How do you think?

IMG_0886Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society.  When you trap people in a system of debt they can’t afford the time to think.  Tuition fee increases are a disciplinary technique, and by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the disciplinarian culture.  This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy. 

-Norm Chomsky

This quote stopped me cold.  It is just as relevant years after college as it is right after, and it applies to our work and financial lives years after college.  It makes me really ponder the influence of debt, or high expenses on how we think, how we live.

I am very fortunate by birth and family background that I do not have debt and can work in nonprofit organizations.  Every day I am struck by my upside-down job (unusual by most standards) and my great fortune to hike in the Rocky Mountains and hear my own thoughts.  I know lovely people who work in the healing arts, in nonprofits, and in carpentry who look wryly at the consumer economy, whether through circumstance or choice.  Though our income is limited, there is enough to live on and room for commerce of minds, hearts, and hands.  Energized with meaning, connection, and work to be done, these folks do not worry much about money.

My own job involves working with people who are visually impaired.  I do a lot of outreach and education, helping the motivated learn assistive technologies and cane travel.  At my center I also teach yoga for people with disabilities, develop communication materials, assist the director, troubleshoot computer problems, and handle a myriad of other tasks from taking out the recycling to setting up for events.

I encounter people from all walks of life.  An Iraq-war vet from the Louisiana bayou who is psychic.  Kids who are developmentally disabled and help out in our office once a week.  University students studying human services or special education who visit or intern.  People who have had strokes or heart attacks or who deal with multiple sclerosis.  People who have experienced healing and people who have not.  Liars and saints and people changing through community.

Here again I see provision for needs, whether it be through laws, food banks, Habitat for Humanity, grants, donations, volunteer services.  Yes frustrations, limitations, and inefficiency are present, but I also see people working together in advocacy groups, wellness classes, yoga.  And I see organizations collaborating, a willingness to find help and resources for folks in need.  There is less bureaucracy, less ego, less time spent posturing than there might be in other settings.

Most importantly, I see people change.  Coming to this community, an individual becomes less reliant on doctors, medications, social services, family members.  As they learn about managing their finances or health, find ways to work even if volunteering, and take part in activities, they begin to feel better and they develop a different conception of themselves.  They make do with the resources they have, make more connection, work, play, and laugh.  Whether they struggle with a mental illness or physical disability or chronic illness, they can begin to relate to the world as Mary or as Jim, rather than patient or client.

I see parallels with this model of support in my community of healers and freelancers.  We work together on solutions or simply share ideas.  We barter, simplify, grow food, start business and meetup groups.  We find ways to get what we need and to contribute.

It is when we get taken in by debt or fear (this happens to me fairly often) or “The System” that we cannot think.  We think we cannot afford to question, or to seek out better ways of doing things, and we do not have enough time to connect with others to develop our thoughts or find encouragement for our ability to effect change.  We are not as receptive to the beauty and possibility around us.

Chomsky’s words remind me of a poem that has been circling through my mind since college.  The poem surfaces to my consciousness at odd times, stopping and refocusing me, in the way I assume that voices speak to others imparting wisdom or pointing toward a new direction.

The World Is Too Much With Us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

If we are feeling subject to a disciplinary culture, as Chomsky says, we are more concerned about obedience to an economy that some of us think is destructive.  I think we are here to live this life.  To feel our bodies, to move with joy, to engage with our hearts, to use our minds to create art, bridges, healing practices, good food, and communities.  It seems that we as humans won’t survive if the system continues as is, so we may as well take a leap and try some brand new things.

Community acupuncture makes my day

IMG_0878I recently had some sinus problems that made it difficult to function, and a friend recommended that I visit the local community acupuncture clinic.   It seemed like a good idea to me, because the cost of most acupuncture is prohibitive, especially if I need multiple treatments.  So I made an appointment at the clinic online, filled out some forms, and went on in.

