Discovering Dharma, Part One
Let’s start with a statement of fact: I recently lost the only real job I’ve ever had.
Another fact: I’m not that upset about it.
Until March of last year I’ve always been self employed, or worked on contract. Landing a job at Royal Roads University as a Senior Development Officer for Sustainability with the school’s Foundation was the first time I’ve ever had a position with an org that had a payroll department, benefits, and an office with chairs that worked and a desk that wasn’t a kitchen table or a door in a previous life.
My professional trajectory has been a little less structured than the career path of my father’s or grandfather’s generation. I’ve had a paper route, mowed lawns, baby sat, worked as a Shift Manger at McDonalds (best leadership training program I had up until well into my time as an Executive Director), a hardware store clerk, and a camera store stock boy; I spent eight months helping to renovate a century old farm house, been a darkroom manager, a teaching assistant at my collage, a consultant to my collage on environmental issues; worked as a park naturalist in Ontario, in Banff National Park, and as a volunteer at Grand Canyon National Park, as a news paper columnist, a freelance writer and a novelist, been a professional pain-in-the-ass environmentalist and semi-registered federal lobbyist, an Executive Director of a small, punch-above-our-weight-class national environmental organization, and most recently the chief cook and bottle washer of my own strategy and communications consulting gig called Highwater Mark Strategy and Communications.
There have been moments in each of these diverse endeavours that I would characterize as enjoyable, even exceptional. Being paid to lead guided hikes into the Plain of Six Glaciers valley above Lake Louise or along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon was a pretty amazing way to pay the rent. My work with groups like the Alberta Wilderness Association, UTSB Research and Wildcanada.net made it possible for me to earn a(n often meagre) living defending the wild lands and wild creatures I love.
But as I’ve opined elsewhere, it is writing that allows me to feel the perfect connection between myself and all the rest of the universe in a way I can only describe as blissful.
But my writing has yet to pick up the cheque. And so I’m also searching for “bliss-light” in my work to make sure I can put food on the table and buy the boys the occasional ice-cream cone. Consulting fit that bill.
One of my clients through my work with Highwater was the Royal Roads University Foundation. They asked me to help create a “strategic narrative” for The Bateman Centre for Art and Environmental Education. At the time (nearly 3 years ago now) Mr. Bateman and his wife Birgit had just agreed to donate $10.7 million in art, archival material and cash to the University as seed funding to create and Centre, and spearhead the Universities more ambitious plans for a sustainable campus.
Working with the Foundation team to create a thinly veiled Strategic Plan for the Centre (we couldn’t call it that due to University politics) was very rewarding. At a time when the whole world seemed on the verge of implosion, we were imaging a place where art, nature and community would come together to inspire people to solve some of the planets most pressing problems. I loved the people involved, and was really excited about the project.
About six months after finishing the contract, someone forwarded me a job posting for a fundraising position with the Foundation. The job was directly tied to the creation of the Bateman Centre, and was to be focused on working with green businesses, foundations and major donors who were motivated by environmental causes.
When I was the Executive Director of Wildcanada.net I spent about half of my time looking for money. I didn’t really enjoy it. There were times when I hated it. It was intensely stressful work. I had half a dozen people counting on my success for their pay packs. At times we had less than a month’s worth of cash in the bank; those were the nights I didn’t sleep. When I left Wildcanada.net in 2005 I was deeply relieved not to be fundraising anymore. I swore I’d never do it again.
That same year I wrote a book called Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership (Arsenal, 2006). In it, I dedicated a chapter to what I tongue-in-cheek called “Hot Taoist Tips for Fundraising ,” and then proceeded to state that there were no hot Taoist tips, and half-jokingly suggested readers might look elsewhere for advise.
For me, the best counsel that the Tao had for fundraising was that our anxiety about money, and the tension it creates within us, within our organizations and within the various social justice and environmental movements is a significant barrier to our overall success. As people constantly facing the ruin of things we loved – be it wilderness or justice or freedom – we had developed a scarcity lens through which we viewed the world. Time was scarce; that which we advocated for was obviously growing increasingly scarce; money was scarce.
Shifting our frame of mind to see the world as abundant; advocating with love and compassion rather than fear and anger; these were the couplets that would allow us to create a new paradigm for our efforts.
I think by the end of that chapter, and the penning of that book, I had convinced myself that raising money wasn’t so bad after all.
Around the same time I had started delving more deeply into the ancient Vedic practices of India, as taught by Deepak Chopra, and saw that attracting things like affluence and wealth needn’t be anxiety ridden: that indeed our anxiety keeps true success, whether it is material or spiritual, at bay.
I also learned that finding and following one’s Dharma, or purpose in life, is the secret to lasting fulfillment. When we are living our Dharma in our daily lives, the universe naturally responds by providing us with limitless opportunity.
