light. Maybe Chinese immigrant techies are keenly aware of the suffering of hard labor from their family members back home. Maybe American born and Google employees are concerned about the psychotic economic policies driven from the top of the corporation. Maybe lower paid Google employees want job security and a larger slice of the pie. A move to humanize Google would have to come from within but could certainly be supported from outside

  • anon

    Forming a group like I described above would if nothing else force Google to adopt an increasingly reactionary, paranoid corporate culture. They are already reactionary and paranoid of course but would prefer to talk about yoga and spiritual bliss.

  • nonnie

    Though I am sure there are other forums, at the said conference was the organizer of & again, she clearly stated employees can use it to change their workplaces. So like many things there are solutions–so moving the question to what motivates us to change, are we being lead by fear, hatred or ignorance..and then addressing each one specifically–I certainly have found working with ignorance a bit easier than say working with subtler areas of fear.

    To also add to the conversation, by chance, I am in a small group with one of the organizers of the conference–and she said she was the one who volunteered to go meet with the protestors (after they were off stage)to hear their concerns as she lives in the city and is experiencing the same situation(has the same concern). She felt all they had was a kind of blanket anger and couldn’t see or hear her–that she got lumped into a faceless group. Like, Kogen, has humorously (weaponizing the dharma 2.0–very funny & sometimes feels like what our responses sound like!) & clearly stated, what advice does the Buddhist community really have here? (thank you Kogen!) I agree with anon, non-adversarial communication is a healthy start…

    And tho not addressing ecological or social justice issues in his presentation –the guy who started Zappos is doing basically a large scale, new version company town in Las Vegas–as I understood it based on what his employees want. Very interesting–and compelling if we don’t have a consciousness that knows how to include others/ecosystem/full system views.

  • anon

    Thanks Nonnie for maturity ansd wisdom shines through in your comments. A few comments. It’s almost impossible to engage in direct action protest like that and not fall into fight / flight nervous system reaponse. No doubt your friend encountered highly charged emotion when talking
    to the protestors following the incident.
    This is the classic terrain of
    nonviolent civil disobedience.
    2nd point. I assumed Kogens comment about weaponizing dharma was about how tech companies like google are interwoven with americas half trillion dollar annual war budget. Didn’t spiritual leaders used to be critical of war profiteering? Now that killing technologies are produced mindfully I wonder if the victims notice a difference?
    Final point is about workplace democracy. Every corporate leader today is making noises about how they want to get employees input. These claims need to be closely examined. We live in the age of managed democratic illusions and our opinions are oh so very important to the billionaires who own everything.

  • Katie Loncke

    Hi Kogen, nonnie, anon!

    Appreciating the desire for a constructive turn of the conversation — it sounds like the protesters’ main accomplishment was in exposing some of the problems and hypocrisies here, which is important, and yet it’s also fair to ask what should be done positively, to change things.

    If you want my honest opinion, capitalism, class society, heteropatriachy, and the legacies of white supremacy and other forms of racial hierarchy — in short, materially & historically rooted systems of domination — are some of the deep problems we are facing. Displacement, gentrification, elitism: I believe these are symptoms, and treating them at the level of hearts-and-minds won’t actually solve the issue of how power is distributed in society. Just to be totally honest and straightforward — but that might be another conversation.

    As far as what’s possible for techies to do here and now, I tried to lay out very specific suggestions in the original post: from donating to the current, valiant fundraising effort to save Marcus Books, to pressuring tech companies to pay into public services, to getting involved with anti-eviction and anti-deportation organizing. One that I didn’t mention was getting involved in the $15 minimum wage campaign that is starting to bubble up in SF.

    I’m wondering what folks think of those specific suggestions, and whether others more familiar with SF would add more?

