A Conversation with Adam Campbell: A Taste For Life
by Richard Whittaker , Dec 13, 2012
It was one of those bright mornings we’re blessed with so often in the Bay Area. No matter that it was mid-December. A week earlier, I’d been ambushed by Pancho Ramos Stierle and Sam Bower and told that I had to interview one of the visitors staying at Casa de Paz, Adam Campbell. Neither Sam nor Pancho twist my arm very often and when they do, I’m immediately intrigued. Both possess inspired vision—Sam is the founding director of greenmuseum.org and Pancho, a founding member of Oakland’s Casa de Paz at Canticle Farm. And both are close friends from among the servicespace.org community.
When the morning for the interview arrived, I found Sam and Pancho and Adam all in high spirits. But before sitting down together, I couldn’t resist a quick walk around Canticle Farm, four houses on connecting lots that stretch across a city block in Oakland’s Fruitvale District, and a great example of urban permaculture. Sam wanted to show me the latest house they had acquired. “But we have to go through the chicken coop to get there,” he said. I take such moments as incomprehensible blessings.
There was offbeat magic afoot, and it was picking up momentum. Bending down to get into the coop and with chickens scattering under our feet, we came to a gate in a backyard fence. And voila, we were in another world where I was startled to see two of the biggest prickly pear cactus plants I’d ever seen. One towered above a dilapidated old wooden garage. “Look at those fruit,” Sam said. We picked a ton of them and gave them away to the neighbors.” Giving away to the neighbors is one of the main activities at Canticle Farm, part of their strong community building practice.
Soon Sam and I were back in Casa de Paz with Pancho and Adam. Pancho handed me a slice of fuyu persimmon from their own trees as water for tea was reaching a boil. The energy in the room, I realize now in thinking about it, had to do with the joy of right action, of sowing the seeds of community and loving kindness. I was standing with three ahimsa warriors and feeling grateful for my good fortune.
After a while we all went upstairs to the big room to set up for the interview. No tables. No problem. We found a drum to set the recorder on. And all of the sudden, the four of us were pounding out a rhythm together. No one had to ask, “Are we having fun yet?” Finally, we got some chairs arranged and sat down, “But first we have to watch this video, hermano,” Pancho said, opening his laptop.…
Richard Whittaker: We just finished watching this beautiful little video about a group of people in Paraguay turning trash into musical instruments. And you said, Adam —
Adam Campbell: It reminds me of the irrepressibility of the human spirit. And that even in the midst of everything unraveling around us, in the end it will be beauty that saves us
RW: That’s a beautiful idea and I hope it’s true. But tell me something about yourself.
AC: Gosh, there are so many ways to tell a story. Okay. I was born in southwest Missouri in the town of Branson. The people there like to call it the country music capital of the world. I think now it has about 8,000 people. And Branson gets almost six million tourists a year. I think it’s the second biggest tour bus destination in the United States. It’s this crazy American anomaly in the hills of the Ozark Mountains next to two lakes. It’s a strange and wonderful place, really. There’s beauty and joy and wonder there. And it’s also kind of a microcosm of what I’ve seen happening all around the world. But it took me traveling around the world before I realized what I had experienced in my own hometown. I’d say that’s of people wanting an authentic cultural experience, and realizing that the modern paradigm doesn’t really provide it. So when they find a grass-rootsy, homegrown place—a group of people who have lived in a place and developed something over a long period of time—people realize its value. Unfortunately, then they often try to commodify it and destroy what was there in the first place.
AC: So for me, growing up, it was hillbilly culture in the Ozark hills much like what West Virginia represents. I wasn’t a hillbilly growing up, but I grew up surrounded by that. My parents grew up in the city, St. Louis and Kansas City, and they moved down there before all of Branson, with a capital B, happened. We were there before that and I saw this relentless development taking over. My favorite grove of trees was taken down for a Long John Silvers. The tree that I was sitting in for my senior picture, one of my favorite trees, got taken down for a parking lot for a mall.
But it was also a beautiful growing up childhood. I look back on that with nothing but love and I realize that there was also grief and desolation, as a part of that. Going back now is really difficult. All of the sacred places I had there have been destroyed.
RW: So for the record, how old are you, Adam?
AC: I’m 35.
RW: And you said that you had to travel the world before you really understood what was taking place in Branson and going on all over the world. Can you talk just briefly about your travels?
AC: I had a public school education, Branson High School. Then I went to the University of Missouri. I went five years and got two degrees—in math and English. And I really loved my experience.
RW: You covered both ends of the spectrum.
AC: Yes. I was undecided and was taking all the courses I could. I would go through the course catalog and pick the courses that sounded really interesting. I was pushing for the development of the soul and following my wildest dreams and just letting it unfold.
RW: Where do you think your confidence came from that it would be possible to follow your dreams?
AC: I think there are three or four roads that connect, trails maybe—or maybe tributaries. That’s a nice metaphor, isn’t it?
RW: It’s good. Tributaries, very nice.
