Boulder’s Wisdom 2.0 Conference
Last week I went to Boulder’s Wisdom 2.0, a conference committed to the question
How can we be wise—read ‘mindful, present, spacious’—in a 2.0 world—read ‘Twitter, Facebook, and the rest of the Net’?
The question has become a koan of sorts for me. So, come the morning of the conference, I wake early and eager:
Young people like to stand. We older people like to sit. Says a not so old woman sitting next to a standing young man. Both are handing out name tags. I smile through
I like both.
and feel I’ve found some omen of a middle way between ‘wisdom’ and ‘2.0’.
I take a seat up front. Spine straight. Gaze forward. Mind prepping to become a beginner again—to look anew at the Net and the Bodhi Tree. See no more duality. Finally leave my Luddite ways behind me as I hear speaker after speaker say I can have it all if I just, you know, find a few subtle reference points to focus on as I surf the web, maybe bow or something before I open my laptop.
I open my laptop. The conference starts in ten minutes and I want to make sure Waylon read my 2:30AM email saying I planned to leave the ‘Today Only’ posts alone since it seemed he had found enough time at his conference in LA to switch them last night. However, were he to have replied that I ought to still switch them, I could quick do so before the conference begins.
I serially click the bar-less wi-fi icon.
So are they going to give us internet today? Asks another attendant.
That’s what I’m… that’s what I’m trying… trying to figure out. It… it looks like no. I stumble out, an anxious return to the screen punctuating each part of the response, taking my eyes from, um, the other attendant. (Later, without a laptop before me, I learn her name is Karen.)
The conference starts with a meditation on cell phones.
We’re asked to take ours out and consider how every part of it comes from the earth and not some corner of Roswell. I guess the inference is that, to quote Ben Harper, what’s from the earth is of the greatest worth. Of course, Harper’s defending marijuana. And while I wish marijuana were legal, I do not think it is of the greatest worth. In fact, I think it is, on balance, harmful. So I can say the inference from ‘earth’ to ‘worth’ rhymes. But that’s about it.
We’re asked to decide what we’ll do with our phone for the day. Will we turn it off? Silence it? Set it to vibrate? I see two assumptions here. The first is that attending to our phones will pull us from the day’s point. The second is that our phones are addictive—so addictive our compulsion to check them might override our desire to tend to the day’s point.
From the earth and somewhat addictive.
I decide to turn my phone off.
But, as I do, I see I have a new message—one last gift to unwrap.
It’s from Lindsey:
Just a reminder to change Today Only. Maybe you already have. Let me know if you have questions. I don’t have my comp but I might later.
I shut off the phone but mind the text for half the meditation before I finally find my breath.
Mindfulness is slowing down and finding space.
This conference is about balancing our space and our tools.
This conference will not answer the question of how to balance our space and our tools so much as make the question present.
Soren’s interviewing Leah Pearlman and Rich Fernandez. Leah works for Facebook and Rich works for eBay. But they are here for the same reason: they both spend time online and they both value mindfulness.
I love Leah’s take on being mindful as asking what is true in any given moment.
But the comment that stands out the most to me comes from Richard:
We’ve built a formula one race car [Twitter and the rest], but don’t know how to drive it yet.
(Well. Actually the comment that stands out the most to me comes from the audience:
Is Waylon Lewis here? Someone shouts out.
Wait. What? Waylon Lewis. I’m here on behalf of his website. But I have no idea why someone just asked if he was here because I was too busy drafting a response to Richard’s remark. Hm. I guess I should say something but it’s going to sound a bit stilted because I’m missing the context:
Um. He’s not. I’m here for Elephant though.)
During the break I ask Richard what he thought of Soren’s metaphor for mindfulness as slowing down and his own metaphor for the Net as a formula one race car. He assures me the two are not incommensurable. I ask him if that’s because we can take pit stops from the Net— take a ten minute sit every hour or so of surfing—or if that’s because we can actually slow down while we drive the car. He assures me race car drivers can be present as they drive—in fact, must be present as they drive. He assures me the analogy extends to being online. I’m hopeful but still clueless as to how that might look. But how do I ask Richard for instructions about how to be present when racing through all the endless clicks and beeps and links? If he says he can experience presence then I guess he can experience presence. I’ve done just enough meditation to appreciate that assuring analogies are sometimes as far one can go in the way of mindfulness instruction—personal experience has to take language’s lead.
