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Mindfulness and Technology

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Disruption Revolution CoverThe following interview comes from a chapter of the new book Disruption Revolution, written by my friend David Passiak. Disruption Revolution features 20+ leading innovators including Brian Solis, Chris Anderson, Robert Scoble, Sarah Lacy, Jerry Colonna, Jeremiah Owyang, Seth Godin, Erik Qualman, Steve Rubel, and myself. It’s the first comprehensive collection of perspectives on disruption, covering things like 3D printing, wearable technology, the evolution of social media and the new collaborative economy, all from the perspective of experts in these fields.

David is offering the book by donation. Anyone can download for free if they like. You can also get a hard copy via Amazon.

David Passiak: Let’s start with a pretty broad, open question. How do Buddhism and technology fit together?

Vincent Horn: They fit together in the way that everything fits with technology. It’s hard to escape. It’s a fact. What I’ve noticed is that most first-generation American and Western Buddhist teachers, especially in the 1970s—they were the big first generation—had a relationship with technology where they mostly rejected it as being antithetical to the aims of Buddhist contemplative practice.

Buddhist Geeks in some ways is a response to that—a different relationship between technology and Buddhism. We could actually see technology as potentially helpful in terms of putting dharma online and also utilizing some of these emerging technologies to completely change the way that we practice together and even think about those practices, change the way that we discourse, and change the way that we form communities—in short, basically changing most aspects of how Buddhism is practiced.

That is a different kind of narrative we’re trying to explore. It has its own dangers, especially the idealistic dangers of not seeing the downsides of how technology can change things. For example, my wife and I just recently started playing with unplugging from the Internet one day a week. I’ve unplugged a ton in the past, like during meditation retreats, but it’s different to unplug in the context of one’s daily life.

Part of what I’ve seen from just that short experiment is when we’re so immersed within technological frameworks, it’s really hard to see the ways in which they’re negatively impacting things. So that’s the other part of it. Yes, we can have a narrative that’s not anti-technology, but that doesn’t mean there’s not going to be huge downsides to how we do things that can only be seen once you step outside of it.

DP: In my own life, I have found that meditation slows down a reactionary form of behavior that allows me to make more informed decisions. Its benefits radiate out like spokes from a wheel. In the fast-paced, constantly changing landscape of technology, the practice seems to help me differentiate between what is a real trend in innovation vs. a passing fad.

How does having an ongoing meditation practice impact the way that you use technology?

VH: The main thing my meditation practice has done is given me a more sensitive awareness to the way my mind and body respond to the technologies I’m using. That seems to be the most important impact, as that real-time feedback gives me something to work with in regards to how I use technology. I’ve found that with a mind that’s more sensitively tuned in to the moment that it’s possible to see if a particular technology makes me sleepy, energized, clear, distracted, calm, contracted, expanded, or something else. Once I have this information, I can begin to engage differently, or even disengage, with whatever technology I’m using. If technology acts as an extension of our senses and cognition, it makes sense that we’d want to develop are awareness of those extended capabilities and who they interact with human body 1.0.

DP: Many people have this perception of Buddhism in terms of non-attachment and separate from the world, but in recent years there is a new movement of teachers like yourself embracing what has been termed pragmatic Buddhism. Can you tell us a bit about that?

VH: Some of my earliest meditation teachers were Gen-X rebels, who, just like the Boomer generation before them, went to places like Burma and Malaysia, did the same kinds of meditation practices, and were exposed to the same maps, models, and texts, but they had a decidedly different interpretation.

DP: Like Daniel Ingram?

VH: Yeah, exactly like Daniel Ingram and Kenneth Folk.

DP: Daniel Ingram’s Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha is one of my favorite books, and I discovered it listening to him on one of your podcasts.

VH: Daniel was actually one of my first guests. I found his e-book through one of his ex-college roommates. We knew each other. When I opened that book, and I said, “OK, this is what enlightenment is, this is how you get there, and this is how you know you’re moving in the right direction. I shouldn’t have to float through psychological fluffy New Age type stuff to see results.”

That kind of dead-simple, cookbook-style approach just made a lot of sense to me—it was pragmatic dharma, a straightforward, pragmatic method to attain enlightenment. In other ways, it also fit with my shadow side and blind spots—the hyper-ambitious, driven, goal-oriented personality. Now that being said, I believe it’s possible for people to experience real awakenings and enlightenments in the context of being goal-driven and ambitious. I know because I’ve gone through those experiences, and that was how I approached it.

The pragmatic part has always been to ask the question in terms of practice, “What works?” Daniel Ingram’s book was an example of him answering that question: “What worked for him?” The next level of pragmatism is asking the question, “What works for what?” It’s actually stepping back a level of abstraction and saying, “What is it that I’m actually aiming for and what is it that’s driving me? What are the questions I’m trying to answer on this path?”

Once I can actually answer those questions, then I can orient toward finding something that works to support me in going deeper in that direction. The pragmatic dharma movement continues to evolve in the direction of asking very pragmatic questions. It strips away the mysticism of the mystical path, if you will, by making it a very straightforward and practical way of being in the world.

