career: shaken not stirred

Now that Chaplaincy study is coming to a close, people often ask how this will change what I do. Usually they mean will I be earning my money a different way.  Let’s be honest, very few people ask if or expect an answer that your training is going to lead to a career in which you likely will not get paid much or have no prospects of advancement.  I loved the section in David Whyte’s book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a pilgrimage of identity, in which he contemplates telling the world of his decision to live in alignment with his true self.

If you want to meet terrifying silence, tell the world you are going full time as a poet.  Who would give me a word of encouragement if I did?  It has never been easy to go full-time as a poet in any recorded portion of human history.  When we announce to the world that we are about to go full-time as a poet, people do not come up to us, slapping us on the back, saying, “Great career move, David,” or “I hear they are taking them on at Lockheed right now,” or “Marvelous.  I hear there’s a decent dental plan comes with the verse.” (p. 123)

I remember telling my parents I had left my job as a Chemist in the Federal Government to become a free-lance writer.  After the ear-piercing silence, they shook their heads, mystified that I would walk away from a good pension plan (health care!) for a life of… of … of what? my father demanded.  Even worse was my defensive attempt to explain that Frank had a good job as a self-employed consultant.  They could not grasp the link between how he “did” his job and how the money came in; there wasn’t a bi-weekly pay cheque.  This was crucial.  That flow from production to recompense was what made their world feel safe and secure.  Of course, their perplex mystified me equally because they had both endured losses of their treasured careers through the capriciousness of political upheavals.

I amuse myself these days having conversations with the (likely aggravated) spirit of my dear Dad.

“Well, Dad, I’ve decided to close my private practice to become a Chaplain,” I announce to his portrait on the ancestor’s altar.

“A Chaplain?  Does that have a better salary than a psychologist?”  His right eyebrow would begin a syncopating twitch. It makes the little mole on his eyelid a bouncing ball I follow to sing along with the “career catastrophe” song.

“Um.  Well.  No.  I don’t know.  I mean, I don’t know if Chaplains get paid.  Not in private practice anyway.  In hospitals, they get about $32 an hour.”

“And what do you get paid now?”  I can feel the rabbit hole opening up because he’s never understood how self-employed professionals pay themselves.  “Draw?” he would ask.  “That’s what you do with crayons!  How much is your cheque made out for each week!”

“Well, it doesn’t matter what I get now, Dad.  I’d be following my heart – you know, doing what’s important to me… for the world… to… save all beings… creations… numberless… vow…”  I’m floundering and the other ancestors on the altar are now looking very interested in how this is going to end.

He seems to be silent long enough for a few ashes to topple from the incense stick.  “Saving all beings, eh?”  He glances over at his mother who in her portrait is about to walk over to him and plead my case.  “Like a Bodhisattva.  Well, make sure you read the contract carefully before you sign it.”

I’ve never really considered that Bodhisattva-hood is a career choice.  It seems to just arise for most people I know whom I think of as compassionate beings committed to easing suffering in the world.  Perhaps they just make it all look simple.  Or perhaps it is really just that simple; choose the path.

The Heart Sutra is emphatic that seeing through the illusion of separateness and an abiding self is the step to being unhindered to be of service to the world.  Grounded in this understanding that separation and interconnection are the figure and ground of our life, we break free of the things that hinder us, that hold us back from being who we are, which cloud our vision, our dreams, our intimate truth.   “Without hindrance, the mind has no fear.”  Anger, desire, sloth (my favourite), restlessness/rumination, and doubt cannot shake or stir us from our career choice – poet, writer, Chaplain, Bodhisattvas all.   Without these blockades in our path, we enter fully into that pilgrimage of discovering who we already are.

Over the next few months, I took the time (to speak) with person after person (in the organization)….  I began to see that in an extraordinary way the conversations themselves were doing all the work.  It forced me to ask the next question: “If this kind of conversation will bring you the work you want for yourself within an organization, what kind of work do you really want to do in the wider world?  What are your elemental waters?  What courageous conversations will bring you to your poetry?”  Each of us has an equivalent core in our work, whether it is the path of the artist or the explorations of the engineer.  Even if we already possess the work of our dreams, there is a way of doing that work that will deepen and enliven it, a way that begs for a daily disciplined conversation. (p.135)

Thank you for the daily disciplined (if somewhat raucous) conversation.

a little bit karma, a whole lot dharma

Karma starts with a little face in window.  It sits there day after day, looking in.  Not longingly. That’s a projection of what I’d likely feel if I sat on the other side of bug mesh and glass.  But it’s a cat, so I feel free to project a modicum of manipulative abilities into its intention.  At the time, we had three cats in the house and had made a pact that soon we would be a feline-free zone.  Given the average lifespan of a cat, it was a pointless pact as at least two of them are likely to out live us.  We also made a pact to honour the universal truth that not only should one never feed a stray, one never names a stray.  To name a creature is not to own it but to form a relationship with it that commands responsibility.  Unfortunately, naming a cat is pretty much a non-reciprocal command of responsibility.

Pumpkin, then, became a fixture on the porch by the kitchen door.  We learned from the neighbour that she is 11 years old and has a tendency to get pregnant a lot.  But as an older cat none of her litter survived.  I think visiting us has been a bit like collecting Air Miles or some Feline Point process because she’s not only earned ear-scratching rights but also her own food bowl – which she shares with the occasional blue jay and raccoon.  And she’s socialized a little too. But kitty karma is a tricky thing.  Well-fed and topped up with love, Pumpkin thrived – which means other things can happen that were not part of the original deal.  Meet Sprout. I’m beginning to understand a fine point of the first Bodhisattva vow: Beings are numberless, I vow to save them.  True, at one level it is very much about fostering relationship in this moment, a relationship that in itself fosters transformation.  But it is also generational.  Those ten directions – in front and behind, to the left and right, above and below – are also temporal.  That moment in which a cat became Pumpkin began a karmic accelerator to this moment when a pair of eyes stared up at me, fierce and willing to take me on (I have the scar to prove it).

Steve Hagen writes in Buddhism is not what you think:

Zen is not about arriving at some end point in the future.  In fact, there is no such thing.

The future is immediate, here.  There is no way to understand or grasp what is about to happen, now or at any time + now.  There is no way to truly know what we set in motion, except that we do.  And that kitten, about a hand span of feisty fur, is the best authority on that Truth I have.