Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Path to Enlightenment

*photo by author, Rochester, MN

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Gift Economy: Shifting Paradigms (Guest Post)

Photo credit: cohdra from

Today's piece is a guest repost from Janet Brent. I have been reading Janet's blog for a few years now, and have found her experiments in new ways of working and living to be vibrant and engaging. I contacted Janet about the Indiegogo campaign my girlfriend and I are currently running, and she was happy to share an article about our health care vision with her readers.

In return, I'm excited to offer you all a glimpse into an experiment Janet is doing this summer. She's operating her business as a gift economy to see what it's like to live and work in this way. Giving her skills, talents, and effort to those who need them, she opens the door for whatever gifts people receiving those services will offer in return.

This is exactly the opposite of the scarcity mentality that global capitalism drives through us at a young age, tethering our hearts and minds to an endless chase to stay afloat, or maintain what we have. The separation that Buddha and other great teachers speak to on a spiritual level is codified in our economic system, and so in order to liberate ourselves and our communities from its oppressive weight, we need to experiment, and pay attention to our minds and hearts in the process. So that we can create new ways of living and working together.

Here's Janet's current contribution to this.

I am typing this outside on the auspicious full moon on Friday the 13th. I glance in front of me as the moon slowly rises, peeking its way above the trees that are covering its full view. I have already done a release ritual that involved burning a list of things I want to ‘let go’ of and a prosperity meditation. These seemed appropriate on today’s Friday the 13th full moon. Whether you believe in it or not, creating meaning in meaninglessness is part of the magic of life, and ritual and intention give things we can’t grasp a sort of tangibleness.

Today I’d like to talk about the gift economy. Shifting the way we work and create into the new economy. A new paradigm. It’s part of the shift.

I am currently operating 100% of my business in the gift economy, and it’s a ‘scary’ leap. Even though a lot of my friend’s and mentor’s advise to reconsider, I am doing this in full force. I will give it a full three months, until the end of summer to see if it works. If not, I can consider it an experiment, and move on.
What exactly is the gift economy? What does it stand for?

Remember Napster? Remember how it changed the music industry? It’s kind of like that.

Remember how Radiohead gave their music album, In Rainbows entirely for free and empowered fans to ‘pay back/give back’ whatever price that felt good to them? It was a success.

“I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘Fuck you’ to this decaying business model.” -Thom Yorke, Radiohead

A Disruptive Business Model

The gift economy is a disruptive business model. I saw a Facebook meme once with a picture of a full on garden in the front lawn of a suburban house with the caption “Rebellion – It’s not what you think.” It’s kind of like that. Rebellion can be peaceful. It’s choosing a different way of life in spite of “normal” way of life happening all around you. It’s boldly choosing to be the change and creating the type of world you want to be a part of. Living it.

I am part of the shift. A new economy, from consumption culture to creation culture. Not all who operate in the ‘New Economy’ work in the gift, but the gift is part of the new paradigm.

I give my design services to you as a gift and in exchange, I trust that you will gift me back a fair value. This could look like a fair money exchange, a barter/trade of services, and/or bringing me word of mouth referrals.
Why work and create in the gift?

The gift economy represents a shift from consumption to contribution, transaction to trust, scarcity to abundance and isolation to community.

– Charles Eisenstein

The gift economy empowers you, a prospective client, to choose the price that feels good to you, and to give me value that makes us both feel good about the exchange.

Truthfully, I’ve been operating much on the gift economy for a long time, but never had the words to describe it. I’m open to negotiation, barter and trade, and I gift back my earnings to a non-profit.

Q: Why did you decide to work in the gift economy?
A: I’ve always been interested and intrigued with it, but never had the ‘guts’ to go all out or make it an official “thing”. Then I started paying attention to my friend, Tom Morkes’ work with a pay what you want model, and from there found out about Adrian Hoppel, a web designer/developer leading the way. It all resonated with me so much that on impulse, I decided to start using the gift economy business model as well. It’s been working with me so far, and now I’m even part of Adrian’s design/developer team! I’ve always been interested in this softer shift towards the ‘divine feminine’. Business IS changing and more and more women are choosing to work for themselves. The gift just feels good to me. I hope it will feel good to you too.

