Getting Its Share of Attention

What is the
sound of one hand texting?  

As Soren
Gordhamer patiently quieted a packed Wisdom 2.0 event in San
Francisco in September for a guided meditation, a few in the
communal meeting space known as the Hub couldn’t resist thumbing
another message or two before pocketing their sacred devices. A
willowy young brunette in a black T-shirt shot video of the crowd
with her iPad from her front-row seat. Even after Mr. Gordhamer,
who is tall with a sculptural face and Errol Flynn hair, urged the
group to “come into presence,” his voice rising in emphasis,
someone’s phone was buzzing like a dragonfly.

Mr. Gordhamer started Wisdom 2.0 in
2009 to examine how we can live with technology without it
swallowing us whole. The wait lists for his panel talks and
conferences now run into the hundreds.

The “Disconnect to Connect” meet-up was
typical. The audience was mostly young, mostly from the Silicon
Valley tech scene and entirely fed up with taking orders from Siri.
“There was a time when phones didn’t tell you to do everything,”
said Mr. Gordhamer, 45, as the conversation got rolling. “What’s
work, what’s not work, it’s all become blurred.”

And yet, the problem may offer a
solution. Loïc Le Meur, a French blogger and entrepreneur and the
evening’s guest speaker, recommended a meditation app called Get
Some Headspace. The program bills itself as the world’s first gym
membership for the mind. “It’s a way to have a meditation practice
without feeling weird about it,” said Mr. Le Meur. He was wearing
Google Glass with only a hint of irony. “You don’t have to sit in a
lotus position. You just press ‘play’ and chill out.”

Earlier that morning at Google
headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Chade-Meng Tan, a veteran
engineer, was laughing about the demand for an in-house course he
created called “Search Inside Yourself.” The seven-week class
teaches mindfulness, a loose term that covers an array of
attention-training practices. It may mean spending 10 minutes with
eyes closed on a gold-threaded pillow every morning or truly
listening to your mother-in-law for once. Google naturally sees it
as another utility widget for staying ahead. “Whenever we put the
class online, it sells out in 30 seconds,” Mr. Tan said.

This is not just a geek thing.
Everywhere lately, the here and now is the place to be. George
Stephanopoulos, 50 Cent and Lena Dunham have all been talking up
their meditation regimens. “I come from a long line of neurotic
Jewish women who need it more than anyone,” Ms. Dunham, who’s been
meditating since she was 9, told a capacity crowd last month at the
David Lynch Foundation for Conscious Based Education and World
Peace in New York. Then there was the tweet last April from
@rupertmurdoch, who announced: “Trying to learn transcendental
meditation. Everyone recommends, not that easy to get started, but
said to improve everything!” 

The Marine
Corps is testing Mind Fitness Training to help soldiers relax and
boost “emotional intelligence,” the buzzwords of the hour. Nike,
General Mills, Target and Aetna encourage employees to sit and do
nothing, and with classes that show them how. As the high priestess
of the fully aware, Arianna Huffington this year started a
mindfulness conference, a page dedicated to the subject on The
Huffington Post and a “GPS for the Soul” phone application with a
built-in heart sensor to alert you when you’re calm or stressed.

The hunger to get centered is
especially fervent in the cradle of the digital revolution. The
Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz told Wisdom 2.0 audiences
about modeling his current software start-up, Asana, after lessons
learned in his yoga practice. At the same summit, eBay’s founder
and chairman, Pierre Omidyar, shared the stage with Thupten Jinpa,
the Dalai Lama’s English interpreter, and pegged the auction site’s
success on human goodness and trusting in complete strangers. At
another, Padmasree Warrior, the chief technology and strategy
officer at Cisco, detailed analog weekends devoted to family,
painting, photography and haiku.  

Thich Nhat
Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist leader who introduced mindfulness to
Westerners (Google got first dibs on him as a guest speaker), once
said, “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our
attention.” Yet for the majority of sentient beings today, simply
getting through an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” without tending
multiple screens is a quasi-mystical triumph. Naturally, the
architects of our electronic age approach the situation as if it
were an engineering problem. 

“This isn’t the
old San Francisco hippie fluff,” said Mr. Tan, who started the
Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute as an extracurricular
program in 2007. More than a thousand Googlers have gone through
the course, which uses scientific research and the profit motive to
entice coders and programmers to be here now.

Hundreds of peer-reviewed studies
verify the benefits of mindfulness training, and Mr. Tan appeared
familiar with all of them. Meditation thickens the brain’s cortex,
it lowers blood pressure, it can heal psoriasis and “it can help
you get a promotion,” he said. Companies like Goldman Sachs and
Farmers Insurance also hire Mr. Tan and his team to teach
techniques like pausing before sending important emails and
silently wishing happiness upon difficult co-workers.

Mr. Tan’s official Google title is
Jolly Good Fellow, which nobody can deny. During the interview, he
sat cross-legged and barefoot at a conference table inside the
Googleplex, and was never far from an enlightened one-liner.
“People come to me with profound concerns like how do you get
through 211 items on your to-do list,” he said. “I tell them, one
item at a time, duh.”  

It is easy for
Mr. Tan to joke. With the financial benefits that come from being
Google employee No. 107, he works only three days a week and
concentrates more on giving away his wealth than growing it. “I
don’t have much sympathy for miserable rich people because sharing
money is the key to happiness,” he said. “For me, becoming rich was
a wonderful experience, but then the thought became, now what?”

