Mild mannered, with a soft smile, focused eyes, and welcoming features, George Kinder is a bit like I’d imagine a retirement-aged Clark Kent to be. I sat down with him last month and he was all ears, interested in my life, interviewing me about my journeys and our serendipitous meeting in Hong Kong in what has been, to say the least, an exciting time in this little corner of East Asia. Kinder has been a meditator for over five decades and is internationally recognized as the father of the Life Planning movement, which might help explain his “mild-mannered” presence.
A graduate of Harvard, Kinder is credited with revolutionizing the financial advice industry over the past 30 years, most recently traveling the planet giving keynote addresses and training new teams of Life Planning experts. As I found out in my conversation with him, a key ingredient in that revolution has been Buddhism. He has written one book on mindfulness, Transforming Suffering into Wisdom (Serenity Point Press 2011), and his latest work is A Golden Civilization and The Map of Mindfulness (Serenity Point Press 2019). These draw from his years as a contemplative practitioner and his expertise that has brought him face to face with the best and the worst of our economic system.
In this work and in his continued teaching, Kinder aims to transform both individuals and civilization as a whole, moving us away from the forces of greed and aversion and toward freedom everywhere.
Buddhistdoor Global: Can you tell us a bit about your background as a Buddhist practitioner?
George Kinder: I’ve meditated probably close to three hours a day for about 50 years. So my practice has been strong and I think it is the most significant thing that I’ve done. It permeates everything that I do, and I’ve taught Buddhism to small sanghas in Hawai‘i, Boston, and London.
One of the ways that I understand Buddhist practice is that we are listening quite profoundly and quite deeply to ourselves. Because we are all in this together, we are really listening quite deeply to the nature of things, not just the nature of being human. I think one of the incredible insights of the Buddha is that impermanence impacts everything, not only every creature but every process in time, in space, everything.
So there’s a way in which, when we really pay attention to impermanence inside of ourselves, we’re actually learning about the nature of the universe and the nature of things.
BDG: How did this connect with your work as a life planner?
GK: My work in the financial world was training advisors in how to bring their clients to their own understanding of freedom inside themselves and then how to deliver it to them, giving them the aid of budgets and tax work and saving and investing and all of the practical things of life.
And I came to see a split inside of me between materialism and spiritual practice. I came to understand that as we were delivering people into their dream of freedom, there is a huge bodhisattva element to all of this because our dreams of freedom typically have kindness, generosity, authenticity, and a depth of being in them. A vitality.
So a lot of things that we’d recognize as virtues, or even as awakening in the Buddhist tradition, were there.
BDG: But then something happened that altered the course of your work and life.
GK. Yes. Ten years ago we went through a crisis in America. So here I am, toward the end of my work in the financial life and ready to really dedicate myself mostly to spiritual practice and writing poetry. We went into a terrible financial crisis and I took that crisis very personally. I was devastated by it. I questioned the meaning of my life. What had I done? For 30 years I had attempted to teach people in the financial services industry how to live with greater authenticity, honesty, and integrity. How could this possibly happen? So I took it as a mark of the failure of all the books I’d written and all that I’d done.
So I started writing. I said I must not have spoken the whole truth. I challenged myself to re-examine civilization in a much broader context. Originally the book was called A Banking Manifesto, looking at what the wrongs were that came out of the banking world. Eventually it became a more positive vision of A Golden Civilization. What I came to realize as I addressed the economics of the world and the failures of economics was that we had similar failures integrated in democracy—which of course is something that I love, and I feel very grateful to have grown up in a democratic system.
But I came to realize that the politics of the world were as problematic as the economics. So what I did was I took all these years of meditation practice and my approach to freedom from that standpoint, and then these years of training people to learn to uncover freedom in a secular way for all kinds of people. And mostly that meant bringing greater virtue into life and more vitality.
And then I realized that maybe it’s time to do that for civilization. Why not? If we can do that successfully for individuals, why can’t we do that for civilization?
BDG: How did you envision this move from individual to civilization-level freedom?
GK: Look at this brilliance that we all have. As much as we may complain about war and pollution and all of that, look at the astonishing things that we have accomplished in the world since the industrial revolution. We’ve got great brains. I thought, “What’s missing?”
