BG 161: Happiness: There’s an App For That

Episode Description:

In this episode we’re joined by Soren Gordhamer, long time tech writer, and author of Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative and Constantly Connected. Soren often writes for the Huffington Post and Mashable (a social media blog) on the relationship between the inner world with technology and social media. He explores with us some of the potential shadow sides of technology, as well as some of the remedies that can be used in balancing our internal life with our external. He suggests that focusing more consciously on our internal world actually puts us in a position where we can use technology, instead of technology using us.

Soren also shares some details on a conference that he’s organizing, which will be bringing together luminaries from both the spiritual and technology worlds. His hope is that a conversation between the two can better answer the question of how we live a life of wisdom in the modern world.

Episode Links:


Vince: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vince Horn, and I’m here today joined in Boulder at our studio with our special guest. His name is Soren Gordammer. Soren, thank you so much for taking the time to swoop through Boulder and speak with us today. I really appreciate it.

Soren: Yeah. A pleasure to be here.

Vince: And just to let people know kind of where you’re coming from in this conversation, you are the author of a book called Wisdom 2.0. And the subtitle is “Ancient Teachings for the Creative and Constantly Connected.” Which, I suspect, is pretty much everyone listening to this show. [both laugh]

So we’ll get into that a little more. And you’re also a writer for Huffington Post, which is a really popular online – I don’t know how you’d describe it, but it’s kind of taking over the online journalism in a way. It’s sort of supplanting, in some ways, traditional journalism. And then you also write for a really popular social media blog called Mashable, and you’re writing there on topics like Twitter and mindfulness, and getting some cool stuff out there into the social media world.

Soren: Yeah. I write, actually, for Mashable. Some of the posts I’ve done recently are like “The Tao of Tweeting,” “Zen and the Art of Twitter.” But then I also write on how social media is impacting business and society. So I’ve written pieces covering Whole Foods’ approach to social media, Zappos’ approach to social media, and then actually ways to use and effectively engage with social media.

Vince: Nice.

Soren: So it’s a little bit of both.

Vince: Yeah. So it sounds like your interests and your professional life are kind of steeped in these two areas, of the kind of contemplative and then the tech and the social media.

Soren: Definitely.

Vince: So cool.

Soren: Yeah. The living a 2.0 live wisely and mindfully, yeah.

Vince: Well, that’s kind of what I’m most interested in speaking with you about, since that is the area you’ve spent so much time reflecting on and exploring. In your recent book Wisdom 2.0, it says in the subtitle, “For the Creative and Constantly Connected,” and so I’m wondering if you’ve found that there are certain shadow sides to technology that kind of inhibit us from living this kind of wise life, like you’re saying.

Soren: Oh, definitely. I think there’ s great potential with technology, and there’s great potential dangers of technology. And I think in the past someone went to work, and then at five o’clock they got off and they went home and they spend time with their family and they hung out, and there wasn’t a way of engaging with work situations from their home. And then the personal computer came and the Internet, and then you could actually get on and do some work and communicate from your house with your laptop. Now with handheld devices and smart phones, we’re essentially reachable all the time. So we could be hanging out with our kid or hanging out with our partner and constantly be checking our email or constantly kind of be half present in our real world and then half connected digitally. And I think that’s a particular danger today, is that people are actually potentially less and less present for one another because they’ve allowed their devices to kind of take over their lives. So I think that’s one of the potential hazards.

It’s not inherent in the technologies, and I think in fact today the beauty of this situation is that never before has it been more important to explore what a mindful life is in this day and age. Where maybe in the past living mindfully was something that would be kind of nice for a certain segment of the population, now for huge segments of the population it feels like without a mindful life, it’s crazy.

Vince: It’s interesting that you mention that, because I remember watching just a few weeks ago the special on Frontline called Digital Nation.

Soren: Oh, yeah.

Vince: And one of the things they’re kind of showing was that all these younger people now who are multitasking constantly think that they’re really good at it, but in fact their attention is really, really scattered, and they’re kind of showing that now through scientific studies that there’s this way in which we’re just constantly scattered.

Soren: So there was a study at Stanford that they did a few months ago, and they had shown that the more you do it, actually, the less effective you are. And yet at the same time, there’s no reason that checking our email or engaging can’t be a mindfulness practice, can’t be engaged consciously, can’t be an effective tool. But I think, again, the question is how much priority do we put to the external versus how much priority do we put to the internal? And if internally our state of mind is one of hurry and frustration and unease, then we can have all the fanciest incredible gadgets millions of followers on Twitter and millions of fans on Facebook, and we’re going to be miserable at the same time. So I think that the kind of the real question is how do we live a life that’s inwardly rich and engaged and meaningful, and then also externally use the great technologies of our age effectively? Can we find a life that actually has a balance between both of those?

Vince: And it sounds like when you write for a place like Mashable, you’re probably talking more to the people who are skewed to the side of…

Soren: Yeah.