    There is also no shortage of nonprofits and social organizations that a person could support, from the SF Tenants Union to Instituto Familiar de la Raza, to the Faithful Fools in the Tenderloin (disclaimer: I used to live and work there; they are super sweet people.) I will also be honest that I think nonprofits in general can offer band-aid approaches at best (Arundhati Roy makes some eloquent arguments about the insidious effects of nonprofits, as do contributors to the anthology The Revolution Will Not Be Funded), but I’m also not such a purist that I think all band-aids should be abolished immediately (so to speak).

    It also seems important to note, and I apologize that I’m having trouble finding the comment, but someone i think mentioned settler colonialism… yes, indeed, if we draw on the historical memory that tends to famously elude the U.S., we’ll remember that all these struggles are happening in the context of a settler state. Ohlone and other indigenous groups have been living on Bay Area lands for longer than any of us, and should be part of this conversation. I’m slightly more familiar with struggles in the East Bay, like the fight to preserve sacred site Brushy Peak from being turned into a biking and dog-walking park.


    Anyway, as you pointed out, Nathan, from an activist standpoint Google is a smart target because of their high-profile status and actual complicity: and yet the huge challenge remains finding the many pressure points among all kinds of actors. This is not the classic boycott-one-evil-company fight; targets are multiple and diffuse. So that’s why I’m impressed that the protesters managed to at least illuminate *some* of the hypocrisies and shortcomings of Wisdom 2.0 (and the corporate mindfulness trend), through their disruption.

    Finally, apart from what techies can do to improve, for me this event illustrates an opportunity for bold, creative, inspiring articulation of mindfulness in a modern age that is grounded in the *social justice work* that so many of us are already doing. Whether we’re

    forming bicycle co-ops,
    winning rent reductions for slumlord victims,
    organizing for more democracy within our unions (or organizing to form a union, period),
    creating queer childcare collectives,
    collectively supporting someone to leave an abusive relationship,
    providing hospice care,
    hosting free political education classes,
    blockading tar sands oil infrastructure,
    hunger striking as prisoners to end solitary confinement,
    or fighting to undo borders and end deportations —

    Buddhists and people influenced by Buddhist wisdom are doing a TON of exciting stuff. I hope we can highlight more of it. :) Techies do not have a monopoly on using mindfulness for creative innovation!

  • Nathan

    nonnie “She felt all they had was a kind of blanket anger and couldn’t see or hear her–that she got lumped into a faceless group.”

    I can understand the frustration that your friend probably felt in facing that group. I can imagine it felt hostile and that whatever care and attention she was offering was being rejected outright.

    I have been on the other side of the equation numerous times, and what I find is that it’s difficult to know a) how to react in a manner that is actually beneficial and b) how to maintain enough balance to not get tossed away by the intense emotional uptick (internally and all around you.)

    When I say “beneficial” what I mean is aiming towards not only supporting well being for the particular people in the situation, but also for anyone else impacted, including non-human beings.

    Because if you’re too nice or calm or even too rational, it’s very easy for the bulk of the message to be ignored. If I had a dollar for every meeting I was a part of with elected officials and corporate leaders over the years where they nodded their heads, offered some vague reassurances, and then sent us packing so they could go back to business as usual …

    Obviously, if you (or your group) goes too far in the other direction, not only will your message be missed, but you’re anger-driven actions might become the only focal point.

    So, there’s a middle way we can aim for, but it’s different in each situation. And really, that way can’t be imposed upon folks or be based upon some rigid sense of “respect” or “kindness.” It almost has to develop in the moment, based upon perhaps the collective intentions of those there to aim for greater benefit for all.

    Finally, the fact that the Wisdom 2.0 folks felt it was fine to send one person out to speak to the protesters says a lot in my view. I suppose you could chalk it up to the surprise factor, but everything I’ve seen from them in response has been about smoothing things over and moving on with business as planned.

