Recently in mid-May, I had the great honour of giving the opening keynote talk at the Future Everything conference in Manchester with the title of the talk being Generation Wise: How 21st century Buddhist practitioners are changing their worlds and how they are going to change yours.
It was a lot of fun to do and it received some lovely feedback from the tweeting attendees:
So I thought it might be useful to provide an overview of what I covered…and I covered a lot! Here are the slides I used and here was my general flow & my points:
- I started with the story of how back in 2007 I was out in Thailand as part of a 5 month meditation sabbatical in Asia. As part of that trip I spent a couple of weeks at the forest monastery in the North East called Wat Pah Nanachat
- When there I met a young novice who was amazingly similar to me – 2nd generation Sri Lankan British, the same age as me and what’s more born and brought up only 10minutes drive from where I was – and there he was just embarking on the monastic path
- As we spoke more he inevitably asked me whether I’d ever considered also becoming a monk, and my response was very clear:
- There is a generation of people nowadays that have the same asprations of practice that he might have but feel that they do not need to take the monastic route to get there
- Because the fruits of the contemplative life are available in the middle of an urban, relational, digital and engaged life and just because the various traditions of Buddhism may emphasise the monastic forms, they are not requisite
- And what is more, we cannot afford to always look back to anachronistic practice forms if Buddhism is to continue to be relevant and of service to the world – but have to make it our own in our own culture and context
- And he basically looked at me and said: good luck with that
- So this talk is a report back to that novice monk on how we’re getting on
- It is very unusual to talk about religion at an ideas and innovation conference like Future Everything
- So to help people along, how about I reframe Buddhism a bit differently
- (Aside: I’m getting a bit of a reputation for unusual and sometimes provocative reframings such as when at the Buddhist Geeks conference in 2011 I called Buddhism an “industry of awakening”)
- For this instance I want to frame Buddhism not as a religion but as an innovation tradition
- And an innovation tradition in 2 contexts: innovation in design and innovation in technology
- Design meaning the aesthetic by which Buddhism is expressed being matched to the culture its in and
- Technology meaning inner technology
The idea of inner technology
- Technology is the making and usage of tools to solve a particular problem or to serve a particular purpose
- And when using the term we tend to always mean OUTER technology and tools, be that axes or iPads
- But it just as much applies to INNER technology and tools, and meditation or contemplation in general is just that, the usage of attention or intention in a systematic or prescribed way for a specific end – such as wellbeing, insight or compassion
- Using this framing, the history of Buddhism can be seen as a history of innovation
- The Buddha himself was part of a generation of inner innovators, rebelling against the religious orthodoxy of the time and in quite a punk-y way looking for realisation and spiritual knowledge through direct experience
- His realisation or enlightenment/awakening was achieved through a proto-scientific inner investigation
- And as if that wasn’t amazing enough, he went on to codify his understanding so well others were able to replicate his results
- His teaching (let’s call it Buddhism for simplicity) then never really took a sustainable foothold in India due to various reasons and it started to spread through itinerant teachers through three big movements
- To South Asia (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia). Design innovation-wise we see an austere aesthetic emerge from blending in with the folk cultures there. Technology innovation-wise, it developed a range of new analytic and non-analytic practice forms
- To Tibet. Design innovation-wise we see the incredibly colourful imagery and ritual forms of the Tibetan schools. Technology innovation-wise we see the development of so many new practice forms which together form perhaps the most sophisticated systematic mapping of human consciousness from an inner perspective. This includes radical new types of inner tool such as Tantra
- To China, Japan and Korea. This is of course the development of Zen. Design-wise, the development of the Zen aesthetic has proved to be hugely influential around the world and with regards technology-innovation the great innovation from Zen is the koan. Some koans have filtered down into pop culture (e.g. “if a tree falls in the forest and no-one is around….”) but that shouldn’t take away from the brilliance of their invention as cognitive devices to move the mind past the cognition.
