Friday, May 5, 2017

Multi-Level Meditation: how Zen Priests Packaged and Sold the Dharma to Google

The Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute ( is selling Mindfulness Meditation as the next Great Leap Forward in Business Productivity. On their web site they list the results you can hope to achieve from mindfulness meditation, including:

- Reduction of Stress or Emotional Drain from 58% to 24% [Citation Needed]
- Increases in Focus and Performance from 36% to 68% [Citation Needed]
- Leadership's Calm and Poise increased from 17% to 46% [Citation Needed]
- Greater Perceived Well Being [Citation Needed]
- Deeper Emotional Intelligence [Citation Needed]
- Increased Creativity and Innovation [Citation Needed]
- A Better and More Mindful Company Culture  [Citation Needed]
- 36% Reduction in Stress Levels [Does not match the 58-24% range above!]
- An Additional 62.0 Minutes of Productive Work per Week [Citation Needed]
- 7% Lower Healthcare Costs [Citation Needed]
- Productivity Gains Totaling $3,000/year [Citation Needed]
- 13,000 employees have participated

On the web site you can book a two day personal package at a public event for $1250-1350 and if you have a group, well, contact them for a quote. For all that you have to gain, it's really a good deal.

What's More Valuable Than the Three Jewels? 

I could go on about the prohibitions on selling the Dharma or the multitude of Gaining Ideas  above or the contrived "data marketing" full of meaningless numbers which don't match (I really wonder what units are used to measure stress? Is there a calibrated reference?). However, the really interesting thing is the model for further engagement and teacher training.

The Engage program is the next step after attending the Individual or Group programs and cost USD $6700 for the San Francisco sessions and AUD $6500 for the Sydney sessions. Which is on the high end for this kind of business training seminar, but not unreasonable.

Graduates of the Engage program are encouraged to share the practices they learn in the context of a work environment. I.e. the tools of mindfulness are applied to making teams more effective and productive teams with lower stress, more wisdom and greater respect for each other.

Once the Engage program, and some outside training not provided by SIYLI, are completed there's a Leadership program, an additional USD $7500 for which you get a training program, test and shot at a certification. Once certified you can co-teach (and share teaching fees with) more experienced teachers while training towards becoming a senior teacher yourself, allowing you to co-teach with more junior members.

While it's not a Ponzi or Pyramid scheme exactly it does smack a bit of Multi-Level "marketectures" like Tupperware or Avon. There are significant benefits to getting in early in a social marketing system like the one that SIYLI has designed: classes are run, some people will be interested in more in-depth training and enter the Engage program, the eventually the Teacher Training (paying the program's total USD $15,250 tuition over the course of perhaps 18 months).

Much of this money will go to facilities and running the conferences no doubt, but the teachers need to eat as well, and the certification program guarantees them a cut of whatever future revenue their students make: co-teaching with a more senior teacher is required. So, the students do the foot-work to setup gigs for themselves, and effective do all the lead generation and sales work for the more senior teachers.

Don't the Ends Justify the Means?

As presented, the benefits of the program can be summed up into: Happier and More Productive Workers, better able to deal with the stresses of the modern work environment. Given the audience, business executives (who want the productivity) and human-resources managers (who want the happiness) it makes sense to put those features up front, even if you have to slap together some nonsense numbers [Citation Needed] to really sell it.

Mindfulness practices, which predate Buddhism and likely all of recorded history, are powerful tools for understanding ourselves and our relationship to the world around us, applying them to business problems is perhaps inevitable, and teachers making money selling training is completely reasonable.

In order to get to this business appropriate form of secular Mindfulness Meditation from Zen as understood by American Zen priests, some important parts of the tradition are left behind: the history (which many of the priests aren't well aware of) and the social, community and moral traditions which surround and support the practice and the teachers (no further comment). 

In the realm of business, stripping the moral lessons of Buddhism from the method of Mindfulness means that the focus and enhanced productivity promised by the program can be put enhance any program, from collecting and analyzing the personal data of billions of people, to optimizing advertising placements, to competing fiercely in the mobile phone marketplace. Why not have a quick thirty minute sit and some yoga after a long day of selling trivial things to people who don't need them?

Outside the social fabric and moral framework of a functional religious community, the tools of meditation and mindfulness can be used for any purposes, good, evil, approaching or crossing the creepy line. Like a knife which can cut diamonds there is a sharpness to the Dharma, and it is often depicted as a sword which requires much training to wield effectively and with compassion.

Putting Business First

Setting aside my despising Google and their acquisitive gathering of personal data, it's disheartening and disappointing to see the Zen Center priests involved in putting together this very elaborate, slickly presented and well funded program are choosing to focus their efforts on Business and developing revenue streams from it. Of course temples and teachers need support, but selling out to big business smacks of selling indulgences. It's a deep and complete corruption of the tradition and the role of priests.

Along this twisting, profit driven road the Zen tradition in America becomes exclusively a tool of big business, an efficiency exercise to improve production and optimize worker happiness. With VIP spa retreat centers staffed with priests driving the sports or luxury vehicle of their dreams, who get up early and sit in the Zendo then drop their kids off at private schools after chanting their vows of poverty and homelessness.

This is, of course, simple heresy.

[Edit: removed "and Zen Center has some challenges" from a sentence where it wasn't adding anything.]