  • anon

    Katie I really appreciate your comments. You’re right Buddhist inspired folks are doing a ton of creative important work. Also I think that we can connect with tech workers to help them transform their organizations from the inside. I know that Google Facebook and executives from the wisdom 2.0 crowd are being dragged
    into court right now for illegally
    colluding to depress wages. I guess they weren’t wise enough to avoid that.
    I think the challenge is to get over the anger and see the opportunities. As a union organizer at my hospital I’ve trained myself to relax when management opens up a new s*** storm. They are almost always presenting us with some opportunity

  • Marlo Pedroso


    I pulled this quote, because it struck me:

    “Displacement, gentrification, elitism: I believe these are symptoms, and treating them at the level of hearts-and-minds won’t actually solve the issue of how power is distributed in society. ”

    I had to ask myself what I think of this? I guess for me every action is born from the level of “heart and mind”. If we don’t get at that fundamental level, we can use all the force we want, people power, money, guns, to change people’s actions and behaviors, but forcing people to change typically breeds resentment not change. In my understanding of history this has typically left us with more division and violence. The old regime in the outfit of the the new.

    Google, like all of us, is a symptom and cause of Capitalism and other systems of injustice. We are all forced to participate and therefore perpetuate. It doesn’t mean we are evil, we are all trying to survive in a system that inherently deprives us of our fullest potential.

    Action is necessary, and it has to happen simultaneously with change of hearts and minds. If action only leads us to become more entrenched in our camps (good activist, evil capitalist) we do more harm than good. If our actions are born from the desire to challenge patterns of suffering, we must see the humanity in all beings. G-Dog, Jesuit priest Father Greg, points to this beautiful when he refuses to look at gang members in East L.A. as merely being murderers and thugs, but connects with God’s presence within each, even those some may demonize and fear the most.

    It’s important to hold people/corporations accountable, and sometimes we have to take strong actions to do so, but ultimately if we don’t engage hearts and minds as well, we will never overcome the separation and division that underlies our capacity to perpetuate oppression.

  • Katie Loncke

    Marlo, thank you for this — such an important dialogue to have. I think we agree more than not! And thanks for your example of the work with gangs; that’s powerful stuff in a social climate that demonizes and criminalizes poor men (and women, and trans folks) of color.

    On our shared views, I agree than in one sense political movements for justice are born out of political consciousness. It’s essential to keep working at the level of consciousness raising, critical thinking, education: which we could call hearts-and-minds. (There’s a whole other conversation to be had here about historical materialist views of the world, versus idealist views of the world — we don’t necessarily have to go into that but I love that conversation too and just wanna flag it.)

    But while agreeing on the importance of ideological work, a very general agreement, what I want to avoid is the idea that we can slowly perfect society by creating compassionate capitalists. As Assata Shakur said,

    “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of the people that were oppressing them.”

    Instead of appealing to capitalists to be kinder, can we question why we need capitalism in the first place?

    Joshua Eaton also put this well in a response to his recent article criticizing the corporate commodification of mindfulness:

    “Let me set the record straight: I don’t think elites shouldn’t practice Buddhism or meditate. I think they shouldn’t be elites.”

    Part of what I hear you saying, which I agree with (and please correct me if I’m wrong), is that we expect that most of the elite wouldn’t cede their outsize power willingly — hence the reference to guns and force for unseating them. And that’s such an important question: what are our options? Is it our responsibility to try to patiently educate elites into redistributing power and resources, in order to minimize the force that would be required for such a redistribution? OR does this ignore the tremendous amounts of violence and force that are *inherent* and *ongoing* in our current systems of capitalism and injustice? Whose timeline are we on, here? Who are we trying to make comfortable?

    At the same time, I think there’s a big leap between hearts-and-minds approach (which I mean as an *exclusive* appeal to elites to “do the right thing”) and armed insurrection, or even demonization. Refusing to rely on the hearts-and-minds transformation of powerful elites doesn’t mean we have to demonize them, right? It just means we are dead serious about dismantling the institutional theft, exploitation, and violence that has enriched the few at the expense of the many, as well as holding individual white-collar criminals responsible for any harms they personally cause against other beings. (In itself this is swimming against the stream, since so many powerful people can buy their way out of accountability.)

