Interviewsand Articles

 

A Conversation with Alfred Tolle: Wisdom Together

by Richard Whittaker, Oct 28, 2016


 

 

      I met Alfred Tolle thanks to Nipun Mehta. A small group of us traveled to Scotts Valley, California near Santa Cruz to meet Scott Kriens, former Chairman and CEO of Juniper Networks. We were looking forward to learning firsthand about his ambitious project, 1440 Multiversity. In the coming months of 2017 Multiversity will be completed and begin operation. Scott sat down with us and gave us an overview of his goals and answered our many questions. Then we got a walking tour of the campus, a former Christian college where several impressive new buildings are nearing completion. The scale of Kreins's undertaking is stunning. Later we all went out to lunch together and our conversations went in several directions. It was my chance to get acquainted with a few of my companions (each fascinating individuals in their own right) on this exciting outing. It's how I met Alfred Tolle. I'd heard a little about Tolle, how he'd headed up Lycos, how he'd spent time in Japan, had held an important position at Google. Besides that, I found him intriguing in person and soon asked if he'd be willing to fit an interview into his tight schedule before returning to his native Germany. First he and his Japanese wife, Yuko, were going to attend a retreat at Ratna Ling organized by the Global Consciousness Alliance, an organization based in New York, of spiritual leaders from different lineages. Soon after the retreat was over I met Tolle and his wife, Yuko, at their hotel near the San Francisco airport. To begin, I asked him about his experiences at the retreat...

Alfred Tolle:  As spiritual leaders, they said, “Look. What can we do? And shall we do something? Shall we react to what we see and what’s happening in the world—to the commercialization, as well as to the decrease of values that we’re observing in the world right now? And does it mean that we have to change?
     It was an open, wonderful discussion. I think everybody learned from each other—not only looking in our own lineages, but thinking about how we, as individuals with a spiritual practice, could create value for others. As a spiritual leader, I can offer a certain path to people, but also, if I see it’s not working, I can help them find allies coming from a different tradition. “Look, I think here’s something more in-line with where you’re supposed to go.”
     I’m trying to bridge the business world and the spiritual world, and trying to bring them together in a meaningful way.

Richard Whittaker:  That’s a wonderful and ambitious idea. I haven’t talked to many people in your position, but the first question would always be, is this about a bottom-line goal? Or is this really about a greater good? And there’s probably a range of answers there. What are your thoughts on that?

Alfred:  That’s a wonderful question and actually goes straight to the point. I always ask people about their intention. I gave a speech in New York in January this year to a lot of mindfulness groups inside the Tokyo Bank, the investment bank. This spiritual group was led by a Tibetan friend who became an investment banker. I asked, “Why are you guys doing this? Is it to reduce stress? To be more efficient and to cope with the workload on your table? Is it to use resources in a better way to facilitate your gross?”
     I believe that in most cases mindfulness is commercialized. Because if you’re really going into spirituality and connecting to your soul, you’re asking a different question. You’re asking not only what is my personal well-being, but what will bring well-being for the greater good? And is what we’re doing in our company contributing to a greater good or not?
     I came from Google where the sales department had a 20% year-by-year growth expectation. When I came to Google in 2011, they only had a 17% gross. It was a kind of a crisis situation. They said, “All hands on deck!” And I said, “Guys, other companies would have the champagne on the table when they get a 17% gross. You’re saying we’re in a critical situation? What is that?” And later we had a reorganization, which affected a lot of people.

RW:  The re-organization was because of the crisis?

Alfred:  It was because they expected that the 20% year-by-year gross could not be achieved under their current structure. So they were trying to build a leaner and more efficient structure, which would then give them the ability to grow even more than 20% year-by-year.
     I was working in Dublin for Google and they brought about 50 people together. The top management were on stage explaining why they were doing this. At that time, they were making 40 to 50 billion dollars a year, and they said, “We want to become a $100 billion company!”
     I asked, “Why?” And they were kind of irritated. I asked, “Why not 200 billion? Why not 50 billion? Tell me what you want to do with that money, and then I’ll tell you whether I’m inspired.”
     Because 100 billion is a one with a lot of zeroes behind it, isn’t it? But it’s just a figure. It could mean a lot; it could mean nothing. The question is, “In what context are you operating?”
     And that comes back to your question.
     The important question for me is always, “How does this align with what the world and what people need?” It’s not just for the shareholders and for a certain imagined figure that’s kind of made up, anyway. It’s not something based on real needs and what we should achieve in this world.
So they were kind of irritated about this question.
     Of course, they had to think about it. I had a lot of these conversations with people at Google. The good thing at Google is that you can have this conversation. So, there are people who are really taking it seriously and thinking about it.

RW:  Now, at that time what was your position at Google?

AT:  I was responsible for the account management of sales for Scandinavia—from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland—and also for Belgium and Holland.

RW:  Okay. When you brought this up and it irritated them—how did that play out?

