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Stay Connected

The trend toward enlightened thinking in the high-tech world yields wisdom for all of us about how to stay connected with our inner technologies as well as our electronics.

By Andrew Tilin


At first glance, Gopi Kallayil's life appears to be consumed by technology. A Google marketing manager, Kallayil has a high-pressure, 60-hour-a-week job in the heart of Silicon Valley, which means: video conference meetings with co-workers all over the world; tactics sessions in HQ war rooms; upwards of 500 emails a day to manage via computer and smartphone; a blog; and Twitter and Google + accounts. He is a prime candidate for a distressing case of info-overload, but the soft-spoken Kallayil seems happy and unruffled. On the phone and in person, he's energetic and engaged, and shows nary a sign of distraction.

Kallayil's data-saturated worklife might be extreme, but it's not unusual in today's always-connected world. What's surprising is his response to the crush of data that threatens to take up his every waking moment. He shuns multitasking and gives his full attention to one thing at a time. He even looks forward to long stoplights—not for the opportunity to glance at his latest text messages, but for giving him a moment to be mindful and present and to remind himself that there's more to life than the Web and Wall Street."I perform a gratitude practice on my drive to work every day," he says. "I count 10 things that I'm grateful for."

On the surface, the 24/7 pace and digital distractions of high-tech living appear antithetical to inner wisdom practices like meditation. Our myriad devices tempt us with endless stimuli that invite our attention to go off in a million scattered directions at once, while meditation narrows our focus to a single subject—the in-depth study of our own mind.

You might not think of the digerati—the people who populate the upper echelons of the high-tech world and whose very jobs often exist to stoke your compulsive need for silicon-infused connectivity—as contemplative types. But what's perhaps most intriguing about Kallayil, a graduate of both the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and a Sivananda Yoga teacher training program, is that he's not alone. Kallayil is one of a small yet growing number of elite technology executives that make practices like yoga, meditation, and self-inquiry a significant part of their lives. Indeed, decision makers at Internet companies ranging from the software start-up asana to the gaming juggernaut Zynga are showing their commitment to actively advancing our possibilities in an externally wired world, even as they strive to better understand their own internal wiring.

The Cost of Roaming

You could argue that our pervasive relationship with technology is in deep opposition to the fundamentals of meditation and spiritual life. The compulsive checking of messages, staying connected because you're afraid of missing out, or answering a late-night work email because it makes you feel needed can all be powerful distractions from knowing your true self. Wisdom practices, on the other hand, invite you to set worldly matters aside for a few moments, to cut yourself loose from the ego, and to experience yourself free from external affirmations and influences. Is it even possible to enjoy a quiet mind or pursue an experience of your true nature if you're caught up in rapid-fire tweets or are busy measuring your popularity via Facebook "likes"? Soren Gordhamer believes it is and feels technology itself may prove an ally in the quest for mindfulness. Certainly, he dismisses the idea that we need to leave our smartphones behind to discover nirvana.

"There must be some middle ground where we're not just shunning technology," he says. "A place where we can still take advantage of all the amazing things technology provides—like search services and real contact with family and friends."

Gordhamer, 43, is the de facto spokesperson for the intersection of the mindfulness movement and the technology industry. He believes that we should em-brace and champion technology as long as we bring the same quality of attention to our relationship with our iPhones and iPads that we bring to our meditation and yoga practices.

"When my cell phone rings and I notice anticipation and nervousness inside me about what the call might represent, I bring consciousness to the moment. I'll ask myself where I'm looking for something to satisfy," he says. "Suddenly the phone is a teacher."

In other words, Gordhamer thinks we can avoid a different kind of "roaming charge"—the emotional or psychic cost connected with the distraction and expectation associated with that phone, wherever and whenever it might be ringing—by remaining as attuned to our inner technologies as we are to our outer ones.

Gordhamer, who divides his time between Dixon, New Mexico, and the San Francisco Bay Area, didn't always have such an integrated approach. In 2003, while attempting to create a new Internet company, he worked all day and surfed and networked all night. The computer screen was his constant companion. And while Gordhamer welcomed the virtual interactions, he knew that the seductiveness of data streams and technology kept him from going outside, spending time with his son, and practicing asana. Gordhamer, whose father is a psychologist with a passion for meditation, had grown up listening to his dad quote the words of mindfulness-community icons like Ram Dass. But the more time Gordhamer spent at the computer, the more his asana and meditation practices suffered.

"I came to believe that technology was having an increasingly negative impact on my life," he says. "And I thought, 'Wow, if I'm struggling with this, I bet thousands of other people are struggling, too.' "

Wisdom in Real Time

In 2008, Gordhamer wrote a snippet-filled how-to book aimed at techies that suggests, among other things, that yogic philosophy can help readers stay in touch with themselves despite the many distractions that exist in their 21st-century lives. In Wisdom 2.0: Ancient Secrets for the Creative & Constantly Connected, Gordhamer proposes that anyone—whether or not you're a titan of tech—can reduce stress and increase dynamic thinking by embracing practices like nonjudgment, doing deep breathing, and taking in less information. He quotes such disparate cultural heroes as Mahatma Gandhi and Steve Jobs, and he gives sections of the book slightly geeky but empowering titles like "The Search Engine: Go for Truth."

Building on his book, with one foot in each of two seemingly un-related worlds, Gordhamer decided to bring the tech and spiritual communities together in real time. "I met a few people at Google and Twitter," he recalls. "I kept saying to them, 'How do we live mindfully in a constantly connected age? Wisdom traditions have some piece of that answer. Technology has some piece of that answer. Those two worlds need to come together for us to find a full answer.' "

The result was an annual conference called Wisdom 2.0, which for the past two years has taken place at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California—the very heart of Silicon Valley. The conference has drawn an impressive collection of leaders from the worlds of technology and spirituality—a who's who of speakers including Tony Hsieh, the CEO of billion-dollar online shoe company Zappos; Greg Pass, former chief technology officer of Twitter; Stuart Crabb, the head of learning and development at Facebook; U.S. Representative Tim Ryan; Zen Buddhist Roshi Joan Halifax; yoga instructor Seane Corn; meditation teachers Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg; and Yoga Journal editor in chief Kaitlin Quistgaard.

In this town built on the trappings of ego—IPOs, wealth, and the desire for success,—the sold-out conference (whose live webcast last year logged 284,000 views) offers participants a chance for an unprecedented multilayered conversation about having a meaningful inner life while maintaining a connected outer one.

Last year, the Buddhist meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn led a conference-wide meditation intended to push some members of the audience where they had perhaps never gone before: to be fully present with themselves, to notice how fast their minds race, to feel where they hold tension in their bodies, and to focus on what is arguably the single most important ingredient of any person's existence—not the Internet, not the latest app, but the breath. Kabat-Zinn instructed everyone to rest in his and her awareness, "as if your very life depended on it, which it does, in more ways than you can possibly think." And for the next few moments, there wasn't a peep or tweet out of the inward-looking crowd.

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November 2011

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