Tag Archive: Marianne Williamson

Wisdom 2.0 and the Protection of the Spiritual Commons

NOTE: The following article was originally published on Reality Sandwich around 3/23/13. Although appearing on this blog after the related article entitled “Speaking Truth to Power,” this article was written first.
Over the last weekend in February, executives from tech companies like Google, Cisco, Zynga, and Twitter shared a stage in Silicon Valley with spiritual luminaries such as Eckhart Tolle, Jack Kornfield, Marianne Williamson, and Joan Halifax for the fourth annual Wisdom 2.0 conference. In presentations, interviews, panel discussions, and breakout sessions, the role of spirituality in business and society was explored from every angle—almost. One question that hung heavily in the ether above the privileged participants was this: Is Wisdom 2.0 really an upgrade?

Lacking $275 for admission, I watched the conference online. Not the whole thing of course, but enough to hear almost every New Age buzzword rendered nearly meaningless through repetition. Speeches on mindful management, conscious leadership, and wisdom in the workplace were all delivered with a warm glow of self-satisfaction. Yet few speakers seemed conscious of the obscenely affluent elephant in the room.

The notable exception was the best-selling author Marianne Williamson, who pointed at the pachyderm several times during the conference. On the final afternoon, her gentleness gave way to a fierce compassion that inspired her to drop this show-stealing zinger:

“Let me tell you something ladies and gentlemen: no spiritual leader person is going to come here and be a dancing monkey to help a bunch of rich capitalists talk about the fact that they can have a more compassionate workplace and meditation rooms while not dealing with the moral calling and the moral invitation of our species to deal with the fact that we have so much and so many have so little…

Only in modern America could we come up with some ersatz version of spirituality that gives us a pass on addressing the unnecessary human suffering in our midst.”

Bravo! Finally, a piece of real wisdom—good, old-fashioned Wisdom 1.0—designed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The basic point of Marianne’s brave and brilliant speech (see below) was that mindfulness is all well and good, but that wisdom and compassion mean nothing if not extended beyond the cozy confines of Silicon Valley to the entire Earth community. On an even deeper, unspoken level, she was saying, “Sorry techies, but you cannot use the word ‘wisdom’ unless you really mean it, unless you actually live it.” With a flash of Manjusri’s sword, she drew a line in the sand.

As Marianne demonstrated, real wisdom requires asking the most challenging and probing questions, the ones that disarm the ego and cut to the heart of the matter. As a co-defender of this brand of wisdom, I feel called to pick up the sword and ask the question that has kept occurring to me:

Is wisdom even compatible with capitalism?

Almost all spiritual traditions stress the central importance of generosity. In Buddhism, for example, dana is considered the highest of the ten paramitas or spiritual virtues. By contrast, capitalism is based not on giving but on taking. Starting with the premise that humans are fundamentally selfish, it presupposes that every individual is out to maximize self-interest, which means getting something for nothing if possible. Such is the basis of usury, through which all money is brought into being. It is also the basis of private property, a relatively recent legal creation that grants an individual or corporate “person” the right to own, exploit, and profit from a piece of Nature that rightfully belongs to every living creature.

In general, capitalism operates by stealing from the commons, by appropriating something from the non-monetized realm and dragging it into the marketplace. Such appropriation and commodification happens constantly, often in the most insidious and unconscious ways. It can even happen right in front of hundreds of extremely smart and well-intentioned people in northern California.

Granted, the tech industry represents an emerging form of capitalism based largely upon intellectual property, which is surely less extractive than the manufacturing and shipping of computers and other hardware and the maintenance of servers. Yet even new ideas are based on older ones, begging the question of whether truly original ideas exist, and if so, how much are they worth? Before the advent of capitalism, common wisdom suggested that any idea was valuable to the extent that it benefitted one’s community. Personal gain was not an issue.

These days, our community is the whole world—a world of rising temperatures, declining natural systems, disappearing species, and an ever-widening chasm between rich and poor. The stakes are high, as are the moral standards to which influential people ought be held. Like everyone at Wisdom 2.0, I believe that that the intersection of spirituality and technology holds enormous potential for profound social change. I can only hope that the brightest minds of our day will be inspired by genuine wisdom to create not just a kinder business model but a more just and compassionate world, one that works not only for the privileged few, but for all. Should we succeed at making this monumental transition, we could even call it “Civilization 2.0.”