AT:  Well, they came back to me and said, “What do you want to do?” My boss said, “Look, Alfred. What was the purpose of your question?”
     I just said, “You know what the purpose of my question is, because I joined to Google to use Google as a platform for doing meaningful things in the world. I think you are in a wonderful position to do that, and not necessarily to generate 20% year-by-year gross. That’s not why I’m here, actually.”
     We had this kind of agreement with each other, because he was a person who understands spirituality. He said, “As long as the numbers are green so you achieve our expectation, you can do whatever you want.”
     I had about 60 to 80 people working for me at that time. I went to those folks and said, “Here are the projects I want to do.” There were some projects like helping NGOs to understand data in a better way so that they could make better decisions—and bringing to Google a leadership institute together with the U Theory from Otto Scharmer from the Presencing Institute in Boston.

RW:  What is U theory?

AT:  It has to do with mindfulness, an open mind, open heart and open will. We wanted to bring that into the Google Learning and Development framework to train leaders. Because one day Larry Page said, “We want to create and support and develop leaders for the world and not necessarily only for Google.”
     So, I took him at his word. I said, “If that’s true, let’s understand what the world needs, and not what Google needs. Then let’s align our values, our ethics, our basis of operation on these premises.” So we had a lot of conversations.
     Based on this premise of ethics, I started having interesting conversations around the statement, “I think we should pay taxes in the countries where we make money.”
     They said, “Why?”
     Their position was we’re not breaching any laws. We’re using the loopholes, yes. We do what our competitors do. If we don’t, our competitors will have an advantage and our shareholders could even sue us. That was, from my perspective, an excuse.
Then they asked, “Don’t you think it’s better to spend a hundred million dollars building and creating schools in Africa, than paying it to a broken democratic system?”
     I said, “That’s an interesting thought. But first of all, I haven’t seen that you do this. Second, even if you would, you put yourself in the position of a government. And I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. I don’t want to be ruled by a commercially driven entity. If we understand where these systems are broken, I think we should make that transparent and put pressure on the politicians to repair them. Or even better, help in offering the politicians ways to create spaces where we can come together to explore how we really could create a better world, a better structure, a better system. That would be something we should do.”
     I really had interesting conversations, but unfortunately they didn’t lead to any concrete actions. It’s why I decided to leave Google at the end of the last year in October. I quit.

RW:  You were there for?

AT:  Four years.

RW:  That’s really interesting. I’ve heard that in the U.S., when corporations were first created, it was specified, required, that a social benefit needed to accompany their doing business. And at the beginning of Google, the founders had these high ideals. But apparently, over time, as result of how they’ve monetized things now it no longer functions so much in the way it did in the beginning.

AT:  Yes, that’s true. They started with the notion of, “Don’t be evil.” And you can dispute this mission from several angles. When I was working in Dublin with Google, I was surrounded by a lot of young inspiring people. All of them had their MBAs (Master of Business Administration), spoke at least three languages and were always best in class. Most of them came to Google because they wanted to have a positive impact in the world.
     The interesting thing at Google is that what’s happening is that these account managers coming in are ending up, at least in the beginning, at an Intelligent Call Center.

RW:  Intelligent Call Center; I don’t know what that is.

AT:  It’s an auction-based system and the advertisement which has the highest rating, will appear on search pages. So Google is making money from their advertising services, which appear on the top, right-hand side the search pages. But this has no effect on the search; the search is independent from that.
     So based on their margin, businesses can easily calculate how much money they could invest in the keyword-auction to be profitable. It’s a controllable kind of business. If I’m a car producer like Tesla, or BMW, or Ford, and I want to have the keyword, “car” I could calculate how many people who are searching for cars and click on my advertising, go to my page, and purchase a car —or a camera, or whatever the product is. Based on that calculation I can plan how much money to invest in keywords. It’s a little complicated, but it worked quite well for a lot of companies. And companies like booking.com are spending over a billion dollars per year for online advertising with Google.

RW:  Wow.

AT:  So, it’s a huge business. What it means is that every one of these companies that are working with this technology have an account at Google. The account managers in Dublin can see all the actions of the account, like how much money this customer is investing or bidding in the auction, and then they can make proposals to this customer. So, they’re consulting them on marketing. And some of these account managers have two to five hundred companies in their portfolio. They have headsets on and they’re looking into a computer. The engine is automatically giving them proposals, what they should say to this or that customer, and they have not a lot of time to call the customer to tell them what they should do.

RW:  Wow.

AT:  If that person or company is not reacting, then they call another one.

RW:  There are actual people in front of the screens?

AT:  Yes. They’re the young account managers.

RW:  And this is the Intelligent Call Center?

AT:  Yes.

RW:  So there are a bunch of people watching this in real time as it’s happening?

AT:  And also understanding what’s happening in the same market segment in the market; comparing it and making proposals to others; that’s what they do.