DP: That’s a great lead in to another question I wanted to ask around the pragmatic use of technology. Technology connects early adopters and encourages innovation. I remember in listening to your podcast over the years, I felt a sense of connection to a community of people I don’t know and have never met. This encouraged me to continue and grow my meditation practice because I felt part of something greater than myself, this idea that there were Buddhist geeks like me basically everywhere.

VH: Totally!

DP: How did technology help you to foster dialogue and bring people together to really build a movement around mindfulness, technology, and Buddhist practice?

VH: Technological shifts in the mid-2000s, in particular things like blogging and podcasting, opened up the ability for pretty much anyone with a computer and access to the Internet to become a publisher.

When I started Buddhist Geeks, my partner and I were in our early twenties with no recognition within the Buddhist establishment or within any other establishment. Podcasting allowed us to start having conversations with different kinds of people who maybe didn’t get airtime on more traditional media. We immediately attracted a small following of people for whom the way we were approaching things resonated. Podcasting enabled that sort of one-to-many connection for people who didn’t have a lot of resources and who were just inspired and driven. That was a big shift, and we were part of it.

Physical events are nothing new, but they are one of the oldest ways we have of switching from the many-to-many interacting with each other, so we utilized them. I wouldn’t necessarily call them a technology. They do form a technology, but not a new technology. From there, part of what we realized was that we have this invisible network of Buddhist Geeks. Like you were saying, you felt like you were somehow connected with these other folks even though you may not know who they are. There is this sense of finding a group that has a shared mindset. So we realized after the first couple of conferences how clearly we needed to continue to work to make that invisible network visible to itself.

Now there are some technologies emerging that are really exciting, particularly things like Google+ and their Hangouts system—real-time video that’s finally gotten to the point where it actually works reliably. We utilize these new tools pretty heavily to build a sort of cloud-based Buddhist Geeks community. It’s a shift from the asynchronous text-based forum technologies that I think everyone was using for a long time toward a more synchronous real-time audiovisual-based community. Now we can actually meet up, hang out, and talk together whether or not we live in the same place. These technologies have the capability to change how we organize and experience being connected. It’s pretty amazing.

DP: From my perspective, The Buddha can be considered one of the greatest innovators in world history. Basically, through years of trial and error he quite literally discovered and mapped out a sophisticated method for mastering the interrelationship between the mind and body that has been practiced and taught for nearly 2500 years. Would you consider meditation and Buddhism a form of innovation? And how have Westerners innovated on Buddhism since it started to come over and spread?

VH: Definitely to me it’s an innovation. No question. And it’s interesting, too, because The Buddha was also innovating on top of all kinds of other earlier innovations with the Hindu tradition, particularly with the ability to traverse different strata of consciousness. He was sitting atop of all of that restless struggling at the cutting edge of where things were at the time, and then he had his own kind of breakthroughs contributing to the broader stream of inner contemplative practice.

DP: Which is why Buddhism is considered the middle path between the extremism on the one hand of the rituals of the Vedas, and on the other hand the asceticism of the mystics of the time.

VH: Yeah, he was running into these paradoxes and tensions. The practice of the middle way, as I understand it, is to hold two extremes simultaneously and to see what emerges from holding them. It seems like he did that with certain tensions and paradoxes of his time, and that led to these middle way breakthroughs. I think that has continued from his time onward clearly in that there were huge innovations in the Buddhist tradition with Nagarjuna, the whole Mahayana Movement, the innovations Zen and Dzogchen offered, and definitely Tibet, which was like this little isolated laboratory of innovation for a thousand years. The amount of innovation across all of these non-dualistic traditions that emerged after The Buddha is incredible.

The innovations I’ve seen happening since Buddhism hit the global world are all related to taking wisdom in other disciplines and seeing how they might apply to Buddhism and vice versa. Obviously, psychology was really big for the Boomer Buddhists. They worked a lot on integrating Western psychological notions of Eastern psychological notions, and they reframed Buddhism as a kind of psychology, which eventually led to things like mindfulness based stress reduction that is now taught in places like Harvard Medical School. Even the term enlightenment comes from a crushing together of ideas from the Western Enlightenment and rationality, and Eastern ideas of awakening.

DP: Buddhist Geeks has also evolved from being totally Buddhist and totally geeky to encompassing a range of overlapping interests with technology and global culture. You’ve also since been featured in a number of leading publications like Wired, The Guardian, Fast Company, and The Atlantic. So can you tell me a little more about how Buddhist Geeks has evolved and what your vision for it is in the future?

VH: Like you said, in the beginning, the emphasis was mostly on being Buddhist and geeky, but the more I’ve personally gotten into Buddhism—and I’ve seen this with a lot of other people—the more the question comes up: How is this relevant to the rest of my life? What is the meaning of this? How do I make sense of this?