I entered a nice lounge with comfortable couches and a kindly male receptionist, was soon ushered into a private room to visit with an acupuncturist.  After we talked about my ailments and concerns I went into a communal treatment room with high ceilings and a large curved window on one end.  I sat in one of six recliners, and the acupuncturist put numerous needles in me and left me for an hour to relax to the sounds of gentle new age music and water trickling down a rocky fountain. I went into a reverie, truly relaxing, falling in and out of sleep. I left feeling serene and supported by a community who wanted to help me sustain my health.

The visit was $25, and I was told the subsequent appointments would be only $15.  After the first treatment the inflamed and raw sensation in my sinuses calmed down, and by the time I had gone for three treatments, I felt relieved of headaches, sinus pressure, and a couple of other issues.  The third time I went I met the man who started the clinic, along with his wife, who does acupressure and Emotional Freedom Technique.   The owner said he is a social entrepreneur interested in integrating businesses as well as treatment modalities.  For example, he said, the clinic has a nutritionist who helps with weight loss, and when the clients run up against emotional blocks to weight loss, they see acupuncturists or his wife for additional support.

I went home and watched this video on the movement connected with community acupuncture:  Community Acupuncture Video

Watching the story of this community acupuncture movement in the US, I felt a strong longing to see it take hold in a bigger way.  I saw dedicated practitioners searching for a way to help more people, and I heard the stories of people who experienced deep healing through their treatments and through feeling part of a healing community.  I saw people working together to provide good healthcare, or really I should say, healing.  There is basically a movement afoot to provide true care to clients, and I feel we have a great need for such alternatives.

Here is a statement from the People’s Organization of Community Acupuncture (POCA):  “Our mission is to work cooperatively to increase accessibility to and availability of affordable group acupuncture treatments . . . Multi-stakeholder cooperatives recognize that producers and consumers are mutually dependent on one another, and that the health of the relationship between these groups is connected to the health of the larger community and economy.”

We need a great deal more of such an approach to healthcare and community.  Community acupuncture provides a crucial service, makes it affordable, and empowers healthcare practitioners.  It helps people take care of themselves and lead lives that are not only freer of suffering, but maybe even more fulfilled.  When we can obtain healthcare at affordable prices, see practitioners in environments that are good for both of us, feel a part of community, and know we have greater ability to affect our well being, we are more energized and engaged in general.

As healthcare gets more expensive, as I grow more reluctant to pay out-of-pocket for treatment because of my high insurance deductable and feel more stressed out by the bills, the tests, and the meds, I long for this simple and affordable care.  I am truly not against mainstream medicine, and I use it when I need it.  But I am also for this natural, preventive, healing, and empowering care.  Thank God it exists.

I love knowing my practitioner is as dedicated to health on a community and political level as I am, that she respects the body’s mysterious ability to balance and heal.  That she can perceive my current ailments through a wider lens encompassing my constitution, my overall health, my life story, and assist my healing on many levels.  I feel a great deal of gratitude, and I feel inspired to work myself in a manner that is good for my whole community, both local and beyond.

Ralph and company

The disability center where I work exists in a tight-knit community, and my job provides me an opportunity to work with various organizations.  I regularly walk to the senior center, retirement communities, the university, or the printer.   Many area restaurant managers and retailers contribute in our annual fundraiser to raise money for services to people with disabilities, and I have communicated with them at certain times of the year.  In the cross-over of efforts and sharing of referrals in this community, I’ve come to know some very good people.

Since I see folks regularly, I learn a little bit about them.  For example, I consult our printer, Ralph, on our newsletter and marketing needs and have slowly developed a relationship with him.  When I visit his business to pick up projects, he greets me personally and we chat.  By coincidence, Ralph has a disability himself–cerebral palsy.  He has overcome a lot, including an absent, alcoholic father and poverty in addition to his disability.  In spite of these things he has found his way in life and work.  A few weeks ago, Ralph told me a story that stayed with me on many levels, partly because it relates to the mission of my organization.