RW:  You really understand how all this works. And you left Google last year. So do you want to share any reflections on all this, and your leaving?

AT:  Well, I left Google last year because I felt I’d maximized what I could do to make the world a better place from inside the system. I was able to do a Happiness Project inside the different areas or departments at Google. In Dublin, I think there are 64 languages spoken. So it’s a very international young crowd with the high energy of people who want to do something, want to change something. Which is wonderful.
     A friend of mine is a Tibetan monk and I asked him to come in, and once a month he came in for a day and offered mindfulness sessions there. And I brought in a psychologist from Amsterdam. He was at McKinsey before, so he understood all of the business side.

RW:  What is McKinsey?

AT:  McKinsey is a big consulting company. He stepped out of McKinsey and then did positive psychology, consulting companies in that direction. We did projects on happiness. Is happiness experienced the same in the Italian team as it is in the French team as it is in the Danish team? Or are there cultural differences? And if so, what could the company do in terms of the circumstances for these people to enhance their happiness? This was something we did there.
     And I had a lot of conversations around how to predict conflicts, wars, before they arise based on the search behavior of people. I was talking to computer scientists in New York, Israel and California who were working on the visualization of data, on how we could use existing technology from Google to understand this, and then we were talking to the peace office in Helsinki about this as well.

RW:  What’s the peace office?

AT:  Martti Ahtisaari was a former prime minister from Helsinki, and he’s a Peace Nobel prize winner. He built a peace office supporting peace in the world, and negotiations for peace, which is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They’re in Helsinki. So my team in Helsinki approached these folks and asked, “Do you have an interest in this? And if yes, how can we work together to understand the data? If we understand a conflict that might arise in the future, what can we do before it arises to de-escalate it?”

RW:  Who came up with the understanding of how to analyze this data? Where did that come from?

AT:  At Google, a lot of excellent psychologists and people who deal with statistics are working —and some of them have studied psychology and statistics. So they came up with the framework. At Google, once a year, there’s a big survey called, “Google Geist.” (It’s a German word that means spirit.)
     So this survey contains many questions like how do you perceive Google as a company? e.g. The decisions of CEO (at that time)Larry Page? Of your personal manager? Your peers, how you perceive yourself, your personal development at Google? The psychologists and statistics people did this framework with intelligent questions and out of all the responses they identify certain areas where they can improve.
     Once a year they do the survey, then two months later they have the results. By the third month, you have project teams in each and every region of Google addressing actions to improve the areas with the lowest results. Most of them are not only about money, but about innovation, about well-being and happiness and stresses, and this kind of thing. The question is how can Google address these topics and help these people? And this goes back to the original question. What is Googles intention? Why are they here for?

RW:  And also the question of how is this analysis of data predictive of conflict?

AT:  Yes. How can this come into play? Google We has so much data and so many tools. For instance, there’s a tool predicting flu trends in Africa that recognize when people are searching for specific drugs against the flu. And based on increasing searches around this topic, Google can predict that there will probably be a flue epidemic coming up. This tool was created voluntary by some computer scientist from google in Africa..
     At that time Larry Page gave Google employees 20% of their time to use the facilities at Google for their personal interest projects. The rule is still there, but it’s seldom used because there’s a 20% year-by-year growth expectation, on the one-hand, and no new hirings on the other hand. That means people have to do much more work.
     I was there only for four years, but after the fourth year—and all of my project teams were volunteer-based—I asked these people, “Do you have time? Do you want to help me?”
     They said, “What a wonderful project! It’s inspiring! But unfortunately I have no time.”

RW:  And this circles back to the earlier question.

AT:  The original question is, what is the real intention of these companies? With Google it was, don’t be evil. And I initiated a conversation in Google saying, “Let’s go even further and change that to be good.
     I heard that Larry Page opened a conversation about whether Google could change their expressed goal to be good. But a lot of lawyers came into play, saying, “That could be a problem because you might expose the company to liabilities. As a result, this initiative went nowhere.

RW:  That’s fascinating.

AT:  Two or three years ago they had a Chief Finance Officer, Patrick Pichette. He came from France and was a numbers guy; he also was a mindfulness guy and did meditation—not that he was promoting it actively in the company. But he had an understanding about this. Then he left and they hired somebody from an investment bank. That also was setting a tone.
     Shortly after this, the management decided to split the company into Google and Alphabet.

RW:  I haven’t heard anything about that.

AT:  Well, in Alphabet, there are all these young start-up companies. 95% of Google’s revenue is made in the original Google. The intention is to make money at Google and to create something new in Alphabet. It’s not really about making the world a better place.
     I can give you another example. Usually the sales departments are organized in regions all over the world. Usually, once a year, they invite customers in each region to Mountain View, to the headquarters, where they get a tour and hear speeches from intelligent people.
     We were at Stanford at the Singularity University. Some of these speeches are given by the head of Google X. (Google X is a special department with approximately 200 computer scientists and business people. Whatever is imaginable they can try to do. They can play. It’s kind of a dream operation. All of the things like self-driving cars, heli-balloons and of course, Google Glasses—all these things started there.) Obviously this has been picked up in the media, and it’s good PR.
     All the young people who have been hired by Google, identify with these Google X projects. They say, “We’re doing great stuff in this world! Look, we’re creating self-driving cars!” Google X is led by Astro Teller.