That’s a question Evan Williams said he
asks himself frequently. The billionaire-to-be co-founder of
Twitter is a regular at Wisdom 2.0 events and began meditating just
over a year ago. His practice has made an impact in ways both
profound and less so. Last month as Twitter was finalizing its
paperwork to go public, Mr. Williams did the unthinkable for
someone in his position. He took a 20-minute walk through San
Francisco without his phone. “I was able actually to look around
and think about things for most of that period,” he said. “I would
have had many more fleeting anxieties doing that a year ago, but
I’m better with those silences

Mr. Gordhamer said the desire is
rampant for “non-doing,” as he put it. “What the culture is craving
is a sense of ease and reflection, of not needing to be stimulated
or entertained or going after something constantly. Nobody’s
kicking out technology, but we have to regain our connection to
others and to nature or else everybody

Mr. Gordhamer’s response to this came
five years ago while residing in a double-wide trailer in remote
Dixon, N.M. He was newly divorced and had lost his job organizing
events for Richard Gere’s Foundation. At the time, Mr. Gordhamer
was reading a lot of Eckhart Tolle and kept returning to one idea:
Rather than asking, “What do I want from life?” he asked, “What
does life want from me?” Convinced he had settled on an answer, Mr.
Gordhamer withdrew the last $10,000 from his bank account and
started Wisdom 2.0.  

With prominent
speakers from the technology and “wisdom” communities, the first
conference in 2009, held outside San Francisco, was a modest
gathering of 325 people. By 2012, the wait list ran to 500, with
headliners that included co-founders of Twitter, Facebook, eBay and
PayPal. Last winter’s lineup featured Ford’s chairman, Bill Ford,
interviewed by his meditation guru, Jack Kornfield; Congressman Tim
Ryan on using mindfulness to transform education; and Marianne
Williamson, on ending world hunger with the aid of social media.
The conference in February, at a convention hotel in downtown San
Francisco, is expected to draw around 2,000 attendees over four
days and is part of a year-round cycle of events.

At the Wisdom meet-up in September at
the Hub, a smiley young man with a nametag that read “Walter
Inward” was showing off a new smoking-cessation app he had created
for the iPhone. On one wrist, he wore a Buddhist mala bead
bracelet; on the other, a high-tech Basis band that uses skin
conductivity to record heart rate, sleep and steps.

He turned out to be Walter Roth, 30,
chief executive of a tech start-up called Inward Inc. Mr. Roth said
he had attended every Wisdom 2.0 event since 2009. Mindfulness has
made him more competitive, he said. “Not only do I put fewer things
on my to-list but I actually get them done and done well. It’s like
I’ve learned that to be more successful and accomplish more, I must
first slow down.” 

The paradox of
profit-minded techies engaging in the realm of nonattachment is not
lost on those shepherding these wired flocks. Marc Lesser wore the
black robes of a Buddhist priest as director of the Tassajara Zen
Mountain Center near Big Sur in the 1980s. “I literally didn’t know
what to do with the $60 monthly stipend I used to get,” he said.
Today, as an M.B.A. and chief executive of Search Inside Yourself
Leadership Institute, he is comfortable integrating money with
mindfulness. “All business is about helping people in some way and
you can’t do that without focusing on success,” he said. “The hope
is that turning a profit can be done more wisely and

At his first
Wisdom 2.0 conference in 2010, Arturo Bejar, Facebook’s engineering
director, sat in the back row. “I was reluctant because I’m
primarily a numbers person,” he said. But hearing the author and
meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn say that if people fully saw one
another, they could get along better, a light bulb went off for Mr.
Bejar. He decided to integrate that idea into his work handling
content concerns from Facebook’s one billion

Collaborating with neuroscience and
psychology researchers at Stanford, Berkeley and Yale, Mr. Bejar
made significant changes to the ways communication happens on
Facebook. This year, the company introduced emoticons to capture a
broader range of human feelings, along with a gentler formula for
settling tension between users. Previously, someone tagged in an
unfortunate Facebook photo could flag the image as offensive and
hope the other person would remove it. Now, a form pops up with
options like, “It’s embarrassing,” “It’s inappropriate” and “It
makes me sad,” along with a polite request to take the photo down.

Introducing that simple, thoughtful
language has tripled the likelihood that users will send a message
asking for the photo to be removed, Mr. Bejar said, adding that the
overall response has been significant. In the United States, if
someone marks a Facebook photo as “embarrassing,” it is 83 percent
likely that the poster will respond or delete it. Facebook will
soon add a similar function to text posts. “We didn’t realize how
hard it was to feel heard in electronic communications, but now
there are mechanisms for being more expressive and thoughtful,” Mr.
Bejar said.  

Those mechanisms are spreading like
ripples on a mountain pond. The Huffington Post added a page this
year called “The Third Metric” that focuses on cultivating balance,
appreciation and calm. Around 200 people crammed into Arianna
Huffington’s TriBeCa living room in June for a kickoff conference
where guests like Candice Bergen and Mr. Stephanopoulos all but
shared their mantras. 

Last month, the
people behind Lululemon started, a site that
encourages visitors to turn off the brain for 60 seconds by
visualizing a dot. “The hour-and-a-half yoga break is too much for
most people,” said Chip Wilson, a co-founder. “Getting away from
the chaos of work and technology even for one minute is all you
really need to feel refreshed.” Still too great a time waster? Mr.
Tan at Google said one mindful breath a day can lead to inner

Even the most distracted are easing up
and letting go. These days, Mr. Williams spends most of his time
overseeing an online literary venture called Medium. The office
holds companywide nature retreats and offers guided relaxation
sessions twice a week. “Meditation always had bad branding for this
culture — it seemed very hand wavy,” he said. “But to me, it’s a
way to think more clearly and to not feel so swept up.”

Asked if he might make a habit of
strolling through San Francisco without a device vibrating in his
pocket, Mr. Williams paused for what sounded like a moment of
reflection, but then he laughed.  

“It wasn’t a
conscious effort to turn off my phone,” he said. “It happened that
I needed to charge it

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