AC: I began to realize that there was cultural story all around us of what we were supposed to be doing with our lives: you’re supposed to do good in high school so you can get into a good college. Then you do good there so you can get a good job. And you get a good job so you can make a lot of money so you can retire early. And then you can finally do the things you want to do with your life before you die.
I just thought that was ridiculous, besides being insulting to the human spirit. Why not just do what I want to do now, and have that be in service to humanity?
RW: That shows you could think for yourself. Now where did that come from?
AC: I would have to attribute that to my parents. I feel like I was born into having my own spiritual teachers. Early on, at about seven or eight, I remember having this moment in church. We went to the Disciples of Christ Protestant church. We were in the belt buckle of the Bible belt down in southwest Missouri. And I remember having this realization. I felt like, well, I couldn’t send somebody to eternal damnation and punishment just because they didn’t do what I said. So would someone who was infinitely more loving and wise than I am, do that? That didn’t make any sense at all.
This was the first moment of like wait a second. So I brought that to my parents. And they just said that’s a really good question. I remember the feeling that I was allowed to ask this question, and that some questions don’t have easy answers.
RW: That’s beautiful.
AC: And then also, my parents had been on their own path out of a very conservative Christian tradition on both sides. By the time I was nine or ten, my mom had gotten around to reading Autobiography of a Yogi, which was so far from where she had started. There’s this really funny story. She was watching Donohue one day and he had this Eastern guru on the show. Donohue was trying to get him and he was able to deflect every question and give an answer that really made sense. My mom was like: this guy knows something that I don’t know. She had that moment. And the only thing she remembered from the interview, something to hold onto, was “yoga.”
In the mid-70’s in Branson, yoga was satanic. I mean really, it was! So she had this dilemma. Of course, this is a generation before the Internet. But my dad was a professor and so she had access to the college library. This was a very small liberal arts college called School of the Ozarks. So she went into the library and found a book on yoga, but she was embarrassed to actually check out the book. So she got like 12 other random books and stuck it right in the middle. And when she got home she couldn’t touch it for two weeks. She kept on walking by and she’s like—I can’t open it. If I open it, I’m going to hell.
RW: For people in these fundamentalist religions there’s a tremendous amount of fear to opening your mind just for a moment to some other possibility. I mean, that’s a real journey, don’t you think?
AC: For sure. And it’s a two-sided coin. There’s fear on one side and certainty on the other side, and both prevent us from moving into the mystery of the unknown. So either way you’re blocked off from engaging in the realm of life, the actual realm of life where the laws of the universe are immutable in a way, and also unknown to us, but we have access to it and it can flow through us.
AC: And we don’t know how it works. All I know is that my experience has told me that we’re part of something bigger than us. There’s that power that flows through me when I feel connected to it that gives me strength beyond just my own personal strength.
Pancho Ramos Stierle: And that’s how you describe the gift economy. The first time when I heard you saying that, I was like what? Are you serious? This is what gift economy means to you?
AC: Yes. So the gift gives us access to that. But that’s a major tangent.
RW: We need to talk about the gift economy, for sure. But I really appreciated your story that in Branson yoga was satanic.
AC: Yes. You can imagine in that world the possibility of opening up that book could be a sin that’s unpardonable, that you’re going to drop through the trapdoor to hell which you’ll never escape from. What a metaphysical realm to be vying against!
RW: Absolutely. So you had been bequeathed some tremendous gifts from your parents, as all of us have been.
AC: Right, which I honor very much. So by time I was reaching junior high level I began to ask even more questions. Like the Bhagavad Gita and Dhammapada and the Bible were all right next to each other on the bookshelf. And we were still going to church every week, too.
AC: So a friend comes over to visit my mom one day and sees the yoga book on the table. “Oh, you’re interested in yoga?” And she’s like, “Oh, no. I have no idea what that book is.” And he says, “Oh, before you read that, you should talk to Bob Hubbard because there are a lot of dangers in yoga.”
Bob was part of a singing group called The Foggy River Boys, and before that, the Jordanaires, the back-up singers for Elvis Presley, and he was a respected elder in the community. So she nervously calls him up and does the dial, hang-up thing. Because what’s she going to say to him? She doesn’t know.
So finally she dials one day and he picks up, “Hello.” Dead silence. “Hello?” And finally she’s like, “Hi Bob. This is Pat Campbell. You don’t know me but, umm, we have a mutual friend who says you know about yoga.” And she’s mumbling. He says, “What do you want to know?” And then she said it just came out of her: she just said “the Truth.” There was this long pause and he goes, “Then I can help you.”
AC: So they started this group called the Friends of God. They would read different kinds of books which, at the time, were kind of edgy and they started diving into the mystics and the metaphysical world. So by the time I was 12, I remember telling my mom, “I want to be a mystic when I grow up. I want to do God’s work.” So I think that atmosphere had a lot of influence on me.
Pancho: To this day.
AC: To this day. And it’s funny, I was on the phone with them and they say, “Adam, how did you get so interested in nonviolence?” I was like, “That’s your guys fault. You’re the people who told me about Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Jesus. They are supposed to be my mentors and heroes and they were not passive, compliant people who were just kind of lying down and letting the state roll over them. They were leading campaigns of radical love. And that leads us into resistance in the empire at some point or another, unfortunately. I don’t have a desire to interfere, I just have a desire to live into the principles that I feel called to live into.