Q: Do you just not like money? How do you survive??
A: While it’s true my relationship with money has been a long path towards releasing blocks and learning how to get out of ‘poverty consciousness’, and I’m still working on mending my relationship to money so that I can create financial freedom, I absolutely LOVE money and want more of it! I have ambitious goals to become a six figure business Goddess. I just happen to think the gift economy (and the type of creators/messengers who will be attracted to it) is the right vehicle to get me there. If I’m wrong, after this three month experiment is “over”, I can always change my mind.

I live my life in a very ‘disruptive’ way from status-quo as is. I don’t pay rent, and I slow travel the world living entirely off of a suitcase. For two years, I lived in an informal dwelling (AKA slum) in Manila and only paid $50/month for a decent sized studio. Technically, I don’t have a home. It frees me up from normal payments that people have (rent, gas, cell phone, cable, etc.). Despite the travel, it actually keeps my lifestyle and expenses lower than most and I am able to bootstrap in this way, building my business and doubling my income each year (albeit, coming from humble beginnings of less than $500/month; you’ve got to start somewhere!).

Q: What if people take advantage of you and pay you peanuts, or nothing at all?
A: This is the scary part. This is why most people hesitate to take the leap, even if gift economy appeals to them. This is why most people look at me like I’m crazy, and tell me to reconsider. The thing is, gift economy, when done right, doesn’t mean “take advantage of me”. One of my current clients tells me he is a fan of the fair economy. That’s what gift economy is and should be. It’s not to take advantage of. Gift economy is a mutually agreed upon relationship. If I do not feel you will offer me a fair value for my services, I can simply choose not to work with you. The gift economy is based on trust. Trust that you will gift me a fair amount, or a fair exchange. It is entirely fair. If you want to pay me through bartered services and I feel your services don’t give me much value, I can always say no. Part of business, in general, is choosing whether a prospective client is the right fit or not. The same is true for gift economy. I’m not at the mercy of everyone’s requests. I can choose to say no.

Q: I’m nervous. How do I know what a ‘fair price’ is to even pay you? I know nothing about graphic/web design/branding services and what typical prices are.
A: This is a great question, and it gives me the challenge of educating you, as a prospective client, before agreeing to work together (or not). I will keep track of my hours, tell you how much my services are valued at (price point), and give you price analysis, from low-end to high-end, of typical going rates in the industry. I understand this may give me more initial work in the preliminary stage, but I’m willing to do this. Essentially, I’ll give you a proposal (like a ‘normal’ design business model) of all this information in a PDF, as well as an overview of what I can do for you.

Does this sound good to you?

If you’re interested in working with me through the gift economy, or just interested in having a conversation, I’m also gifting free, no strings attached, 30 minute clarity conversations to help you grow your business. Just fill out my questionnaire and I’ll get back to you with a scheduler link!

Here’s what Charlene, my most recent clarity conversation, had to say:

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me yesterday – you gave me some really valuable advice and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. Thank you again just SOOO much and I can’t wait to come back to you for my website design!

Be helpful, and give value. It works. So far, the gift economy is working for me. Maybe it will work for you!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Help Bring Dreams of a Health Care Revolution into Reality

As you may have noticed, I haven't had a ton of new content on DH this summer. I've been hard at work launching a new herbal medicine practice, leading weekly meditation classes, gardening, among other things. Now, along with my girlfriend, I have the opportunity to attend the Buddhist Peace Fellowship's National Conference, where I will co-lead a session on yoga, movement, and Right Action with Oakland based Buddhist teacher Mushim Patricia Ikeda. I'm seeking your support to make the trip out to Oakland, and also to help us launch our long term vision into the world.

Our Vision

Mary and Nathan dream of developing a community based, wellness center that operates on the principle of whole person health (body, mind, and spirit), and primarily serves individuals and communities that experience social and/or economic barriers under the current system. We aim to create an environment that in, and of itself, fosters wellbeing and healing. Our desire is to uphold traditional medicines and wisdom, while also exploring ways elements of modern, science based medicine can provide additional support. We also seek to create a model that breaks down the traditional top-down hierarchy between health care practitioners and patients, and which also utilizes the arts (writing, photography, painting, etc.) and community building (amongst patients and beyond immediate patients) as key components of healing. In addition, we see the center as a potential hub for health care activism, both in terms of advocating for needed reforms to the current mainstream health care system, as well as providing models for systemic change and transformation.