RW:  Astro Teller? Now that’s a name.

AT:  And he’s a character—very intelligent, a scientist, long hair, Californian lifestyle, but very precise, very detail-oriented. He can organize stuff and he can bring visions to life; he’s a great guy.
     We had about 180 CEOs and executives at Google headquarters from Scandinavia and Union Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg). Astro came onstage and presented a kind of energy wheel, which they’re shooting up into the stratosphere where it’s being spun around by the solar winds. This energy wheel produces more energy than is being used to keep it up there and everybody was applauding. And everybody asked, “You don’t make any money with this, so why are you doing this?” And Astro was saying, “Because Google is committed to making the world a better place.”
     So I grabbed him afterwards and said, “Astro, I’m from Google as well; I’m in the sales department. The sales departments are supposed to deliver 20% year-by-year growth and the way we do this is by pushing companies to grow and produce more of their products. We don’t ask, ‘Is this is really meaningful for the world?’ By producing more, the companies are using a lot more energy, probably more than what the energy wheel will ever be able to deliver. Are we asking ourselves whether this makes sense? Shouldn’t we approach this on a more holistic level? Does it really make sense to push the company in this direction?”

RW:  It’s so interesting what you’re telling me. And Google, I think, is a perfect example because it’s such a huge company; it’s at the cutting edge of what’s going on in the culture, and data is coming to Google from all over the world through these searches. So this is the future in some real way, isn’t it?

AT:  Yes and no. I feel that Google is losing out right now. I feel that a lot of young people are no longer so excited to go to Google anymore. Still, there’s a lot of excitement there. But people are starting to ask, does this really make sense?
     Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon—and everybody—is investing in artificial intelligence software, which we feel is very critical. It’s because of the AI conversation that Nipun and I came together and said, “Let’s create a Wisdom Academy, a Wisdom University, as an alternative to Singularity University.”

RW:  I want to hear about that. But I want to share something first. I met this young man, Manuel Klarmann at an Awakin Circle in the Bay Area. He’s devoted to doing something for the greater good and has created a company called Eaternity. You can read my interview with him. I was touched by this guy and I think he represents the younger people you’re talking about. I asked him, “What do you think the future holds?” He said, “I think either the things that will save us will come out of the Bay Area, or the things that will destroy us.”

AT:  It’s a very interesting observation, and I tend to agree. I think everything we materialize, whether it’s artificial intelligence, or a chair or a suitcase—whatever it is—it’s being born out of an idea, out of our will—in a deeper sense. It’s neither good nor bad; it’s really a question how we’re going to use it.
That’s why I left Google and created wisdomtogether.com as a platform. I felt that there are so many people, institutions and organizations in this world striving for a higher consciousness, and trying to bring compassion to the world. But they’re not connected to each other; they’re operating in their own little ecosystems.
     So, when it makes sense, I want to help establish contacts and connections between these groups and individuals for an exchange of their experiences and perceptions of the world. Such an exchange might help them to get to the next level, spiritually—as well as reaching another dimension in the material world as well.
     If these two are aligned—the spirituality with the material world—this will be for the good for everybody. If these are not aligned, then it could be destructive, and that’s what we’ve been seeing.
     That’s why I think wisdomtogether.com should have places where we come together—for conferences, meetings, workshops, retreats—with the intention of exchanging our ideas and for creating networks and inspiring people, and for creating new ideas and supporting them in creating new kinds of projects that can create this alignment that makes better work possible.

RW:  What is your own spiritual practice, if you don’t mind my asking?

AT:  I meditate every day. I started in the Zen tradition 30 years ago when I was a student, actually. I got a scholarship to write my thesis about Japanese theater in Japan. So I went to Japan and wrote about Kabuki. And while I was there I’d visit temples and shrines and I came across people—it was really like coming from work and doing some meditation, and then drinking a cup of tea and then going home. It’s really normal for them, actually; it’s integrated into their daily life. That was 1988, 1989. I got interested and that was my introduction to meditation. Then I did martial arts as well, which always has some alignment with meditation practices as well.

RW:  Yes. I have a good friend who did many years of Aikido, which is beautifully aligned with a kind of spiritual practice.

AT:  That’s true. And that has accompanied me through my life. Then I went more into the business world, and was working in Asia and Tokyo again, for a German media company.

RW:  So you were in Japan to do your thesis and found some connection with Zen at that time?

AT:  Yes.

RW:  Were you able to keep that connection afterwards?

