Mindful of your immorality?

A contemporary Western Buddhist version of this would probably look something like this:

You were mindful, yes. But you managed a company that exploited workers, destroyed neighborhoods, supported corrupt policies, and polluted the earth. It’s nice that you felt deeply connected with your body and breath while you did it.

In case you missed it, this is regarding (not that Google in particular is guilty of all of the above):

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Criticism of Google has, of course, poured in. Katie Loncke of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship writes of Google’s bus scheme, which is contributing to rising rents and gentrification:

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.

It’ not clear whether anyone on stage that day had any idea about this, but shouldn’t they at least want to know? The smug “check in with your body and see what’s happening” line in this context was truly sad. It’s a great teaching and extremely useful in countless contexts, but here, as the protesters were being ushered away and as unseen, unheard, and unknown people lose their homes and neighborhoods this was not a mindful response.

No sign of concern, not even “hmmmm, we should look into this” from anyone on stage. No. The message was to literally close your eyes.

And that’s what people did, as the shot panning the audience shows.

The ‘live blog‘ of the event reiterates this moral disconnect:

At first, the audience was confused (was this some kind of new Google performance art?), but it soon became clear that this was an unplanned interruption, as the video screens went black, and conference organizers led the protesters off stage.

You can imagine trying to continue a presentation in front of thousands of people after such a scene, but Bill Duane handled it with incredible grace and compassion. Departing from their prepared schedule, he took a moment to lead the audience in a simple meditation, inviting us to embrace this moment, without judging it good or bad. He asked us to examine our relationship to conflict, and the conflict that had just played out on stage. In one of the true “you should have been there” moments of Wisdom 2.0, what had felt like an emotionally jarring interruption was transformed into a moment of awareness and peace.

Karen, complimenting Bill publicly for his leadership in that moment, explained the importance of maintaining “a posture of respect” within organizations, embracing the diverse opinions and points of view of others, while also being comfortable with the complexity that such diversity brings. She pointed to the moment we had just witnessed as an example that spoke more loudly than anything she could say.

Meng spoke on the theme of combining wisdom with skillfulness: “skillfulness in the beginning, skillfulness in the middle, and skillfulness in the end.” He explained further that skillfulness “in the beginning” means that you must start with your own practice, so you are calm, kind and compassionate. Skillfulness “in the middle” is extending these benefits from the self to others: figuring out how to address the needs of individuals and teams within an organization. By skillfulness “in the end,” he looks to complete transformation of the organization. “The Holy Grail is, everybody in the organization is wise and compassionate, creating support for broadening and deepening the practice.” He noted with a smile, “We’re still figuring this out at Google.”

In summary, the group from Google demonstrated (not just talked) about how important it is to develop your own practice, then bring that sense of wisdom and compassion out into the world.

“If you are planning a protest,” conference founder Soren Gordhamer joked afterward, “we’d appreciate it if you’d let us know beforehand, so we can plan for it.”

Wink wink, nudge nudge, carry on, carry on.

Ethical response grade: F.

Mindful response grade: F.

As usual, Genju at 108 Zen Books comes through with a solid response, writing on the topic:

The first series was in reaction to Wisdom 2.0 which berated secular forms of mindfulness programs (here we go again). These posts by various Buddhist teachers and organizations expressed concerns that mindfulness taught in profit-centered corporations would serve only to create worker drones and therefore lead to more oppression than liberation. This one’s been argued with accompanied flogging of the blindly-accepted prediction that teaching mindfulness in places of ill-ethical repute will end badly for the 99%.

Because I tend to believe that we, as purveyors of secular mindfulness programs, need to be clear on our own ethics which would guide who we serve, I also believe that we can discern when offering mindfulness programs may or may not be a good thing. It’s that nonduality thing. Samsara/Nirvana. At the same time, I do wish that those in the know – meaning those Buddhist scholars and teachers who are vehement about NOT bringing mindfulness programs to corporations who practice unwholesomely – would offer me some clear evidence that this oppression is a real outcome and not a theoretical one. It’s that science thing. You know, evidence. Because without evidence, I’m likely to not get in my car and drive to work each day because the stats say more people die from vehicle accidents than anything else (yes, yes, fossil fuels but my horse is too old to be galloped into the city).

So, please. Send me the facts. Or at the very least a well articulated argument for NOT delivering such a program. You know, it’s that risk analysis thing.

Google’s poor/non-response here – what Maia Deurr identifies as a spiritual bypassis a fact.