This happens the more you get into different approaches, traditions, and maps, and working with people who are doing it themselves. This goes back to the earlier conversation about pragmatic Buddhism. It’s not like we’re Buddhist monks, in a fixed context. We’re practitioners who exist in many contexts all in one day: we’re in relationships, we’re entrepreneurs, we’re academics, we’re parents, and so on, and we have all these hobbies and side interests. We have all these things that we’re interested in, and then we throw Buddhism or meditation into the mix. So we ask, “What is this? How does it work?”

Those questions were huge for me, especially as I looked to the Boomers, and I saw so many things that seemed to be generational assumptions on their part. I saw all the ways they were interpreting Buddhism as a liberal political ideology. They took liberal political ideologies and mashed them up with Buddhism in a way that was unacknowledged. They said, “This is Buddhism.”

What they were really saying was “This is our understanding of Buddhism mashed up with all the other things that are important to us.” Our approach has been to acknowledge this tendency, instead of trying to have Buddhism be this pure thing that has this authority of tradition because it’s unchanged or because The Buddha said so. Why not own the fact that we’re changing it? Why not try to acknowledge the ways that we’re trying to innovate, and that not all our attempts at innovation are successful?

We take things we’re learning from different disciplines. For example, in business and technology things like user-centered design methodologies, lean startup methods, and agile software development. Let’s take the stuff we think is brilliant and see if there are really obvious ways that that could inform the conversation about what Buddhism is, what it means in a global context, and how we do it. So, our conversations are moving more in the direction of a mash-up or convergence of different perspectives.

I think the path we’ve been trying to take is the same path The Buddha describes: the middle way, holding the tension between various perspectives—conserving and adapting without assuming one is going to dominate the other or win out, but rather that they may have something fundamentally different to offer each other that would completely change our understanding of both. That has become the inquiry or koan that we’re holding and that is guiding what we choose to do, which is how this convergence of Buddhism, which has been around for 2500 years and has evolved and changed in all these different contexts and is just now converging in on itself, too. There is this increasingly global culture, which has been global for hundreds and hundreds of years with this crazy, out of control, evolving technology, this runaway, exponential burst of technology and innovation.

Having a question or a koan as a vision is different from having an idea where we’re going. That’s one thing we’ve struggled with. It fits in with some of the core principles of Buddhist practice anyway. The way we hold the question is in some ways more important than our vision for where we’re going because we start from there.

DP: We’re also entering an era where we’re living in a constant state of uncertainty, right?

VH: That’s right. Having a long-term vision, like the waterfall approach of software development, where you come up with this fixed idea of what it’s going to look like when you’re done and you just spend the rest of the time getting there, ignoring reality, and not changing, is not a responsible way to build things anymore. That’s the way to build something that’s destined to be irrelevant by the time it’s released. That’s something I definitely noticed from other industries and we try to incorporate that into how we do things with Buddhist Geeks.

DP: That’s a great lead in to another question I have. Disruptive innovations can allow us to see the world from a newfound place of openness, which in Buddhism is often referred to as a beginner’s mind, whereas innovations can also be a source of stress, leaving us trying to constantly keep up. How can we use innovations that we’re seeing in the tech world to open us up instead of closing us down?

VH: First, I would say carefully. Second, bringing a sense of care to the process of testing to see how does this technology changes what we’re doing.

I’ll give you a practical example. In the Buddhist Geeks community, we are playing a lot with spaces in which we sit (meditate) together in real time through the Google Hangout system. Had I not had the experience of sitting together with people in a room for a long time, I don’t think I would have the ability to really know how that works in terms of past experiences and what it has that’s completely novel and new. Like Marshall McLuhan would say, “Every new technology brings something back from the past, but then it also makes something irrelevant.” Sometimes it does things that are actually important. It’s like, “Oh, well actually there is a sense of being part of a group and sitting together.”

You get some of the same benefits that you get when you’re sitting in a room with other people. They can see you. They can hear you. There’s a sort of social pressure. You can’t just get up and leave, which you could have done with a telephone, actually. And at the same time, it’s very weird. There are some things already I can tell are missing and are weird. One is that you’re hearing sounds from multiple places at once. There isn’t a sense that you’re in a shared environment. It’s actually a sense that your environments are mashing up together in one environment.

I don’t know what that does to the meditation process at all, but it definitely changes the ambient environment. It’s also really difficult with the current technology. In a normal meditation session, after you’re done, you get to hangout and chat with people. It’s very hard to do that with our current technologies. You can’t just hang out and talk afterward because you’re all forced to be in this one space. You can’t break off into multiple spaces. You can’t turn one space into multiple spaces yet. There are all sorts of things that are downsides in terms of how communities are normally cultivated and relationships are created in a community space.

So for us, the approach we’ve taken is to try things out and then assess how they’re working. The other way to harness innovation is to use user-centered design processes in creating things so that you’re actually testing your design assumptions with the people you’re creating it for as you go because that puts into question a lot of the assumptions that are driving the creative process and helps more quickly hone in on something that might be workable. The Lean UX started out with a user-centered design and service design.