AT:  I kept that. I was always having conversations with monks, and was interested in Buddhism. So I read about Buddhism. I was raised Catholic, but I stepped out of the Catholic church when I was 14.

RW:  Now you went back to Japan, and then you became involved in journalism somehow?

AT:  Yes. I went back to Japan because I got an offer to work as a foreign correspondent for a German TV network there.

RW:  How much time elapsed between your first visit and the second visit?

AT:  So 1988, 1989, I got a scholarship. Then 1991 or 1992, I went back to Japan and opened up this foreign correspondent office together with a friend. We had a contract with an American production company. We did research on stories and coordination of interviews, and stuff like that.

RW:  You must have learned some Japanese by then?

AT:  Yes. We had to do the interviews in Japanese more or less, so we did that. We covered the G7 meeting in 1993 in Tokyo. Clinton was there and the G7 folks.

RW:  Did you film them?

AT:  We filmed them; we interviewed them. We divided our teams into different sections; some covered the Americans, some covered the Japanese, some covered the Germans. We did some pieces with interviews of politicians on certain topics. Some related to Asia or to Japan, but most of them related globally. “How do you see the world?” “What is the next step?” “What are we going to do?” And we focused on certain problems that were there in 1993. Then we edited our material and sent it via satellite to a German TV station where it was broadcast in German.

RW:  How many years were you doing this kind of work?

AT:  Two years.

RW:  Why didn’t you continue?

AT:  Because Murdock bought that channel in Germany and he closed down all the foreign correspondent offices. He used this TV station to broadcast his movies.

RW:  I see. But did you try to continue in some other place or for some other employer?

AT:  Actually my colleague, another German guy and a journalist who also wrote for some other German newspapers, we tried to set-up an entity to provide news coverage mainly for German TV stations and production companies. But that didn’t work out so well. So I went back to Germany, to Berlin, where I then became responsible for the daytime programming of a German TV station. That’s what I did there.

RW:  So jumping forward, now you’ve started something new: wisdomtogether.com. Would you talk about that?

AT:  The idea came up from my time at Google. I was involved in so many mindfulness concepts and with the well-being initiative inside Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” project. I spoke with Meng and some others involved in mindfulness at Google.

RW:  Who is Meng?

AT:  Chade-Meng Tan. He’s still an employee with Google, but on his business card it said, “Jolly Good Fellow.” He wrote the book Search Inside Yourself.

RW:  I heard of that and was intrigued, but never followed up.

AT:  He came to Google as a computer scientist at an early stage, and he was a very grumpy guy. Nobody wanted to work with him. But he was a good computer scientist, so they wanted to keep him. But they said, “If you don’t change your behavior, we have to get rid of you.”
     So he learned meditation and that helped him understand and overcome his grumpiness. That’s how he described his own path. In those early days he got to know Jon Kabat-Zinn and some other folks, and he got the idea of writing a book about the effects of meditation. Search Inside Yourself is that book.
     Google said, “Because you created this as a Google employee, it should belong to Google, but we’re giving it to you.” And so he created this non-profit institute, Search Inside Yourself, and it provides courses at Google.

RW:  It seems that Google is, in some degree at least, trying to be beneficial. Whereas, I have a feeling that with most corporations, that would never cross their mind.

AT:  That’s true. But I wouldn’t say the Board at Google is trying to do that. I would say Larry Page gives particular people the freedom to do things. The ideas that come out of Google, come from individuals. And since Google has hired so many wonderful, intelligent people who are looking for their own path in life, if you throw a good idea into the room, you always have five to ten people who say, “That sounds interesting. Can we help you to make that happen?” That’s how a lot of things happen at Google.

RW:  This is fascinating, but we only have so much time. We’d just started to touch on wisdom together, and I wanted to ask about that. I’m guessing this project is the result of many years of experience and impressions.

AT:  Yes.

RW:  How would you describe what it represents and where does it come from?

AT:  I think it comes from a deeper sense of wisdom. For me, wisdom is a combination of heart and knowledge; bringing both together. A lot of people ask me, “Why are you doing this?”
     There is one point, way back when I was 13—I didn’t recognize this at that time, but looking back—it’s probably the time when I got a deeper sense of meaning, and a deeper sense of the universe, as well.

RW:  Now I remember you telling me this story earlier.

AT:  About my father, yes.

RW:  And your mother. Would tell this story now?