However, it’s not the whole story of mindfulness, nor even the whole story of mindfulness in corporate life. In fact, studies, and more studies, and more studies have shown that mindfulness alone leads to improved ethical behavior.

So the ‘mindful sniper’ example and the recent failure by Google may simply be exceptions that prove the rule.

And yes, we’ve seen much of this discussion before, and no doubt we’ll see it again.

*H/T to Ambaa at The White Hindu for sharing the Bizarro comic.

** Hungry Ghosts image from Well Happy Peaceful.

UPDATE: Google Pays for the Ride (NYTimes) Google has agreed to pay $6.8 million for city transit over two years, “one of the largest privatecontributions towards direct City services in San Francisco history” according to the city’s mayor. Coincidence? Whitewash? A move in the right direction?

  • Y. A. Warren

    Mindfulness and unfettered corporate power are mutually exclusive.

    • justinwhitaker

      Well said. Let’s hope that message gets scrolled on the walls of Google’s (and other corporations’) ‘mindfulness learning centers’…

  • http://www.alchemyofchange.net/ Gideon Rosenblatt

    Justin, I’m glad to see others are digging into this conundrum. I think the difficulty here, to be honest, is that the speakers on stage were taken by surprise. I’m not sure what my own response would have been, but since I was there in the audience I can say that it was truly surprising and I think it would have taken an extremely high level of mindfulness to be able to pull a “right action” out of the hat in those circumstances. The question for me centers on what the conference does going forward to open itself to these voices.

    • justinwhitaker

      Agreed – let’s hope (and help PUSH for where and when we can) Wisdom 2.0 and Google use this as an opportunity to actively engage with their community and those being harmed by Google’s success.

      • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Billings

        Who is being harmed by Google’s success?

        Is this a “blame the tech workers” thing again? The problems in SF are, really, largely caused by the policies of the SF city/county government. It isn’t really fair to lay them at the feet of companies, who are trying to serve their bottom line and employees. As long as SF refuses to allow a net positive amount of housing to be built and people want to move to SF, prices for housing will go up. It is supply and demand. Blaming tech workers because they have more money simply becomes classism.

        • justinwhitaker

          This is obviously a complex issue (reading through comments at http://www.tricycle.com/blog/why-i-disrupted-wisdom-20-conference gives a good idea of the range of experiences and perspectives). But the question of ‘who is being harmed’ seems silly, as plenty of comments there say who.

          In terms of a solution, it doesn’t need to be either/or. Both Google AND local governments can do better. As is often the case though, we have to look at who has the most power to help, and here that is Google. Of course if the people of the city can unite, then they can get the upper hand on this as well (it’s not unlike Walmart, which has torn apart many cities with its promise of jobs and cheap goods, only to price out long-standing businesses and then raise prices; in the end prices go back and net jobs are lost and profit goes to the Walton family). Supply and demand is a cheap out. It needs good regulation, which can come from within (a.k.a. corporate ethics), from customers, and/or from government.

          • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Billings

            It can seem “silly” to you if you want it to but as a tech worker who actually lives in the Bay Area, is a Buddhist, knows Google folks, knows non-techies, etc. I think your perspective is misinformed. I’m not sure if you’re gathering information from something besides news articles and blogs but I’d encourage you to really dig into the situation.

            It isn’t on Google to create more housing. The city of San Francisco actively blocks the development of housing in the area, wanting to restrict growth. The problem is that people are moving to the Bay Area anyway. Simple economics says that if demand is higher than supply, prices will go up. As a side effect of prices going up, only those with more money will be able to afford the housing. This doesn’t make it Google’s (or Yahoo or any other company) fault that San Francisco has become unaffordable unless you think their very existence is the fault. This is a city governance issue and, frankly, the SF city government is broken and has been for quite a while (it isn’t much better in the other cities around here). It is hostile to developers, making it nearly impossible to build anything and *explicitly* chooses policies that restrict housing development.

            So, by all means, make this a “Google” thing because they were a co-sponsor of a conference that activists then ignorantly invaded. That makes it a much simpler caricature than the actual problem.

            • justinwhitaker

              I’d still like to see a bit more of a sense of responsibility here, Al (Google and its employees wield a lot of power in the conversation, if only because they have so much money). Destroying something and then saying, “there should have been better laws to stop me” again sounds like a cop out. And as I already said, it’s not an either/or, it’s an opportunity for *both* (well, really, *all*) parties involved.

              • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Billings

                So you’re going to hold every other large employer in the Bay Area equally to task and not simply make Google a scapegoat then?