All of that to say that when I went to the Royal Roads University Foundation office to discuss the position with my friends there, I was ready to step back into a position where supplication – to ask for humbly – would be a key component of the job. I choose to regard raising money as a means to a worthy end: the creation of the Bateman Centre; and as a tool to make the world a better place by involving those donors in the behavioural change work that we might one day undertake on campus. Money after all, I reasoned, was merely a representation of the energy that is constantly in circulation between us as people.
The job came with an attractive salary, which was a bonus, and meant that I wouldn’t have to scramble from time to time to recruit new clients to Highwater Mark. I worked 3 or 4 days at week for RRU, and was able to maintain my consulting practice on the side, working with groups like BC Hydro, The Ministry of Labour and Citizen Services and Communicopia on the side. It seemed pretty ideal.
From the start I recognized the change taking a J-O-B would create: I couldn’t sit around in my jammies all day anymore. Ok, I never really did, but working for a respectable organization, and meeting with respectable people, meant I had to dress respectably. I became suit and tied.
While it was agreed that I could work from home a day a week, I also became a commuter, driving out to the RRU campus two or three days each week. By rights it should only be a twenty-five minute trip, but most days I would drop Jenn off at her office, then Silas and Rio at their respective care facilities, and then finally make my way out to campus. This usually took at hour or more, and then I’d do it all in reverse at the end of the day.
There were many days when Jenn and I would find ourselves rushing out the door, matching computer bags in hand, hurrying the kids along, her in a skirt and pantyhose and me in slacks and a tie. My wife would then apply her “war paint” looking in the mirror; I would try not to brake too hard when she was applying eye liner.
Sometimes we’d laugh at how ridiculous it was. Sometimes we’d cry.
The work itself was promising. The Foundation had a great team, made even stronger as we weathered a first round of global-meltdown-induced budgetary cuts last Christmas. But challenging economic conditions, and rather extraordinary internal hurdles lead to a second round of cuts just a few weeks ago, which my position did not survive.
I think I saw it coming. I frequently joke that I’ve never had a job so good that I couldn’t quit or get fired from it. When I was asked to meet with my boss on the morning the anticipated cuts were to be announced, it dawned on me (five minutes before the meeting; sometimes I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed) that my head was on the block.
Not so much my head, in particular, but the position it filed.
I’m going to miss three things about Royal Roads and the effort to fund the Bateman Centre.
Working with Bob and Birgit Bateman became a highlight, and I’m going to miss working to fulfill a dream that they have had for many years. Bob is a charming, engaging and compelling story-teller: ever the teacher, I could listen to him talk about art, photography, travel and nature all day. Birgit is warm and inviting and lovely. It makes me sad that I won’t be a part of the fulfillment of that dream; at least not as I originally imaged.
I’m going to miss the Royal Roads campus. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful place. From the shallow salt water lagoon outside my office door to the lush cedar forests along Colwood Creek; from the manicured Italian and Japanese gardens to the stalwart groves of Douglas Fir’s that number among the largest left on Vancouver Island: the campus is a powerful natural convergence of diverse ecosystems. Nearly every day I was on campus I ran the myriad trails that wove like serpents across the property’s varied landscapes; trails that ten thousand years of Coast Salish peoples likely once trod, and that were followed more recently by sweating officer cadets when Royal Roads was a military collage.
Maybe most importantly, I’m going to miss the RRU Foundation Team. It’s one of the best teams I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. I’ve joked that I could take this group of people and plunk them down in nearly any business or non-profit and we’d be wildly successful.
And in different times, maybe we’d have been wildly successful raising money for the Bateman Centre. Our campaign – built from absolutely nothing to one with hundreds of prospects – was hitting its stride just as the financial systems were collapsing. The challenge isn’t over yet for those few who remain. It is a difficult task they face, and one that will take much longer now to fulfill its vibrant dream.
My view of fundraising has changed through this experience. Despite the turn of events that leaves me watching from the outside again, I believe now more than ever that the best course for attracting wealth and prosperity and success is to believe whole-heartedly in what you are advocating for, and know that the universe will conspire to make it possible.
From the outset of these postings, I’ve been searching for bliss: in work, with my family, and through my loving relationships. Most of us spend forty five or fifty years of our too short lives working. If we can’t find and follow our bliss on the job, as Joseph Campbell advises, then when?
At times my work at Royal Roads was deeply satisfying. Serving Robert Bateman and his vision certainly was, as was my connection with so many amazing, creative and inspiration people. But it wasn’t blissful. Not everything we do can be, I suppose. And while my work there was important, it didn’t provide the experience of connectivity that I have sometimes experienced while writing. It wasn’t my Dharma.
In the end, I wasn’t disappointed that the experience came to an end. I would go back to serve the Foundation, that team, and the Bateman’s in a heart beat if asked, but life is short, and I’ve got so much that I hope to create and accomplish that I’m not going to waste a moment wishing for what isn’t so.
And I believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that losing my job is simply another sign that I am on the verge of finding exactly what I am searching for from my life; of discovering my Dharma.
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