AT:  My mother died in a car accident when I was nine. And I was suffering, but I had a very strong relationship with my father. He was still there. He was my anchor. But he suffered a lot through that as well, and he had a weak heart. So three years later he had a heart attack. I was with him while he had this heart attack, during the night.
     I was 13. I gave him his pills, but that didn’t work. So I ordered the ambulance, which came. Then I was in the ambulance driving to the hospital. It was very early in the morning, like three o’clock. We drove to a hospital and I was with him until we got to emergency room. The doctor said, “No, you can’t go with us into the emergency room.”
     So, I was waiting in this long corridor. And after five minutes the doctor came out and said, “I’m sorry, but we couldn’t do anything.” He touched my shoulder and then he left.
     I was sitting in this long corridor and feeling like I was outside of space and time. It was a deep kind of mourning, sadness, but also simultaneously, as if I no longer existed in this world. Interpreting it now, and looking back, it gave me a sense that there’s a deeper meaning to everything we do, something that goes beyond what we see and experience or can understand with our rational mind.
     I think that’s the basis for how I make my decisions in life and how I solve things. That’s also why, when I went into temples or when I experienced Catholicism, yes, certain parts resonated, but I also felt the limitations of the system; I felt that there was more.
     For some people, it’s good to be guided along these lines, but then I’ve seen a lot of people who have been sitting for 20 years in front of a wall and have never gotten an inch in development.
     So it’s really a question on your inner sense and an inner shift, and your connection to your soul, and your flexibility to understand who you are in a broader sense, not just who you are here in this world. That actually paved my way, I think—that moment.

RW:  Remarkable.

AT:  Then the Universe probably helped me meet some people along the way. I once wanted to become an actor. I had an Italian teacher who came from the Commedia dell’arte. He was working with archetypes and was a deep soul. We had two-hour sessions with exhausting physical exercises. Then when you were completely exhausted, he’d say, “Now we start working.” Because then, you didn’t have any energy left for your ego to prevent you from having deeper experiences of what art really is. Some of his exercises were religious, or spiritual, but he didn’t frame them like that. He just said, “This is our potential. We have this in us as humans.”

RW:  How long did that association last?

AT:  I did that for one-and-a-half or two years. I was 24 or 25. His name was Gaetano Cartolago. I haven’t seen him since then. I think he was one of these angels who come to this world to inspire people and show them a little bit of their own potential—what Gary Zukav is calling “authentic power.”
     I’ve met a lot of people, from presidents to CEOs, and some have an authentic power. I’ve felt that some of them deserve to be in such positions, in terms of their serving the world. But most of them I felt, hmmm. You know?

RW:  Yes.

AT:  That gave the freedom to decide whatever I wanted to do in my life. It also gave me the freedom in Google, and in every company I’ve been in. In Bertelsmann in Germany, which is a big media company, I never really was there for my career. I was never saying, “I have to make compromises in order to get to this or that position.”

RW:  Would it be fair to say that you never were willing to settle for anything less than the real, or the true, thing?

AT:  Yes. And I’m still trying to find out what that is. And that’s life, isn’t it? That makes it exciting, as well.

RW:  Absolutely.

AT:  That gives you the opportunity to meet amazing people—like Nipun, for example. We had a lot of interesting conversations when we met at the Global Wellbeing Lab. We became friends and asked, “How can we support each other with Wisdom Together and Service Space to bridge between the business world, the grassroots movement and spirituality?

RW:  It’s great that you two met. Now, having been at Google, I’m guessing you’ve been in discussions about artificial intelligence, so I’m wondering what your thoughts are around that.

AT:  I think AI is a technology that can bring us to the end of mankind. And not only mankind, but beyond that. It’s a question how you use AI. It’s happening right now and is outside the awareness of a lot of people.
     AI has been integrated in a lot of processes already. It’s just an acceleration of everything we’re seeing right now. When people rely on it, they’re no longer connected with their inner resources. They’re cut off from their ability to align themselves with their higher soul. And when that’s the case, I call them zombies.

RW:  You mean, for instance, that if I rely on my phone to tell me where to go, I don’t have to look at a map and figure it out. I'm losing something there. And that kind of thing is already going on?

AT:  Yes. The first iteration is the mobile phone. I see a lot of young people are relying so much on the mobile phone, that they’re becoming empty, and empty people are easy to control.
     This is an interesting time we are living in. We’re deciding whether we will become a part of an engine that’s run by artificial intelligence or whether we’ll learn how to use this technology mindfully and not be used by it. I’m confident that we’re going in this direction.

RW:  It’s hopeful to hear you say that. But I’m not sure I’m so hopeful. I mean, who knows?

AT:  But Richard it doesn’t help you not to have confidence that we have the power, the potential, every moment of our life to move toward an alignment for a better consciousness. We can do this. We have the power. And transformation happens in every moment. But as long as we’re disconnected, and in fear, and in anxious tension, we’re no longer connected. And at that moment of disconnection, we become a part of something we don’t want to be a part of. We become a part of what we want to fight against, actually. That’s where spiritual practices, from my perspective, are very helpful—to keep clean in yourself.

RW:  Yes. I think it’s essential to have some kind of spiritual practice. It reminds me of something you said at the beginning, how in an unexpected situation where negativity arises you can get caught in it—your thoughts follow along, and then a bad decision follows. It’s so easy for that to happen.

AT:  It’s very easy, very easy.

