18. Working for a living, or living for work?
“To love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.” – Kahlil Gibran on work.
Work to make a comfortable living that does not do harm, called by Zen practitioners Right livelihood, is encouraged under the Buddhist Eightfold Path, which constitutes guidelines for an ethical and satisfying lifestyle. It may take a fair amount of effort for employees to extract themselves from companies whose products and processes have destructive impacts. The whole arena of work carries signs of the weight of history’s struggles to claim ownership and fruits of labour. It’s an aspect of life that represents for many a complex and ambivalent investment of time, whose significance may change in interaction with the world, the given workplace and the individual. The theoretical field, of course, has perennial attraction for economists and political scientist types.
Karl Marx, for example, wrote, “The law of capitalist accumulation, metamorphosed by economists into a pretended law of nature, in reality merely states that the very nature of accumulation excludes every diminution in the degree of exploitation of labour, and every rise in the price of labour, which could seriously imperil the continual reproduction on an ever enlarging scale, of the capitalistic relation.” Thomas Piketty has merely updated his nineteenth-century predecessor’s observations in his modern best-seller, Capital In The Twenty-First Century, and made arguments for reigning in capitalist growth and alleviating the inevitable social inequality accompanying it.
Anyone who loves her/his work, as Ray Bradbury wrote, is blessed and generally passes on the blessing to those partaking of its output. It is, however, easy and understandable to feel that if work is or becomes a dead-end or worse, options are few. Making excuses to collect dole money can be soul-destroying, while rich families support their own in contracting brand makers for their start-ups and remaining as glamorously idle as they like. It’s much more difficult for some people than others to switch for a large variety of reasons, such as network contacts, transferable skills, industry size and growth, and savings/wealth.
A mantra of neo-liberal welfare states has recently insisted that you’re lucky to have a job, any job, even as profitable technologies ever advancing towards automation, with all fields targeted, create mass redundancies. The Occupy Movement tried to highlight deprivations of fair rewards and rights being imposed by selective austerity measures. Rick Jarrow, known as the anti-career guru for his contributions to the human transformation movement, teaches that vocation is meant to express unique life-force talent and not just be a way to survive. Jeff Klein, amongst a fortunately growing number of concerned leaders, recognises that many people don’t have the luxury to pull out of corporations and other labour entities, and tries to raise morale and standards in offices through his approach, Working for Good.
Even in the throes of upheaval of whatever kind while trying to keep down a resented job, conducting a life plan can gear up the unconscious mind to concentrate more on all potential actions that promise personal fulfilment. Templates with instructions, like this, are widely available. Those who write goals down while young have been found to attain greater success in getting what they want out of life, but it’s never too late. Negative thinking suppresses the immune system; reviewing with a wide scope life priorities and deciding, first on long-term objectives, then on shorter-term ones, enhances and mobilises it. The more specific they are, the more effective is their implementation. The joy work can bring is worth taking some trouble over, as the words of Gibran, again, convey:
“Work is love made visible. And if you can’t work with love, but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of the people who work with joy.”
Better still, prepare well for the job the heart desires to do, and then go make a living do it!
17. Back to the roots of life
“We are made from Mother Earth and we go back to Mother Earth”. – saying of the Native American Shenandoah.
The saying mirrors Chief Seattle’s speech, of which even the more well-known doctored version by Ted Perry for the film, Home, in 1970 is faithful to its philosophy of respect for nature that is synonymous with indigenous people. It’s also in line with the Taoist advocacy of non-interference. The first religion, medicinal methodology, and way of life rolled into one, Shamanism, was adopted universally by early human ancestors. It is still practised today by many people. It emphasises connections through communion with nature to access supernatural gifts for thriving in the world.
Treatments continue to be developed to harness the healing powers of being outdoors, such as ecotherapy. The sun-shine that encourages vitamin D production, positive ions from running water, oxygen and other benefit of fresh air, the visions of growth and diversity of ecosystems; all these and more have direct biological effects on the endocrine and other systems and thus on the mind too. Studies have shown that patients who tend living things, pets and even plants, do much better.
