Mindful of your immorality?

Mindful of your immorality? February 21, 2014

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):

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?

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