RW:  We’re all full of habits and reactions and identify with these reactions. Suddenly, I’m in this negative world. So it’s a real practice to try to be aware of this and not just to get caught. It’s not automatic.

AT:  No. Definitely not—for anybody, actually. I think the universe is giving us opportunities, but we have to work on them. It’s not like, okay, we just have to wait while everything falls into our lap.. That’s not how the world is working. But that makes it exciting, as well—because you have to do something.

RW:  Life is a great adventure if we can just wake up a little bit.

AT:  It is, indeed. And if this exploring, this adventure is based on a curiosity of your higher self and exploring more of the potential you have, then it becomes more and more meaningful and enriched.
     So, if people ask me, “What do you get from this kind of practice?” I tell them exactly that. It’s an enrichment of how you perceive this life—even if you don’t see it from the point of view of what can I do for others, but just for yourself. You get a broader perception and that enriches your life. Then compassion comes along anyway, because it’s part of that.

RW:  If you reach a certain kind of state, compassion just appears, I think.

AT:  Just appears. It’s a default standard; it comes with it, yes. It’s like in America, “buy one, get two.” You know? [laughs]

RW:  [laughs] It’s great to be talking with you, Alfred. Maybe you’d like to say something about Wisdom Together.

AT:  Yes. We want to inspire and enable people to foster conscious organizations and societies, to connect and support individuals and organizations to build a global movement of collective wisdom for the wellbeing for all.
     We came to the conclusion after all the experiences we had, and after all these wonderful people, organizations and companies I’ve met in my life, that all of them are looking for a greater good for this society—and beyond that, even.
     So, how could we create a platform to bring this intention to a broader audience to help organizations thrive, to facilitate the exchange of their ideas and also to connect them to create projects and helpful movement in communities? We came up with a flexible model, and it can change over time.
     We’re offering conferences and inviting people from all over the world—for instance, people from Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Centre will be there. And from America—like Nipun will be there to share his experiences and knowledge. The next conference in Munich is in June next year. It’s about intuition and creativity.

RW:  Do you know Freddy Ehlers?

AT:  No.

RW:  Ecuador has a department of Buen Vivir, the good life—which is kind of astonishing. He’s the head of it.

AT:  Okay. Nipun told me about him. Yes.

RW:  Yeah. He should be on your radar.

AT:  Definitely. So we bring these exciting people together. It’s not only that they share their experiences and show other people that alternative ways of living and doing business together is possible. It’s not only a concept; it’s already here! It’s happening.
     In the conferences, we have breakout sessions for individual’s own experience. And we do some exercises and a little contemplative practice. We try to inspire people with these global conferences so that they go home with a little flame in their heart.
     Each of these conferences have a certain theme. The first one in June in Munich, as I mentioned, will be Intuition and Creativity. In October, we’ll do a conference in Oslo around Inner and the Outer Peace. We’re bringing together spiritual leaders for inner peace, with NGOs, soldiers and politicians who are in war zones. We’ll be asking, “What can we learn from each other? And how can we use what we’ve learned to foster peace?”
     But what I’ve seen is that people get inspired, then they go home—and after two months, they fall into their old behaviors.

RW:  Exactly.

AT:  So we thought, “What can we do to help this?”
     We’re trying to create a broad infrastructure of partnerships—it could be individuals, it could be organizations, even companies could be coaches with our platform. Then people can go to our platform and say, “I was in Munich and I’m now back in San Francisco. Who can I tap into? Who is working with intuition here?”
     As the number of individuals and companies as partners grow, it will be possible to connect and go deeper with them. That’s the part we call “Awaken.” So we inspire, we awaken—through retreats, through workshops with our partners as well as ourselves and the third piece is, we support. This is the digital part, where we connect local with global.
     Say two people meet at the Munich conference and one is from Ecuador and the other one came from China; how can they meet later via our platform? And if they want to do something together, how can we help with that by aligning scientists, philanthropic investors, project managers and others working in related ways on a world-wide base?
     So what we do is: Inspire, Awaken and Support via global Conferences & local Talks, Trainings, Workshops, Corporate Coaching and a Global learning platform. Everybody can become a member and a part of the movement.
     In the Awaken part we will have Wisdom Academy and Wisdom University. I’m working with Nipun on this. We’d like to create a kind of academy with four or five modules of workshops, where people meet and go deeper into a certain topic. These will be based on experience of the mind, the heart and of the body with the aim of doing something good for others. With what people learn in the first year through these workshops, how can they extend this learning to others?
      If you’re in an organization, then how could you influence beneficial change in the organization with the wisdom you’ve learned through this academy? Or maybe you want to do social entrepreneurship and create your own project. Or you’re going to be a politician or a teacher. You’ll go into your environment and use this learning for others. And we will try to support that as well.