Ralph married a woman with three children, and her youngest happens to have cerebral palsy like her stepdad.   This youngest daughter was an infant when Ralph married her mother, and the wife’s parents chose to blame him for the granddaughter’s disability despite the fact that he wasn’t the biological father.  Though hurt and offended, Ralph stuck it out and became a devoted husband and stepfather.

Local doctors, whether through lack of knowledge or some other reason, told the couple there was nothing to be done for little Trisha and that she would never be able to walk independently.  Again Ralph ignored the pronouncement of others, and this time he stepped in where the medical system fell short.

Since there was no recommendation of therapy and few resources for the financially strapped family, he began to work with Trisha.  He held her up by her belly while she moved her arms and legs about.  He held her middle and set her hands and knees to the floor as she oriented and developed strength.  As often as he could he moved her limbs, massaged them, helped her sit and develop core muscles.  When she grew older he designed some leg braces for her and helped her to walk with their assistance.  Now she is eight, and she can walk without aids.

While my organization helps people use resources and maintain independence despite their disabilities, Ralph has accomplished a great deal on his own.  He learned the printing business and is now running his own company.  He is raising three children and doing his own brand of physical therapy with his stepdaughter.  He has used his intuition, and he has experimented.  He has been loyal to himself and his family, and he supports his community with good service.

He’s a humble fellow, without a college degree, but he’s a smart man, a man who doesn’t always accept what the doctors tell him, who believes in himself, who taps into his own resources, intuition, and ability to heal.   He is a great example of what my organization was created to foster—resilience, connection to inner and outer resources, and involvement in community.  He consulted his own wisdom and used his instincts in helping his stepdaughter, and he has tapped into some resilience and intuitive healing wisdom.

I am fortunate that my job provides an experience of old-fashioned community and the individual business-owner within it.  Ralph’s story teaches me that all of us can choose how to react to things and what perspective we take.  It also reminds me that some of our fancy higher education, medical technology, and corporate power are not of much use without the involvement of a thinking mind-body and engaged heart.  Encountering people like him shows me the value of my humble little position in disability services.  Both Ralph and I live and work in a model one would call alternative, in the best sense of the word.

Looking back to move forward

I have been reading Jacob Needleman’s book American Soul:  Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, and I’m finding it makes me think intensely, particularly about work and our current political conflicts, but for this blog I will focus on work.  Needleman, a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University, writes,

From our nation’s beginning,

“America embraced the necessity of hard work not as an evil but as an expression of self-respect and independence.  Americans have always understood the obligation to ‘pay one’s way,’ but in its origin this attitude toward life was inseparably connected to the sense that human beings were on earth to serve some purpose far greater than their own satisfaction or comfort and even greater than what is ordinarily understood as love or charity.  To be free and independent was to be worthy of a task placed upon us by God; all our functions and capacities—physical, mental, and emotional—were to be engaged.  It was understood that our life was not given to us for ourselves alone and that human beings would be granted a certain greatness only to the extent that they sought to be able to serve God and their neighbor.”

I find it almost startling to remember that early Americans thought so deeply about virtue, service, and the inner work of conscience, given our lack of thought about such things in past decades.  We truly came to focus on profit, more profit, material goods, security, and status.  At least that has been our predominant mode.

“In absorption into action and doing America entered a long adolescence at the beginning of the 19th century,” says Needleman.  He describes our motivation as being a “tangle of unnecessary desires and unstable standards of self-worth.” I see these statements in my own life:  Though I have been a bit out of step with the motivation of money and status, I have been alienated and isolated.  It has only been in more recent years that I have been facing myself and my attitudes, searching for my true gifts and how to serve society’s need.  I think others are doing the same.

I have been driven by a desire to be part of a changing paradigm for health and mental health care.  But these ideas noted by Needleman provide me with an even broader and deeper sense of work, what it means to be human, and what it means to be a member of my community, my country.  They point me toward a sense of calling, of meaning.

Needleman says ancient wisdom, and its echoes in the words of the founding fathers, point us inward to work on understanding our desires and motivations and acting from our higher selves.  To quote him again: “ . . . the ancient wisdom has always sought to free us precisely through hard work within ourselves and outside ourselves.”  That freedom allows us to engage more fully in work, community, and the building of society that allows us to live together and find fulfillment.