I would love to be in the world where Peter Maurin said it’s easy to be good. But I think it’s actually almost impossible to be good in our culture. That’s another conversation. One of the moments that really got me on the path I’m on came from realizing that we have absolutely no information about, or access to, generally speaking, where the stuff is coming from in our lives to meet our human needs. Where is our food coming from? Where is our shelter coming from? Whose building is it? Where is our water coming from? We actually have no idea. The average person doesn’t have a clue, which is just a reality.
We don’t know where it goes when we’re done with it, which means we’re complicit in supporting all kinds of systems of which we have no knowledge. So I have no idea who is growing my food or how they’re being treated and what they’re being affected by. All of those relationships are severed. So, if I was going to boil down Jesus’ message that was taught in my Protestant church, it was just to be a good person. And that’s what I wanted to do. Then I realized it was actually impossible for me to be a good person in this culture. Because I didn’t know what effect I was having on the people who were supporting my livelihood. I was getting zero feedback on the people who were growing my food for me or building my shelter for me. I actually didn’t know.
If I kick Sam in the shins, I’m going to get really quick feedback on whether that was a good decision or not.
AC: I can know, and so I can modify. In our culture today we have opacity, zero feedback. So we just move into this way of being, which is fundamentally irresponsible and immoral. We don’t even know it. We’re ignorant of our own immorality and complicity in an irresponsible system, which I think is devastating—because I think people really want to be good.
That fills me with sadness and grief, actually. Only recently I’ve realized that an incredibly important and imperative part of our healing in this culture is grieving the fact that we’ve all been complicit in these systems without our asking for it. You know? Without our knowledge of it, in some way. And we’re in it. There’s not a viable alternative. This goes back to my story earlier of realizing this cultural story, which I wasn’t interested in. So okay, I just won’t live that story.
RW: That story. So what is the cultural story, again?
AC: The cultural story is do good in high school so you can do good in college. So you can get a good job. So you can make money. So you can retire early. So you can do the things you want to do before you die.
RW: Okay. Exactly.
AC: Which is dumb. I want to live out the alternative. So I began to look around. What’s the alternative? And there wasn’t an alternative, at least growing up in Branson, Missouri. If you’re lucky enough to be able to go to college, you go to college. If you’re not, then you don’t. You do whatever else you can do. So I went to college, which I loved. But the whole time I was looking around. I had this different understanding of how I want to be moving in my life, but I had no idea what it would look like.
And I’m having these debates with my friends who think that a degree is a pragmatic direction to get a good job. Right? I wasn’t interested in getting a job—except I did apply for the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile job, which I didn’t get. And then I graduated.
RW: Should we stop and hear more about that?
AC: It’s not really worth the tangent. Well, you get to drive around in this silly thing; you’re autonomous. Kids love you. And you get to have a good time. Joseph Campbell said, “We never lead the life that we expect or imagine.” And sometimes I give great thanks for that. All the times I’ve been on unexpected detours have been incredible gifts.
RW: That’s a beautiful statement.
AC: Yes. So I graduate and I have this intuitive feeling—first, that I don’t actually know what I’m going to be doing with my life. And second, that I’m missing half of my education. I realize I don’t have any experience of what’s happening in the world—or the experience of myself in the world, which are both fundamentally important.
So I decided to go experience the world. I wanted to go to as foreign a place as I could imagine just to see what would happen, to see what would come out of me. So I went to Nepal and Tibet. I figured that would shake me up a little bit. And then I kind of figured it out from there.
RW: Now how long were you there?
AC: I was there for two months and then I went to Thailand and Cambodia for two months. Then I went to South Africa for two months. And then I went to Greece. I was only flying into Greece to go to the Middle East, but I got caught in Greece, and you know, adventures happen. So I was there for two months and then I went to Morocco for a month. And that was a little bit shy of a year. Then I went back and visited friends on the East Coast and eventually made my way, completing the circuit, back home to Missouri.
RW: When I talked to Peter Kingsley, he said that in whatever place you’re in, there’s a way of thinking. It’s just in the air, and that you’re constrained by that place’s way of thinking. Does that make sense to you?
AC: Yes. I feel like that’s undeniable. You can experience that by going from house to house down the street. And that expands to the culture, as well. And it’s true that it constrains your thinking. I mean it gives you a certain set of lenses with which to look at the world. And there is the ability to completely shift that by going to Thailand, for instance, which operates very differently—or South Africa—from what I was used to in Missouri.
And I don’t think constraint is a bad thing. It’s necessary to give us form and to move us into action. I think it was Stravinsky who, when he got composer’s block, he would limit himself to four notes. Then creativity would come out of him. So I think we’re in this actually constant balance between resisting the constraints put on us by our culture and having the deep appreciation and gratitude that there are constraints—because then we don’t have to make infinite choices every day. So I think both are in play all the time.
RW: How did you get here to Canticle Farm?