    As for furthering an Us-Them dichotomy, this is also a big and complex question that I struggle with. There are many layers. On one hand, I appreciate the words of Utah Phillips:

    “The earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.”

    I think it’s important for us to get concrete sometimes, and understand the historical choices that powerful people make, which imperil so many other beings. This is kind of a class-war perspective that helps us ground ourselves in the realities of power differentials. It’s also why the idea of reverse racism doesn’t hold water: racism is not just prejudice, but prejudice backed up by patterns of institutional power. Our recent world has a history of white supremacy, not Black supremacy (and among the consequences of this is the popular choice to capitalize those words differently). :)

    At the same time, we also have philosophies that help show us the diffuse and slippery ways that power and domination work. Oppressed groups can abuse other groups or sub-groups, as well. Sometimes in the name of building “unity” against oppression or oppressors, we recreate exclusion and domination. Oppressive practices & patterns like ableism, racism, heteropatriarchy, transphobia, etc. flow like water through our “Us,” making us more like “Them” than we would like to admit. And so we also have to take responsibility for the way we treat all people: the “Us” and the “Them.”

    Finally, on the spiritual level, we use embodied practices and ritual to re-connect with the truth that we are all part of the same inter-being. At BPF we spend a lot of time hedging against the misguided overuse of this concept (“I don’t see color ~ we are all one!”)… still, I don’t want to lose it entirely. For me, contemplating inter-being and no-self, through the dharma communities I’ve been part of, is a deep wisdom practice that can actually help guide me in social justice work, and in various other realms.

    Anyway, I really do appreciate you teasing out these considerations, because I think we do tend to get stuck in very dualistic ways of thinking: like the only ways to fight against oppression are either (1) pleading ineffectually with the powerful, or (2) installing some equally bloody and autocratic replacement regime. Definitely not our only options! :)

    Sorry I’m not being more concrete here with stories and examples — I feel like I tried to offer some really concrete suggestions in the original post, so I’d be happy to talk about those and what kind of balance they might strike between hearts-and-minds and concrete action…

    There was also this recent action in San Francisco, from the folks at POOR Magazine, who attempted to file criminal charges of elder abuse against landlords attempting to evict elder residents. I’d be curious whether you find such an action to be too demonizing and divisive, or the kind of compassionate and impassioned community defense that you could get down with. (Or some other opinion! :)

    Thanks for bearing with me, Marlo — you brought up a really big and important point! What kind of approaches do you favor, that combine hearts-and-minds work with action at the material level?

  • Marlo Pedroso

    Hey Katie,

    First off, thanks for the lengthy and thoughtful reply. It’s true that we are mostly in agreement. I’m super grateful that these dialogues are happening more and more in the online sphere. I’ve been having them in my own small ways in my Sangha. I love what Josh Korda (Mindfulness is Not Enough), yourself, and others have been posting more constructive dialogues that seek to bring issues like ethics, justice, and right lively-hood into the more secularized spheres of Mindfulness. Another good example:

    I think we are seeking, here and beyond, to integrate the materialist and idealist spheres, no? And I agree, to quote another fierce sister, Audre Lord: ““For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

    Yet, and this may be naive, while I don’t believe mindful capitalists will solve the problems we face, I’d rather they be mindful, to whatever extent they are, than not. To some degree, I believe that mindfulness takes us for a ride, and where we end is not where we intended on going. In other words, Mindfulness is not the master’s tool, it’s a powerful spiritual practice, and what comes out of practicing it may not be what we expect. (but shhhh let’s not spoil it)

    In the meantime, I won’t hold my breath. But I also think, and I know you agree, that there are bigger fish to fry than getting mad at the upper middle class for using mindfulness. Let’s show them how much better it gets! Besides I’d rather challenge the major systems that are contributing the problem. It seems more valuable than confronting people for trying to ameliorate the destructive effects of this machine on our all of our souls, top and bottom. And unlike Zizek I don’t think this keeps the machine going longer. I think we need to do whatever we need to do to keep our souls intact, until something more sane and healthy comes into being.