Vince: …always being focused on the external. Do you end up giving them any particular suggestions or techniques, or anything that would be helpful for kind of balancing that?

Soren: Mm-hmm. Well, so I just came out with, actually, a post today called – I forget the exact title, but it was something about managing attention in the social media lifestyle. For those of us who engage in social media, we have Twitter, we have Facebook, now we have Google Buzz, and then not to mention emails and text messages and all kinds of ways we’re gathering information. What I talked about was the importance of not multitasking, doing one thing at a time. And then I brought in this really interesting quote from Tony Hsieh, who is the CEO of Zappos, that he tweeted, actually, one time. He said that, and I don’t have the exact quote, but it goes something like this: “The hardest and most important lesson that I learned in my life was that the external world is simply a reflection of my internal world.” And so the post talked about when the internal world is filled with stress and worry and fear and whatever else is going on, that inevitably the work that we’re doing – whether that’s engaging social media, working on a report, whatever we’re doing – is going to be impacted by our internal state.

So it’s very helpful, then, to take time, whether that’s going for a walk or meditating or exercise or whatever that is, to tend to our internal state, and then externally we’ll actually see more positive results as well.

Vince: Nice. And you mentioned things like mindfulness meditation and exercise. And are there certain things you find are kind of the most crux for focusing on the internal world? Are the certain things you find are really helpful? Like, maybe yourself?

Soren: Yeah. I have my own.

Vince: Yeah.

Soren: And I’m also very careful to share those as what works for me. And I know that for a lot of people, it’s different. And I have been kind of careful, particularly with my communication with the tech world, not to come across as someone who is advocating a particular type of meditation or a particular type of practice. But just saying that, you know, there could be people, there probably are people on the planet today who can actually live fully present in every waking moment of their life, right? 24/7. Like, somehow their ego and their old patterns have completely gone. But for the rest of us, we’re somewhere in the middle, right? There’s a certain level of awakening, but there’s not kind of a full level of awakening. And so for us, I think it particularly helps to have some time each day where we’re just quiet. We’re not taking in new information. We’re kind of emptying our cup. You know the old Zen story where the professor goes to the Zen master and says, “I know all this information about Zen,” and starts telling the Zen master all the information he has. And the Zen master responds by saying, “Would you like some tea?” And the professor says, “Yes.” And he starts pouring him tea, but even as the cup is full, he just keeps pouring and pouring and pouring. And the professor says, “Stop pouring. The cup won’t take any more tea.” And he says, of course, “Just like the cup, your mind is so full of information, it can’t take any more.”

So I think that for those of who are trying to balance this life of mindfulness and technology, it’s extremely important to have some time where we’re not taking in information and we’re bringing attention to our breath and our internal world. And we’re not as focused on our external world. But then the challenge, of course, is to not become a good meditator. The challenge is to become awake, right? And to bring that sense of awareness and full engagement no matter what we’re doing. And if we’re checking email, can we do that fully? If we’re tweeting, can we do that fully? Whatever it is, can we bring our full attention to that? And that whatever we imagine our life is going to be in the next moment, we never know. We don’t even know what the next five seconds is going to be like, much less the next day. And I think that if we can use or engage with technology that’s fully engaged in the moment, I think then technology can be something that we use rather than something that uses us. And I think for millions of people in our culture right now, technology actually feels like something that uses them rather than something they kind of creatively engage with.

Vince: We were talking a little before the interview, it sounded like a lot of people are sort of re-tweeting these articles, and it seems like there’s a lot of interest and maybe even, like, a hunger for that type of perspective.

Soren: Yeah. Every community, it feels like, has their myths, or has their taboos, or has their shadow, or has the things that they don’t like to talk about. In my experience with the tech community, one of the myths that kind of floats around that community is that technology can satisfy all of our needs and desires, that technology can make us happy.

Vince: There’ s an app for that.

Soren: [laughs] Yes. There’s an app for that. Happiness? There’s an app for that. And Apple is just about to create the thing that – the last iPhone wouldn’t do it, but this new iPhone or iPad or whatever it is is going to make you happy. So what I kind of feel like, and it’s not really big breaking news [laughs], but it’s important to realize that none of this will make us happy. Inherently it cannot make us happy it it’s subject to decay and to change. I mean, it’s inherently unsatisfying. And I feel like sometimes in the tech community there’s so much fascination with technology that there’s a hesitancy… It’s almost like you’re not supposed to say that, right? [laughs] Because everyone is so into the gadgets. But at the same time, I feel like actually acknowledging that means that then we can kind of creatively engage with the gadgets. But as long as we see and believe that they’re going to make us happy, I think we’ll inevitably be unsatisfied. I know we’ll be inevitably unsatisfied. Just as sex and money and all the other things of this world, they’re beautiful when they’re related to and understood, and when we seek our sense of self in them, we seek true happiness and satisfaction in them, we’re continually disappointed.