All of those things seemed brilliantly poised to be utilized to come up with innovations in terms of contemplative technology or to see how to use technology for contemplative ends.

DP: Meditation is in many ways being commodified and secularized. This allows us to innovate in the teaching of meditation. You can bring it into the workplace, sports, healthcare, and education, for example, yet, as a result of that, I often hear people say things like, “I would love to meditate, but I can’t afford to take classes.” The idea is that you can only learn something in this particular setting.

How has productivity and business impacted meditation, and how do we find a balance between that and these sort of deeper original intentions of the practice?

VH: That’s a really tough one. On the one hand, like you’re saying, the fact that meditation has entered into the commodities sector and the market, and is now playing by the current market’s rules, enables it to be spread, be relevant, and become integrated into the culture in a new way that might not otherwise have been possible.

For example, look at the monastic model of Theravada Buddhism. It’s been a complete and utter failure as a model to adapt to the West. If it were up to the conservative Thai forest monks, there would be no Buddhism in the West. There would be maybe 10 people doing it. It would be the people doing Theravada monastic Buddhism next to the 1700s Kentucky Flint Rifle enthusiasts, hanging out next to each other, preserving this ancient form of tradition.

Now, with the pragmatic Buddhism movement, and my own teaching and Buddhist Geeks, I haven’t been that concerned about charging money. There’s a huge taboo against that still in Western Buddhism, charging for the “dharma” based on the idea that money and Buddhism can’t or shouldn’t mix. On the one hand, it’s based on some historical misunderstandings.

There’s one project that I thought would be fun to do, which is to take the Business Model Canvas that breaks down the business into different elements, try to apply that to traditional Buddhism, like the monastic model, and describe the monastic situation as a business model because the fact is it was a model of financial sustainability involving monks and the community. We do have to find new models that work and sustain contemplative practices and teachings. They are some of humanity’s greatest assets.

On the other hand, changing the model changes the thing itself. You can’t change a financial model without changing the thing you’re trying to sustain. One thing that I’ve noticed that’s very challenging in a consumer situation is for people to form longstanding deep relationships with another. There’s a certain kind of relationship that just can’t be transactionally based. The most important relationships I’ve had with teachers have been those that weren’t based on transactions.

Maybe in the beginning, they started that way paying to attend classes, but it became more of an intimate relationship. I really don’t think you can charge for that. You can charge to be a meditation teacher or a therapist. You can have that kind of model where it’s like, “I’m serving you.” But the kind of relationships I’ve found most profound, more transformative, are the ones that even went beyond that, where there was a shared sense of humanity, a bilateral flow of information. And it wasn’t just about me. So I think there are some things we’ve got to be really aware of as meditation shifts into and becomes adopted in these markets.

DP: Building upon what you just said, what do you think Buddhism might have to offer in terms of leadership within organizations, which they’re currently not doing? I think you started to just touch on that with the relationship to teachers.

VH: What I see happening—and I think it’s across disciplines, not just in Buddhism—is people shifting away from a certain kind of top-down model of leadership: “I’m the leader. I embody all the qualities in the vision of what I’m trying to do. I get people to rally around my vision, and we then enact the vision. We bring it into fruition. We bring it to life. As the leader, I’m at the front of that movement, and I’m harnessing resources and energy. I’m the CEO. Or I’m the great guru-teacher.”

The shift that I’ve been noticing that I think is really profound is the leaders who are more interested in creating conditions for things to happen. This ties into what we were talking about before. Instead of taking an idea of what should happen and imposing it on reality, they are having a sense of something that is wanting to emerge, and then they create conditions for it to happen, knowing that they’re not the ones making it happen.

Instead of inspiring and encouraging, they design the environment in such a way that something can emerge from it that’s unexpected. First, there is the deep sense of not knowing, the deep sense of getting in touch with the reality that we actually don’t know what’s going to arise next. On a first-person subjective level, we don’t know. Also, in terms of the collective-social level, we don’t know.

That mindset of not knowing, but simultaneously not giving up or not getting fixed on some idea of what’s emerging, is actually the right mindset to bring to our current situation of uncertain, constant, disruptive innovation because we can actually open to what’s happening and relate to it directly instead of relating to our fixed ideas about it, which always seem to be wrong.

DP: You’re embracing a sense of uncertainty that’s just the nature of our existence, to some extent.

VH: Yes, Jack Kornfield calls it the wisdom of uncertainty. I think there’s something on a first-person level that when people are able to step into that not-knowing space—and you were talking about this earlier—it puts them in a position where they can respond to things differently. It’s a kind of dynamism. That not-knowing comes out of the Zen tradition. Zen is all about dynamic, spontaneous responding to the moment-ness.

DP: This has been really great. For some readers this interview might be their first encounter with the possibility of integrating Buddhism and technology into life and potentially leadership. Where should such a person start? What should he or she do?