    I agree, getting specific and concrete is super important and that means clearly seeing the institutions and patterns that make up injustice. That’s why when people get super bent out of shape over individual acts of prejudice, I get concerned that we are seeing the problem as individual bad-people, instead a systems that provides privilege to some and disadvantages others based on certain characteristics and the history of people who share them. If the problem is bad people, we can lock them up and the problem is solved. But institutional systems live on in our hearts and minds. Again, I think we agree here.

    What I dig about Buddhist philosophy (and real Christian teachings) is the integration of the Relative and Absolute (other ways of saying materialist and relative). On a relative level we have this amazing diversity, a manifestation of the divine in the particular and unique. Being mindful of this helps us appreciate it’s richness. On the absolute level, it’s all the same energy, undifferentiated and making up a greater whole. This helps us understand that what looks different in the relative realm is actually part of you, not separate. This helps us see that harm done to the other is harm done to ourselves. The relative, again in the words for Father Gregory (G-dog) helps us find kinship. “God created the Other so that we could experience divine union.”

    We need a diversity of approaches and I don’t know the answers, but holding this question of how we integrate Buddhism and activism is a part of the answer.

    I believe at the heart of it all must be relationships, kinship, Sangha. Relationships allow us to experience our mutuality and work for a world that serves all of us in better ways. I’ve learned from my relationships with folks I’ve gotten to know as a social worker. It’s helped me not to romanticize the lower income folks I work with, while at the same time empathizing with their struggles. My relationships with wealthier people, at college and through work, have also helped to see that they aren’t all the demons I had also imagined them to be. That fucked with my head even more. ;) Both groups have a lot of ignorance, and so do I. Theoretical knowledge of the isms doesn’t really solve that, stories from people I care about do.

    I’m gonna shut up now and leave you with this book, because it’s been blowing my mind:

  • Nathan

    “And unlike Zizek I don’t think this keeps the machine going longer. I think we need to do whatever we need to do to keep our souls intact, until something more sane and healthy comes into being. ”

    Mario, this is the crux of challenge for me these days. I’m more inclined to agree with someone like Zizek that corporate mindfulness is just another prop to keep folks from totally falling apart in environments that are hostile to their very humanness. After over a decade and a half volunteering, working, and even leading in various non-profit settings, I started to overwhelmingly sense that so much of what I was doing was helping folks cope with injustice, and/or navigate our horrorshow economic and social systems. Whether it was counseling abused children from broken homes, or teaching English to recent immigrants – everything was framed in terms of helping folks function, adjust, be productive, etc. within the current systems. Which doesn’t mean that nothing beneficial happened, nor that all my work was a waste of time. But I’m hard pressed to see something like corporate mindfulness as anything other than a coping mechanism.

    The fact that the response to the protest from the folks on the stage at the Wisdom 2.0 conference was to individualize the whole thing speaks volumes. Turning a complex set of issues into an exercise of being aware of your feelings around conflict basically neuters thoughts and reflections about social ethics. I personally think its dangerous to assume that anyone who practices some form of mindful awareness will naturally become more aware of (and perhaps willing to act on) social injustices and systems of oppression. And yet, I hear this kind of thinking coming from supporters of these programs all the time.

    I would say that complete mindfulness, including it’s ethical elements, is not the master’s tools. Doesn’t matter if it’s secular or religious. At the same time, a lot of what is trotted out as mindfulness these days isn’t complete. It’s very similar to what’s happened to yoga. Instead of a profound spiritual path, a single element – asana – has been pulled out, and then reduced to something that is mostly about exercise and stress reduction.

