Conversations about Technology and Mindfulness:
A Boots-on-the-Ground Recap and Field Guide
San Francisco, 2019.
The hosts of the Wisdom 2.0 conference have been exploring "the intersection of technology and mindfulness" from various angles for 10 years.
(“What happened to 1.0?” asked an eccentric-former-Boulderite-current-Portlander-non-attendee in the lobby of the Hilton where the conference was located.)
During the past decade, San Francisco has become the new center of the technological universe. And the West Coast – the Bay Area in particular – has always been a little woo-woo/mindfulness-oriented.
It makes sense that a conference about technology and mindfulness would take place here.
It sounds interesting enough, but why did I really come?
What would be motivating enough to give up earning money at my day (night) job and spending time working on my current passion project, the Offgrid Mindfulness Clock?
I'm in a Dysfunctional Relationship...
...with my smartphone – and I need to figure out how to navigate that relationship.
Or I need to give up my smartphone completely, which I’m not ready to do.
This year's theme for Wisdom 2.0 was “The Path Forward.” The conference addressed it on a macro level, but my concern has been how do we – individuals who aren’t giving up our smartphones – manage our addiction to smartphones and social media?
(During a post-conference meet-up dinner, sitting around a restaurant table with nine other digital-wellness-oriented people, I realized: none of us is willing to give up our smartphones, or else we would. It would be a no-brainer.)
Because I successfully curbed my smartphone addiction by purchasing an alarm clock, for the past six months I’ve been developing a physical, unconnected-to-the-internet alarm clock / meditation timer.
The Offgrid Mindfulness Clock will be ready in June 2019.
Somewhere along the way I learned about Wisdom 2.0. (I don’t remember where I heard about it, but I'm sure there's a digital path someone could trace.)
It became clear that because of what I was up to, I had to check it out. I mean, technology and mindfulness! I would never find a more appropriate focus group with whom I could talk about my project.
I took Hunter S. Thompson’s advice: I bought my ticket and took the ride.
Fear, in the Form of a Marketing Opportunity
As soon as I decided to attend the conference, I knew I wanted to bring something useful to give to people I met – something beyond a business card.
I didn’t want it to be a postcard with “10 Tips to Establishing Healthy Boundaries with Your Smartphone.”
(Which would be just one tip: don’t charge your phone in your bedroom overnight.)
Ten days before my flight I found out that the conference wasn’t providing a printed schedule. The schedule was on a smartphone app.
My friend Jenna had the brilliant idea that I make my own printed schedules.
On the day of the event I picked up 400 programs that I had printed at a FedEx Office and, knot in my stomach, made my way to the Hilton where the conference was being held.
Why was there a knot in my stomach?
From September 1st until the moment I was walking to the hotel I developed the Offgrid Mindfulness Clock in seclusion.
Working in my little room at my big desk.
Emailing a handful of people, engaging in (useful) Facebook forums, building a website.
Not really working at my edge.
By “edge” I mean the place that induces acute stress and fear.
I associate stress and fear with a choice: a chance to quit or to stay the course. The opportunity to walk through (sometimes major) discomfort and come out the other side a more evolved person.
My most rewarding experiences of the past five years have involved vulnerability and/or stress that were almost debilitating.
I now associate those physiological symptoms as a personal sign that not only will everything be okay...
...but everything will be PHENOMENAL.
I’ve learned that the stress and fear are a sign that I care and have given so much that the end result will surprise and delight some of the people I’m seeking to serve (and, if I'm being honest, that I'm seeking to impress).
It’s not as if I approach it like that: “I have to give and sacrifice so much!” I mean that the process and the work involved to produce anything of quality naturally involves time and effort.
That’s easy to write now, in hindsight. But an hour before going to the hotel I was freaking out a bit. I thought I was a fraud.
I really, truly thought the schedules were a dumb idea, what was I doing, why was I even here in San Francisco.
Over the next two days I handed out 386 programs: “Hi there, would you like a printed schedule?”
Maybe 20 people declined, because they were happily using the app.