So I think the balance with the tech community is, can we honor all the great things that technology provides and at the same time realize that there is another level of happiness that they’re not going to provide? And I think that a lot of people… You know, we’ve kind of been in the honeymoon stage with technology, and I feel like that honeymoon stage is just about ending. It’s kind of like being in the beginning of a relationship, and everything is wonderful, and you love each other and everything is great, and then there comes a time when it’s like, “OK, how do we really get along together?” And I feel like a lot of people now are having that kind of question with the gadgets in their lives. They want them, they like them, and they’re kind of saying, “OK, what is a healthy relationship with these?”

Vince: So, next topic I thought would be interesting to explore is that you’re not only writing about this, but you’re also organizing a conference this spring in the Bay Area on Wisdom 2.0. And in that you’re brining together all sorts of spiritual figures, the Zen roshis, and the editor for the Yoga Journal, and Tami Simon whom we’ve had on the show who runs Sounds True, the spiritual media company. And then you’re bringing all these, sort of, tech luminaries together with them. So it’s an interesting mix of people, and I’m wondering what you hope or what you think might come from a kind of conference or dialogue or conversation about these two areas from these sort of luminaries?

Soren: I have no idea what’s going to come from it, but the spirit behind the intention is that there are lot of people who have been really exploring the internal technologies of the mind and the body, the heart, and then there is this whole other group who have been creating the external technologies that we use, Facebook and Twitter and Google and things, and that it’s important that these don’t stay separated, that actually these two communities have a lot to share with one another. If we’re going to move to any sort of sane society, it’s not just going to be one group that has the answer. It’s going to be kind of a merging of both communities.

So the idea behind it was to look at this question of what does it mean to live a mindful and meaningful and wise life in our day and age? And that it’s very important to include the people from the tech community in that discussion, because they are essential to have. So the idea with conference was, what would it be like if you could bring the vice president of Twitter, the vice president of Google, people from Facebook, all these different technology crowd with these other people kind of more the inner wisdom crowd and engage on the subject together. And so that’s really the spirit of the conference. And it’s a total experiment, but what’s been most surprising and reassuring to me has been the level of interest from both communities in this discussion. You know, you think, “Well, what would a person from Twitter have to say about consciousness in tech?” It turns out that there are numerous people at Twitter who are fully interested in this conversation. A friend of mine actually leads a mindful – he works at Twitter and he leads, like, a mindfulness class at Twitter each week.

Vince: Wow.

Soren: We were talking earlier about Meng Tan, who’s the Head of Personal Growth at Google, and they do all kinds of personal growth-type courses at Google. So this is starting to happen within the tech community, and it feels like a conference would be one way to kind of gather it, learn lessons, and explore it further and dive into it, and also a way for people to meet one another who are interested in the subject. You know, like people who want to meet and develop relationships and friendships with other people who are also exploring the same subject.

Vince: Nice.

Soren: So yeah, that’s very exciting.

Vince: And just in case people were in the area or interested in checking it out, how would they find more about the actual conference?

Soren: You can do a search for “Wisdom 2.0 Conference,” or

Vince: Ok. And there are still seats available, I understand.

Soren: There are still seats available.

Vince: Not for long, probably.

Soren: [laughs]

Vince: There’s going to be a lot of wisdom going on.

Soren: Yeah. It really will be a unique gathering, unlike – I’m billing it as a technology – it’s a tech conference, and we’re going to talk about technology. Where we’re having it is right next to Google, it’s right in the heart of Silicon Valley, and it feels like that’s the appropriate place for it. And I think that it will be a whole different kind of tech conference, and it feels like it’s helping to foster a conversation that is right for our culture at this time, that our culture is ready for this conversation. So the idea with the conference is to gather people together and explore this. And there will be presentations from all kinds of different people. Like, my friend at Twitter is going to do one on mindfulness and Twitter. How do you engage with Twitter mindfully? And Meng Tan from Google, there’s going to be an interview with him on what’s the personal growth program like at Google? What are the lessons they’ve learned? What has worked, what hasn’t worked? What can they share with the larger world about that program? So there will be all kinds of different panels and presentations, and then the videos will be uploaded on line eventually for people to view for free.

Vince: Great. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us about this topic, that’s really kind of at the heart of Buddhist Geeks as well.

Soren: Yeah.

Vince: I mean, we’re Buddhists, but we’re geeky. [both laugh] And I know a lot of people that listen to the show work in the tech world and are interested in that stuff. So I think this is something that will be really interesting for people, and I really appreciate your sharing some of what you’ve learned in the process.

Soren: Thanks, thanks. Yeah, and I think we can honor all sides, you know? We can honor our side that’s… whether it’s interest in Buddhism or some other inner world, inner life aspect, and we can honor the part that just loves gadgets and loves technology and loves the potential of them.


Soren Gordhamer