Nature primarily moves in cycles, such as those of day and night, the tides, the seasons, genetic migration patterns and life cycles. Psychologist Erik Erikson’s most well-known work from the 1950s traced the latter in human beings. Despite criticisms, particularly about variations from culture to culture, the idea of the life course being associated with approximately distinct experiences has become popular again in the social sciences, thanks particularly to the work of Stephen Hunt in The Life Course.
All of the arts constantly draw on nature for inspiration to present a cornucopia of riches for humankind, nudging those partaking back, like the pied-piper, to organic origins. The central tenet of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings concerns the inter-being of all things and creatures with nature and with one another, something ritualised in the unsettling but profound practice of Touching The Earth. Modern life’s pace and industrialisation can obscure health-sustaining natural influences for many people but, being biological organisms, there can be a price to pay. Those who seek out green spaces have the best chance of staying in tune with what they’re made of and remaining blessed children of the universe.
16. Conducive surrounds
Having space just to be is intrinsically associated with freedom and flourishing, as common sense and studies dictate. Without a reasonable modicum of provisions for privacy and room to move, dignity may drop to what sometimes becomes an unbearable low. Coping with restrictions also depends on outlook. Recall the oppressiveness of the great isolated house shared by Kane and his wife in the film, Citizen Kane. On the other hand, a prison cell, while not recommended, has, if anything, hastened the inner development of some of humanity’s greatest liberators and writers. Given hindsight and choice, when it comes to finding habitat contentment, most go for the happy medium.
To live in a place conducive to calmness with a tolerance for emotional truths, and kindness in processing them, supports well-being. There’s even a field of psychology devoted to the inter-relationships between human behaviour and surroundings: environmental psychology. Interest in this area has been growing with particular concern for the natural environment and the damaging human footprint on it linked to climate change. The increasing emphasis in architecture and building projects on sustainability and harmony with nature is a happy one because the results are intended to sooth the human spirit. Such trends reflect and advocate ancient Taoist attitudes: “…the wu wei principle as a guide for the way humans should act in accordance with nature. “Tao invariably takes no action, and yet there is nothing left undone.” In other words, step as lightly as possible on the earth.
Toxins in the environment, both physical and mental, can negatively affect those subjected to them, those living or working in the area. Altering the atmosphere to provide reminders to people of the positive seeds of beauty, wellness and grandeur within them is possible to some extent anywhere. What’s on the wall to look at? What sounds circulate? Is there good ventilation and enough natural light? Are surfaces clean and uncluttered? Are colours balanced and pleasing to the eye? Is there a sense of aesthetic order? is there some living green foliage in sight? This slowyourhome blog makes some simple suggestions to inspire preferred design ideas. Knowing how refreshing a routine clean and tidy-up is, just imagine the longer-term beneficial effects of a make-over! If it’s not possible and conditions get residents down, consider and begin investigating the feasibility of moving away. Until that juncture, however, be assured that small modifications can make a big difference.
15. Going for refuge
The need for security, according to Maslow’s hierarchy, is one step up from food and water in importance for survival. Having always to watch your back takes up an inordinate amount of energy and attention and places a huge burden of stress on the body’s stabilising parasympathetic nervous system. It can also interfere with thinking and subsequently, actions taken. When mental and physical integrity is compromised, accompanied by unsafe feelings and experience, behaviour may seem chaotic just when the one thing desperately desired is order. Beliefs, positive or negative, held about likely outcomes when the critical incident is over, also profoundly influence decisions. They’re a good place to start moving forward, by avoiding what shakes confidence and cultivating hope while taking practical steps concurring with this mindset. Ways for law officers to handle aggression without resorting to violence but by transforming and healing instead are explored in Thich Nhat Hanh’s little book, Keeping The Peace.