Our economic downturn has shown us what shaky and illusory ground we were on, and it has spurred new thought and behavior in work. While the old paradigm of achieve/buy/build status/buy more/buy bigger fades away, we are building a new one.  We inquire about the meaning of our individual work and how to respond to job loss, and some of us are propelled to create something new.  I am excited to see things like a local work coop where people do their own work but share ideas and resources, inspired to see business models and missions change to more collaborative endeavors and more green practices.

We really do have a cool opportunity to redefine our work and communal lives. We have a chance to consider what our gifts are, what calls us, and what needs we can meet in our society.

We know it is necessary to our survival on the earth to rethink vocation and work.  To consider community and sustainability and to work together to create new models of healthcare, education, and ways of doing business.  It may be that grass roots movements like Occupy, or many of us making individual and institutional changes, cause our government to pay attention and work for the common good as well.

The founding fathers were influenced by ancient wisdom as well as modern metaphysical thinking, says Needleman.  They saw virtue and inner work (or self-improvement) as foundational to the American experiment.  They perceived of government as providing protection and freedom to exercise our conscience.  Where have we been all these years?  What has meaning to us now? Were do we want to go next?  Perhaps turning inward will provide the answers we need.

Teen Teaching

I’ve been writing in my journal about teaching yoga in county drug court, trying to find a way to convey an experience close to my heart.  The task intimidates me, and yet the program was recently cut, and I feel a need to record what I can on paper.  And so I find myself in the wake of this departing boat, touching into memories, emotions, and effects.

This blog is titled “Can we bring ourselves to work,” and yet in this instance, I have to say work brought forth my self.  I sought this position out because I wanted to share the grounding that yoga provides with these kids taking drugs and confronting the justice system.  I wanted to give them a sense that they have wisdom within themselves and that they can best access it when they unwind tension, relax, and listen within.  I knew many would be angry, or simply not receptive to my mission, but I sure wanted to try.  Only now do I realize how applicable the saying “we teach what we most need to know” was for me, because teaching these kids helped me learn to convey yoga from a deeper sense of bodily awareness as well as from internal guidance.

When we first started our classes, we met in a musty old probation building, in a windowless room where we had to move about 16 tables and numerous chairs to create a practice space.  I was very nervous, and I taught a rather rigid class, walking students through sun salutations over and over to calm both myself and them.  Some criticized or resisted, some listlessly did what they were told.  The mood was mostly resigned, and kids were quick to leave when class ended.

Meeting weekly and engaging in yoga, we began to connect with each other and create a practice.  I observed some that some were still going through the motions, a distracted look on their faces, but some began to notice sensations and satisfaction in the poses so that their eyes softened and their minds and bodies quieted, perhaps deepening in connection.  Some were angry and disruptive, asking why they had to do yoga and saying it was too hard;  I had to tell them to leave and try again in the next class.  Some, before and after class, talked to me.  One complained there wasn’t enough variety.  Others told me about their journey into drug court and their reaction to being there.  Some told me that yoga relaxed them, made them feel less angry.

Over time, with support from the magistrate, parole officers, and caseworkers, I learned how to handle behavior issues.  But more importantly, I learned from the blunt feedback and questions kids asked.  Can we do some new poses?  Can we make up poses?  Can we see who can stand the longest in tree pose?  Can we try handstands?   And, once I introduced partner yoga, can we get a partner?  I learned to loosen up, to teach what I felt.  Then, most importantly of all, I felt again the raw exposure to life and death an adolescent feels (particularly around confronting family issues, experiencing anger and drugs, sometimes the death of friends), and I witnessed naked courage.  When I met the mother of a kid hooked on meth and heard of the imprisonment of the family men, I was awed at the girl’s strength to pull up and choose her own health.  To finish school and begin taking classes at the community college.  When my favorite student killed himself, I was stunned by realization of how open his heart was and how much pain he’d been in.