I sometimes ask economists or people who are dedicated to finance: “if we’re so entrepreneurial, why don’t we have wisdom at the top of every hierarchy of power in the world?” Wouldn’t that naturally come forth?
I realized that there is something at the base of the systems of civilization that is awry. Maybe mindfulness has a cure for that. And by mindfulness I don’t mean something superficial which I know some people talk about these days, but the deep meditation that accesses not only levels of awakening but levels of virtue that are extraordinary.
My challenge to civilization is let’s create a golden civilization; let’s do it in a generation. Let’s not wait hundreds of years, thousands of years. Let’s imagine how it would be if we actually had one. And then let’s throw out everything that isn’t working, and let’s adopt everything that clearly would take us there and in a hurry. And it’s time for us to do that.
And that’s kind of the frame of taking on what I’ve now come to think of as Right Livelihood for Buddhist practitioners, as Right Action and Right Speech. All of those things, because of the democratization of society and the globalization of processes means that we are individually culpable for all of what economists call negative externalities, for war, for pollution, for climate change. We’re responsible.
So if we’re responsible, one of the actions that I think the Buddha would adjust in terms of right speech after 2,500 years is that he might challenge us to speak truth to power. That’s the civilizational notion.
BDG: Speaking truth to power is certainly not talked about a lot in contemporary Buddhist circles, but it has a place in Buddhist history, for sure.
GK: There’s something else that’s very Buddhist in my work. I introduce something that’s called the map of mindfulness. And this is in some ways the most radical invention of the book. Although in economics you’ll see that I shift from an Adam Smith frame of self-interest to a much more Buddhist frame of self-knowledge as what should be the motivator in an economic system. I talk about how to change that. And the other thing I do is that I shift from looking at moments of transaction, arguing that instead of moments of transaction we should be looking at having moments of freedom at the basis of our economic system.
BDG: Can you say more about these moments of freedom? What would they look like?
GK: Moments of freedom are very analogous to what in Bhutan they call “happiness.” I reflect a lot on anicca (Pali. impermanence), the present moment that we attempt to meet in Buddhism.
So I began to think of the map of time and space that we see on PBS when they talk about the universe and the galaxies. They show it as a huge oval that is chopped up in a Cartesian way, where the present moment is so ephemeral that it’s not meaningful at all. But what we know—and not just us as Buddhists, but all people know that when we really experience freedom, it’s in the present moment.
The present moment is anything but granular or Cartesian. It’s enormous, it’s spacious, and it’s filled with energy and vitality. So, what if our map of time and space is in fact wildly inaccurate? What if, given that the present moment is all that we have ever experienced. None of us have ever experienced the past. And none of us will ever experience the future. The only thing we will ever experience is the present moment.
And if that’s true, why not redesign the classic map of time and space so that it is centered on and radiates out of the present moment? What would happen if we change our frame of reference? As I’ve lived with this frame for a few years, mindfulness has become much more the center of the world, of the universe, than time and space.
BDG: It sounds like you’re drawing from physics and philosophy to help guide people to mindfulness of this present moment.
GK: Yes, because if the present moment is all there is, then what are the practices that take us there? When you think about it, it’s really at the basis of things.
And so I’ve got a map, which you can imagine as a kind of explosion of time and space out of the present moment, again and again and again . . . If you read Daniel Goldman’s new book Altered Traits (Avery 2017), you’ll see that as one practices this one becomes established more and more in what you realize are universal virtues.
There’s generosity, there’s kindness, there’s equanimity, there’s tranquility. There are all of the classic ones that we know and investigate in the states of concentration, for instance in Buddhism. But you also have concentration itself, you have focus. Courage also arises, because once you begin to let go of the self, what is there to be afraid of? What you begin to realize is that the more you practice, the more virtues enter into your life and thus they enter into civilization.
So my question is: how do we deliver a golden civilization? Mindfulness seems to be a key because it gives us a way of making the present moment the center of what happens. Then we move to understanding the universe as more of a psychological and spiritual function that is ongoing constantly, than as a completely materialistic thing.
Finally, we have this knowledge that the more you practice, the more that virtues actually enter into your life. So we get not only a new map of the universe, but also the transformation of our universe from being unconscious to conscious, and from being strictly mechanical and amoral to being profoundly virtuous.
Goleman, Daniel. 2017. Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. New York: Avery Press