AC: I’ll take the short answer on that one. I was living at the Possibility Alliance, which is the community in northeast Missouri where I live now. And I came out to a wedding in Oregon.
RW: Maybe you should say a little bit about the Possibility Alliance before we go on.
AC: We’re an intentional community. Every person living there would probably describe it in a subtly different way and I’m not the spokesperson. It’s still forming and a really interesting project.
RW: How many people are involved in it roughly?
Adam: There are six or seven full-time members there. And then this coming year there are going to be seven to eight apprentices. Then we’ve been getting about 1500 visitors a year.
RW: When visitors come, what does that mean—a visit to the Possibility Alliance?
AC: It could just mean swinging by for the day to get our three-hour tour. Or it could be living with us for two weeks as kind of a more official visitor session. Or with some people it might work out that they stay a little bit longer. Some people just stay for a few days.
RW: So when they are there, what do they do?
AC: So they’re attracted, generally speaking, to visit us because we are a 110-acre farm in northeast Missouri. We’re very much inspired by Gandhi and integral nonviolence—and the idea that there is a three-tiered system for integral nonviolence. First, there is personal and spiritual transformation and ridding ourselves of violence and becoming full vessels of love. Then there is the second tier: constructing the world we actually want to see. And then, often, actually doing that leads us, as I said before, straight into the face of the modern paradigm. So often there will be political action and activism based around that, which is the third tier. That’s Gandhi’s view. I don’t want to get too far off tangent. So what we’re doing is an integral nonviolence land-based project. We are living without electricity and without petroleum, as much as possible. So we’re doing kind of a radical bio-regional and local project based around becoming full vessels of love and working for the uplifting of all beings.
RW: Are you off the grid? Do you have solar panels, and things like that?
AC: Well, we have zero electricity. There’s no electricity on any of the 110 acres at all.
RW: Really? Wow.
AC: None. Not even batteries. Well, actually we have bike lights. As we say upfront when people first come to visit, we’re an experiment. We’re trying something that, at least in the United States, hasn’t really been tried in at least the last 100 years. So we’re doing the best we can and every day we’re failing at it—and getting better at it. Anybody who comes is part of that experiment. And we invite their feedback. We don’t have cars so we’re biking around.
RW: When you’re on the street.
AC: Yeah. And we’re completely free of judgment about that. There is no dogma in any of this. We’re just having a great time trying to live out a different way of being that we feel like is a fundamentally better way to live, because it’s more connected. It’s more responsible. It’s more healthy. It’s more vibrant. It’s more participatory, and it’s more fun. And people who come give us the feedback that this is really true.
RW: I’ve never met anybody until today who is living without electricity.
Sam Bower: And no dinosaur juice.
AC: And as little petroleum as possible. Yes.
RW: So when the sun goes down, it gets dark. Then what do you do for light? Candles or?
AC: We make our own candles out of a mix of beeswax that comes from a local bee place, apiary. I just call it the bee place. The industrial food system is so crazy, right?—the way that they fatten animals up on purpose. They’re feeding ruminants corn, which of course, don’t eat corn, at least that much. Then the first thing that supermarkets do when they get the meat is cut the fat off and it gets thrown away!
So we go to the local supermarket to get their trash fat and we render that into lard. Then we can mix it with beeswax.
RW: Well, that’s amazing.
AC: Can I say one more thing about light? [yes] I’ve experienced myself feeling very different. I think this is really interesting. Jerry Mander wrote a book called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. And one of his points is that the body ingests light. Like we turn sunlight into vitamin D. So the light that hits us affects us in very particular ways. And science has shown this to be true about circadian rhythms and things like this. In the world of the city there is artificial light everywhere, whether that’s from screens or whether that’s from lights that get turned on in the daytime or at nighttime. And between the natural light that I’m around at the Possibility Alliance, just from the sun and from fire, what I’ve experienced is that I feel more like a mammal.
That might sound kind of funny, but an hour-and-a-half after the sun goes down, regardless of what time of year it is, it starts to feel like midnight. And all of us, it’s like wow, we’re starting to get a little tired. In the wintertime, of course, the sun goes down about 4:30 so we’ll stay up with candles for a while, reading or just chatting or maybe playing some games or something. But my body moves into a different rhythm.
I get surprised when it’s no big deal for people to stay up until 12:30 around here with the lights on. I do it too when I come back in the city. And I realize my body is acting in a totally different way than it normally does.
It feels very different to be sitting next to candlelight and writing a letter after dark than it does to be sitting in front of a computer screen after dark. I know that after two hours in front of a computer screen, I feel gross regardless of the content that has been put through the screen into my brain. Just the feeling of it, it’s like I have to go shake it off. I need to get outside. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way. So I just want to say that the feeling, the physiological experience, not just the aesthetic experience, is very different.
RW: I wanted to ask what have you learned from this radical shift in your relationship with light? It’s exactly what you’re talking about.
AC: Yes, completely. I don’t remember what the actual physiology of it is, but our eyes take about 20 minutes to adjust to the dark, to be in full dark-vision mode. And my experience is that most people, especially in the city, never experience what it looks like to see in the dark. First of all, there is never any dark around anyway, but even if they did have the opportunity—camping or something—they’ve brought their cell phone or headlamp with them. They’re still not giving themselves enough time away from artificial light to actually begin to see how you can see things differently, or what the sky looks like.