The people who accepted the schedules were universally grateful.
Some people came from other countries and couldn’t download the app, either because of their native app store or because of their data/wifi situation.
Some people were extremely grateful. A few people seemed near tears.
That's not an exaggeration — for some of us, having to rely on the smartphone app was a source of frustration.
Drawing from my own experience as an attendee sitting in the audience wondering which talk to attend next, I found that having a printed schedule was about a million times better than using the conference app.
The app was useful for other things, like bios of the speakers, and the ability to connect with other conference attendees.
But overall, it wasn't a great substitute for a printed program.
I'm well aware that the printed programs used paper and that the app did not. The question I asked myself: does the benefit of this tool outweigh the cost?
In the case of this particular program, the graphic designer I worked with – the talented, easy-to-work-with Laura Bee – did about four times more work than we originally intended so that the program was fully functional and not just a token gesture/marketing ploy.
We made 100% sure it was a useful tool.
Giving out the printed programs was the most gratifying part of the weekend. (Second most gratifying: walking around and seeing people using them.)
The satisfaction I received from this endeavor reinforced one of my personal takeaways for the weekend. It was an answer to a question posed on the first night:
What would your heart like to give to the world next?
Take a few minutes and sit with that question. I give my answer toward the end of this article.
The Wisdom 2.0 Conference
2.5 Days, 10 Hours Sleep
Although I believe that events like Wisdom 2.0 begin for each participant the moment they make a commitment – when they officially register and spend more money than they would be comfortable losing – the scheduled beginning was 6pm on Friday night.
Then it was full-on until the official closing on Sunday night at 5:30, or unofficially at 10pm after a meet-up dinner, or more unofficially at 2am, after going out with new friends.
I slept about 10 hours from start to finish.
There were too many interesting conversations to be had, too many people to learn about and learn from, and too many programs to hand out. As much as I need sleep to function, this weekend it had to wait.
Lay of the Land
Within the Hilton Hotel in Union Square, Wisdom 2.0 was sprawled over three floors.
There was a gigantic main room that sat…thousands? (2500 people attended but weren’t all necessarily in that room at the same time.) On this Main Stage there were usually two to six people seated in comfy chairs having a 20ish minute conversation.
The conference was founded 10 years ago by Soren Gordhamer and was named after a book he wrote.
He continues as organizer and co-host, along with author Michelle Gale. One of these two introduced each discussion, and Soren often was the conversational partner of the featured guest.
Other recurring facilitators were David Simas, who is the CEO of the Obama Foundation, and Jack Kornfield, a renowned spiritual guide and founder of Spirit Rock Mediation Center.
In this enormous main room were frequent mindfulness interludes involving closed eyes, breathing, om-ing, and other brief exercises meant to bring a large group of people back to the present moment.
Other than the main stage there was so much going on.
There was a "quiet room" for mindulness without technology.
I took advantage of the cushions and soothing music on Sunday morning. After a night of partying (bottomless kombucha on tap!) and four hours sleep I found that I couldn’t focus even on interesting speakers. So I took a half hour and closed my eyes.
There was a Movement Lounge for yoga and qi gong and dance.
There was a vendor village with a Q&A stage. After speakers presented (i.e. had they're hosted conversations) on the main stage, they were available here to have a dialogue with.
There was an “Embodiment Lounge” and several breakout rooms for smaller presentations. (As I write this I realize that though I could probably make a decent guess, I’m not sure what embodiment means in this context.)
There was one room devoted to dozens of simultaneous small-table discussions – “Intimate Conversations with Kindred Spirits,” which could describe the entire weekend – around particular topics such as “Aliveness through Contemplating Death and Dying” and “Conscious Parenting in the Digital Age.”
I’m not covering everything but you probably get the idea.
Crucially, there was a hotel lobby with easy, fluid seating, which allowed for some downtime in public as well as the searching out of random people to chat with (and hand out programs to).
For a black-hole-dense 48 hours the Hilton was a crucible of people yearning and striving and efforting towards…being, hopefully without yearning and striving and efforting.
