Wisdom and the West: Takeaways from Wisdom 2.0 2016

This past weekend, I attended Wisdom 2.0 2016 in San Francisco. Wisdom 2.0 brings together high-achieving individuals (senior executives at Google and Facebook, media mogul Russell Simmons, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, and many more) with spiritual teachers and hundreds of people working, in one or another way, to plant wisdom in modern life. Here, I thought I’d briefly reflect on the experience.

Before that, though, here’s a gallery of stray images for a visual sense:

Real Inspiration

Overall, I found robust, sincere, and well-informed interest in certain elements of wisdom, particularly mindfulness and compassion.

The conference was heavily attended by corporate executives, Google and Facebook employees, and many of the other current masters of the phenomenal world. I was pleasantly surprised to find their interest in certain elements of wisdom, particularly mindfulness and compassion, to be robust, sincere, and well-informed. Mindfulness and compassion are now seen as virtuous, nonreligious mental quantities with important and well-documented benefits for both individuals and organizations.

Seeing these elements of wisdom start to take root in large corporations, government, and so on was quite inspiring. It was a bit like visiting the factory that produces your favorite perfume: the awe of seeing a vast industrial intelligence applied to disseminating what you had believed was a delicate and scarce resource.

Where Are We Going?

There’s real consensus around some elements of wisdom, but very little shared understanding of the source of these qualities—in other words, of wisdom itself.

In my opinion, what the Western wisdom movement needs now is depth. There’s real consensus around the nature and usefulness of some elements of wisdom, such as mindfulness and empathy, but very little shared understanding of the source of these qualities—in other words, of wisdom itself.

Much of the conference was impacted by this lack of a clear-cut destination. Both participants and speakers often expressed concern that Western spirituality as exemplified at the conference might be “watering down” the wisdom traditions, such as Buddhism, that gave us the core teachings on mindfulness and compassion.

If mindfulness alone is too shallow, what depths are we missing, and why do they matter?

However, this stayed as a vague worry because of a lack of consensus as to what we are watering down. If mindfulness alone is too shallow, what depths are we missing, and why do they matter?

Including Enlightenment

Enlightenment most fully expresses the qualities that the Western wisdom movement now celebrates.

I’d like to humbly suggest that the Western wisdom movement look closely at enlightenment.

To many people, enlightenment sounds religious, metaphysical, unscientific, elitist, and so on. It’s probably easiest to summarize these objections as: We don’t believe in enlightenment. If we did, we could work the rest out; but enlightenment feels like a rumor that, although tantalizing, doesn’t apply to us—most likely a product of cultural circumstances, pre-scientific mythmaking, et cetera.

I have for a long time wanted to put enlightenment on firmer footing than this. For starters, I’ll link to the one piece I have managed to write on the topic, which works to establish that numerous awakened people’s eyes look very similar, in ways also captured by millennia of Buddhist iconography.

I also wish to suggest that the conduct of teachers like Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Thich Nhat Hanh is perceptibly different from that of other people, even other wisdom teachers. These are not merely unusually mindful people; there’s something going on with them, and accounts of their lives (such as Crooked Cucumber, about Suzuki Roshi) bear out these differences.

We will need to go deeper, and this will mean building the same consensus around enlightenment that we have built around mindfulness and empathy.

The mind of enlightenment—wakefulness itself, wisdom itself—most fully expresses the qualities that the Western wisdom movement now celebrates: effortless wakefulness, unfabricated, universal compassion. As we work to disseminate the elements of wisdom we can all agree upon, we will also need to go deeper, and this will mean building the same consensus around enlightenment that we have built around mindfulness and empathy. This work may take time, but it will happen—after all, enlightenment is real, and the West has a wonderful track record of finding the real stuff eventually.

Thank You to Wisdom 2.0

I was very thankful for the opportunity to attend Wisdom 2.0. I came away above all inspired, as well as newly certain of the pieces yet to be filled in. I expect to attend next year—to continue this exploration, and perhaps, if the moment feels right, to grub for a job at Google. I hope to see you there!

  • Corey Adkins

    Thanks for sharing Fred, and glad to hear it was inspiring. I am personally a bit a of a skeptic towards the secular mindfulness movement, so it’s interesting to hear your perspective that people seemed very sincere and informed.

    I think what you bring up around enlightenment connects with the root of my skepticism around the secular mindfulness movement- which is that these practices with the intent for enlightenment for yourself or other is just spiritual materialism. Not that that’s all bad per se, I think most of us start down the path for the material benefits it might have on our life- reduced stress, etc. But at a certain point, your missing the pointyou’re just making the practice about personal improvement. Enlightment is the ultimate goal- but my only question is does the corporate world (Google, Facebook, etc.) buy into enlightenment ? Because they can’t sell it the same way that they’ve been able to sell the productivity benefits of meditation, etc.

  • Very interesting, Fred! Some Chilean ZC members had a chance for a small audience with the Sakyong at the Garchen program in Chile last week, and one of the questions was about how to relate to the secular mindfulness movement. The Sakyong encouraged us to engage and at the same time said something to the effect of “if meditation is just a technique, then it will just be used for whatever purpose.” So I think part of what we can bring to the conversation has to do with connecting these practices to a secular *ethical* vision—along the lines of what Fred is suggesting here as “wisdom we can all agree upon.”