VH: I think the first thing is to acknowledge if you’re in the business realm or any other corporate system like that, then you’ve probably been focusing on external things—cash flow, building businesses, and all these third-person objective systems. That perspective is obviously extremely profound, and it works, but the thing it doesn’t acknowledge is what Buddhism has so brilliantly to offer: The internal, subjective, first-person experience is also simultaneously wrapped into the stuff we do, all the businesses, and all the projects. It’s all happening within us as well.

If we only have tools and models to address the outside vs. the tools and models to address the inside, then trying to be an innovator really leaves us impoverished without the resources that we need and without an inherent, deep, personal meaning. What is the purpose of innovation aside from just putting something out into the world? Isn’t it also a personal journey of some sort? Isn’t there a transformative process that we’re going through as part of that?

I think the first thing is to recognize a need for those inner resources and tools to draw upon because they are an integral part of the process that we’re going through as innovators. We can’t ignore them. We can meditate and try to cope, but that’s different from fully utilizing the inner world as part of the process. Buddhism is one of many ways of approaching that. It has a lot to offer a culture that is still in reaction to its own religious heritage in the sense that it’s not so displeasing. That alone might be reason enough to check out Buddhist approaches. I think that’s where I would start.

DP: Going back to what I said earlier, what is our actual deeper motivation for why we are innovators? What is the thing that’s driving us?

VH: If we don’t have ways of examining these types of questions, through contemplative practice or even psychological practices, then a lot of what is motivating our projects could be these completely unexamined and immature things within us. That’s really painful—to be driving projects with those motivations. I think there’s something in finding tools that you can use to help you look at what’s driving you to begin with so that as you go you’re not being driven by these invisible forces that you have no conscious awareness of. I think it’s impossible to avoid completely, but Buddhist practice offers lots of tools for doing that.

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Buddhist Geeks, Bitcoins, & Ukrainian Domain Pirates

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This is an article that originally appeared on the Buddhist Geeks Lab.

It pains me some to admit this, but in the summer of 2012–just after our annual conference–the buddhistgeeks.com domain was stolen right out from under our noses. For five gut-wrecking days, after discovering our domain had been snipped, I worked out a deal to buy our domain name back from a Ukrainian domain pirate. Guess what we paid the ransom in? Bitcoins.

Back then (August, 2012) the digital cryptocurrency was trading at roughly $10 per coin. I know this, because the ransom for our website was $1,000 US Dollars, which turned out to be just over 100 Bitcoins. I had heard about Bitcoin a couple months before that, but really had no idea what it was, or how to use it. The only thing I knew was that it was being used to buy illegal drugs online anonymously through the Silk Road (LSD anyone?).

After being told that I could only get the domain back in Bitcoins I frantically began researching how to purchase and transfer this new digital currency. Purchasing them involved making several wire transfers to a random bank in the states, and setting up a bitcoin wallet where I could store my coins. Finally there was the bitcoin escrow service (bitcrow) that I used to ensure we got the domain back and the domain pirate got his digital booty. After the whole thing was said and done, I was just glad we still had a website! Now, as I look back on the episode, I realize there may have been more to it.

There’s a ton of debate raging now about the future of Bitcoin–on whether or not it’s simply a massive speculative bubble or it has the potential to become the financial protocol–like HTTP or SMTP–for the global internet. Regardless of the future of the Bitcoin the thing that’s so interesting, to me, is that it represents a new type of currency with is a) digital b) global & c) decentralized (peer-to-peer). In many ways these three attributes also describe what Buddhist Geeks is, especially when looking at the Buddhist Geeks Community project. Let’s go through each of these characteristics and see if the Bitcoin experiment might tell us a little something about the future of Buddhist Geeks, and perhaps even about the future of 21st century Buddhism.

Digitization

bitcoinI find it really interesting that nearly every news article on Bitcoin uses a picture of the physical Bitcoin like the one pictured here. Why is it that a digital currency, which has no fixed physical form, is constantly being depicted as a metal disc? My guess is that it has something to do with what internet philosopher Alexander Bard describes as (mis)using the logic and language of an old paradigm in the context of a new paradigm–in this case the shift of paradigm is from the geocentric/physical to the non-local/digital. The problem is the old paradigm can’t describe the new paradigm.

Buddhist Geeks began as a %100 digital project. We were interested in having conversations that we didn’t see happening anywhere else, and used the power of the emerging web–in particular blogging and podcasting–to make this happen. The internet gave birth to Buddhist Geeks (quite literally). And because the internet enables instantaneous communication at a distance (non-locality), these conversations and the groups which form around them are not based on geographical location, but are based instead on the proximity of passion. This is the power of digital.

Global

Because the nature of the web is digital & instantaneous, it means that it is also global. When something is global, it has the potential of breaking free from provincial attitudes and restrictions. In the new cloud-based Buddhist Geeks Community, we have an unprecedented number of people joining from all over the world. What all these people have in common, and they tell us this repeatedly, is that they feel like there’s something missing in their local area that they can get supplemented by their involvement in a global cloud-based community. We don’t know where this global conversation is going (yet) and we recognize that there are many people who don’t yet have access to the conversation, but our sense is that when exchange and identity moves from the provincial / national to the global / boundless things can get interesting quick!

