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Leading with Wisdom in the Digital Age

Earlier this month, the Wisdom series of conferences made its debut in Singapore with its 2.0 Asia version, which was based on the theme “Innovative, Mindful and Inspiring Leadership in the Digital Age.” That the source of that “wisdom” originated from the East was not lost on the audience, with organizers and speakers hailing the event as a historical homecoming. As Google’s Jolly Good Fellow Singapore-born Chade-Meng Tan, one of the brains behind the event, was quick to point out, this was an example of the “pizza effect”—Eastern wisdom repackaged in the West and brought back to Asia in a new, marketable form.

I wondered about this “Asia-ness” thing. Among the impressive line-up of eminent authorities on the subject, the only truly Asian figure was Dr. Ahangamage Tudor Ariyaratne from Sri Lanka. As I scanned the roomful of trendy, well-groomed, and well-heeled management coaches, entrepreneurs, corporate leaders, and high techies with the latest of gadgets, I wondered more. Was this another branding of McMindfulness, and Wisdom 2.0 a business venture riding high on its wave? Was it another management tool to enhance productivity at work, secure a promotion, or increase the profit margin? Or was the Mindful Revolution simply a cool thing to be in, a hip fad of the guys from Silicon Valley? Discarding my skepticism, I reminded myself to reserve judgment. After all, the Buddha could appear in all forms, in beggars’ rags or an Armani suit. I resolved to sit through Wisdom 2.0 Asia “mindfully,” to be in the now, and to be open to exploring how to develop the inner qualities relating to wisdom and compassion, such as resilience, calmness under fire, insight, mindfulness, intuition, and the ability to inspire, that can lead to effective and innovative leadership in the digital age.

Dr. A.T. Ariyaratne. From Shuyin
Chart of Chade-Meng Tan’s presentation on “Defining Wisdom and Compassion.” From Shuyin

Wisdom 2.0 is the brainchild of Soren Gordhamer, who sees it as his personal mandate to find an answer to one of the greatest challenges of the digital age: “How to not only live connected to one another through technology, but to do so in ways that are beneficial to our own well-being, effective in our work, and useful to the world” (sorengordhamer.com). As his book Wisdom 2.0  explains: “In our constantly connected lives, it is easy to get overwhelmed, caught in information overload and multi-tasking, that impacts not only our stress level, but also our effectiveness. We live not only constantly connected, but also constantly rushed, constantly hurried, and constantly stressed.” The solution, Soren believes, is to be found in the ancient wisdom teachings, essentially in Buddhist meditation. We need to turn our attention from the endless emails and apps notifications that bombard our screens and search inside ourselves to rediscover our spirit of being and reconnect with the world we live in. In short, we need to disconnect in order to connect.

The conference opened, appropriately for the intended audience, by establishing scientific credibility for mindfulness with Dr. Dan Siegel, professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. Leading the audience through the Wheel of Awareness, Dr. Siegel offered a way in which we can examine the internal workings of our own minds, get off the autopilot of ingrained behaviors and habitual responses, and establish meaningful and empathetic relationships. Furthermore, Dr. Siegel’s studies in the workings of the brain suggest that there is no apparent existence of a coherent “self,” which we tend to assume exists within this physical body. Rather, the self is both “me” and “we,” a new entity that he termed “MWE.” If this is the case, then we are all interconnected and bear responsibilities, whatever our roles, not only for the organizations we work in, but also for the world at large.

Much of Wisdom 2.0 Asia was suffused with self-awareness, loving kindness, compassion, and interconnectedness. Father Laurence Freeman, who was meditation teacher to the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, talked about heart consciousness in Christian contemplation. In a gentle, rhythmic flow, Jack Kornfield invited participants to open their hearts to loving awareness, to feel the love, courage, and beauty that are our intrinsic nature. Roshi Joan Halifax urged the audience to make compassion viral and gave a clear exposition of making compassion a priority for effective and robust leadership through GRACE (Gather attention, Recall intention, Attuning to Self and Others, Consider what will serve, Engaging and Ending). Chade-Meng Tan envisioned a world where wise and compassionate leadership can bring about world peace. Venerable Tenzin Priyadharshi differentiated between self-awareness and self-absorption, the values of true altruism and egocentricity.

But it was a short, unassuming man in his trademark simple white outfit who won the hearts at the conference. At 84, Dr. A. T.Ariyaratne, the founder and president of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka, embodies the qualities of leadership that the conference talks about. As Joanna Macy once described him, “In this voluble, diminutive dynamo I found a scholar-activist who took the social teachings of the Buddha seriously and dared to believe that they could inspire change in the modern world. He has banked his life on that conviction, drawing from ancient traditions to empower what he called ‘the poorest of the poor’” (sarvodaya.org). Indeed, for more than half a century, Dr. Ariyaratne has engaged the people in 15,000 poor villages in Sri Lanka to live by the Sarvodaya motto: “We build the road and the road builds us.” Steadfast and committed to the powers of meditation for transformation, Dr. Ariyaratne has led millions in mass peace meditation to spread the message of non-violence and tolerance, particularly during the days of civil conflict in his country. Over a cup of tea during the interval, Dr. Ariyaratne said, “To heal the world, we first need to heal the mind, to transform our thinking. Each moment is an opportunity to be mindful of thought, of speech, of action—with less greed, less hatred, less delusion. Meditation is an ancient practice to develop wisdom. This is how to heal our world.”

Understandably, Wisdom 2.0 Asia is not the place to look for that Aha! moment, that nirvanic awakening, or Enlightenment, in a religious sense. It is more about opening up possibilities and forming communities that share common goals, and hopefully committing to work together for the betterment of humanity. Looking around the crowd as they left the bliss of Wisdom 2.0 Asia, screens lit up immediately and once again, we were drawn into another world. Somehow it really didn’t matter anymore if this sojourn into mindfulness was just a passing fad. What mattered was that as part of this MWE, insignificant me can make a difference to the world we live in, including the environment. It starts with one breath at a time, with me being more aware, moment by moment, of the consequences of each and every action that I perform and decision that I make, no matter how trivial they may seem. It starts with transforming this one self, and hopefully through that transformation, having an impact on the people around me. As Martin Luther King realized, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one, affects all indirectly” (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.],” 16 April 1963).

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