It felt incredible to be there. But did it just feel good, or did change take place?
Snapshots and (A Few) Takeaways
A lot of the feel-good stuff would fall flat no matter how well I describe it. (“Imagine: over 1000 people making an Om sound. It was…SO…AMAZING….OH…MY…GOD.”)
So here are some hopefully useful nuggets.
Bursting "Filter Bubbles"
NOTE: If you’re familiar with and happy about how narrow your digital window of the world is, you can skip this section.
First thing Friday night brought perhaps the most pointed, positive use of technology to encourage...consciousness, if not exactly mindfulness.
Because of the algorithms of Google and Facebook, you’re exposed to a perspective of the world that is increasingly narrow because it's curated just for you.
Mine is curated just for me, and my mom’s is curated just for her, and hers looks wayyyyy different than mine.
We’re served information that matches our interests and current perspective. If you’re an Obama lover, the information that shows up in your Google searches and your Facebook feed is selected to match your Obama-loving tendencies.
It’s the opposite if you’re an Obama-disdainer.
These algorithm-generated POVs are “filter bubbles.”
They exist in your Facebook feed as well.
Sure, occasionally an FB friend posts an opinion that differs radically from yours.
But for the most part, everything you’re exposed to – ads, news stories, friends’ posts – are aligned with your feelings about Barack Obama, mixed with your feelings about everything else you’ve ever clicked on (and much that you've been exposed to but haven't clicked on), all taken into account to serve you specific information at specific times.
(FYI, the timing is more specific than you probably imagine. You're shown one thing x seconds after you've seen some other thing, because that's known to be the optimal time for you to see the second thing relative to the first in order to garner a desired action. Not x+1 seconds or x-1 seconds: those timings have been tested in a huge group of people who, from a data perspective, all look exactly like you. But that's part of another conversation.)
Joan Blades and John Gable want to burst filter bubbles.
Living Room Conversations, AllSides, and The Bridge Alliance
Joan is a Democrat. John is a Republican.
The two of them realized that when people of differing political views got together, they avoided what they saw as unbridgeable divides. They didn’t talk about politics.
To widen her outlook, Joan began hosting conversations among people of diverse viewpoints. These took place in her house as well as in online forums. She called them Living Room Conversations.
John has a background in tech and founded a news-aggregating website called AllSides.
AllSides collects different accounts of the same news story. For instance, in the screen shot below you can see stories about a gun control-related bill that passed in the House of Representatives from a left, center, or right perspective (as shown by the scale under each story title).
Both organizations are members of the Bridge Alliance, which is “committed to revitalizing America through civic engagement, governance and policymaking, and campaign and election processes.”
Technology on Facebook, Instagram, Google, and Twitter are creating filter bubbles. Joan and John are working towards balanced civic engagement and discourse through the ability to connect people using the same technology.
Conversations for Successful Long-Term Relationships
Saturday brought a panel of four leaders in the relationship therapy space: Rachel & Doug Abrams and Julie Schwartz Gottman & John Gottman. All four were new to me but through conversations with other attendees I learned that both couples were well-known.
First: I'm not sure what this one had to do with technology, but it was certainly mindful.
Second: Should I only say good things in this article? The following probably says more about me than the panelists…
Although I heard some things that added to my knowledge of relationships, the panel was challenging to watch. With the cutesy back-and-forths between each set of partners, at times I felt like I was in the Catskills.
“You know you love it when I say that, dear.”
That type of thing felt contrived, performed, and perfected over many years. When the videos come out I’ll link to them and you can let me know if I’m too critical. For me, the schtickiness undermined the value of the information.
But whatever — the panel was a crowdpleaser and the jokiness received the desired laughter. I’m just humorless, or uncomfortable in my singleness, or single because I’m humorless.
And ungrateful! I learned some things, mostly in the form of language (which is what most of life is, right?).
The Gottmans had very different approaches from each other to life and work.
Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman is into things like bringing a group of women to Everest Basecamp, while Dr. John Gottman prefers to be in an easy chair analyzing research data.
Despite the differences they have a thriving relationship.