Decentering

Most Buddhist communities of the past, and most modern communities as well, are based on the logic of top-down power flows not the logic of networks. In these structures there is a group of people–or a single individual–who sits at the top of the structure and dictates various aspects of how the community will function and who will be in positions of leadership. Power moves down from the top, and things move according to these dictates. This is a centralized model, and even when you add means for there to be a flow of information from the bottom to the top–like the corporate practice of “upward review”–the basic structure and philosophical assumptions behind it are pretty much the same.

The question we’ve been asking ourselves is, like the design of Bitcoin, how might we have a more decentralized, fluid, peer-to-peer based community? What would happen if conversations, projects, and the very design of the system were to flow from many directions at once? This is something we’re actively exploring in the Buddhist Geeks Community. In fact, we’re so committed to creating a space where this might happen, that we decided to completely stop any teaching work we were doing individually through Buddhist Geeks, so that the clarity of that space, and our roles as co-designers of it, could be more clear. There are other steps we’re taking legally and financially to make this happen, and we’re looking forward to sharing more as these steps become clear.

As we move forward, we’re looking at how we can empower this community to empower itself. Our sense is that it will take an increase in transparency, a governance structure that integrates members into the decision making process in very direct ways, and a continued commitment to the principles of co-design and co-discovery. We think the conversation of what it means to be influenced by the models and practices of Buddhism in contemporary life is one that every practitioner can participate in, and which no individual or collective–regardless of their specific competencies–has a majority of answers to. We really think the “wisdom of the crowd” is far more than a catch phrase–it could be a description of of awakening in the 21st century.

The Simple Act of Sitting

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The act of sitting is really an amazing thing! At the simplest level, just as our ancestors have for tens of thousands of years, we sit down, on the ground, and we inhabit this position as a fellow human being. Sitting is one of the primary postures we take throughout the day, including (but not limited to) walking, standing, and lying down. We can also skip, jump, run, and whirl. :)

But here we are, sitting just like our ancestors have, in this (pretty much) identical body. And when we sit, at the most basic level, we become intimate with our human experience. We open to the fluctuations of mind, the movements of body, and the ripples of our humanity. We also come up with all kind of ideas about how our experience should be as we’re here, and often times we believe those thoughts. Other times, we drop into the very simple and immediate experience of being human. Here the movements of mind are part of the dance of experience, not the defining contours of it.

In this extraordinarily simple act of sitting we become aware of being both bound and unbound. We are bound to our personal story, our life conditions, and the relationships that make us up. This is not a bad thing, it’s actually quite beautiful! At the same time we are completely unbound and infinite in the midst of the constant play of body & mind. There is a dimension to experience that is dimensionless and groundless, which as soon as we stop trying to pin down our experience, dawns as clearly as the morning sun. As we sit we wake up to our dual nature as a human-who-is-being. All of this happens, just by sitting on the ground, just by opening to our lives, just as they are.

I find it deeply encouraging that we’re following in the footsteps of many fellows humans who have also awoken to this simple reality. I also find it deeply encouraging that as a species we continue to change, and thus our very understanding of this awakening, also continues to change. Awakening is a never ending story, told on the stage of eternity.

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What is Buddhist Geeks?

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Lately, I’ve been asking the question: What is Buddhist Geeks?

Like every good question, each time I ask the answer changes. In the beginning the answer was, “It’s a podcast where we interview geeky Buddhists about things we don’t see being talked about anywhere else.” Recently, one of my close friends answered the question by saying, “It’s a conversation that became a podcast, that become a website, that became a conference, that became a community.” At a more recent point the answer was that Buddhist Geeks exists to serve a question. The question being: “How can we serve the convergence of the time-tested practices and models of Buddhism with rapidly evolving technology and a global culture?” Put another way: “How can we help bring Buddhism into the 21st century?”

Now, to be honest, I’m not really a typical Buddhist, so it’s strange to be asking this question. I’ve found the teachings and techniques in various Buddhist traditions extremely helpful, personally. I’ve studied them extensively, both in theoretical and practical terms, and in the process have found them to be radically lacking in many respects. Just as with other religious traditions there are a lot of out-moded philosophies, unnecessarily esoteric translations, and myopic views about the meaning of life.

One of the reasons for this, I suppose, is that every domain of human knowledge thinks–sometimes subtly and sometimes more unabashedly–that it has the most important piece of the puzzle. The contemplative domain, of which Buddhism is a part, is no different. We often think, as Buddhists, that what’s really missing in the world is awakened awareness, or a mindful approach to life, or deeper compassion towards oneself and all beings. Likewise, artists think that what’s missing is more beauty in the world, more opportunity for creative expression, etc. Scientists think that we need a deeper understanding into the fundamental operations of the universe, of biology, physics, and so on. Technologists think we need smarter technologies which can solve the world’s problems–or at least the end users problems. Politicians… well, I’m not sure what politicians think anymore. ;-)

My point being, nearly everyone seems to think that their domain of expertise or interest is what the world sorely needs the most. But why is that? Part of the reason, I suspect, is because they’re half-right. The world does need more people with deeper mindfulness and compassion, does need a world with more beauty, smarter technology, etc. Without these things our world would probably fly apart at the seams. But is our particular focus really the key? I don’t think so anymore. I think it’s actually pretty arrogant and also self-referential to think that our specialization is the one that will make everything better. But, as many of you well know, a self-referential view is part of the human condition, and understanding the human condition is part of what brings greater wisdom into how to work with it. So, how could we work with this particular kind of arrogance?

