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Lunch with Michael Trainer, Cafe Gratitude, Los Angeles

25 May 2016

It’s hard not to feel a little inferior in the company of a man dedicated to raising awareness of dementia with a sideline in ending global poverty, but then the Peak Mind founder is not your average entrepreneur.

Michael Trainer first met the Dalai Lama at a party he was hosting for His Holiness’ 80th birthday. “I don’t even know how to describe him,” he starts. “He’s got this jovial, light presence. I was overcome. My mom – she’s a strong woman who doesn’t get easily affected – cried like a baby. We both did.” His father’s reaction was slightly different. “The Dalai Lama took my dad’s hand and blessed him. At the end of the event I said, ‘Dad, how did you feel meeting the Dalai Lama?’ And he goes, ‘I think he wanted something from me.’”

Rewind two hours; we’re at Café Gratitude in Venice Beach on a sunny April Monday. Trainer is still wearing the knit cardigan from this morning’s photo shoot. He’s personable, open and – as I will soon find out – a keen storyteller. It comes as a relief that he has no qualms about the organic plant-based self-affirming menu given it was my suggestion to meet here for lunch. Seated on the patio, we declare our affirmations – an ‘I Am… Dazzling’ Caesar salad with added ‘coconut bacon’ for me, and an ‘I Am… Mucho’ bowl of quinoa, guacamole and black beans for him – before getting started.

Trainer’s switched on. Engaged. His eye contact unwavering as he offers an overview of Peak Mind, the social action platform he created in honour of his father, who was diagnosed with dementia in 2014. “Understanding dementia is quite a new frontier,” he explains. “It’s now being considered Type 3 diabetes.” (The brain disease is characterised by the loss of memory and overall thinking skills). Wading through research, Trainer discovered that developing healthy habits – decreasing inflammation, curbing sugar and avoiding genetically modified foods – has a profound effect on preventing cognitive decline.

He cites a Harvard study that shows the positive benefits of meditation on the brain’s memory regions. And yet, he says, the incidence of this neurological disorder is expected to increase exponentially over the next several years. “Peak Mind is relevant to our generation because it onsets 30 years prior to your first symptoms and diagnosis. With diet and lifestyle, there’s a lot you can do to ensure your overall health.”

Through educational tools, inspirational content and experiences – both online and offline – his aim is to help others function at their potential. “The ways in which we cultivate the best versions of ourselves is hugely important to the type of social change I’d like to see. Meditation, nutrition and forging community are a huge part of that.” Trainer’s LinkedIn profile reveals nearly 20 years of experience in social relations. “I’ve always been interested in our shared humanity,” he reveals.

Growing up in Chicago, he was raised by Swedish parents, attended a school surrounded by children of different cultures, and spent two semesters of his junior year in Sri Lanka, where he learned the Sinhala language and Vipassana meditation. He also studied with a seventh generation Ayurvedic healer, who specialised in Bhuta Vidya (psychiatry during the Vedic period) and welcomed Trainer into the tradition as his own.

“The rituals we studied were about forging and maintaining a sense of community,” he says. “If one became unbalanced, or psychologically ill, a narrative of dancing, talking and elaborate masked dramas were performed to bring you back into balance and seen as a valuable part of the collective whole. There are many benefits to individuality but I think a lot of the problems we face today are a result of our loneliness and lack of connection to the community.”

Trainer returned to Sri Lanka on an Earth Institute grant to document the stories of those displaced by the civil war. “In that time, there were more disappearances per capita in Sri Lanka than during the Iraq War. Journalists would just disappear. I realised the power of story but ultimately had to put the kibosh on the film because I didn’t want to compromise the safety of the people I’d interviewed.” He then joined the board of Sarvodaya, a Sri Lankan grassroots development movement that helps villages with basic needs projects and infrastructure, where he again witnessed the power of collective identity reinforced through shared actions.

“That ignited my interest in international development and how we can be a catalyst with inspiration, information and action that allows others to empower themselves.” Further travels took Trainer to Cambodia where he donated time at a landmine abatement organisation. In Kenya, he volunteered alongside Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai of the Green Belt Movement, and after the earthquake hit Haiti, he travelled with Project Medishare to assist at a hospital. Trainer also co-founded Reckoning, a studio that built compelling visual narratives around social change organisations such as Charity Water, Pencils Of Promise, and Acumen Fund.