                • justinwhitaker

                  Al, you’re killing me here. Yes. And not just in the Bay Area. Everywhere. And not just employers. Employees too.

                • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Billings

                  I’m sorry but this is a serious conversation and you’re not really engaging in it in an informed way. I’m sorry it is inconvenient to you to be called on your assumptions and poor reasoning and information.

                • justinwhitaker

                  I don’t see you “calling me” on anything; but rather asserting again and again that I (or we or someone) am scapegoating Google and ignoring other parties and I (3, let’s make it 4 times now) keep repeating that no, everyone involved should work toward a solution (including Google).

                • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Billings

                  So why are you discussing Google at all? This isn’t a Google problem. This is a San Francisco problem. If you can’t see what I’m saying, there is no point in discussing it. If others act like you, all that is going to happen is scapegoating instead of actually effective action.

                  Of course, you don’t live here in the Bay Area either, do you? You have no skin in the game.

                • justinwhitaker

                  Okay, I’m losing count, but you’re again asserting that Google has no responsibility here at all. Fine. I disagree. I wish you well.

                  The reason Google is being discussed should be evident in the post.

                  I may be a ways away, but it still impacts me. You know, interconnectedness and all that. If you’d like to chat with people closer to home, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship has a very good article on the topic with a lively discussion going on.

                • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Billings

                  I’ve seen the article and it is uninformed and shallow.

                  As long as people engage in scapegoating, up to and including physically gettting aggressive with tech workers, staking out their homes, attacking the visible buses, they’re just going to alienate folks and no progress will be made. You know what happens when you start threatening people? They take defensive action. They *don’t* engage in dialogue or meet in the middle or anything else. The more people make this about some stereotypes instead of the actual issues at play, the less effective it is.

                  Good day.

              • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Billings

                “In 2011, Mayor Ed Lee introduced tax breaks for Twitter and several
                other tech companies to encourage them to settle in and revitalise the
                downtown San Francisco neighbourhood South of Market, or Soma, and help
                the city climb out of the recession.”


                Sure sounds like the city government to me…

  • Kogen 古 元


    Thank you so much. What is your advice for a practitioner who trains in a very “Upper Middle Way”? What I’m interested in is a traditional education in ceremony, liturgy, and study. I didn’t come to the temple for radicalization, I brought that with me. But I feel implicated as Google gives us money. None of our priests go to google as a representative of SFZC, but they come to us, as many do-veterans, the Islamic Taleef Collective, and bee keepers, too-But I’m just troubled as many of our Sangha are white and upper-middle to up up up.

    • http://www.openbuddha.com/ Al Billings

      Why do you feel that Google shouldn’t give SFZC money or that it doing so “implicates” you, Kogen?

      • Kogen 古 元

        I don’t know, Al. I’m not sure I do today. It was just a question yesterday, but what comes up is what Vilmikirti said: “I’m sick because sentient beings are sick.”

    • justinwhitaker

      Many thanks, Kogen. A good first step would be outreach – to fellow Zen centers who may have helpful advice on this (Nathan at http://dangerousharvests.blogspot.co.uk/ has written well of his experiences in this); the folks at the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and local interfaith and community activist groups. Solutions only tend to get confrontational like this when the power-holders refuse to listen to those in need for too long. Members of the SFZC could be asked to volunteer to join various activist/community groups and report back their needs/issues on a periodic basis – and when appropriate inviting members of those groups speak at/to the SFZC.

      It’s not a problem to have lots of white/upper-middle etc members; but it is if they are allowed (or worse, encouraged!) to live in a social bubble, away from the suffering all around them. Outreach and community issues should be a regular part of your ceremony, liturgy, and study :)

  • Jack Sanders

    What we all must realize and soon is we are individual members of the Public and until or if and when, we sufficiently cooperate and collaborate to come together and awaken that Public we are, the powers that be and our own ignorance will keep that Public sound asleep and impotent to the task claiming our rightful place as the very reason all government and commerce exist, which is to serve the collective mindfulness of that Public.
    We require a Public University for the Synthesis of Knowledge in every form entrepreneurs and thinkers and those seeking sanity and control of their own existences come together and permanently change the status quo to benefit all in a most rational and enhanced manner, so our collective voice and actions really amount to government of, by and for the People as the fourth coequal branch of government which was conceived to do just that and has failed due to politics.

    • justinwhitaker

      Jack, these are two of the longest sentences I’ve had to read in a while (must get back to my Kant….). I agree; though I would say we also require a grassroots roadmap to that PU for the SK, etc, etc.

