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Forward to Mindfulness and Meaningful Work: Explorations in Right Livelihood

By Ernest Callenbach

Ernest CallenbachBefore the Fall, presumably, all livelihood was right, all work meaningful. There was no exploitation among humans and no nonsustainable exploitation of nature. The Garden was fruitful, and provided everything needed for human survival. Or, to turn Christian myth into prehistorical speculation, our gatherer-hunter ancestors must have had a sense that the universe provided them with what was necessary. But to find it and know what to do with it--that must have required the same fierce, direct, mindful intensity about finding food, constructing shelter, and reproducing themselves that we may observe (if we are attentive) in the wild animals that still share our habitats.

In such circumstances, action and satisfaction were intimately connected, not re-routed through "the cash nexus" which sometimes seems to be the only thing that truly links us now. Nature does not forgive mistakes. Things had to be done right, and a vast oral culture of plant and animal lore, social history, and spiritual discipline ensured that they were. It worked; researchers now believe that for gatherer-hunter tribespeople the provision of food, shelter, and other necessities occupied (and still occupies, for those remnant tribes still with us) something like twenty hours per week. And this human pattern, we must remember, endured for hundreds of thousands of years. Our industrial epoch of punching time-clocks has only endured a few generations, and appears increasingly shaky.

We can see some hints of what "work" must have been like in the gatherer-hunter age by studying films of the Huaranis, contemporary Amazon rainforest dwellers. We notice the patient craft required to make a hunting blowgun perfect for its task of shooting monkeys in the canopy 200 feet above, the careful radial arrangement of firewood logs so that they can be inched inward to keep a cooking fire just hot enough, the ingenious arrangement whereby a dead monkey's tail is tied to its leg to provide a carrying sling for the trip home through the jungle.

Later, as anthropologist Jared Diamond has it, came the Fall--settled agriculture, which required subjugation of human life to the requirements of fixed plots of land, the perennial needs of domesticated animals, the tending of seed stores. Agriculture could feed more human mouths than gathering and hunting; that is why people ultimately came to tolerate it. But it also made possible the appropriation of surplus food by armed men, the raising of vast armies, the building of gilded temples (and universities, and jails), and in short the hierarchized, alienated age that we call Civilization. And it began the long processes of deforestation and habitat destruction, leading to mass extinction of other species, that make our species unique in its relation to the earth--and multiply our difficulties in inventing livelihoods that do not contribute to the degradation of the natural order.

We learn from Ester Boserup, a historian of early peoples, that gatherer-hunter humans resisted agricultural life with every ounce of their instinct and strength. It took many centuries before they were grudgingly broken to it. The burdens that farming laid on formerly free-ranging peoples--of miserable repetitive toil, of fixity amounting almost literally to enslavement in place, of unreliable outputs from limited food plants--first posed for human beings the basic question being wrestled with in this book: are we gaining our livelihood in the right way? And if not, what can we do about it?

There was of course another revolution after the agricultural one, and its consequences for human freedom and happiness were no less dire: the industrial revolution. In this era, so much clearer to us and more accessible to documented historical study, the surprising amount of religious holiday time allowed in the European Middle Ages was done away with, along with piety, in the name of profit; child-labor and the fourteen-hour-day were considered normal; peasants whose lives before the enclosures (which drove them off the land, into the factory cities) had at least provided the variety of tending animals, sowing and reaping, seeking firewood and game in the common woods, and enjoying village life, were now reduced to machine-tending automatons. (We recognize them as fellow victims, for instance in photos of rows of factory girls at their cloth-weaving looms, where we can only wonder at the wildness of the Huarani.) Under such circumstances, it is questionable whether any livelihood except on the fringes of society can offer much in the way of rightness. Some of us seek peace in those fringes, which can be beautiful and valid habitats; others look ahead instead, to a post-industrial, ecological age, and do what we can to hasten its coming.

Buddhism, richly represented in this book, distinguished itself at an early date by grappling with the spiritual aspects of work, and did so in a free-spirited and non-hierarchical doctrine for which I have great respect. To achieve a kind of ecological Buddhism--hints of which were outlined by E. F. Schumacher--may be the next great challenge of Buddhist thought. But, to remain with the thinkers represented in this volume, Robert Aitken notices that on the Earth "we are all eating each other," and sees in compassion--a sense of the suffering of others, including in that wonderful Buddhist phrase "all beings"--the root of wisdom. Yet I miss, in some Buddhist thinking, a biological sense of our common existence here on the planet, a species gone amok, industriously subjugating each other and what is left of nature, preparing some unimaginable ecocatastrophe in which nature--which bats last, as Stephanie Mills reminds us--will probably have to reduce our numbers and our impacts to levels that she can support.