In 2011, he met Hugh Evans, CEO of the Global Poverty Project, and ultimately joined as the organisation’s inaugural national director, tasked with putting the issues of extreme poverty on the map. “The whole idea was to tell a story that, instead of being driven by guilt and shame, would empower people to be part of the greatest success story of our generation. How do we build that? It was living in that question that we decided to launch a digital platform and concert: Global Citizen and the Global Citizen Festival.”

The policy-oriented music event was scheduled to run during New York’s UN General Assembly. Driven by the actions of everyday citizens, it would call upon the world’s politicians to make multi-million dollar commitments for programmes serving the world’s poor. I mention to Trainer that I’d recently seen Hugh Evans and actor Hugh Jackman on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.

“One of the big lessons from Global Citizen was learning that big vision attracts incredible people,” says Trainer. “Hugh Jackman was an early supporter of ours – he would host dinners at his house to help rally support.” (Incidentally, Colbert co-hosted the Global Citizen Festival in 2015, and wielded his social media influence to call upon the prime minister of Norway about improving girls’ education globally. Overwhelmed by the tweets, she committed US$500 million over five years to the cause).

For the festival, Michael and his team pioneered a unique ticketing strategy based on gamification, meaning potential festival-goers had to engage with educational videos and petitions to collect points. Those who qualified were entered into a lottery, from which about 70,000 people were chosen. “The whole point of driving people online to attain points and take actions on issues was to develop a critical mass, and you can leverage that for true social impact. You can go to almost any politician with six million people constituents, concerned global citizens and activists, and they’re going to take a meeting.”

It proved successful. The first festival headlined The Foo Fighters, The Black Keys and Neil Young, and in turn drew US$1.3 billion in new commitments. Four years on, and the Central Park-based event has attracted Beyoncé, Jay Z, Stevie Wonder and Coldplay’s Chris Martin, who took over the role of creative director in 2015. Trainer received news of his father’s diagnosis just prior to the third Global Citizen Festival. Several months later, after moving to Los Angeles (he also has a place in New York), they travelled together to South Africa.

“He loves nature and history… I just wanted him to have the trip of his life.” Upon their return, Trainer would leave Global Citizen to spend more time with his father. As for next steps, he wasn’t sure. “A friend of mine recommended that I take a 30-day meditation challenge to get super clear. During that time, I did a deep dive into research and thought of how I could support my dad with his brain health in terms of dementia.”

He ended the 30th day with a plunge into the Pacific. It was November, the water was freezing, but Trainer says he emerged renewed and set on the ambitious goal of hosting a party for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. The event, centred around the transformative powers of meditation, would also launch Peak Mind. “Really to me, the Peak Mind vision is: how do we take these thought leaders that people look up to, who have built these constituencies and these multi-million person followings, and how do we compound that influence in a way that is of service both to the individual and to society?” says Michael. “How do we create educational resources for people to be the best versions of themselves and how do we create enough of those individuals to create a mass of social good?”

His five-point plan includes a potential partnership with a national web-based market purveyor of healthy food (still under negotiation as this article goes to press), an upcoming podcast with the “peak minds of our time”, and an LA-based symposium. There’s also a TEDx project in 2016, on the back of which he will launch Peak 7, a weeklong digital meditation-nutrition-empowerment challenge. His goal is to sign up one million people and raise funds for dementia research and treatment. With access to the networks of individuals and organisations he has worked with previously, like Deepak Chopra’s The Chopra Center, these figures seem attainable.

The conversation leads to the aforementioned birthday celebration. “One of the cool things the Dalai Lama spoke about was the consequence of touching one person’s life, and how that one person would touch 10 more lives, and that would ripple out, and the consequences it creates.” Trainer spent six long months coordinating the event, which only became a reality when the Dalai Lama arrived. “I wanted to make my dad proud – it’s a lot of what motivates me – and the irony was that on that day it didn’t matter.” Rather, it was Michael’s father who’d demonstrated to Michael the most profound lesson of all in that: “It’s not what you do that matters, it’s who you are.”

peakmind.org

Words: Marina Chetner / Images: Vincent Long

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