I mean our soul grieves that we don’t get to see the Milky Way anymore. One of the things that people comment on from being with us is the night sky. Just walking out and seeing the infinitude, and the humility that comes with the gorgeousness of a sky that’s just resplendently beaming down on us with all the majesty and mystery that’s up there.
RW: You said it makes me feel like a mammal just living at night with candles, and that radically different way of lighting your world after dark. That’s a fascinating statement. So what is that like, to feel more like a mammal?
AC: What a wonderful question. We have five practices there and one of them is simplicity. We practice simplicity, because we feel like it enables us to be more deeply connected with four essential relationships in our lives. One is with ourselves, so we don’t have distractions from ourselves and what is actually going on inside of us. The next one is with each other. Instead of sitting down in a room and everyone is on a computer and not actually relating to each other, we say every night is a candlelit dinner at the Possibility Alliance. We’re all sitting down together eating by candlelight, which is wonderful. So we share most of our meals together. We just, we spend time with each other, not in meetings—which, if you’re in an intentional community, it’s critical to spend time together outside of meetings. Unscheduled time spent together is what builds community, from my personal experience. Then another connection is with the great mystery, however you view it. And the fourth connection is with nature. I’m saying all this to lead up to your question, which is what does it feel like to be a mammal?
AC: If you think about a city, whether you’re inside or outside, almost every single thing that you see around you is artificial. It’s created in the minds of men and women. Everything around us is a projection of our own ideas. It’s mind-made, manomaya I think is the Sanskrit term for it. And there is a great paucity of imagination in that world, in this world. Everything is in straight lines. Everything has “organization” to it which is actually very disorganized. Even plants, which are alive, have been placed by us to be in specific places.
I had this realization when I was up in the foothills looking at Denver. I couldn’t see the houses, because I was far up enough. I could see the huge skyscrapers. But though I couldn’t see the sprawl of the houses, I could see the sprawl of the trees set against the prairie. And I realized every single tree in Denver is artificial. It’s prairie. There shouldn’t be any trees there. So I could actually measure the sprawl of the city by the trees I could see. When the trees ended, I knew that humans had stopped. So everything we see is artificial. This is a critical point because nature operates in a different way. I’m not saying that we’re not natural. I’m just saying we’ve created a world that has given us a false sense of understanding of how patterns operate in the world. And we have a different relationship with that.
So the world that we create, recreates us. And we begin to move deeper into that world. It’s a very strange existence we live in now, and we don’t realize it’s strange. We normalize it. We adapt to it. It just becomes who we are. It lives and breathes us. And I can’t tell you how strange it is. That’s been the biggest shock.
Living there and then coming back into this world—I mean the city or the modern American industrial paradigm, however you want to describe it—it’s incredibly strange, utterly alienating, completely distracting and totally artificial. And nobody sees it. At the same time, everybody feels it—this uncomfortable ennui that’s like subtle angst. You know, there’s utter confusion in some ways about what is actually happening in our world and what’s going on: why do I feel this way? Why do I keep getting bombarded by temporary pleasure instead of actually experiencing true joy?—or allowed to feel my own grief and suffering in the world? We keep getting distracted from that.
It’s very strange when I say it makes me feel like a mammal. But it plugs me into the natural rhythms and systems that are operating all the time, which we are oftentimes severed from. And it feels very different.
RW: When you say it plugs me into the natural systems, you would have to include my own body, wouldn’t you?
RW: Coming back to my body. Is that part of it?
AC: Right. I don’t know how to describe this exactly, but we are part of nature. We’re not separate from nature. But we’re able to create worlds that don’t follow the natural rhythms and laws. Our great gift and our great sin, in some ways, is that we can choose what we want to make. We can choose how we want to engage with the world. And so the world that we see around us is both natural and artificial at the same time. Everything has come from the world. So there is nothing that’s artificial. And at the same time we have this belief in permanence.
RW: I follow you. I think it’s very well put.
AC: So yes, there is a different experience of me existing in my own body—when I’m plugged in and surrounded by and have strong relationships with a different wisdom. Maybe that’s a way to put it. I first experienced that in the Himalayas, actually, when I was in Nepal. I was in the mountains for 35 days hiking. That was the first time I ever experienced it.
RW: What happened?
AC: I’d get up an hour before the sun came up and have quiet time. Then I would start hiking. It’d take about 30 minutes before the sun started to come up. So I was walking as light would rise on the mountains around me. And I was doing what is called the Annapurna Circuit, about a 200-mile hike around the 10th highest mountain in the world, just trails that connect these little villages that go all the way around. And often I was walking in big valleys, so I wouldn’t actually see the sun until about 10:30 or 11:00 am.
In high altitudes the difference between shade and sun is extreme as far as temperature is concerned. It was cold, so this great gratitude would fill me every time the sun finally came out. As soon as the sun was out, I could take off a lot of layers and I could feel the warmth around me. I actually began bowing to it. It was amazing. The gratitude filled me so viscerally that I would just bow to the sun. Oh, thank you. You’re warming me. I really appreciate that.