What you can do to help

Go to our campaign to learn more.

Gift a gift of any amount in support of our trip to the BPF Conference.

Share our link in your social networks, and tell them how you're inspired by the vision, and/or about your experience as a reader of Dangerous Harvests over the years.

Add us to your meditation practice, sending us and our work metta and well wishes.

Thank you all for reading DH over the years. I'm excited about the opportunities to come, and also to bring new writing to life here, and elsewhere.

*Photo is of the Nettle patch in my garden. Nettle is a common weed that also is a powerful herbal medicine. You can learn more about it here.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The #Buddhist Precept of Not Stealing in a Colonized World

I wrote this post a few years back, but it still resonates.

I have been spending a lot of time contemplating, and talking with others about, how commodified our lives have become. It seems like nearly "owned" by someone, in need of being bought or payed for by others. It's insidious, and deeply problematic in my opinion.

Yesterday, I was picking raspberries with two friends of mine, and I remarked about how I often travel the alleys in our city during the summer, picking berries from the various bushes behind garages and back yards. As I said this to them, I immediately thought about the way in which I feel sort of anxious doing this quite natural activity. By mid-July, most of these bushes are literally loaded with raspberries and blackberries. A single, healthy bush produces enough berries for a family to snack on for several weeks. The abundance is sometimes mind blowing.

The reality is that while most of these bushes are unattended to, and even completely forgotten to some extent, they constitute "private property." When I stop and pick even a few berries, often there is an anxiety accompanying this act. I frequently look around and wonder about being perceived as stealing, never mind that the bulk of the berries end up dropping to the ground and are either eaten by animals or return to the soil untouched.

In the past, I have attempted to ask permission to harvest berries, as well as a few apples from the trees in a neighbor's yard (most of which, again, fall to the ground untouched). These requests for a small bit of sharing have tended to be met with puzzlement. Who is this guy and why should I give him my fruit?

As a Buddhist, I have vowed to uphold the precept of not stealing. But in a society so colonized and commodified, to the point where even some simple counseling to support mental health has been turned into a product for sale, what is stealing?

How can the man I spoke to about those apple trees, who does next to nothing to aid the growth of the trees, and lets the lion's share of the produce go to waste, claim ownership over them? Frankly, how can anyone claim ownership over the life of a tree or a berry bush?

I can rarely afford to purchase organic fruit, especially berries. They are outrageously expensive, even in conventional, big box supermarkets. In fact, even much of the fruit that is covered in pesticides is expensive and to some degree out of reach for poor and low income folks.

However, even in many urban areas, there are an abundance of fruit trees - especially in middle and upper class neighborhoods. While poor folks struggle to pay for a small bag of pesticide-ridden oranges that were picked weeks ago in someplace far off, middle and upper class folks not only can afford to purchase the organic fruit in the stores, but also often have fresh fruit right in their backyards for part of the summer at least.

I am fortunate to have a garden behind my mother's place, where I have slowly planted a few berry bushes, including a raspberry bush that's beginning to produce fruit. Furthermore, some of my friends and are are starting to do neighborhood networking around planting community fruit trees and bushes, as well as cultivating the idea of fruit sharing from plants in private yards and gardens. All of this is in the beginning stages, and hasn't produced much "fruit" yet, but I do believe it will in the future.

And yet, I keep going back to this issue of stealing and not stealing. Something as natural a human activity as picking berries is probably considered theft by a large percentage of people in this country - and many others no doubt. It strikes me as a form of insanity, controlling access to something so basic. And I'm convinced that we will more collectively be faced with the deeper implications of this as things like water privatization impact wide swaths of the population - people used to having easy access to something which is of life and death importance.

Recently, I read a declaration written by indigenous peoples in response to the Rio+20 summit held in Brazil last week. It's a powerful document, one I find myself aligned with in so many ways. For those of us living in post-industrial nations like the U.S., it's a deep indictment of much of what we consider "normal." Odds are, a lot of American readers will simply dismiss it as utopian fluff, or "unrealistic." I can imagine plenty will find it an affront worthy of outrage. How dare these people blame me for their problems, and for the destruction of the Earth? Can't they see that we have some great solutions to the climate crisis?

