Interviewsand Articles


Karma Kitchen, A Taste of the New Counter-Culture: Richard Whittaker

by Richard Whittaker, Sep 8, 2011



It was my first time at Karma Kitchen's new place, A Taste of the Himalayas, in Berkeley. I was ready for the upbeat atmosphere, the heady energy set free by a group of strangers experiencing a small holiday from business as usual. The holiday comes thanks to an unusual inversion. The key moment comes after all the courses have been served, after seconds even, after the smiles, the good cheer and all the attentiveness of the waiters. That's when the bill is presented-amount due $0.00. There's a note with this bill: your meal has been paid for by someone who came before you. We invite you to pay it forward in any way you wish.
     Well, it's an interesting moment. Those thinking "at last, a free lunch!" are free see it that way, and even come back and score again. But a funny thing tends to happen. The blue sky of a big zero in place of dollars-owed works on a person; the empty pleasure of getting something for nothing starts to have an odd, disarranging effect and, after awhile, that same person will come back asking, how can I be part of this?
     A free lunch is nothing compared to that other thing which is set in motion with the appearance of a new currency of exchange. And what happens when dollars are no longer calling the shots? In that improbable space, gratitude, the inclination to relate, to say hello, to test out the sudden impulse of trust is set in motion. It can work that way.  
     So a few Sundays ago, when I stepped through the door, I was prepared for the upbeat energy. But there was also the slight uneasiness of the unknown, because a visit to Karma Kitchen is always a visit to the unknown. There's risk involved. One never knows what to expect other than that something unexpected is bound to happen. Under the influence of dollar-inversion, the usual boundaries between strangers weakens and gives way without warning.
     What I remember most from my first visit to the place was the atmosphere, the good cheer that spilled out onto the sidewalk, even. And I remember the man who waited on our table. What makes a good waiter? We all know when we're in the presence of one. And that was the case. After his third visit to our table I could not help wondering, who is this man? It was a subtle thing, but each time we had an interaction, the impression grew stronger--of someone with a quiet substance hard to find words for. No doubt the fact that he was African American added another layer. Before leaving, I had to ask my Karma Kitchen friend, "Who was that man?"
     "Oh, he's a CEO of a software firm in Silicon Valley," was his answer. "He's one of our volunteers."
A Revolutionary Story
On my second visit to Karma Kitchen the stranger who sat down directly across from me introduced herself with some restraint, "I'm Susan Schaller." Not an extrovert, I could see. We made our way along, two people testing the waters of cautious exchange. I was not alone at the table. That's typical at Karma Kitchen. The others soon joined in and, as we warmed up, the four of us touched on a variety of subjects. I couldn't help being aware of our new acquaintance's intelligence. She worked with the deaf, we learned.
     It wasn't long before we were talking about language. What role does language play in our development? Can you imagine what the beginning of language must have been like? There are so many profoundly interesting questions about language, and as I became self-conscious about my lack of reading in linguistics, I found myself apologizing for the sketchiness of my knowledge. "I'm not an academic," I said. 
     That opened another topic. Schaller had wrestled with the challenges familiar to all who have headed down the path of graduate school and PhD programs. "But fortunately," she added, "I decided to go my own way, outside of the academy."
     Then she mentioned that she'd written a book [A Man Without Words, University of California Press, 1995] It had a forward by Oliver Sacks. Wow! She explained that if she'd succeeded in getting into a graduate program, it's likely she would never have been able to do the impossible thing that is the subject of her book. She was free of the oddly constricting role that "knowing things" can often play. In her field, Susan would have learned that if the cognitive groundwork for acquiring language is not laid down in childhood, or by eleven or twelve at the very latest, then language can never be acquired.
     As I sat and listened, I suddenly began to wonder--is it possible I'm sitting across the table from someone with something really profound to say?  