Ultimately, I was opened up. I learned to trust myself, and I learned to respond more fearlessly to people of varied temperament, social adjustment, and maturity.  Less threatened by criticism or resistance, I felt a deep patience for all the kids, and yet I stopped behavior that disrupted class.   I learned to be real when I couldn’t do a particular pose or made a mistake.    In the mix of emotions and conflicts, I was pulled into community as I never had before.

Within a few years we moved into a peaceful yoga studio with a large window, calming yellow and brick walls and soft multi-colored tapestries.  Students who had been in class a few months or more did not want to be disrupted, and they let the new kids know by example or words.  I had some demonstrate poses, or sometimes they would tutor each other unasked.  And in the more peaceful environment, with the benefit of years past and supportive staff, we developed a strong practice.  In the afternoon light, we practiced mindfully, delighting in the sensations and resting deeply at the end of practice.

Through the teachings of the teens and my own extraordinary yoga teacher during these years, I learned to convey openness, gentleness, playfulness, and peace. I truly did bring myself to work, and I brought the teachings of the students into that self.  I became more whole, and I hope they did too.

Hakomi homies

I have been interested in models for mental health care for many years, beginning in college where the approach was behavioral and not to my taste.  At that time I asked one professor if he could recommend some books on the history of psychology so I could learn more about where the field had come from as well as about other schools of thought within it.   Later I worked as a writer for the American Counseling Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and for Common Boundary, a magazine on transpersonal psychology.  And now I work in independent living, which is akin to the clubhouse model in mental health.  This model emphasizes connecting individuals with community and a range of practical resources to help them live the lives they wish given their disability or disorder.

Shortly before this stop on my journey, I joined an experiential training in hakomi body-centered psychotherapy.  This is a mindfulness-based approach sometimes called “assisted meditation.”  During a two-year training I traveled through new territory of emotion, psyche, and community.   With two excellent teachers and 22 brave cohorts, I left the achievement-oriented world and explored inner terrain I hadn’t known was there.

Hakomi drew me like a magnet.  As a yoga teacher and meditator interested in the emotional and spiritual effects of practice, it rang true for me as a method for freeing oneself of some reactivity, old beliefs, and behavioral patterns.  Observing the sensations of the body and the responses to statements and “experiments” in social interaction seemed a practical way to heal, to develop “new neural pathways” and to lighten up on the old ingrained ones.

The training was extraordinary but challenging for this introverted writer.  I had resisted group interaction most of my life, yet there I was, sitting in a very large circle “talking about my feelings” or someone else’s feelings. It was downright scary at times, but I was also awed.  The blend of teaching, experimenting, and sharing perceptions with others amazed me.  Where else, I wondered, would you find a group so willing to put their psyches on display and learn with others how us humans work, with all of our ingrained beliefs and perceptions and reactivity?  Where else would people be willing to let down old responses in the presence of others and make room for new ones?

Hakomi, which was created by therapist Ron Kurtz and is influenced by Buddhism, Taoism and even psychoanalysis, is a way of being with others, usually a therapist, in a mindful state, and noticing the sensations in one’s body as well as the thoughts and images that emerge.  Sometimes these things poke their heads up on their own, sometimes they arise as reactions to a statement or “experiment” designed by the therapist.  In this experience we begin to see how we are “organized” and what our core beliefs are.

The beauty in it is the principle of compassion for ourselves, the respecting of those resistances we have, and just observing them.  The gentle acceptance of the therapist allows all kinds of beliefs and reactions to arise and be “studied.”  Sometimes the noticing itself brings a shift in the belief.  In bringing mindfulness and compassion to one’s patterns, we see how they work, and we see the possibility of different conclusions and more choice in responding.

I often felt insecure and flawed sitting in a big circle and having to “share” my experience, but I learned, particularly I learned to give myself a break.  I learned from others that they all have their own patterns, that even those who seem most together have insecurities that motivate much of their behavior.  Forcing myself to talk, feeling analytical and scared, I watched myself perform, became more able to admit my discomfort to the group, and gradually to express a feeling or thought more spontaneously, with less analysis.