And I still do it today. That gratitude still fills me. Then in the evenings, there was very little electricity where I was. We would either have one little light bulb or just some candles. I was hiking with some friends and we would gather in the evening to eat at this little place, in this tiny village where somebody had offered to put us up. About an hour-and-a-half or two hours after sunset, we would all go to bed.
After about two weeks of this, I entered into a different rhythm. It felt very different. It was almost like I was being breathed by what was around me, and kind of being led into it.
RW: Could you describe more about that shift?
AC: Well, first of all, I would just say I am a recovering left-brainer.
RW: I forget which is which.
AC: Left-brainers are more analytical as opposed to right-brainers, which is the more creative and art side, generally speaking.
RW: Well, you have both of those: math and English.
AC: I did. But most of it was filtered through my left-brain. I think, generally speaking, our education skews us that way regardless.
AC: There was nearly nothing addressing my spirit and vocation in the world. I’ve heard vocation defined as “where your greatest passions meet the world’s greatest needs”—and so that was my own business, according to classroom curriculum.
To answer your question, here’s one difference I experienced for the first time in my life. I was working really hard every day. I was hiking in mountains with a backpack. Then the food was the same everyday for lunch and for dinner. It was dal bhat tarkari—which is rice and lentils and curried vegetables. The only difference depended on where you were; you might be getting different vegetables. And the rice and lentils were being grown right where I was. I was just walking by rice paddies. So I was eating this organic, local food which was a complete protein and very healthy. I could eat as much as I wanted. They would just keep on just scooping more wherever I was. And at first it was very exotic. I was like dal bhat tarkari? I’m so excited! Then after a while I was like, oh god, it’s more dal bhat tarkari.
But then a new experience happened. My body began asking for it. And for the first time in my life, I was able to differentiate between my body asking for something and my mind craving something. I can tell you quite clearly that when I am eating chocolate, I only want more chocolate—even when I’m starting to get sick to my stomach. Like my mind just wants more. Right? But I felt a different sensation when I would sit down to eat. It wasn’t coming from my head. It was coming from a yearning from my body. And this great food that was perfect for what I was doing. Then to the bite—and I’m not making this up—I would know to the bite when I was done. I wouldn’t want anymore.
RW: This is a very interesting and it goes right along with what it must be like to feel like a mammal. I think it must reflect what we could call an intelligence of the body.
AC: Hmm. Yes.
RW: Our educational system, as you said, doesn’t even know about those things. But to have that experience, your body telling you this is enough. And you said, it was very clear.
AC: It was very clear. I also want to be clear that my mind did not really quiet down all that much, which I was a little bit disappointed in. I actually started calling my mind the juke box, because I would be walking along in the mountains and I would have these constant songs going. Why? Because I had spent my entire life cramming songs into my head. I still love music to this day. But I just had all these songs in my head. I was resisting it for so long. Then finally it was like, oh well, screw it. If a song comes up, I might as well sing it and enjoy it, at least, instead of resisting it.
AC: My actual belief is that it takes a real concerted effort to quiet the mind down. And it’s made me very aware of what I’m putting into my mind. My mom actually taught me early on to fill my mind with passages from mystics and poetry and things like this so that in times of distress or concern, I would have those available and I could pull them out as comfort and as guiding forces. And instead I listened to, you know, Michael Jackson and things like that. I wish I would have memorized the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. That would be nice to have on reserve.
RW: Yes. And referring to your mind as “the jukebox.” That’s such a great word for it. I mean I think that’s our situation. “Monkey mind” is a phrase not coined out of nothing—we’re all kind of stuck with that, I guess.
AC: And our culture feeds that, too. I would just point out.
RW: This is such a head-culture, isn’t it?
AC: Oh man! I see people who have like 12 tabs open on their computer while they’re texting somebody on their phone while they’re listening to music. You know? I’m just pointing out that this is doing something to our brains. If we want to be able to experience ourselves in a different way, there’s going to have to be things that we say no to. Almost all, from my understanding, indigenous and First Nation’s cultures had taboos. That’s because we’re in relationship with a mystery. And if we’re in relationship with a mystery, that means there are things that we can know and there are things that we can’t know. And if there are things that we can’t know, that means there must be things that we cannot do. And in our culture we’ve eliminated taboos. Everything is on the table. You can do whatever you want to. I think this is incredibly dangerous and I think we’re seeing the results of that right now.
Pancho: So the five principles that they practice at the Possibility Alliance. Simplicity was just one of them.
AC: The mission statement isn’t written down anywhere, because we want people to interpret it and to live into it for whatever it means to them. The way I interpret it, generally speaking, is to become full vessels of love and to live for the up-liftment of all beings. Some people might say live into my Buddha nature and to be a Bodhisattva and work for the release of all beings. You get the idea. So we have five practices to let us know we are living into that. The first one is simplicity, which I’ve already covered. The next two are service and social engagement, which we differentiate.