Events or people inciting fear, whether related to acts of God, armed conflict, evictions, stalking, accidents, disease, violence or unexpected losses, may strike unprovoked. The way to turn the situation round, however, is to find ways to regain control. Tapping into instinct rarely relied on otherwise can produce surprisingly sound guidance about what to do, often leading to a discovery of the resilience required to pull through. Going for refuge inside to be protected from danger is an age-old Buddhist practice and reminds practitioners that they will generally make it through easier with support from other reliable people than on their own.
This is particularly true in cases of actual or threatened domestic and criminal violence, above all for perhaps the most statistically at-risk category: young women who’ve just broken up with abusive partners. In his book, The Gift Of Fear, Gavin De Becker discloses the unfortunate reality of the prevalence of violence in society and how to spot subtle signs of danger to avoid harm. If a partner’s turning aggressive, go to parents. If parents are the torturers, go to friends. If friends torment, go to police, refugee agencies or kind strangers; even stay with benign so-called ‘cult’ communities for a while if necessary. If the state tortures, flee. Do what needs to be done when basic freedoms, even life, are under fire, and get beyond reach of pursuers.
Underneath imposed regimens of social etiquette, tune in to the promptings for self-preservation everyone is born with. Remember the sixth commandment that bans killing applies to the self too. The various arts can be very comforting to carry people through turbulent times. Even the psalms share struggles with faith and can buoy readers up in hope. It takes time and support to replace terror with ease, so make allowances.
In less ominous cases, such as burglary, temporary acting-out because of mental illness and so forth, by consulting the relevant local professionals and acquaintances, effective actions can be taken as soon as possible to prevent repetitions. Spending every waking moment terrified makes it impossible to be healthy and happy. The source of fear has to be faced and dealt with carefully but with determination. Everyone around drowns if no one’s able to reach dry land. As airport stewards instruct, affix own life-jacket first before attempting to interfere with any one else. Be safe and stay safe, please.
14. Stay afloat with a Focus on Cash-flow
Without money, in current world systems, access to goods and services is severely curtailed. The impression is often given through the media, employers, social organisations and shopping encounters that the rich count far more than the poor. No one can buy their way out of suffering, though, not the ordinary experiences of birth, sickness, old age and death, or the subtler kinds. Money is a good servant but a voracious master because once the chase for it begins, there never seems to be enough. It morphs far too quickly and routinely into interest-bearing debt, pushing many into competition, scarcity and anxiety. Charles Eisenstein reminds readers that formulas such as those popularised by The Secret, The Law Of Abundance, and similar miracle-promising texts may induce comfort and hope but fall short of addressing what is occurring in reality. Those with financial difficulties deserve a pat on the back for persisting – it’s not our fault.
Nevertheless, a minimum or basic income at least is required to get by; indeed, the grounds for a growing worldwide campaign to introduce such a regular universal payment are based on this very premise. Meanwhile, bills arrive. Food, clothes, transport, utilities, entertainment and more cost dearly. Credit cards urge splurges, but being in debt is common and can be frightening. It’s a big challenge for so many, regrettably often preventing enjoyment of the finer things in life. Vicki Robin’s brilliant programme, Your Money Or Your Life, gets in behind the influences on spending behaviour. She teaches a more supportive understanding of money and provides invaluable guidance on how to manage it for personal and public benefit. Sally Lever’s blog on sustainable living is also enlightening. The big lesson is that once conscious attention is shifted to observing everyday patterns of money-handling, control of them becomes possible. Help from others, welfare agencies, banks and so on, may still be needed for a while, but it’s within everyone’s capacity to take themselves sooner or later to a point where money is not owed and there is consistently enough and even a little or a lot left over.
In the heat of life-threatening scenarios, to be worrying about money on top of it all is tragic, and what’s worse, the stress of it suppresses the immune system. Reviewing how resources, including money, are allocated, however, is a key part of a successful recovery programme, when the environment should be optimum and whatever is essential to making it so afforded. Now or never is the time to spend or unapologetically appeal for aid from appropriate quarters. Then, resolve to study how to find balance in this area, for it brings a great deal of peace of mind.