The move West
- So we’ve got an innovation tradition but one where all these three main schools are essentially developing independently
- What happens next is that the 60’s and 70’s happen and some people – let’s call them hippies for short-hand – travel to Asia, encounter and learn the practices and come back to North America and Europe and start teaching
- So that right now, young Gen Y meditators are the first ever generation at scale to encounter and develop their contemplative practice in their own country and also with all the traditions available in the same place
- Throw in digital disuption and the fact that there are generational issues between the boomer teachers and the hipster students and that makes for one big mess with a lot of broken delivery models
- A big glorious creative mess where Gen Y practitioners are exploring and discovering pathways forward which are authentic but fully within their own culture and vernacular – instead of being trapped in the hippy aesthetic
A moment of convergence
- On top of all that there are three important trends that are raising the profile of modern meditation & contemplation:
- The rise of the secular mindfulness movement, catalysed by the increasing use of mindfulness and a clinical tool (e.g. in the NHS as a tool to alleviate health issues such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, chronic pain, anxiety & depression
- Increasing evidence base of the benefits and results of meditation through neuro-scientific and psychological studies
- The growing interest of meditation in corporate/tech circles, epitomised by the publication of the book about Google’s mindfulness programme and the annual Wisdom 2.0 conference in the US which features many high profile tech leaders
- So what is actually happening at the intersection of Buddhism and technology?
- There is the obvious – where existing teachers use social media tools to grow their reach – nice but not so interesting
- What is more interesting are the vibrant communities of practice which have emerged such as Buddhist Geeks and the dynamic Twitter-mediated meditation community #OMcru
- These types of project and communities are having new conversations, openly discussing taboos and doing so with commitment and integrity
New forms to solve new problems
- With all these vibrant conversations as a pre-requisite, we are now starting to see a new set of technologies and tools emerging from the generation which is not only the first to experience a native Western buddhism but also first one to be naturally digital. This is resulting in some interesting new projects – either recently released or soon to be released:
- such as my own – buddhify, the first mobile meditation app designed specifically for urban on-the-go living. The core insight of buddhify is that you can meditate wherever you are. And it’s been really very successful with good sales, great media coverage and amazing and often moving feedback
- the success of buddhify has led to myself and a colleague to set up a company called Meditation By Design which makes contemplative tools for a digital generation – unimaginable just a few years ago!
- ReWire is a new app coming this year which uses the music and videos on your smartphone as the basis for concentration meditation
- Shinzen Young is an incredibly experienced and gifted teacher who is using AI techniques to to design and build an algorithmic meditation system to support genuine insight
- Brainbot are working on apps which use bio-feedback from brainwave capturing devices
- And it’s not just technology forms that are evolving, we’re seeing some amazing new and important physical community spaces such as the Interdependence Project in New York and the Buddhist Geeks Conference
The problem of yogification
- That all sounds very exciting and expansive and it very much is, but there is a big issue at the heart of modern meditation – what I call yogification
- In just thirty years, yoga has seen itself move from being a genuine spiritual discipline into a mundane stretching exercise available at every gym
- So as mindfulness and meditation grows ever more into the mainstream, can the genuinely transformative potential of it be retained and avoid the framing of meditation merely as a stress-reduction trick?
- This shift is happening now and in the next ten years so it’s incumbent on those of us who understand practice to be involved in this evolution otherwise we have no grounds for complaint if we feel it’s gone to pot since it will have happened on our watch
- (Aside: this issue was a main point of my Buddhist Geeks conference talk in 2011 which you can hear here)
Moving beyond Buddhism
- Given that meditation and mindfulness is now moving beyond traditional Buddhism, we’re seeing it being an important focus of conversation with regards modern life and our relationship with productivity and technology
How is your Digital mind?
- One place where a secular understanding of meditation in culture is really important is at the intersection of the mind and digital
- I put out two particularly key ideas:
- Let’s design technology with the mind in mind. The common narrative about technology and the mind is that technology distracts, scatters attention, ruins concentration and of course all of that is true. But that is mainly because technology has not been designed with wellbeing, or the mind in mind. So in this attention economy what if people who *actually* understood attention – be that meditators, neuroscientists and psychologists – were more involved in designing technologies…then my personal vision where our relationship to technology is intrinsically human-positive might one day be realised.
- A Moore’s Law for the mind. We all know the idea of Moore’s Law which is a proxy for the rate of change of outer technologies. Despite that exponential change, our inner technologies have pretty much flatlined. However despite that, thanks to all the points I raised in my talks I predicted a boom in inner technologies across our culture in the next five to ten years.
- So I finished with that positive note… that a boom in inner tech is coming and that my generation of contemplative innovators and practitioners are going to play a big part to play in it all
- And I was going to finish with a short guided meditation designed specifically for conference go-ers but unfortunately we started a bit late so I had to skip it..maybe next time!
So I hope that gives a flavour of what my talk was about! And if you were there, thank you for being there.