I’ve now been here in Devon for just over two months and, though I am still learning about why I’ve made this choice to offer a year of service (possibly two years) as a full time cook in a Buddhist retreat centre, it’s now become clear to me what at least one of those reasons is.
Today was a day off for me and, as is often my custom, I spent several hours of it at the local library, where I watched a couple of TED talks and continued reading a book I took out recently, both of which inspired this post, and my new insight.
The TED talk was presented by Dan Ariely, and is on the topic of inequality. Some of the figures quoted made my jaw fall wide open and stay open for longer than is normally socially acceptable (so I did close it, though I’d have liked to have left it open a little longer to truly to give expression to what I was feeling). In America, the bottom 20% have 0.1% of the total wealth (no, I have not mistakenly put a decimal point in, that’s the true figure) and the top 20% have 84% of the wealth. That basically means, of every million dollars, $1000 goes to the bottom 20% and $840,000 goes to the top 20%. Watch if you dare – and any photos of your jaws dropping wide open will be received with delight at harulaladd(at)yahoo(dot)com
This book is one I’ve read before, and one I’m getting even more from on a second reading. It’s an exploration of the nature of exchange, and a comparison between the exchange of gifts and commercial exchange, particularly in relation to the arts and creativity. One bold early statement is ‘…a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift, there is no art.’
So, one of the reasons I’m here is to reconnect with, and immerse myself in, the economy of generosity and gift exchange. For a variety of reasons I found myself outwardly immersed primarily in commercial exchange over the last couple of years, and this had begun to have a poisonous effect on my inner life. Those things I hold dear, that nourish me, and that I choose to give value and priority too (simplicity, caring, time alone free from schedules, quality time with loved ones, unconditional creativity, generosity of spirit as well as material giving, etc etc…) had no discernible value in the commercial market paradigm, and as a result my opinion of my own value was plummeting.
Being here, those very qualities I cherish are the ones I am not only given permission to prioritize, but I am actively encouraged and supported in cultivating them as fully and wholeheartedly as I can. I can excel again, because what I have to contribute is exactly what is being asked for. I can be nourished, and grow again, because what I need is exactly what I am receiving.
So what do I have to contribute? My full and dedicated service to all who live, and come on retreat here, whether that be cooking a meal that meets all the various needs of those following different diets, or helping someone who’s just that moment accidentally broken a flower vase, and is shaken and unable to clean it up herself. I give her a hug and take my time, though I’m already late for my shift in the kitchen. My feedback and insights in group discussions where, all opinions are given equal weight. My willingness to learn, and my sincere desire to grow and expand my ability to communicate with compassion and clarity.
There is no monetary value you can put on most of this, and there is nothing you could pay me, or indeed anyone, that would force me to do such things, because they require a certain quality of heart that can not be bought. Why? Because such actions are a choice, motivated by something much more profound that pounds and dollars. And so I collect the thank you notes, and I receive the smiles and the hugs. Gratitude is a natural and equal partner in this exchange.
And what do I receive? An opportunity to cultivate an outlook and way of being that will bring more genuine happiness into my life. An opportunity to step out of ‘the market’ and to see myself, others, the planet and all of nature from the perspective of complete interconnectedness and mutual interdependence. An opportunity to recalibrate my value system, and experience how much a simple act of kindness can mean to me; a smile, an offer to wash my dishes, a hug when I need one, a clear and caring reality check when I’ve gone into story and drama that is creating unnecessary fear and sadness.
And in the background of all of this is…time. Life is slower here in many ways. I’m part of a team, I don’t have to interact regularly with the fast paced-supermarket- multiple choice-full calendar life that most people are immersed in. I’m very aware of appearing over sentimental here, or of over simplifying things, but yesterday I took a long walk through fields of ewes with their lambs, and trees full of singing birds, and the simple joy of the birdsong and tender beauty of young lambs skipping filled me fit to bursting…and I get that feeling regularly, every day. How many people go days, weeks, months, dare I say years, without consciously enjoying the simple gifts all around them?
Some may see my life choice as one of sacrifice, but anything I have let go of has done nothing but make space for something of much greater value. I have experienced moments of a very pure and grounded happiness that feels rooted in something far more sustainable and real that anything money can buy. And, as with my recent post about the use of cars, this isn’t about ‘money is bad’ , money is still a part of my life, but this is about becoming rich in spirit, in joy, in the celebration of life as a gift.
I had begun to see life as something to survive, to get through. I didn’t see how I could be a success when judged on the values of the world of commercial exchange, or how I would find happiness there, but I could function in that world. Maybe that was the point. Maybe that was enough. But, if I was honest, I knew, for me anyway, it wasn’t enough.
I have found a way to contribute again, where the gifts I bring are received with such grace that the desire to give flows freely. I am receiving gifts which I value so highly, I could never repay them with a direct and comparable gift…so I pass the feeling of the gift on, in my own way, and so I become part of an exchange that is limitless, because it feeds itself, and becomes exponentially greater the more it is given away…
That’s why I’m here