    So, like you, I’d like to think that capitalists being more mindful is a positive. But is that actually happening as a result of these programs? I honestly don’t know, but there’s really no good evidence to suggest that corporate leaders are really acting more ethical because of practicing what they call mindfulness. The best that might be said at this point is that some leaders have better relationships with their employees. They care a little more for each other while continuing to exploit and destroy the planet. (Sorry if that sounds crass, but that’s kind of what it boils down to in my mind.)

    “Besides I’d rather challenge the major systems that are contributing the problem. It seems more valuable than confronting people for trying to ameliorate the destructive effects of this machine on our all of our souls, top and bottom.”

    Here’s what I think. You’re right in one way. Getting too fixated on corporate mindfulness isn’t terribly helpful. On the other hand, it can be a gateway into understanding the broader systems. Specifically by illuminating the way mindfulness is being used, and how it functions within corporate settings, people can come to see what the broader systems are about. How they warp everything in the name of power over and profits.

    I guess I wonder how we might both support some efforts to help people cope, while also remaining radical enough to keep challenging systems of oppression and create true, more beneficial societies?

    When I see all the energy put into trying to maintain food stamps programs or to get modest gains in the minimum wage, I feel so damned torn. Because it seems like we’re just sucked down the rabbit hole of doing whatever we can to cope – or even be allowed to cope. We’re basically playing their game. The elite’s game. How do we shift the frame, and operate from a grassroots power base that is diverse enough to handle all the needed prongs?

  • Murray Reiss

    Katie wrote: “At the same time, I think there’s a big leap between hearts-and-minds approach (which I mean as an *exclusive* appeal to elites to “do the right thing”) and armed insurrection, or even demonization.” A big leap and a huge amount of space. Gene Sharp, indirect mentor to a lot of the non-violent uprisings of our time, filled that space with no less than 198 methods of non-violent action. More than enough to occupy one lifetime.

  • Murray Reiss

    Capitalists being mindful are still capitalists being mindful. With the stress where it belongs — on “capitalists.” It’s like if you’re a hunter and you’re being mindful as a hunter, mindfulness helps you pay better attention to all the cues & signs you need to be aware of to kill your prey. And if you’re a capitalist being mindful it’s going to help you be a more mindful capitalist, more alert to all the cues & signs & signals that will help you make a profit and beat your competition. Whatever that takes.

  • Marlo Pedroso

    If I didn’t have to make a living to survive in a Capitalist society, I would spend even more time engaged in these conversations. Alas, I will humbly bow out after a few more thoughts.

    I wish to say, I think it was brave for folks to disrupt the events at Google. I hope it will bring greater awareness for those present, the attendees and the people who held the action. I think that the effects of our actions can’t always be measured in linear ways, unlike what we’e been encouraged to believe. Certain actions have effects we can’t even imagine. So while mindful Google-ittes may just become more efficient workers, maybe some of them will wake up and say “Fuck this shit. There’s got to be more to life.” When I started meditating I was still drinking and drugging and never had any intention of giving that up, but with increased awareness I realized I had to change my actions. I’m still learning and changing. Who knows what will happen?

    I believe that there is a greater wisdom that isn’t exclusive held by “humans”, but inherent in everything. And that is also directing our choices and responses. My faith in this comes from my direct experiences. The more I surrender to the Dhamma, the less it’s about my ego based actions and more about acting in harmony with something much smarter and greater than myself. My direct experience has been enhanced by my meditative practices.

    What this means to me is that what we might put into the category of an “social change actions” is probably only a fraction of what actually creates social changes and more justice. I think every time we truly acknowledge someones humanity, act to alleviate suffering, and promote kinship and community (not just in the sense of creating an activist organization), we are resisting the overall ideology of separation, and the oppression and injustice that is born from it.