My own impulse has to been to expand my interests beyond my favorite domain(s). In doing so I’ve met many interesting people who are doing the same, but from within different domains. What would happen, if instead of thinking we had the missing piece, we started to get curious about what other missing pieces were out there, and how we might interface with them? Well, the first thing that happens, at least for me, is overwhelm! There are so many different domains, so many experts, so many points of view, that it rattles one’s mind to try and take it all in. But it also does something really important, which is to loosen our identifications. We start to ease up on thinking that we are doing the most important work in the world. And that actually creates a sense of humility, humor, and spaciousness that allows for something wholly unpredictable to emerge.

Now back to the question: What is Buddhist Geeks?

Ever since seeing that Buddhism isn’t the end-all-be-all (not even in a subtle way), I’ve felt a deeper calling to respond to what the world actually wants and needs. I’ve spent more time speaking with people who don’t have an interest in Buddhism per say, but who care about what it’s pointing to. The shift, in short, has been to try and understand what is actually happening, instead of projecting my ideas about what should be happening onto life and having it conform. Sound familiar?

Earlier this year, while at SXSW–a large music, film, and technology conference in Austin, TX–I spoke at length with a young woman who works at Google. When she found out that I worked on a project called “Buddhist Geeks” she immediately acknowledged, “Oh, I love meditation!” It turns out she had tried meditation and has found it incredibly useful. Seeing an opening here I asked her about her feelings toward Buddhism. She responded that, “It seems cool, but I haven’t been that interested because it also seems like a really complex system that would take a long time to learn.” Now, she clearly could learn it, if she really wanted to (Google doesn’t tend to hire inept folks), but because it was so complex, and likely a time-consuming endeavor, she didn’t have the interest in doing so. And who can blame her? When confronted with a choice between learning a complex and foreign system or learning a practical tool that could lead to immediate benefits, she choose the path of least resistance. During that same conference, I spoke with many other folks, asking them similar questions. The response was across-the-board the same. Many people have a hunger for some sort of inner practice, but not an interest in Buddhism. At least not as they understand it.

Now what makes me feel that there’s something that Buddhist Geeks still has to offer–despite being “Buddhist”–is that one way of understanding what Buddhism is pointing to, is to see that attachment to any idea, point of view, or identity is going to cause an unnecessary impedance to the flow of reality. In Buddhist parlance, the result is often called suffering. The thing is, reality doesn’t give a shit about our identities. It keeps changing anyway. And from this point of view a Buddhist identity is just as problematic as any other identity. As Jon Kabat-Zinn has pointed out, seeing this is what makes you a real Buddhist.

But hey, lets be real, most people interested in Buddhism are latching onto it as a new identity. I did for years. It’s safe and it gives one solid answers–even if those answers have to do with noticing a lack of solidity. It gives one something to wrap one’s mind around. When done in this way Buddhist practice is a way to explore, but a fairly limited one. One assimilates the models and beliefs of the systems, and through that assimilation narrows the field of what can be investigated, what can be realized from that investigation, and how it can put it into words. That’s the awful side of institutionalization–it often crushes the spirit of exploration and innovation. And Buddhism, when practiced as an “ism”, does that as well.

Part of what has kept me working on Buddhist Geeks is that as a community we’re asking some of these tough questions, we’re peeking behind the curtain, and we’re doing it together. We’re seeing that perhaps Buddhism is “going to have to die to be reborn in the West”–this is the sub-title from one of the most recent keynotes at the Buddhist Geeks Conference. And many of you us are open to it radically changing, so that it can become more relevant and accessible. That’s what separates this conversation from so many others happening in the religious world (and frankly the world-at-large). This is why I continue to ask the question, “What is Buddhist Geeks?” There’s something here–though perhaps it’s not the secret ingredient that’s going to change the world–but that without would leave things tasting awfully dull.

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Contemplation is Becoming an Information Technology

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I was recently at SXSW Interactive–a giant technology conference in Austin, Texas–and sat in on a keynote by the famous technologist and author Ray Kurzweil. Although I’m fairly familiar with Kurzweil’s ideas, his said something new that really got me thinking about the future of contemplation. He pointed out that in 1995 we completed mapping the human genome. “At that point,” he said, “genetics became an information technology.” This mapping was essentially us decoding the complex pattern of how our genome is constructed. The final result was very much like computer code, an informational pattern that we could start to understand at a more fundamental level, and eventually begin to reprogram. In other words, having genetics become an information technology was the first step toward being able to modify and change our biological programming. The ramifications of this are profound!