I loved the teaching and the one-on-one process. I gratefully soaked up words of wisdom about how we organize around our early experiences, about the dynamics and intricacies of anger.  Mostly I absorbed a capacity to be sloppy, to connect with others in the chaos and the tossing up of our fears and shames as just part of the human canvas.  To explore with others our childlike needs and how we manage them.  To dance without self-consciousness when we turned on some music and let ourselves move.

Ultimately, I came away more solid, more engaged with the world, and freer.  Being a hakomi therapist wasn’t for me, but hakomi infuses my yoga teaching, my writing, my meditation, and my interactions with others.  It changed me just like a year in a far-off land would: It pulled away my assumptions, my frame of reference, and let me experiment.  It gave me a more flexible sense of myself.  An invaluable trip, I’d say, this one with my “hakomi homies.”

Service bookkeeper style

Both my parents were in healthcare professions, and my father in particular exhorted us kids to do work that serves others.  He found much meaning in his work as a pediatric neurosurgeon, and he was a Christian as well as a community volunteer. Not only did he help people in pain; he gave to the church and community—his time, his money, his energy.

Many a night, after a day of working with children with brain tumors or spina bifida, Dad stayed up late reading C.S. Lewis, Faulkner, or Walker Percy.  He’d certainly grappled with questions of suffering, meaning, and how to live one’s days.   As the oldest child, I noticed his behavior, heard his musings, absorbed his admonitions.  My mother was a physical therapist who worked with disabled children and sometimes brought them home to give their parents a respite.  Her work too touched me by introducing me to people with congenital disorders that made it hard for them to function.

I sensed a gravity in my parents’ dedication to help, and Dad’s advice sunk in deep.  I took it seriously and tried to apply it as an adult.  Truly the work that has drawn me the most has been introverted:  writing, layout, thinking, learning, yoga.  But I studied psychology and got a master’s in psychology, and I’ve tried to become a therapist several different time.  Instead I found myself more suited to writing about mental health, and I continue to gravitate back toward editorial work and health education.

Just recently I aborted my third (and last I hope) attempt to be a therapist.  I did some freelance writing, and then I landed a job in a disability service organization.  Now I help people with spina bifida and traumatic brain injury just as my parents did.  Man, I wonder, how did I get here?  The universe really does interact with us on our path, and this example is just one more affirmation of that truth for me.  I do work with people now, but I spend more of my time doing background work:  producing a newsletter, maintaining a website, rewriting forms.   I like the background.

In a way this position lets me blend the best of both social service and communications.  And secondly, I feel it has taught me that there are many ways to serve.  We serve ourselves better by honoring our natures.  I become unhappy, burdened, and ineffectual as a “therapist,” while I am gentler and more giving as a “communications professional.”   When we honor ourselves, we can also serve our coworkers and our communities in a myriad of ways, from planning events, to keeping membership databases, to providing a clean building for people to meet in.

My coworkers have served me, and I them.  Every morning I see the bookkeeper when I first arrive.  She calls me honey and asks how I am, and a part of me basks in her kind words.  Once a week she bakes zucchini bread or some other treat to go with morning coffee.  She makes coffee for everyone, and when she is caught up with work, she comes around and asks if she can help the rest of us.  No one will offer her a Nobel prize, and yet she is providing kindness, encouragement, and help to others every day.

The managers at work have served the staff by seeking to help people to fit, to use their strengths and be happy at work.  They respect others, and there is good will and a spirit of experimentation.  When staff can be themselves, do what they are most able to, and given room to make mistakes, they thrive.

We at work have started new things like a yoga class and life-enrichment class that involves stress reduction and nutrition.  We redesigned the website.  And we’ve brought our experience and abilities forth to serve others; several of us have brought holistic perspectives into our daily living skills training.  Managers have redesigned positions for someone whose disability or personality make it necessary.  In this setting and in others, I’ve found that honoring ourselves and others is the most basic kind of service.