    We need to tap into whatever that is for us, instead of feeling like only certain type of behavior are “effective change” agents. If traditional forms of activism make you feel inspired and alive, follow that calling. If tending to the wounds and traumas of people is how you help, great. If making art, creating jobs, developing certain technologies that allow for greater healing, that’s all great. I think, sadly, most people just do what they feel is expected of them or, out of fear, what will bring the most security in the current system. Mostly, I think because they’ve given hope of something better. How do we inspire hope? Anger is only one way. Love, I find, is even greater. You gotta love the shit out of something or someone to fight for them/it.

    “Capitalists being mindful are still capitalists being mindful.” Murray, assuming your not a self-sufficient nomad living directly off the land, doesn’t this include all of us? Whether I like or not, as an American I’m living a Capitalist life. Critiquing it and challenging it, which I do, doesn’t somehow place me outside of that system. Here I am on this Capitalist produced gadget having this conversation, facilitated in large part by Capitalist enterprise. So I guess, I’m a capitalist being mindful. Does that mean we can’t be friends? ;)

    Much love!

  • Murray Reiss

    Well, no, Mario, unless you’ve amassed for yourself sufficient capital to own yourself some means of production and hire people to work for you (who have not been able to amass any capital of their own) to produce whatever goods it may be that produces a surplus for you that you can reinvest to make even more money, then, no, you are not a capitalist. We’re all within the system, sure, but a few of us own its means of production and the rest of us work for them. A few of us within this capitalist system really are capitalists; most of us are workers. The system’s got to have both.

  • Nathan

    “I believe that there is a greater wisdom that isn’t exclusive held by “humans”, but inherent in everything. And that is also directing our choices and responses. My faith in this comes from my direct experiences. The more I surrender to the Dhamma, the less it’s about my ego based actions and more about acting in harmony with something much smarter and greater than myself. My direct experience has been enhanced by my meditative practices. ”

    I am actually with you on this. I have also had enough experiences to recognize that wisdom is in all beings, and unfolds in it’s own ways, and often not how we humans think it will.

    At the same time, I think this whole discussion stems in part from wondering about the practices being offered as “mindfulness” in corporate settings. And whether they actually lead in any sense to a deepening sense of awareness, wisdom, and ethical caring for the world as a whole. If I had some faith that these practices would do something similar to what dharma practice and study have done for my life, I’d totally shut up and let the worm eat through the corporate apple. Because that’s what would happen eventually. But I just don’t see it that way. And others here and elsewhere also don’t see it that way. Which is why we keep asking questions, pointing out all the limitations and contradictions, and seeking something more beneficial.

    Also, I don’t think anger and love are necessarily irreconcilable. In fact, I have witnessed firsthand the transformation of anger into a wise, compassionate form of love capable of standing tall in the middle of the fires of this world. I’ve seen it during protest marches in individuals facing hostile police officers. I have seen it in my own sangha following a teacher scandal that nearly destroyed the community. Every single heroic “activist” leader I can think of is an embodiment of this in some manner or another.

    Mario, I would like to think that it’s possible that what you perhaps see now as folks being critical, angry, and/or negative is the beginning of a deeper movement. One that uses corporate mindfulness as a way to expose the roots of the systems that hold so many of us down, develops new ways to stand in “wisdom imbued love” in the face of those currently occupying “elite” positions in society, and also offers (or simply re-highlights) deeper, more vital practices (secular, religious, or otherwise) that uphold us all.

    Or maybe it never goes beyond the pro-anti-corporate mindfulness binary. We don’t know. But I see these discussions as a possible first phase response. If we don’t encourage space and unearthing of all the muck, then getting to that fierce, wise love action isn’t likely to happen.