Here is a selection from the document that demonstrates both the tenacity and also, in my opinion, the optimism of these people - whom I consider brothers and sisters:

We will continue to unite as Indigenous Peoples and build a strong solidarity and partnership among ourselves, local communities and non-indigenous genuine advocates of our issues. This solidarity will advance the global campaign for Indigenous Peoples rights to land, life and resources and in the achievement of our self-determination and liberation.

We will continue to challenge and resist colonialist and capitalist development models that promote the domination of nature, incessant economic growth, limitless profit-seeking resource extraction, unsustainable consumption and production and the unregulated commodities and financial markets. Humans are an integral part of the natural world and all human rights, including Indigenous Peoples’ rights, which must be respected and observed by development.

We invite all of civil society to protect and promote our rights and worldviews and respect natural law, our spiritualities and cultures and our values of reciprocity, harmony with nature, solidarity, and collectivity. Caring and sharing, among other values, are crucial in bringing about a more just, equitable and sustainable world. In this context, we call for the inclusion of culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development.

I don't know what it's going to take to right the climate ship. It's a gigantic question that we all much sit with everyday. But I do know that something seems deeply flawed about the idea that picking berries, or apples, constitutes theft. Perhaps in a very narrow, literal way it is the case. But there is something life denying about that kind of view.

No one owns the berries, nor the bushes they grow on. Just ask the birds and animals that go snacking on them when you're not looking.

*Photo is of the golden raspberry bush in my garden.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Seeking Peace

Photo credit: Penywise from

There's nothing that does not grow light
through habit and familiarity,
putting up with little cares,
I'll train myself to bear with great adversity.

I chanted these lines from Shantideva daily for about four years, and still bring up them up from time to time.

Those "little cares" that arrive in our lives have the ability to muck things up greatly, if we can't meet them as they are in the moment. The pain in your back, for example, easily can lead to tension, and then irritation, and then angry acting out of some kind. So it often goes.

Many people come to Buddhism seeking relief from all of this. Seeking something they call "peace" and "calm." But how many of us really understand what peace and calm actually are?

It's easy to mistake a kind of relaxed dullness for peace and calm. Some think things like television, video games, comfort eating or drinking, and other such commonplace activities will bring them peace and calm. Others reject such notions, and try to avoid those activities all together, thinking that a certain "purity" will bring peace and calm. Of course, neither way "works."

I had a period of the latter during my early years of Zen practice. In some ways, I think the extreme of cutting out and avoiding all together many commonplace activities was helpful. A form of renunciation needed to gain clarity. However, it wasn't true renunciation, because I was still attached to "not doing" those activities. My identity of being a Zen student seemed tied to it in some ways in fact. Not eating meat. Not watching TV. Not drinking a drop of alcohol for a period. Never playing video games and similar "distractions."

Avoidance based renunciation is useful for breaking old habits, however in the end, it becomes a cage. It also ends up being a way to stall or push away the little cares of life. You can hide out in your meditation practice. Hide out in your view that you are a "good Zen student." And you can rationalize away whatever problems that arise, blaming others or dismissing them as not existing at all.

Those who are mostly lost in comforts and dullness, and those who live in ivory Zen towers, are easily thrown off balance when adversity arises. And this is often when learning to "put up" with little cares can slowly lead one to the peace and calm that is our birthright.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Degenerate Zen

Photo credit: Ladyheart from

Having taught weekly meditation classes for over a year now, one of the repeated themes that comes up is that of the "bad meditator." It's rare that a month goes by without hearing someone say something about not being "good" at meditating, or having tried it "once," but found that their minds were really noisy, or that they couldn't sit still.

There are a lot of stories about what meditation "should" look like, and most of them are hindrances. You're not doing it right if you're mind is full of thoughts. The "goal" is to force all thoughts into silence. You have to sit in full lotus or half lotus. Meditating on chairs isn't meditation. If I can't find a perfectly quiet room to meditate in, I can't do it. The list goes on and on.

I have meditated on buses, park benches, in the middle of protests, and in public restrooms amongst other places. I also frequently chant while bicycling, and for two winters in a row, did lovingkindness meditations while walking in the skyway system in downtown St. Paul. Of course, I also do the normalized formal practice on my meditation cushion at home, at zen center, and in my classes at the yoga center.