As for me, my experience in this disability organization has brought me full circle.  I am in the “family business” and yet I am able to serve myself by using my strengths, by honoring my temperament, and by being present in my interactions, alive to the moment, at least some of the time.  Instead of entering into and entraining in a profession that did not suit me, I am growing into my abilities and learning to leave my “baggage” behind when encountering others.

On my own time, I can be found hiking with my partner, writing, meditating, or practicing yoga.  These more solitary pursuits suit me well and provide fuel for the social interaction at work. Just like the bookkeeper, I serve from within my own niche; my chosen lifestyle and profession: I don’t need to become a social worker.   Thank you, Dad, for your direction; I have taken it and made it my own.

Menagerie of misfits

“Welcome to the menagerie of misfits.”  I paused.  Whoa.  After 10 months of unemployment I had landed a 30-hour a week job in an unfamiliar field, town, and environment.  Three months in, my coworker said this odd thing to me.  Feeling like a misfit throughout my life, I felt strange hearing her say this; it felt like a welcoming, but I also felt alert, as though I had entered dangerous territory.  Had I landed on another planet?  Who were these other misfits?  What did it all mean?

My worklife has been nothing if not a wild ride.  From youth counselor to journalist, from bookstore clerk, freelance writer, to yoga teacher, I have tested myself, discovered some truths about work and life, and contributed something from within.  But after those 10 months feeling like I was in a cave (with wonderful explorations into yoga, Feldenkrais, stream-of-consciousness writing, and barefoot running), I was offered this job as a program coordinator at an independent living center.  The model of independent living comes from the civil rights movement and was started in the 1970s in Berkeley, California.

Me?  I had not even heard of such an organization.  I always craved freedom and flexibility, and here they were in abundance.  I had never done anything like my job (working with the visually impaired, conducting seminars, doing educational presentations).  The reason I was drawn to the job was that it involved health education and an opportunity to test out more of a community and peer support model for folks with mental and physical “disabilities.”

It was a hard adjustment:  I had followed my own rhythms for many years, and particularly in the previous months.  I’d explored holistic medicine, earned a scholarship to study at the Center for Mind-Body Medicine, learned about yoga for disability and for illness.  Going into the “real world,” an office job, was uncomfortable, to say the least.  And yet dress was casual, and I set my own hours, leaving time for yoga and writing.   Most of my coworkers were cool, idiosyncratic characters, from the musicians who hear a different drummer, to a writer Vista worker, an energy healer and multi-cultural chef, a 70-year-old woman who challenges existing thinking about aging with animated conversation everywhere she goes.

Even given these appealing elements, the environment was a stretch for me.  There were more people to encounter, with many needs, and not as many boundaries as I was used to.  The position called for more public exposure.  I felt terribly uncomfortable, given that I am used to introverted work.  Working with people was hard, organizing seminars was a strain.  I felt as if once again I did not fit.  At the same time, I learned that others came into their jobs there after breakdowns of various sorts, and this concept of “disability” really did fit us all, at least at some time in our lives when we were too broken down physically or emotionally, at a crossroads, or simply shy or socially maladapted.

The beauty in the environment kept surfacing:  Now I observe that people, whether staff members or clients, are accepted at face value, offered a place in a community, a helping hand, or just information. With a little support, a bit of community, and respect, you can fashion a new life for yourself.   You find your way to work, to contribute.  Energy is not wasted on feeling insecure or left out.  For me, having a shitzu puppy around to greet me in the mornings, laughing with others, trying new tasks and behaviors, and learning the stories of my coworkers with severe disabilities, opened me up.  The environment was flexible and gentle enough that I could test out new duties and capacities like speaking in public and leading support groups.  I could feel into the spiritual journey and task of opening, participating, loving.

When it comes down to it, you could say the organization itself is a misfit.  It isn’t part of the medical or mental health model.   The staff and board must consist of at least 51 percent people with disabilities, and the idea is that all work together to promote disability rights and individual ability to live as one likes.  People I meet with quadraplegia and cerebral palsy and spina bifida have taught me we can be healthy even under trying physical circumstances.  The model is flexible and adaptable to communities and individuals:  Together people find what works, without prescription or hierarchical processes.