What I realized, at that moment, is that contemplation is also becoming an information technology. We’re beginning to understand the significance, and diversity, of many of the contemplative systems that have been passed down through human history (many of which had their origins in the axial period). We’re translating them into language and cultural understanding that removes much of the mythical and dogmatic elements. We’re also beginning to get a clearer map of what’s happening in the human body and brain when people do these practices and learn from these systems. Loads of neuroscientific research is pouring out on this topic, in large part thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Mind & Life Institute and their connecting the fields of Buddhist contemplation and science. Science is telling us a lot about our practice, and it’s helping us to decode the contemplative genome.

One might then say, “Well look, we’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of the information contained within the contemplative wisdom traditions. It’ll take 100s of years to decode all that information.” It’s an important point, and interestingly the critics of the human genome project said exactly the same thing! In the same keynote talk that I attended, Kurzweil went on to point out that 7 years into the 15 year human genome project only 1% of the genome had been decoded. The critics claimed that at this rate it would take 100s of years to complete. And they were right, if the process were a linear one, and it continued at that linear rate, it would have taken 100s of years to complete. The thing is, it ended up being an exponential process, because their process proceeded exponentially due to the exponential increase in the power of the technologies they were using to decode the genome. And so with several more doublings in speed after they had decoded the first %1, the genome was done being decoded, several decades before expected.

An interesting thing will happen when contemplation becomes an information technology. It will operate based on different rules, because the substrate will have shifted from the biological to the digital, from atoms to bits. And bits can be tweaked, redesigned, reprogrammed, and optimized. Bits can take advantage of the doubling power of technology–things like Moore’s Law, Kryder’s Law. The evolution of technology (bits) is not like biological evolution. It’s a hell of a lot faster. Actually, it’s exponentially faster. As contemplation becomes an information technology we may see the dawning of something like a Moore’s Law for the mind. And not a moment too late.

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Wired UK’s Smart List 2012

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Last month my close friend and collaborator Rohan Gunatillake, were featured in a cover story for Wired magazine. The title of the piece is, The Smart List 2012: 50 people who are going to change the world. We were nominated by Jane McGonigal, an incredibly cool game designer that we interviewed last year, and who also gave a keynote at the last Buddhist Geeks Conference.

It’s honestly a little surprising to have our work acknowledged at this broad a scale, but it really brings home the point for me that the time has come for contemplative wisdom and technology to begin to interweave more fully. I’m grateful to all the people who are doing this work, and who are doing other important work. May we all awaken to the deepest possible wisdom and not hold back in innovating new ways to help each other do the same!

A Geek’s-Eye View of the Future of Spiritual Practice

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Recently, I had the great pleasure of doing an extended interview with Terry Patten on his Beyond Awakening series. He invited me to share some of my perspectives on where the future of spiritual practice is heading–the so-called “geek’s-eye view”. We also explored questions to which there don’t seem to be clear cut answers yet (at least not by me).

Here’s a little description of the areas we explored, with a download link of the recording below for your listening pleasure.

Eastern technologies for awakening met Western psychology and the scientific method a long time ago, and generations of practitioners have been kindling the creative synergies between them ever since. What are the specific insights we’re learning about the technical processes of meditation and awakening? How can meditation be deepened by adding new forms of practice to the old? Can we be deepened by relational (rather than solo) meditation, for example? Or from the techniques developed in fields such as lean processing and agile software development? And how can our clearer consciousness enact itself in service more effectively?

Download Audio Recording

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Uniting Technology and Wisdom

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I gave a talk on Friday evening at the Pacific Asia Art Museum on “Buddhist Geeks: Uniting Technology and Wisdom.” The talk was a broad look at the way that the development of global Buddhism and the exponential growth of information technology (particularly through the development of the personal computer and internet) are converging, and what they have to offer one another.

The talk was part of the museum’s Active Cultures series, where they mash-up two speakers, first having each of them present—the person I co-presented with spoke about the development of modern music in Indonesia—and then after having the presenters in dialogue with the audience. The audience asked some very geeky questions, and they were really interested in seeing the relationship between our seemingly disparate topics.

It was a really fun event, and my talk went well, especially after realizing that the original talk I prepared was two times too long! I was able to whittle it down to 30 minutes, and was grateful for having practiced beforehand.

Having a chance to check out their asian gallery was also pretty cool. We saw some kick ass pieces there, including this gorgeous yab-yum statue and a funky Vietnamese Buddha (who is holding a mudra that is similar to one I’ve seen in a Shingon practice I did for a short time). If you’re ever in Pasadena I’d highly recommend checking it out.

I’m going to be giving the talk again after Thanksgiving at InsightLA and am planning on recording that one, so that I can perhaps sync the recorded talk with the slide presentation and put that out on video.

UPDATE: I was able to create a synced video recording of the talk given at InsightLA, which is embedded above.

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