It's a balmy Saturday evening at the Fairmont Acapulco Princess, and a hundred or so executives, consultants, and other businesspeople are in Fiesta Hall A, hula-hula-ing their arms in a dance of universal peace. Outside, darkness shrouds the 480-acre facility (a resort that could bring inner harmony to the most stressed-out CEO, what with its five swimming pools, eight restaurants and cafés, 11 tennis courts, and two 18-hole golf courses). Inside, the barefoot conference-goers are positively aglow, circling the ballroom in one sacred, organic movement, singing to the strains of a flute and a guitar. "I come with the wind," the executives croon. "I come with the water," the managers chant. "I come with the fire. Earth has called meeee."
Executive retreats have become a staple of corporate life. World-weary thought leaders and big-company change agents fly to a sunny locale, convene in a swanky hotel, and listen to keynote sessions on strategy, marketing, and e-commerce. Let us stipulate up front, however, that the sixth annual International Conference on Business and Consciousness (ICBC) at the Acapulco Princess isn't your ordinary off-site. To be sure, there are executives in attendance from plenty of big companies, including Hewlett-Packard, Kaiser Permanente, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. But the ICBC, created in 1995 by Santa Fe entrepreneur James Berry, serves up exclusively metaphysical fare, including sessions on aligning "individual intelligence with 'cosmic intelligence,' " recognizing your "innate fullness," and learning an "essential skill for individual effectiveness" — the art of three-ball juggling.
On one level, the ICBC is the right idea at the right time. Even the most establishment-minded executives have come to endorse the principle that work is personal, that your job is as much about your identity as your paycheck. And a galaxy of events — such as the Summit on Values, Spirituality, and Governance, in Washington, DC — are exploring the deeper meaning of work. Business schools have caught the fever too. Last year, the University of Massachusetts's Isenberg School of Management cosponsored Going Public with Spirituality in Work and Higher Education.
But it doesn't get much higher-minded than the event in Acapulco. Four hundred and thirty participants have shelled out up to $1,095 each to attend the ICBC gathering, a fee that does not include the cost of airfare, hotel, meals, or juggling balls ($5, optional). The brochure promises a thought-provoking program indeed, including a session on the "Power of Shamanic Technology for Problem Solving in Business," given by anti-anthropologist Victor Sanchez. Also on the roster: an exotic collection of titles and professional affiliations, including Odwalla Inc. founder Greg Steltenpohl, corporate counselor and Nigerian drummer Onye Onyemaechi, two World Bank executives, a Merck vice president, and ceremonial leader Brooke Medicine Eagle.
"People come to the conference to see what's happening at the bleeding edge of management thinking," says Berry. "We take risks that other people aren't willing to take." Sometimes the risks are physical. The Acapulco conference experiences its first casualty on opening night, during Dances of Universal Peace, when one barefoot reveler steps on a pin.
Sometimes the risks are intellectual. In one sense, the link between business and spirituality is obvious: You are what you do. But when taken too far, even the most compelling idea can, well, begin to escape the earth's gravitational pull. Such is the case with a session called "Radical Awakening," during which Arjuna Nick Ardagh, founder of the Living Essence Foundation, puts the following question to the audience:
"Who are you, really, beyond concepts and ideas?"
"Stillness and movement!" someone calls out.
"Right!" Ardagh crows. "What does it look like? How big is it?"
"It's huge. Always expanding!"
(This crowd is full of good guessers.)
"That's right! There's a world guru who must be surrendered and prostrated to. Who is it?"
"Me!" cries a woman in a paisley dress.
"Her!" Ardagh says. "If you want to meet the enlightened ones, look around you."
Ardagh gestures to the plump, sedentary souls before him, to the twinkling chandelier above, and to the commercial-grade carpet below. "They're in rooms like this one, all over the world."
The ICBC does concede to the one design feature that is practically mandatory at all business off-sites: graphs and charts. Keynote speaker William Isaacs, a disciple of Peter M. Senge and founder and president of a consulting company called DIAlogos, employs a conventional set of axes to make an unconventional point. "Breakdown," he says, pointing to an area that is south of the x-axis and west of the y-axis, "lies in the quadrant where 'privacy of the part' meets 'nonreflective' thinking. 'Politeness,' on the other hand, is over here, closer to 'primacy of the whole.' "
Harvard-trained quantum physicist John Hagelin — who in the past has argued that transcendental meditation can boost the gross national product and bring peace to the Balkans — displays complex diagrams to illustrate his theory of "global brain-wave coherence" and "unified consciousness."
"It's a scientific fact," Hagelin asserts. "You and I are one."
Ultimately, though, this conference is more about inner truth than overhead slides. On Monday morning, the attendees divide into groups of 10 for a "dialoguing" exercise led by consultant Suzanne Maxwell. First assignment: Ask a question "that emerges from a deeper place, a place of inquiry."
"As we're dialoguing, let's be respectful of other people's opinions," suggests Ti, from Sherman Oaks, California, who is sitting in a small circle of people at one end of the Fiesta Ballroom. "When I offer a dissenting opinion, I preface my thoughts by saying, 'I respectfully disagree.' I recommend everyone do the same."
"I have a question that comes from a deeper place," says Juda, of Love & Light Enterprises. "How can we help executives look at things in a different way and enter into real, soulful conversation?"
"I feel great sadness that so many executives are on a lower level of consciousness," laments Ti.
"I respectfully disagree," dialogues Amy, a University of Delaware finance manager. "I feel joy that I'm able to recognize when people are on a different level of consciousness than I am. Whether they're above or below me, they have something to teach me."
"Thank you," Ti gasps. "I say those words to other people — 'I respectfully disagree' — but no one has ever said them to me. You've added enormous safety and peace to my life."
Juda of Love & Light is similarly moved. "This is authenticity," she says. "We're really dialoguing now. Let's go deeper. What are we experiencing from our hearts?"
"I feel air and journey, unity and community," offers Matt, founder of American Credit Systems.
"I feel we're speaking from the heart and encircling and sharing love and community," says John, of Capilano Pacific/Wildfish.
Of course, after a strenuous day of soul-searching and sharing, conferees are also eager to unwind. For this purpose, the ICBC schedules an evening event led by Onye Onyemaechi. "By drumming, dancing, and praying, we communicate in the village, we celebrate our ancestors, and we awaken our tribal selves," the Nigerian tells the pasty-faced assemblage. Meanwhile, the crowd improvises. The piper takes up his flute; someone else clacks maracas. Ti goes skipping through the ballroom like an ebullient schoolboy, and Ardagh unbuttons his shirt to his navel, displaying a hairless chest.
Then the group stands in a circle and offers prayers.
"I pray for economic justice and for the indigenous people of this land," says one person.
"I give thanks for each breath I take, knowing that we are, each of us, a divine emanation of God," says another.
"I pray for the enlightenment of all those who work on Wall Street," says a third.
Now that would be one heck of a shift in consciousness.
Learn more about the next International Conference on Business and Consciousness on the Web (www.bizspirit.com/business).
A version of this article appeared in the May 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.