Looking back, the industrial revolution sharply decreased the rightness of most livelihoods. The pace of environmental destruction grew enormously; human degradation on the job was almost unimaginable, especially through the monotony and ferocious pace of factory work; the enclosure and destruction of the commons removed people's sense of sharing a natural world of forest and grassland; a relentless division of labor removed all sense of meaning from the production process. Even now, when we are supposedly protected by laws, regulations, and union contracts, few other animals would put up with living as we live, confined and boxed and cabined; indeed many species, when captured and put in zoos, literally die first.

Another biological sign of our lack of right livelihoods is the characteristic and pathetic helplessness of most modern people, who cannot fix their own plumbing or even grow their own tomatoes. (Or face the moral and ecological questions in eating meat, much less kill animals themselves.) If we cannot perform such essential work to provide for ourselves, we become dependent, in a way that would be despised by any peasant or tribesperson, or by the resourceful Pennsylvania hillbillies among whom I grew up. What we call work today fits us for unbelievably narrow competences; we are good only at securing money, not at producing what we need. To provide our necessities, we must hire specialists, and then wonder why we feel that our lives are out of control. It is no wonder that so many of us feel that work is something we must do in order to afford a vacation--and that no work could possibly truly feel right.

The essays in this book offer many important insights about attitudes through which work can become an important spiritual discipline. And they often ingeniously suggest strategies by which we can arrange our individual work lives so that they are less demeaning, less damaging to ourselves and others and the environment, more productive of solid satisfactions and joys. They offer recommendations for what I once called "interstitial living"--finding small habitats where we might be happy, nestled inside the general desolation. But I want to worry a more general and underlying problem: Is it possible to imagine widely shared work patterns, not just the achievements of a lucky few, that would really be fitting for creatures like us, without "going back to the stone age"?

It is not only Buddhists, of course, who have noticed the work problem. The early French socialist Fourier charmingly thought that even the nastiest work would find takers in his egalitarian communes (children who liked to play in the muck could carry away the garbage). In the thinking of Marx and the Marxists we can sense an attempt to see how oppressive work could, like the state itself, someday dissolve away in what we might now call an automated classless society--perhaps made up of people "following their bliss" in Joseph Campbell's injunction. The poisoning of work by wages and wage relationships has been a neglected yet always recurrent theme in social thought.

If our objective is, within the perspective of an ecologically sustainable future, to recapture the interpersonal supportiveness and the directness and importance and liveliness and variety and conviviality of "primitive" work--to make work feel right again--how might we manage it? How can we satisfy the natural needs of head, hand, and heart? Perhaps, in designing and redesigning whatever jobs are really essential to attain a satisfying civilization, we can find and stick to some useful--and practical--principles.

One I would recommend is that no job should be exclusively non-manual. "Executives" have lately learned to move their fingers on keyboards without suffering status shock; it would be salutary if everybody was expected to have a certain amount of competence and responsibility for mechanical things. Buddhists have regarded manual labor (even cleaning toilets) as essential to enlightenment for a thousand years. And it is a joy to use our astounding physical capacities and do physical things well, so our jobs should make such satisfactions possible.

Another principle stems from the fact that, as Japanese companies have found, regular rotation of personnel from job to job builds a more flexible, versatile, and resilient cadre of employees--who may also be less bored and more loyal; so people should not be expected to remain in any one job slot for more than, say, a year. Humans are spontaneous, playful, irregular creatures; the discipline that nature has equipped us for is not that of maximum efficiency and profitability, but the discipline of mixed survival strategies, and it must be possible to give work variety, so that it reflects this heritage. Make the erratic and fortuitous quality of gathering and hunting behavior part of work life, not just of shopping!

Yet another principle (surely not the last) is that of shared responsibility in work. Humans can be individualistic, but we are also a species very good at teamwork, and it has a deep fascination for us. No job, therefore, should make its holder work alone for long; at the least, there should be alternations of joint and solitary activity. And in a larger sense, the ultimate in teamwork is worker-ownership of enterprises, which is spreading rapidly through the wreckage of large-corporation business. It seems to me a promising development from a human point of view, since it cuts through the pretense of management-controlled "empowerment" programs and gives owner-employees real power and responsibility. Moreover, an employee-owned and controlled company can sometimes be a little like a tribal village in itself, reducing the gulf between work and the rest of life which has such a schizoid effect on us, and reminding us that one of the chief "products" of an industrial enterprise is the quality of life that it provides for its inhabitants.

If sizable numbers of people begin to think that these principles (or something like them) ought to apply to their jobs, society will ultimately have to respond, just it has had to begin to respond, painfully and grudgingly, to our demands for gender neutral pay scales, for cigarette-smoke-free air on the job, for the reduction of job safety hazards, and so on. That will make it easier to begin making livelihoods right in the spiritual sense as well. Both kinds of concern, it seems to me, are essential if we are to make our society appropriate for the kinds of beings we are.

Copyright © 1994 by Ernest Callenbach. All rights reserved. Originally published as the Foreword to Mindfuleness and Meaningful Work (Parallax Press, 1994). Permission is hereby granted to link to this page, but not to copy or reproduce this content in any form electronic or otherwise.
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