      • Jack Sanders

        Couldn’t agree more. So how do you influence folks to actually empower themselves or even convince them it is in their best interests? Don’t apologize for long sentences as they are like mathematical formula, and these were short, ha.

        I have been working on this epistemological difficulty since 1969. I know it is the only way we will ever get our government back because, we are that government and the resent incredibly wealthy and those seeking power, certainly are not interested in funding an actual grass root reality and process.

        If we were to ask for donations, who would even understand what it was they were donating for. It would take 10 or 15 really intelligent folks and a little money and an agreed upon course that involves more and more folks, much like an active polling process with teeth or something.

        Believe me when I say I am open to suggestions and I am not getting any younger. Knowing something is right or important is one thing, doing something about it is quite another. See my blog as I have written a lot about the need and some approaches.

        The other thing is, having a huge ego does not lead to this door as it is about serving the common good like the Peace Corps or something. If one acquires wealth from doing this, pretty soon that becomes the goal, profit motive, etc.

        You are one of the few folks who even thought about this idea, and that is what it is, an idea, like “New Atlantis” by Francis Bacon minus the elite and plus the People.



  • Kaspalita Thompson

    Thanks, I’d not seen this before – but it’s a perfect example of using mindfulness training to improve how good we are at ‘not seeing’ things we should be seeing. I often warn against this when I am teaching…

    On the other hand some I also know that in some people’s personal practices there is a value to this ‘not seeing’. It gives them some time to develop a little equanimity with which to approach the difficult things they are not seeing which might have otherwise overwhelmed them.

    It wonder what feelings/fears are behind Google’s willful blindness?

  • Amod Lele

    I actually think the modern version of the cartoon is “I managed a fair-trade business, stayed vegetarian and recycled everything, but I cheated on my spouse, lied whenever it was convenient, shoved people on the subway and yelled at everyone when I didn’t get my way.”

    The worst conceit of our times is that politics is sufficient for ethics.

  • mufi

    Justin: As a Northeasterner, I don’t have much “skin in the [San Francisco] game”, as Al put it, but I shared some of the same thoughts & feelings that he expressed as I read through this post and watched the related videos.

    That’s not to suggest that Google and other businesses can’t possibly improve how they respond to these activists and their cause. But I admit that I still don’t know enough about the situation to offer practical suggestions on the matter, and I’d wager that many of the Wisdom 2.0 attendees, speakers included, were at least as agnostic on the matter as I am – in which case, good for them for being slow to react and judge.

    • justinwhitaker

      Mufi, thanks for your thoughts. I’m just not sure how agnostic the people were there (protests have been going on for some time, like this one http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-1071043 last December). And even if they were agnostic (or ignorant) about the destruction they have been causing (the wealthy among them at least, I know that not all attendees are a part of this problem), I don’t think they should be allowed to be so ignorant. It’s like the people who sit in front of the tractors that are going to destroy a forest – perhaps those drivers don’t know, perhaps they do, but the protesters *do* know and it is their voice(s) that need to be heard most.

      • mufi

        Justin: I can’t afford to move back to my home town in suburban NJ, let alone to the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where my daughters were born and raised for the first several years of life, thanks to the rent control that we enjoyed at the time. No single business firm – not even if it sits on Wall St. – is solely responsible for that situation, since it’s systemic and therefore can only be adequately addressed via public policy at all levels of government.

        That said, I’m glad that the protesters in SF had an opportunity to publicize their cause, inasmuch as it might raise awareness that helps lead to better public policies. But it’s one thing to sympathize with a cause and it’s quite another to choose a scapegoat.

        • justinwhitaker

          Mufi, I don’t aim to scapegoat anyone. As I said in my conversation with Al, other rich tech companies there also need to be held accountable for their actions. And I also agree (and did with Al) that government needs to play a role. But government, especially city government, can be basically bulldozed by big businesses, and they don’t get much bigger than Google. Growing up in Montana, I saw this happen time and again with big mining companies and then Walmart… It’s true that ‘everyone pollutes the streams and rivers in one way or another’ but it’s also true that only one company has giant cyanide leach ponds leaking into the ground-water. :) Lots of tech companies are adding to gentrification, but only one has created its own bus system to get its employees out of the newly-gentrified zones to work.

          • mufi

            Justin: Do you have any specifics on how exactly Google should “be held accountable”? And by whom? And for what? For paying their employees attractive salaries? For sending buses to pick them up in SF? Because neither of these policies strike me as particularly unethical, let alone criminal, and they partly explain Google’s reputation as a great employer.