13. Minding the self
Living is harder when there is suffering. Not only the weak but the heroes, the saviours also hurt. Many people cannot relate with empathy to others in pain until visited by personal misfortune. Buddha’s first noble truth concerns the undeniable fact of suffering in the world. To learn how to alleviate it and pass on his discoveries was his quest and achievement, as it is, and has been, of many unsung carers throughout the ages. Mirroring the golden rule found in some variation in human groups down the ages across the globe, how you do onto yourself is the foundation for doing onto others. Authentic attending to others in distress results from first practising compassion towards oneself. Other valuable results accrue too, including more motivation, overall well-being and reduced anxiety. Resources to integrate self-compassion exercises into everyday life are available at mindfulselfcompassion.org and elsewhere.
A staple of mindfulness training is the pleasant events diary. This involves becoming aware of a pleasant event as it is happening and recording observations as soon as possible afterwards about what it was, what thoughts, images, moods and emotions accompanied it, what was sensed in the body, and what it feels like writing about it. Once completed for a week, it’s advised to switch the focus to unpleasant, and then neutral, events, in respective subsequent weeks, continuing to make diary entries. Comparing notes can intrigue the new explorer of subtle factors of existence. The process is sometimes described as mindfulness of feeling and constitutes one of the canonical Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
There are many other ways to take care of the self. Prioritise tasks and divide them into segments to make them manageable – the thought of what’s involved in executing a whole programme can overwhelm less organised people. Schedule time for recreational breaks, for play and fun. Avoid perfectionism. Everyone has limits and it’s best to know and accept them. Often the strain of confrontation is not worth winning the argument and being seen to be right. Consider giving way and concentrating on what’s going well instead. At the same time, a good cry can work wonders and be incredibly cathartic, so do indulge when tears are near.
Follow health tips, resist anything but occasional self-medication that tends only to mask and prolong symptoms, and keep stress at bay. If tactics fail, share worries and concerns to gain a fresh perspective, either with trustworthy friends or family, or with a therapist. It may or may not work, an issue I’ll return to. Participate in preferred activities, which has the added bonus of alleviating loneliness, frustration and boredom and attracting other people. In tense situations, visualise scenes of tranquility and quietness. Once the state of relaxation is reached and the self is treated with kindness, there is peace in oneself and more peace in the world already.
12. Playing host and guest to self
The experience of being uprooted from conditions that previously seemed certain usually arouses fear and confusion of thought. While this dynamic is best met with compassionate acceptance at first, failing to impose order quickly can mean drifting further away from opportunities that could restore equilibrium. A transcription of a talk by beloved Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, recommends how to form the rejuvenating habit of resting in the present moment and treating it always as the most precious home, available to every body regardless of place or circumstances.
On a moment to moment basis the body is managed by the unconscious mind, which in turn is best directed by clear well-defined targets, well-formed outcomes. A little time invested in realistically assessing what’s going on, clarifying how different that is from what is wanted, identifying what’s being done that is maintaining one or both, working out which behaviours need to change to get more of the desired outcomes, and developing strategies to put these changes in motion: this process can dramatically succeed in turning chaos into resources.
Beware the lure of secondary gain: any advantages, often attention, even negative, or avoidance, that the problem is used as an excuse to maintain. Secondary gain can be uncovered by asking the question, ‘if this problem disappeared, what do I lose?’ However, misfortune can befall anyone for unknown reasons and the worst thing would be to lose heart through self-blame. Some of the literature on the secondary gain phenomenon may imply responsibility where it doesn’t rest. Despite potential faulty pointers and sensitivities raised, the thorny issue can often be solved much faster merely by exploring this concept at an early stage in the current difficult context.
Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist who’s written Hardwiring Happiness, and Just One Thing, teaches simple practices for self-training, grounded in positive psychology, brain science, and contemplative training. His work displays a lot of sympathy for suffering, and a genuine intention to help, as demonstrated by the ample material on his website and newsletter. Noticing small things deliberately for a few minutes a day is all it takes. Like any educational programme, these add up over time to produce big enough results, thereby, it’s claimed, changing how neurons in the brain, which drive individual responses, are wired. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘to love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.’ Because you’re worth it : )