  • ethan davidson

    Buddhist meditation teniques are divided into two forms, Samata and Vipassana.. Smata teaches the delopment of conentration, and leads to calm, as well as increased concentration abilities. Vippasana teaches a deep awareness of the ultimate nature of reality. Traditionaly, Samata is taught first, the Vipassana. The reason being that the ultimate nature of reality is not comforting at first. It can freak you out. So you need something calming to fall back on.
    Whenever people have decided to skip Vipassana and stay with just Samata, one find that it eiasyer to devlope ” meditatiation systems that ignore ethics. That is what is happening here. It didn’t start out that way, but now we are finding that Samata without Viipasana is leading to meditation without ethics.
    This and not new. But one Buddhist teacher summed it up nicely.
    “Places that teach meditation without ethics are factories for monsters.”

  • Rob

    I went to the 1st Wisdom 2.0 as well. I volunteered in order to get a discount, not because I couldn’t afford it, but that it seemed odd that the fee for a day or two at a conference about wisdom and mindfulness exceeded the fee for a week-long retreat with my Buddhist teacher.

    A few memories still stick with me:

    When Soren showed up, he had an entourage, he seemed grumpy, and rather than meeting the volunteers at the work meeting to get things going, he instead started complaining and barking orders. “He wants to be a rock star” I thought.

    Then there was the panel. The facilitator/interviewer was respected Zen teacher and hospice worker, Joan Halifax Roshi. Yes, that’s right…she wasn’t on the panel, she was the facilitator. The guests were three young male execs at famous SV organizations. She asked some great questions, but those were apparently too tough for the panelists. They’d manage to reinterpret the questions. “What are you doing to help the community at large?” she asked (I paraphrase). One exec responded that he was able to stay up until 3am (despite his family’s requests), thanks to the powers of mindfulness (and a ‘fridge full of Red Bull), and that his products helped people stay connected. (“Yawn.”) At one point (and this is not paraphrased, but is a quote), one exec got so excited he shouted “mindfulness will make you rich!”

    There is no doubt that Google’s Chade-Meng Tan, who told his story there, is helping lead the way to consideration of mindfulness practices in Silicon Valley, and the notion that people can be good people and still build a great company. Yet his story was also soured with a touch of elitism. He spoke of a month-long (or longer?) retreat that he completed at his Google office. One has to wonder if all Google employees will be encouraged to spend a month in retreat, meditating in their offices, eating at the cafeterias, and sleeping perhaps on a cot? Or is it, as one SV insider said to me, “He’s Google employee number 107. He can do whatever the f*** he wants.”

    I’m actually grateful for the youthful enthusiasm of the SV execs, and the popularizing of “wisdom practices” that this conference represents. After all, neither Alan Watts nor D.T. Suzuki–famous Zen popularizers of the 60’s–actually practiced meditation much. What they did do was energize a generation to sit with people like Shunryu–“the less famous”–Suzuki Roshi, and that’s where people learned to face Reality.

    I have no idea if Wisdom 2.0 has made efforts to improve since 2010. But I prefer to go on retreat (1/2-day, 1-day, weekend or week-long or longer) with a real meditation teacher, and for far less money per day. And if that, too, seems elitist, well…there’s always 1/2 an hour each day, as long as I can give up 1/2 hour of my TV/Internet surfing. ;-)

  • Nirali Shah

    Truly appreciate your thoughts in this article. I had attended Wisdom 2.0 conference in 2013 and I felt that that the social justice / compassion piece is not given importance. Perhaps the organizers do hold these values deeply in their hearts. But somehow it did not land on me as a place where one could have these conversations around global interdependence and social action. Where one could raise radical ideas and learn to sit with difficult emotions, truly as a community – a sangha.
    Hopefully the conference is moving in that direction and maybe it is a process for them. I send them my goodwill as they better translate this important aspect of the practice.

    This also reflects a pertinent issue of the pop mindfulness movement which is out of balance in my opinion. There is more importance given to present moment awareness (aka MY stress reduction aka MY ease and productivity) and less importance given to COMPASSION for all beings and compassion in action as the foundation of ones practice.

    The BUDDHA was a social activist. Even during his death he was enroute from one king to another urging them to stop the war.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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