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 ..er..um… 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.

blind spot & a pilgrimage

The tricky thing about a blind spot is that we’re blind to it.  Tautology perhaps but true nevertheless.  In fact, there’s no way to actually see our own blind spot.  And – sometimes dangerously so – we need to rely on other people who have the privilege of a different vantage to point them out to us.  It occurred to me the other day that this raises all kind of questions about trust.  Not just trust in myself to believe there is a blind spot but also trust in the person I’m asking to point out my blind spot.  Goodness knows, we all have our agenda and that includes my Blind Spot Spotter.

The other thing that occurred to me is that we often ask for a sketch of the blind spot when in fact we really want confirmation that we don’t have a blind spot.

That’s what I mean about trust.  In myself and in my BSS.  No BS has to be the rule and that takes work.  It takes what William Blake calls a firm persuasion that can remove mountains.

I’ve been diving into a book by David Whyte.  If Rilke gets ladies to take off their bras, Whyte can well have us pole dancing.  But I digress.  The book, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a pilgrimage of identity, was recommended as a source of inspiration for those of us who never relent in our seeking to bring that firm persuasion into our work – life, spiritual, career.  Whyte writes:

There is no hiding from work in one form or another.  Under the great sky of our endeavors we live our lives, growing we hope, through its seasons toward some kind of greater perspective.  Any perspective is dearly won.  Maturity and energy in our work is not granted freely to human beings but must be adventured and discovered, cultivated and earned.  It is … a never-ending courageous conversation with ourselves, those with whom we work, and those whom we serve….  It is achieved through a lifelong pilgrimage.

Further on:

It is very hard to say no to work.  We may courageously resign, take a sabbatical, or retire to a simpler, more rustic existence, but then we are engaged in inner work, or working on ourselves, or just chopping wood.  Work means application, explication, expectation.  There is almost no life a human being can construct for themselves where they are not wrestling with something difficult, something that takes a modicum of work.  The only possibility seems to be the ability of human beings to choose good work.

And finally,

To view work as pilgrimage is to put our hearts’ desire to hazard, because by merely setting out, we have told ourselves that there is something bigger and better, or even smaller and better – above all, something more life giving – that awaits us in our work, and we are going to seek it.

So, we set out on that pilgrimage with firm persuasion that we have all we need and that, even if lacking in courage, our feet know exactly how to navigate the journey.  And our practice is that little dustless mirror in the corner showing us the blind spots.