A few times Dr. John Gottman referred to the idea of "accepting influence": that to have a successful relationship, one partner must accept influence from the other.
The idea of accepting influence struck a chord. On a personal level what I’m looking for in a relationship is someone whose being and intellect I respect so much that I’ll learn new things as well as have my long-held perspectives challenged.
(Isn’t that what most people are looking for?)
But what about accepting influence on matters that I’m not open to changing my mind about?
Accepting influence when not immediately ready for it sounds like a challenging, near-impossible practice. I’m guessing the rewards must be proportionately worthwhile.
I found this piece about accepting influence on the Gottmans' website but didn’t want to read it before writing this. I was trying to keep my reflections to what I remembered and wrote down during the conference.
Have you heard of him? I may be the only person who hadn’t until this weekend.
With his calming presence and reassuring, enlightening words, I understand why Jack Kornfield is held in such high regard and why he was a kind of co-host of the weekend.
He is also a world-class curator: some of the best ideas I heard all weekend were from people whose work Jack read or quoted.
Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
Jack has a synonym for mindfulness, “loving awareness,” which dovetails with his reminder that mindfulness is “not a grim duty” and that it should accompany (or be accompanied by?) love, creativity, and joy.
I attended a smaller breakout group (maybe 100 people) where he led a guided meditation that focussed on the ambient sounds of a busy conference (as opposed to breath or mantra) as a gateway to being present.
But it was during the opening night that Jack led audience members (a thousand or more?) in a brief exercise with prompts for calming, paying attention, and listening to ourselves answer some questions.
The question I mentioned earlier struck me hard:
What is it that your heart wants to bring next into the world?
Did you sit with this question?
What is it that your heart wants to bring next into the world?
My thinking mind didn't even hesitate, my heart was so clear:
Hospitality and Service.
Hospitality in the form of community-building food-related events, which is something I’ve been up to sporadically for a few years and which I’ve put aside to focus on bringing the Offgrid Mindfulness Clock into the world.
“Service,” when used in such close proximity to the word hospitality, usually means the technical aspects of event planning and dining, such as making sure people have easy access to utensils before they have food to eat.
You can listen to me riff on this subject in this podcast.
But in this instance “service” referred to something I had been talking about with a friend just two days before this.
“Service” as in bringing things into the world that can benefit others.
My friend and I had been talking about the challenge of operating from a place of service as opposed to a place of fear — fear of losing money, fear of failing, fear of looking bad in front of others.
We both were aware of the gap between where our heads knew we wanted to be and the fear we were stuck in.
On this somewhat magical Friday night, as 2500 people were making their way to this one place for 48 hours of conversations (and some dancing), my heart leveraged my head into making the shift from fear to service.
Maybe it was because I had already given away a dozen programs. I was already being of service.
Or maybe it was because my buddy and I had talked about it and planted a quick-sprouting seed — or nourished one that had been neglected.
Whatever the reason, the shift informed the rest of my weekend as I gave away the printed programs.
And it’s informing me now as I type this.
I’m not sure how it will inform me going forward in the coming months. One of the challenges of going to events like this is keeping the feelings alive long enough to incorporate the learnings into real life.
What I Didn't Cover
There was so much!
Michael Pollan spoke on the topic of psychedlics. I didn’t see him.
I didn’t participate in any of the movement practices.
Tristan Harris is the crusading founder of the Center for Humane Technology, who I mention in this article about smartphone addiction. I’ve read interviews with him and while they were informative, they didn’t lead me to expect much.
He was mind-blowing. I’ll write about him in a separate post.
Almost all the Main Stage speakers spoke on at least one smaller stage, including a forum for questions and answers; I only saw one of these. (Tristan Harris! Wow wow wow.)
There was a panel made up of survivors and others directly affected by the Parkland school shooting. I’ll write about them in a separate post.
There's a version of this conference in New York in October. I’m thinking about going. And I’m definitely planning on heading back to San Francisco next March.
I mean…people will probably need printed programs 🙂
If you have any questions or comments, please reach out!