Learning on One's Own
     This all brought up the memory of some things I'd heard Ivan Illich talk about when he was in Oakland eight years earlier. Illich had strong views on the importance of independent scholarship. He lamented the lack of respect in our culture for those who take the path of learning on their own. And here was an independent scholar sitting across from me. Not only that, but perhaps someone extraordinary.
     In response to my growing interest, Susan told a little story. "I was standing in line at a restaurant in Berkeley when a well-known linguist walked in and stood behind me. I recognized him." She struck up a conversation because she wanted to tell him something remarkable. She wanted to tell him what she had accomplished. "I've been working with an adult deaf man who had never learned language as a child. He was twenty-seven when I met him. And working with him, he was finally able to acquired language."
     "That's impossible!" the expert pronounced curtly.  
     And as soon as he got his food he sat as far away from her as he could get, "all the way over on the other side of the restaurant!" So it was a blessing, she thought, that she didn't find her way into a PhD program.
     Now universities invite Schaller to come and talk about her work with the deaf man, Ildefonso, who had no language. And yet, her work remains little known in spite of its revolutionary nature. It's actually difficult to grasp what not having language means. But once you grasp it, it's kind of mind-blowing. As she writes, "I wanted to share this inspiration and to explore--with anthropologists, sociologists, educators and linguists--other stories and studies involving adult language acquisition." And she tried.
     As she writes, "My next surprise came in the form of blank stares and huge gaps in bibliographies and empty bookshelves." There's just no material available on adult acquisition of language. But if you think it's impossible, naturally there's not going to be any material about it. 
     As I sat and listened to this stranger I'd just met at Karma Kitchen, I could hardly believe what I was hearing. It was like winning a lottery prize, only the prize was new knowledge. What were the chances? And could it really be that something so astonishing as what Schaller was describing was being ignored?
Beginning is the Thing!
On my third visit to Karma Kitchen I found myself at a table where a celebration was underway. Spirits were high. Aumatma Shah's vision of gift economy health care had just become a reality. Karma Clinic started offering services November 1st out of an 80 sq ft office space. Eighty square feet. That's what struck me most. That's a room that's eight by ten feet. Why wait for some imaginary moment when a wish-list has been met? Beginning is the thing!
     And these healers had begun, even before securing the small foothold
of an actual clinic space. For six months Karma Clinic's volunteers had been providing consultations via home visits or by inviting patients to meet them at their own houses -- or in coffee shops, or any place that might serve. It was a real grassroots operation and, as Shah pointed out, the humble office was sure to remind its volunteer doctors and healers, as well as their patients, that the underlying motivation was not tied to the bottom line. 
     Shah is a Naturopathic Doctor. During her training, it became obvious to her that the time was ripe for medicine to move into a new paradigm. With millions in the US uninsured and millions more under-insured, it was time to help create a paradigm based in service.  
    What an idea! For an hour the talk at our big table circled around Shah's new gift economy clinic. No one had even ordered food. Each time our volunteer waitress had appeared, she'd been sent away. But finally Shah had to leave for another commitment and some people traded places. One or two new people sat down. 
     This is another thing I've noticed at Karma Kitchen, keeping at one table is not an unwritten law. The friendly energies set free by the generosity in action contribute to something more fluid. Groups merge, separate and new alignments and conversations start up unpredictably.
     Soon I found myself sitting next to someone named Sam Bower. By coincidence, I'd heard about him a week before. He's the founder of, a web site dedicated to environmental art and artists all over the world. Increasingly artists are turning their attention to environmental issues. Compared to eight years ago, Bower said, the number of artists working in this area has increased exponentially, and the trend seems in no danger of slowing down. 
     Talking with Bower, I was reminded of an inspiring conversation I'd had a couple of years earlier with an environmental artist, Dan McCormick. McCormick specializes in riparian restoration and has worked mostly in West Marin County. McCormick has a grounding in several fields-geology, botany, engineering and farming to name a few. He is a sculptor, a teacher and a community organizer, too. All of these things come into play in his projects. And McCormick's projects are always collaborations. He works with schools, enlisting students and engaging them with hands-on learning. Bringing a ruined stream back to health involves so many things starting with an overall understanding of the ecology of a local watershed. Engineering and aesthetics are combined in, for example, the making of silt traps to handle the runoff from damaged hillsides. That includes learning how to plait willow branches, braid ropes and tie knots. Then there's the work of planting trees and native plants.
     Listening to McCormick once, as he explained what went into his projects, was inspiring. Here was an art integrated on so many levels: aesthetics combined with teaching, community involvement, service and actual results. A year later, students revisit projects to see how a severely damaged stream is already recovering. Each student who worked on the project becomes an author of a social good. The beneficial ripples of such things cannot be easily quantified, but are undoubtedly real. 
     The meal was delicious. All around us other conversations were in full swing. At times one conversation penetrated another. Three or four would be involved, and it all kept shifting. Thinking again of Illich, his book Tools For Conviviality came to mind. The whole place was in a state of conviviality.
     The more Sam and I talked, the more excited I got. We discovered we'd both graduated from the same school. "How did you get to where you are now, publishing the magazine?" he asked. And soon I was telling him my own story. Twenty years ago I'd just completed a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology. Was I going become a psychotherapist? Or what about this other thing in my life, art? At that point I decided finally to make a real commitment to the creative side of my life.
     A young man who had been listening from the far end of the table came over to interrupt us. Could he talk with me for a minute? "I used to be an artist," he said, "but I became a psychotherapist." Sam and I had to laugh at the serendipitous appearance of this mirror image.
     "I'm interested in the gift economy," he said and handed me his card. It read, "Ira Israel -- Integral Therapy for artists, writers, musicians, yogis, students and friends of Bill W."  
     "We should talk," I said. 
     At Karma Kitchen, it all works in unexpected ways.

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Paraabola maagazine 


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