RW:  That’s fascinating. As I’m listening, I’m thinking of the great spiritual traditions. They’ve been around for millennia, and the hope of these traditions has always been to move people in a similar direction, to awaken them to the possible ways of living that are in service to a higher reality. We know there’s always the other side of it, the force of momentum and habit, and things can go downhill. We know that today many calling themselves Christians, for instance, operate in name only. At the same time, in every major tradition there are still living parts where something real still exists. So have you thought about the possibility of creating connections with some of the spiritual traditions where there’s still a living presence?

AT:  Absolutely.

RW:  What are your thoughts about that aspect?

AT:  Actually, we had a good experience at the Ratna Ling workshop we just attended. In the beginning the people who all came from different traditions—Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, or whatever lineage—were a little bit cautious. But through our conversations an energy was created so nicely, and they opened up. They even came to, “Yes. There’s value in my lineage, but how can I use my broadened experience to help people even to go to others, if that’s the best way for them to develop their own spirituality?”
     So it was really a good experience. We thought, “Yes. Let’s have traditions be a part of this wisdom together as long as they’re open and not using us as a platform to proselytize.” I’m completely open if they’re using that for the energy of liberalization and freedom for every person, and every spirit of life. That’s the only premise. But then there are so many ways to climb a mountain.

RW:  That’s wonderful. I would think that when you find a truly spiritual person, they are not going to proselytize and try to colonize you.

AT:  Absolutely.

RW:  Maybe I’m being overly-idealistic. But I think that in some places there’s great deal of knowledge about the difficulties of momentum and habit, where like you say, a person goes home and two months later, they’re right back in their rut.

AT:  Yes.

RW:  I know this problem in myself. It’s very difficult.

AT:  Absolutely. You fall back into old behaviors. And then, I think what is needed is partners, coaches, good guidance for people.

RW:  You need help.

AT:  You need help, but you know the guru, in the sense of former times when you have somebody you want to follow, I think that time is over. But that doesn’t mean you cannot have somebody who can teach you something from what he or she has experienced in their life, and which can help you at that moment where you need to come to the next step for yourself. That’s a new way. And Nipun calls it, so beautifully, laddership.

RW:  Yes.

AT:  I often refer to Lao Tzu, who 2,200 years ago said there are three types of leaders. The first one you’re afraid of. The second one you respect. And the third one, which is the future, is people who say I have done it on my own.
     That’s the type of leadership we need.
     It’s not like here in America where people say you have to put the stake in the ground and show the people where to go. That’s what people said when I was CEO of Lycos in Boston. My management team said, “Alfred, you have to put your stake in the ground and lead the crowd.” Which was a little bit strange for me as a European, and especially one with a German background.
     But I think that today leading means something else. Leading means understanding where the other people, or another person is, and creating a place and a framework that he or she can use to develop to the next level, if that’s what they’re seeking. To help them, to your best extent, so that they can spiritually, and also professionally, develop in the best way they decide to do. I think that’s the leadership we need.

RW:  What I often hear today is that it’s the community—and that could possibly be a sacred community—from which help can come.

AT:  Yes, absolutely. It’s so important. I mentioned that several times. I was speaking to some investment bankers in New York and these folks are all predicting a horrible scenario for the future. They’re all saying, “There will be an economic and financial meltdown in the next one to five years, and this will be horrible.”
     I asked them, “Okay. What are you guys doing if you know that?”
     They answered, “Well, we don’t know. But I bought myself a place in Panama and I’ll try to be out of here before this happens.”
I’m said, “Do you really think if we have a global problem that you’ll be out of it when you’re sitting on your place in Panama?”
     I believe that what we need today is a community, as you were speaking about, who are able and willing to create the next elevation of society. And this is what we have to create today—people who have an ethical framework they are relying on, a reliance on trust, a reliance on freedom and a reliance on respect for every person. This is a reliance on love and an alignment with the Universe. I think if we have that, we’re pretty well equipped to go into the life ahead.

RW:  It’s hopeful hearing this.

AT:  So, one of these investment bankers was asking, “Why should I care about future generations? What have they done for me?”
     These people will not help us create a better future for everyone. What I’m counting on are people who are curious, who are looking for something beyond their ego and asking what are we going to do in this world?
     We believe that true leadership improves the human condition by orchestrating social learning which enables groups of people to confront reality, and to change values, habits, practices and priorities to deal with the real threats or opportunities they face.
     Conscious leaders have high levels of inner and outer awareness and act with compassion to share their knowledge and experience with others in order to contribute to a greater good. They lead from an inner source of wisdom and authentic power, and can be found in any position in our societies.
     In our view conscious leaders can play a fundamental role in a transformative process that goes from the inside out: from leaders to organizations to systems. It starts with leaders embracing integral wellbeing for themselves and their loved ones. These conscious leaders then play a role in transforming their organizations so they embrace integral wellbeing for their employees and stakeholders. These conscious organizations then play a role in transforming multi-stakeholder systems so they embrace integral wellbeing for all stakeholders and society at large.
     
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine.    

 

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