Service is where you show up out of love and compassion for your neighbor and just serve without an agenda. We do that in all different kinds of ways. It could be going to the nursing home and working with the elders of our community who are much maligned and discarded members of our society these days. We go and play music and just kind of hear their stories. We also have a Dr. Seuss Peace Army branch called the Superheroes where we have people dress up like Superheroes and they ride around just giving service. So we’ll ride into a town and say, what do you need? Who needs help? Or we’ll go to the Chamber of Commerce, or wherever. We’ll just meet people on the street.
RW: The Dr. Seuss Peace Army. Was that what you said?
AC: It’s like a Dr. Seuss Peace Army on bikes.
RW: Okay. Are you dressed up in Dr. Seuss costumes?
AC: Well, we’re dressed up as Superheroes. You create your own Superhero identity, which has certain strengths and certain weaknesses that are probably close to your own. So when you’re riding into a town you are that identity— like Fortidude, or Gratidude is another one. Or the Zing. There are all these different names. Compashman is one.
RW: Compash-Man, Forti-dude. The Zing [laughs].
AC: It’s very disarming. I think it was Aquinas who said that people are more converted by delight than they are by argument.
RW: Wow! You just quoted Saint Thomas Aquinas. You don’t hear that very often. That’s great.
AC: Yes. So we want to show up and be a source of joy and service with no strings attached at all. We carry our own food with us that we’ve dumpstered or gotten donated, or whatever. We’ll just sleep in a park or maybe somebody puts us up in his backyard. We just let the path determine itself. And it usually goes for about a month at a time. It goes from state to state. It began, I think, 10 or 12 years ago when there was a cross-country trip that some folks came up with. It started with Ethan Hughes, who is one of the founders of the Possibility Alliance. He and, I think, six other people started out together, originally. Then it became its own thing. I think it’s been in 26 different states and several different countries at this point. So that’s service.
RW: Your name, the Possibility Alliance, just lit up from your story.
AC: Yes. And the best service that you can give is to just to sit with someone and honestly listen to them and bring out what’s most alive inside of them. One of the best ways to do that in our culture is to have some way to disarm the ice that’s around people. If you just walk up to somebody and say, “Hey, what’s most alive in you?,” you might not get the best response. However, if you’re with several other people and you’re all dressed up in Superhero outfits and you’re just saying, “How do you need help?” They’re like, “What do you mean?” And you’re like, “Well, we’re just here to serve.” Then you actually start doing it. And all of a sudden, people let their guard down.
I’ve experienced it. I’ve done a lot of solo bike tours around the country. When I pull up at a rest stop or in a town, my story is very clear. I’m just on a bicycle. They can read it. And they’re interested. So then they approach me. “Oh, what are you doing?” I’m like, “I’m biking along the West Coast,” which I did several years ago. And they’re fascinated. They want to know more. And then I tell them more. Then they’re like, wow! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this: “Wow, I wish I could do what you are doing.” But that’s not what they really mean, because if they really meant that, then they’d do it.
AC: What they really mean is “I wish I had connection to what’s alive inside of you, which I know is inside of me, but I don’t have access to it right now. And by talking to you, it’s lighting it up inside of me and I am realizing that it’s there. And I feel constricted by the decisions that I’ve made in my life that aren’t allowing me to do it right now.”
Pancho: Bam! An essay on life!
AC: I’m saying that completely without judgment. I just recognize that’s where they’re at. And by talking to me or other folks that are in this, they get lit up. And that’s the greatest gift you can give somebody. It doesn’t happen by talking out of your left-brain. It just doesn’t happen that way. It happens by being authentically vulnerable about what you’re doing in your life, and living into that. Living into that path in a way that’s visible to other people and then being open and honest about what you’re doing when it’s actually happening in a way that invites people in. Then they get excited. Then the possibilities start lighting up in their head. “Wow. I don’t have to be living the life that I’m living. There are some real difficulties in choices that I’ve made. I’ve got the golden handcuffs on”—as my mom calls them.
RW: The golden handcuffs. What are those?
AC: The golden handcuffs are a mortgage, car payments, all these things we think we want. They lock us into a lifestyle that we can’t extricate ourselves from very easily, or at all. You know, college debt is another really good one these days. But anyway, this gift, this connection, helps people begin to see themselves and their relationship with the world around them in a different way. Once that happens, they can make different choices. And once they do that, then they’ve changed their life instantaneously, just like that.
RW: Fabulous. So that’s service.
AC: Then there’s social engagement. Social engagement is where you enter into the social realm with an agenda—as opposed to service, where you don’t have an agenda. You’re just there for the other person.
AC: Social engagement is actually creating the world that you want to see. And that can mean different things. It can mean helping your neighbor with a garden, because you want to see more gardens around. Or like walking down the street and saying, “Who wants a garden?” Then, oh, these three people do. Okay, let’s gather some people and actually put some gardens in. So you are actually actively creating it. And it’s also blocking systems of violence in the world that are working to destroy what you think is precious or valuable. For instance, some people from Possibility Alliance went to Kansas City to block a nuclear weapons facility that was being built. I think it’s the only one in the United States that’s within city limits.