And sometimes, I do none of the above.

One of the problems with meditation culture in general, and Soto Zen in particular, is a fixation on one practice. As if it's the only gateway to awakening. Or even the "best" one. I personally think it's an excellent gateway, but that's about as far as I'll go.

Meditation has been a good friend for most of my adult life, always ready to hang out and just be, regardless of how I am. But I have other spiritual friends, and actually, I think we all do, even if we've given in to the notion that whatever practice is the one and only for us.

The dharma name I was given is Tokugo, which translates to "Devotion to enlightenment." Not "to zazen" or "to Zen," but to awakening itself.

I sometimes wonder how the old Zen masters really lived. Not the carectures that have been handed down to us, but the actual people. I'm guessing they weren't really like what we think they were.

The Buddha predicted the eventually decay of the teachings, and lately I've been wondering if we aren't living in the degenerate age he spoke about. There's obviously high levels of social corruption and oppression present in the world today. However, the past was no where near perfect either. The main difference, as far as I can see, is that we have become more efficient as a species, globalizing many of the hells that once were localized.

When I think of all the noise and distractions in the world today, it's hard not to wonder if even issues like "the bad meditator" narrative aren't indicative of causes and conditions of a degenerate age, where the dharmas of awakening are easily overshadowed. At the same time, I'm open to the idea that Joanna Macy and others are putting forth that we are in the middle of a "Great Turning" that is transforming the way we are in the world towards a more awakened, shared experience.

Perhaps both sides of the coin are true together. Devotion seems to keep calling me in that curious direction.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Pain of Living a Bifurcated Spiritual Life

This morning I was thinking about some of the issues I wrote about in an essay published a few years back. For today's post, here's a selection from that piece.

I have practiced yoga in some beautiful, almost immaculate studio spaces over the past several years. And I’ve often felt gratitude for the care that’s put in to the upkeep of these places. The same thing can be said of Clouds in Water Zen Center, with its pristine meditation halls and gathering spaces. At the same time, however, it’s become increasingly clear to me how such practice environments reflect the ways in which so many of us are split off from the very earth we are made of. The nearly pristine floors. The rationally ordered props and altars. The air conditioning in the summer. The centralized heating in the winter. The severe lack of wildness.

Throughout most of its history, yoga has been practice either outdoors, or within the simplest of structures, designed mostly to protect people from the extremes. And whereas Zen has been long practiced in monastic buildings, monks and nuns traditionally spent much of their day outdoors, gathering materials for cooking, traversing the villages, and even meditating along the roads and in the fields. Something of the depth of wisdom is lost, or difficult to locate anyway, when the practices are cloistered off in today’s tamed environments. It’s really easy to forget, for example, that the Buddha became enlightened while sitting at the foot of a tree. Or that many of the postures we practice in yoga were directly taken from observations of animals, plants, and elements of the Earth.

Simply put, humans have become too alienated from our own planet. It’s notable that yogic practices developed around the time this alienation seemed to be forming. Buddhism came later, with Zen forming as an offshoot some 1500-1600 years ago. For all the benefits we have received from agriculture, as well as the development of cities and societies, much has also been lost. The litany of abuse people have unleashed upon the earth, especially in recent centuries, is clearly a sign of deep disconnections, so deep that for some that they might destroy the entire planet in the long term, if it meant big material profits in the short term.

Probably from the beginning, this disconnection has been tied to the oppression of women. Ecofeminist Susan Griffin suggests that we have been living in a “bifurcated system” where the natural world has been turned into something in need of “mastery and domination.” In this system, emotions, vulnerability and tenderness have become “forms of submission.” In the process, women have been socialized “to be more connected with the body than are men, for whom this connection represents a threat.” Even the very ways in which we conceptualize and relate to the Earth have been greatly distorted, and used “to justify the social construction of gender.”

Perhaps those early yogis and Buddhists intuitively felt some of this separation occurring. Maybe they were offering a way for people to re-pattern themselves amidst the unhealthy current around them. Given that yoga, and to a somewhat lesser degree Buddhism, remained primarily the domain of men of elite social status until recent centuries, however it’s obvious that some of that separation had already penetrated quite deeply.

*Photo of Thistles by author.