We’re sitting on zafus in a circle of five—Kristen, Don, Chris, Karen, and myself. Don uses mindfulness techniques to coach athletes—including race car drivers. Karen, too, is a mindfulness coach. And she, too, sometimes coaches race car drivers. We learn this after I bring up Richard’s formula one remark. Don came here after he happened to stumble across Elephant looking for reports of the Four Mile Fire and decided to click on an ad for the conference.
The ring of serendipity adds a bit to the bliss I feel from the mindfulness exercises between sessions.
Two faculty from Naropa, the university hosting the conference, talk about the school’s (seemingly successful) attempts to teach meditation online. I hear
technology is value neutral
and take note.
Is it? Because I hear that a lot and never buy it. I often buy that technology is both good and bad rather than one or the other but I never buy that technology—or anything, really—is neither good nor bad. (Though, after I say that, I realize there is some sort of important footnote in much of the wisdom literature I read that the ideal way of being somehow transcends good and bad, right and wrong.) I believe meditation is a technology (or, well, a technique) that is not value neutral but, rather, good. I also believe meditation is a technology that involves slowing down and paying attention to what.is.now. rather than looking away toward what is next and what is not. And I believe the Net is a technology that tends to speed us up to stay atop the endless stream, not paying any one ‘now’ too much attention lest we lose out on what’s next and next and next.
Soren is asking Claire Williams Diaz, who works for Twitter, whether her company feels any responsibility to encourage users not to become addicted to their product. Claire rejects the question as one that falsely assumes Twitter is addictive. But she never offers an argument for why it’s not. Instead she talks about all the good, useful, real time information Twitter provides.
Marshall McLuhan made the phrase
But I guess that was decades back. And maybe people have come to think the phrase false. I just wish people who think it false would kindly disabuse me of my belief.
Because at present I think of Twitter, at it’s best, as something like a slot machine at a charitable casino. It’s great that every coin goes to a good cause. But it’s still important to stop playing and go home to your family, paycheck still in hand.
Soren’s interviewing Alex Bogusky and Greg Burdulis. Alex was head adman at Crispin Porter + Bogusky but quit to form Fearless Cottage, a sort of mindful life think tank committed to making our patterns of consumption more sustainable and beneficial. Greg was a monk in Burma but now teaches meditation to employees at Crispin Porter. Alex’s main message is that voting with our dollar does more good than we might think. Greg’s main message—shown as much as told—is that meditating for long periods of time does as much good as we might think. I love both messages. And I love both messengers—charming, grounded, doing good work. But if I had to have the life of Greg or Alex, I think I’d pick Greg—the one who spent years as a calm, meditative monk rather than the one who spent years as a brilliant but surely harried and stessed executive.
Another attendant and I are talking about our practice. I tell her I’m new to yoga. That until recently I’ve only had a sitting practice and used to think yoga was just a way to ease into sitting—that moving meditation was a sort of half meditation you did before the real thing. I tell her I’ve formed a faith in the importance of moving meditation—the important of being able to stay present and mindful as I moved. But, I tell her, it still feels “more meditative” for me to sit than to do yoga and I have to take it on faith that being able to rest in the present while quickly moving about is a possible skill, a possible experience.
As I take my seat for the final session, I realize I may have just found another omen of a middle way between ‘wisdom’ and ‘2.0’. I still have no idea how to actually be present while quickly moving across the web. The Net and the Bodhi Tree still seem like two taut halves of an unanswered koan. And the koan seems all the tighter to me now that I have some faith it might one day be resolved—the same sort of faith that makes me trust my yoga practice isn’t taking me away from some purer form of meditation. A faith that, over time and with practice, the Net might subtly become one with the Bodhi Tree.
Of course, the Net becoming one with the Bodhi Tree seems more a matter of experience than faith. And right now, all I experience is duality.
Daniel Slanger lives in Boulder with mountains and friends and likes to bike about town, read books, and slowly whittle his desires down to only the most sustainable.