            That said, I’m guessing that your critique falls more into the realm of “Google may be a great employer, and possibly a good investment for its shareholders, but it’s a poor steward of the public good.” If so, then I’m inclined to agree that that’s likely true, but only trivially so, since I doubt that any corporate or profit-driven entity meets that high standard – nor is it usually their stated mission to do so – thus my attention to government’s mission in that regard.

            And, if I want to know what Google’s mission is (aside from reaping profits), I simply google it. :-)

            • justinwhitaker

              Mufi, I fear we may be edging toward impasse here, but I’ll try to add a little bit more:

              >specifics on how exactly Google should “be held accountable” :

              Public actions like the one in the video, etc.

              >And by whom?

              Everyone involved; me as a google user by avoiding/quitting there services, employees however they can, stockholders, how they can, etc.

              >And for what?

              >For paying their employees attractive salaries?

              Try to stay serious now. No. You have to look at the bigger picture. Corporations can be good, or at least less-bad, depending on how you look at it.

              • mufi

                Justin: From where I stand, you’ve yet to make a case that Google has done something wrong, yet I accepted your framing of accountability, anyway. That much was my mistake.

  • ah3881

    Justin, I’ve always wanted to put some questions to you. I had a Golden view of Buddhism-until I lived in Thailand. Most Buddhists are not vegetarian, they frequently waste an enormous amount of food in Monasteries, the Monks do not consider each other or the Nuns and if there were for example 5 bananas and 5 monks-the first would frequently take all five. I rarely saw the level of greed, lack of consideration and wastefulness that I saw in Monasteries outside them-and even saw Monks drinking and talking to Wives on their mobiles. Furthermore they often target the poorest houses with their begging bowls-and of course those people cannot fail to give them what little food they have.

    What is more-when they release animals-they are often non-native and have either been captured elsewhere (thus reducing native populations of often rare species) or bred in captivity-and when released frequently do not survive, but if they do and are non-native they actively damage ecosystems.

    To me at least the Western conception of Buddhism is little more than an idealised myth-which I have never seen in reality-despite living and Travelling in Asia for almost 8 years. Why given how “mindful” Buddhists are meant to be is this so seldom the case, and can you provide a single example of Buddhists contributing more positively than negatively to an area?

    • justinwhitaker

      Hi Alice,

      Those are good questions, but first I’d say that on the spectrum of reports and experiences I’ve encountered over the years, yours is on the darker end. There is definitely worse, but there also a very large amount on the positive side of things. It’s not unlike Christianity and other world religions in that regard.

      You’re absolutely right about “the myth,” though, and just how many people have that purely mythologized view in the West is a matter of ongoing debate. In fact I was in an interview recently and when asked about media representation of Buddhism I responded that it’s wrong and it’s a problem because it’s giving people too rosy a view of what Buddhism is. It always features the Dalai Lama and others giving their best talks and advice (and I certainly agree that they’re great talks), but very little is discussed concerning problems.

      Many, if not most (again it’s debated), practitioners in the West who have been at it a while can see through the “myth” (there’s a great book called “Prisoners of Shangri-la” that covers much of the history of this myth in terms of Tibetan Buddhism in particular). It becomes important to separate the ideals of the religion, which often are critical and revolutionary, from the people, who often just want to get by day-to-day.

      So it’s difficult to answer your last question, just because it’s so big. I know of one scholar who tried to write a massive book on the history of warfare, East and West, and he said that the scale of state-violence in Eastern civilizations (excluding those who had taken on Western Communism as an economic strategy) was historically dwarfed by Western civilizations. But to qualify that and support it and take into account all of the variables would take a massive work – and I don’t think he has ever published it. And these days several Buddhist countries are embroiled in fighting too (nothing on the scale of Iraq or Syria, but still not the mythical-mindful-nations some people hope for).

      In terms of major positive actions, I’d recommend checking out Tzu Chi, a little-known but highly active Buddhist aid organisation (https://www.us.tzuchi.org/us/en/) and Buddhist Global Relief founded by a Sri Lanka-trained American monk named Bhikkhu Bodhi (http://www.buddhistglobalrelief.org/). Both are involved globally on a number of key issues.

  • minimalnovice

    just a counterpoint…what if the presenter, by asking the audience to close their eyes and check in with their reaction, perhaps prompted an audience member to actually engage internally with what just happened instead of simply rushing to the next moment. By asking his audience to quiet themselves, he assured that this moment would be memorable for the audience. Perhaps this results in somebody being prompted to action.

    I don’t think this is as horrible as people are making it out to be.