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.

My lack of ambition



a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work : her ambition was to become a model | he achieved his ambition of making a fortune.

• desire and determination to achieve success : life offered few opportunities for young people with ambition.

ORIGIN Middle English : via Old French from Latin ambitio(n-), from ambire ‘go around (canvassing for votes).’ 

What is ambition?  Last week, my friend said she was struck that my partner and I accept each other’s seeming lack of ambition.  What does she mean?  Should I be offended?  My friend comes from a very accomplished family and has siblings and friends who have high status jobs and high salaries, its true, but I assumed she was commenting more on our acceptance of each other and our humble material status (I’ll have to clarify with her for sure).

Her comment elicited some interesting thought on my part.  Ambition . . . I think my partner and I have different organizing structures than much of society.  In a way we are dedicated to a lifestyle and to values of simplicity.  To gentle vocation . . . He is a carpenter who likes to build things, fish, mountain bike, and hike.  He is devotedd to me, to his children, and to his parents.  I am committed to a mission, in a sense, to help individuals and communities be healthier in mind and body.   Money therefore, is not the main motivator for either member of this couple.

So no, we do not have big, high-paying jobs.  We aspire to earn more money, but we’d like to do so by doing what we do better.   In the meantime we are happy.  We enjoy our relationship and lifestyle immensely, and we love living near the Rocky Mountains.  We have good family relations, good friends, good food, and time for books and building fly rods and writing.  We spend as much time as we can outdoors, and we consider ourselves richly blessed.

If ambition in our society connotes success, than I want to ask what success entails.  I identify with passion, with the development of excellence, with innovation, and with developing work, art, or vocation with enthusiasm and integrity.  Ambition can easily become merged with destructive ends, or it can be clouded by insecurity or the undue influence of others.  Consider the instance of the woman who becomes a doctor because her parents want her to while she wants to be an English professor.

So I don’t really identify with the concept of ambition.  Do I have drive?  Yes, I feel an enduring and deep motivation to investigate what it means to be healthy in mind and body, to live from spirit and humble inquiry into what spirit means.  Do I work hard and persist?  I think I do:  I work hard to integrate yoga into healthcare, and I challenge myself to work with others, learn from others, about what they need to be healthy, what helps and hinders.  I explore models of health and mental healthcare.  I keep writing and stirring up conversation on the issue.

I do relate to ambition more in the original roots of the concept, “to go around [canvassing for votes].”  I travel about, looking for like minded people, listening to people struggling with illness and pain, investigating organizations that were set up to help but may or may not be.  I read history and Eastern philosophy and explore various healing arts to learn more about where we came from, about our imbalanced institutions and professions and what might be missing.  I work in different institutions to learn when I am too idealistic and to compare notes with others.

What a different meaning the word ambition had originally.  The current meaning is one I relate to in this sense that I have of drive, but I am wary of how distorted, or corrupt it can become.  My driving question is, How do I live this one life that I have?  What do my head and heart say?  How does my body want to engage?  What makes me a better person, more present?

I want to be present, internally motivated, a healing presence.  I love this life.  I want children to grow up being honored and feeling free to follow their passions and to align those passions with their ambition rather than living a distorted or destructive sense of the term.  I want to enjoy my connection to the earth and to my loved ones.  I want to create and share.

You see, my friend’s comment made me think of lifestyle and motivation, but it also lead me to the idea of archetypes.  My partner is an artisan, and I also see him as a “husband” in the old sense of the word:  a master of the home who can construct the hearth, build the fire, feed his family, cultivate a garden, fish the streams and care for the earth.  What does a man like him do with ambition and pressure to succeed in the material world defined by the current version of Western civilization?  From my perspective, he is a companion, in the archetypal and practical sense.   Me?  Perhaps I am a rebel, visionary, or storyteller:  I am a person seeking to bring deeper wisdom to our society and our healthcare system.

It seems to me that once you touch into these archetypal energies, once you think of a life unfolding, ambition can show itself to be misguided energy.  For me the intrinsic motivation is the gem of a life, something more like the idea of the “daemon,” or forces of nature, or the gods themselves guiding us strongly and surely and shaping our outer life.  A deep and driving force inside us, something ambition, fear, and conformity can stifle.

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.

Free for all

My current work environment is a “free for all.” Employees are free to create their own job, free to use their colleagues as they like (given they assent), free to set their hours and to choose how to use them, free to take a break when they need to. Dress code is casual, and yoga is offered. We even have a dog on staff (soon I’m going to add this cat).
No, it isn’t a top-ten innovative company filled with the best and the brightest; it’s an organization serving people with disabilities, and many of us employees have disabilities. The boss is simply laid back—caring, good at fundraising, and inclined to let us manage ourselves.
Now there are drawbacks as well as advantages to all this freedom: For one thing, I’ve had a hell of a time figuring out how to do my job and whether I like it. On the other hand, I’ve been able to do more of the things I like, such as writing a newsletter and creating a website, and I can minimize time spent on things I am not inclined to do, like casework or organizing social events. At one point I had to clarify my position with myself, the boss, and the staff: Since then I’ve felt more aligned and energized.
Given all this freedom, there is a temptation to take advantage. To slack, or to attempt to manipulate others, or to define their jobs for them. There could be a blaming of our own disabilities for falling short on a project or not doing something.
Yet, in all this wonderful chaos, there is regard for individuals, and there is laughter, and there is room for creating a support group or website or even a new conversation on health outside of the medical model. In that sense, it is a highly evolved work environment. In another sense, there is dysfunction that slides under the onus of disability rights. Everything and everyone has its dark side.
My point is: Out of chaos can come amazing things. I have learned to exercise new muscles in communication and in technology. I have gained much validation too, of my introverted nature and need to retreat and work on the website. I have learned how to serve in a way that suits me—not out of guilt and pushing myself, but in finding the tasks I can do well and helping willingly. By spending time listening to people’s stories instead of trying to fix problems, by standing up for myself when people ask too much, or ask for inappropriate things, or ask for things I cannot give without exhaustion and resentment. To give what I can and give it well.
The environment is wide open, the positions freely defined, and most importantly, the lessons really are free for all.

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