After  working in such an environment, I do not feel like a misfit there or anywhere.  I have enjoyed the weird and wonderful world of this quirky Colorado town, this organizational model, the coworkers and clientele.  I have found a way to serve and be involved in community.  There is so much respect in this environment for all of us and our quirks, a bent from management to make the environment work for employees as well as clientele, that issues of misfit and abnormal” are irrelevant.  Now that is something to ponder.

Into the gentler day

My last post, on job fit and values, was a warm-up for this one on becoming part of a gentler workforce.  I believe that respecting ourselves and finding alignment with our work runs hand in hand with a more sustainable economy.   This process works two ways really;  If I enter a gentler work environment in which I am respected, I may not be as driven by material desire, frustration, or the need to escape.  I may be more satisfied and nurturing to myself and others, and thereby spend money differently, perhaps on healthy food or hiking shoes.  On the other hand, if I decide that I will find work that suits me and uses my abilities, I have also decided to bring my better self to work:  I have asked life to meet me in a gentler way.  Money is not my main motivation, and really, I am making a stand for a different kind of paradigm.  I have said,” I want a job that is good to me and good to the earth.

I want to write about a conception of work that involves alignment with our abilities and inclinations, yes, but also one that is aligned with the values of sustainability and community.  One that is gentle to the earth and kind to its inhabitants.  Sounds like a good idea yes?, but it is a radical idea.

The current state of the economy actually gives us a bit of permission, or freedom, to reexamine our approach as a society and as individuals.  It is a scary but exciting opportunity.  Many of us feel at odds with our jobs, or we slog through them for the paycheck, anxious to get to the weekend.  Some of us sensitive souls feel uncomfortable with the structure and formality of the workplace, let alone aggressive goals to sell more or to create products that do little more than cause money to move about and that will soon wind up in landfills.  We are distracted from the state of our bodies or our planet.

I want to question this approach of creating unnecessary or destructive products.  (I am schooled enough to discuss those bizarre subprime mortgages or other financial products, but those are excellent examples).  Why can’t we change the model itself and the institutions within it?  Instead of schooling young people in marketing and branding and manipulating children, why can’t education cover sustainable business and social media that promotes it?  Why aren’t there more ethics classes or more interdisciplinary courses of study?  Why can’t the study of medicine include learning about environmental causes of disease and prevention of disease?  Two of my heroes, environmentalist David Orr, and writer Wendell Berry, discuss these issues in depth.

I wonder why we don’t counsel individuals on listening to their hearts, to what draws them?  On the needs of their society and considering which speak to them?  We are too focused on money and security, and neither of those two things are looking stable these days.

In years past, these questions might have sounded a little polyannish, but today they don’t.  Our ways of doing things are not sustainable for the earth, for its creatures.  They are not sustainable for people working or for families.  If I go to a job I don’t believe in and feel bad all day, my health will eventually deterioriate, as will my relationships. If I have to marginalize my family life too much, I’ll lose perspective on what is important, on my true personal values.  Maybe I’ll never have time to remember what my own values are.  Values of gentleness, heart-felt work and connection, of sustainability, may seem silly, unrealistic, impossible.  And yet I have experienced working in jobs I valued, for causes I believe in, and I have experienced nurturing workplaces in which people cared about one another.  In those organizations we recycled, and we work with other organizations to serve our community.  Such work environments exist.

I have read of or known individuals with thriving businesses in massage, hakomi, acupuncture, community supported agriculture.  They are real, and they are flourishing.  There is a demand for them, and their customers feel encouraged by their existence.  These professions support the economy and community in a positive, nurturing way.  I am working for the creation of this new model, looking for ways to live it and to encourage others to find work that suits them (even if they take a cut in pay), and to engage in dialogue and experimentation in business and in policy making.  The time has come.

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