If you don’t know the author and spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson by name, you may have seen her most famous quotation posted on an office bulletin board or refrigerator door. Taken from her best-selling book A Return to Love, the passage begins: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? …. Your playing small does not serve the world…”

Marianne herself is not one to play small. Despite her petite build, she’s a dynamic speaker who frequently commands the attention of large audiences around the world. Unlike some rock star gurus, she’s not afraid to mix spirituality with politics and display her vibrant liberal plumage in her ongoing crusade to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Indeed it was this well-known phrase that Marianne invoked at Wisdom 2.0 this year as she schooled participants about true wisdom and global responsibility in a show-stealing speech that included her refusal to be a “dancing monkey for a bunch of rich capitalists,” a line that quickly turned my longstanding indifference to deep respect. Inspired to look into Marianne’s life and work, I learned that her fierceness is even more apparent offstage, at least to those who describe her as harsh, demanding, and controlling, a reputation that she seems keen to perpetuate by calling herself “the bitch of God.”

Thus I was a bit nervous as I queued up to question Marianne in front of hundreds of faithful fans packing the pews at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Francisco. It was here that the public programs department of my alma mater, the California Institute of Integral Studies, had booked Marianne to speak, with a specific request that she put her progressive foot forward. She was even presented with a title: “Speaking Truth to Power: A Spirituality That Inspires Social Change,” to which she did justice by preaching passionately on poverty, civil and human rights, feminism, the Occupy movement, corporate corruption, and the addictive nature of American culture, among other things.

Her speech was quite inspiring, actually. Yet she failed to address a question that has been on my mind for quite awhile, namely: How to cultivate an attitude of abundance, universal love, and generosity while living under the soul-crushing heel an economic system predicated on scarcity, competition, and exploitation? I believe that individual awakening is impossible without cultural awakening, which is impossible without a radical restructuring of our systems of finance and governance to more accurately reflect the interconnected nature of reality. Surely many spiritual leaders would agree, yet none that I know—except the Dalai Lama, who calls himself a socialist—have dared to directly challenge the status quo, perhaps reluctant to bite the hand that feeds. In fact many of them continue peddling the old “law of attraction” snake oil that keeps people focused on personal gain rather than collective transformation.

Marianne Williamson is no exception. Her latest book, The Law of Divine Compensation, is essentially a rewrite of The Secret, itself a mash-up of dozens of “think and grow rich” books that had come before. Since Marianne’s new book was handed out to all attendees, I had a chance to skim through it before her appearance, hoping to find some truly radical gem buried within. Finding nothing of the sort, I decided to compassionately call her out, and immediately started scribbling my thoughts on the book’s back page, for reference in case of brain freeze. This would prove to be a mistake.

I was the last questioner in the queue. Book in hand and butterflies in stomach, I stepped up to the mic and said something like this:

“First of all, thank you for your talk, and for bringing such fire into the otherwise watery realm of spirituality. I especially want to thank you for bringing up the addiction piece, which I find to be totally spot on. But I don’t think we can talk about addiction without talking about our economic system, which is based on addiction, on the endless drive for more and more. And we can’t really talk about abundance without addressing an economic system that is based on scarcity, and that forces us into competition with one another, no matter how loving we’d like to be. This is the conversation I’d like to see happening in our public spaces. It’s the elephant in the room; it’s the third rail…nobody wants to talk about it. So my hope, my prayer, is that people with spiritual authority and wisdom like you will start to discuss our economic system and its fatal flaws, to at least get the conversation started.”

I can’t remember if anyone clapped, but I was pleased with myself for speaking truth to spiritual power—in a relatively calm and coherent manner even. In retrospect, perhaps I should have been more explicit by uttering if not emphasizing the unspeakable C-word—capitalism—but I didn’t want to sound like a myopic Marxist when the problem as I see it runs deeper and wider, to the monetary system itself and the outdated assumptions upon which it rests. At any rate, my basic point was unequivocal enough. Or so I thought.

My pride quickly turned to dismay as Marianne artfully dodged—no, completely subverted—my subtly subversive question, turning it into a pitch for the little blue book I happened to be carrying. She even joked about me being planted by her publisher so that she could finally get down to business and share with us the keys to wealth and prosperity that she had learned on her journey to New Age notoriety.
Apparently, in the world of pop spirituality no less than business, it helps to be an egomaniac. I later learned that Marianne lived up to her reputation that night, bossing and berating her backstage point people to the brink of tears. The experience served as a powerful reminder that spiritual celebrities like Marianne, Deepak Chopra, and Wayne Dyer are—first and foremost perhaps—expert entertainers. This is not to say that their books and lectures are devoid of powerful truths and potentially transformative ideas, but that behind the wise words lie beautifully flawed humans seeking power, recognition, and yes, even money. Another, more cynical notion is that our teachers, like all of us, often behave more like monkeys, dancing for a bunch of rich capitalists to a tune that nobody can even imagine ending.