So they were arrested for protesting that. And it was done with great love and with a mission of transforming the hearts of the people who are complicit in the system in the first place. So when engaging with police officers, we know that there’s a conflict there that’s really tricky. There’s a human being inside that outfit who has a family. And each have their own wants and desires and beliefs, and their own moments of beauty—just like we all do. You know? They’re wearing the uniform of the system, and they have to live into both things at the same time, which can be really difficult.
I think Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder happens when people have to do what the system tells them to do, because they’ve said, “Okay, I’m in the Army.” You don’t believe in killing somebody, but the Army is making you do it. There’s an internal conflict. And we’re going to meet people who are in that conflict. They may not actually believe that nuclear weapons are a good thing, either. But they need money to support their family. It makes it very easy for people to use violence who are in that system, if you provoke them in a certain way. This is what The Lucifer Effect is.
The Lucifer Effect is when people do things that they would never ordinarily do, because they’re wearing a uniform that allows them to do something without a personal conscience. So it’s really important for us when we are engaging the system, to actually address the heart of the person who is wearing the uniform instead of saying screw you, police officer. You know? Like you’re a bad man. That’s not true.
RW: Right. What is the art of action that minimizes polarization? There’s a big question about how to get around this tendency into opposition. The world seems to be trapped in this endless loop. What do you think?
AC: Gosh, we could have five hours of conversation just on that alone. Pancho has been one of my great teachers when it comes to this. So I feel like we can all engage in this conversation together.
RW: I have some friends in Vancouver who started something called City Farmer over 30 years ago. They started trying to get people to grow food in their front yards, back yards, side yards, the lots next door. And Bob Woodsworth, one of the founders, said let’s try not to get trapped into a polarized thing. Over the years other groups would spring up, people with good intentions, and get drawn into conflict, which they would meet with some volatile response—and it would end up falling apart.
But because they knew what they were doing was good, they stayed calm when they got attacked and didn’t do much to defend themselves. City Farmer is actually a Vancouver city department now and is going strong.
AC: I would love to hear what my hermanos here have to say about this. Personally, I love the quote from Buckminster Fuller: if you really want to change something, don’t fight against the existing reality. Create a new reality that makes the old one obsolete.
RW: That’s beautiful.
AC: When it comes to community groups and conflict within them, I think it’s really valuable to get past strategies, and work towards needs. You can have endless conflict and debate over strategies. This is the best way to do it. No, this is the best way. But there’s almost always unity over need. For instance, the need is for us to have a more resilient community where we can meet our fundamental human needs together. So we’re going to start a garden program. Then somebody else is going to start a whatever program.
And then in the moment when those two strategies start coming into conflict, instead of debating over which strategy is the best, you can say here’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. Here’s the need that we’re working to meet. What’s the need that you’re working to meet? Okay, how can we work together to meet those two needs together? Because that brings creativity into the picture.
Talking about strategy blocks creativity, because you lock onto your strategy and think your strategy is the best. There’s always something better that you could be doing. So being open to feedback when there’s a potential conflict, recognizing that we can put both of our needs on the table—or all of our needs on the table—and then get creative and come to a creative solution together that meets all of our needs…that’s exciting! Then you’re in solidarity together. And that is powerful.
Then the last thing to say, number three, is that there’s a different way to think about conflict. I was taught implicitly from my culture that conflict is something scary and should be avoided at all costs. But Dominic Barter, who started Restorative Circles, reframes conflict: conflict is a feedback loop to let you know that you’re out of alignment with reality. And it’s actually an opportunity for deeper connection with someone, if you’re willing to engage out of vulnerability and love. It is an opportunity to learn about an element or angle in the world that we didn’t know about before. And if we can approach it in the right way and sit down at the table with respect and love for each other, and meet over needs, we can create something new, something that didn’t exist before. What a wonderful thing!
Pancho: This is a great segue to Dominic Barter saying that conflict is a gift that is wrapped. Are we willing to unwrap it? Actually here at Canticle Farm, our restorative circles are based on him. So that’s why we see the Possibility Alliance as our sister community right there. I would just like to ride that wave, because it’s tied with permaculture. And it’s very interesting how you frame it, you know, the three principles of permaculture. This is usually “respect for the people, respect for the earth and share the surplus.” And the way that Brother Adam approaches this is beautiful. It is not only share the surplus, but it’s finding out what is enough? Once you find what is enough in your life, then the rest is abundance. What that means is that after you find that point, you can start just giving away—and that’s very positive! It is the first time I ever heard that approach being connected with permaculture. Maybe you can talk a little bit about that permaculture approach to gift economy.
AC: A lot of times I hear a permaculturist say a catchy little phrase for the ethics of permaculture, which is “earth care, people care, fair share.” Which is cute, but it misses a fundamental piece of it, which is you have to set limits to have a surplus. Our culture does everything it can do to prevent us from defining what enough is in our lives. Because if we don’t set limits, then we always feel like we need more.
AC: Actually abundance is created by limits. Most people don’t understand that. If you don’t have limits, you’ll never have abundance, because you’ll always need more. Whereas if you take time to actually sit down and think about, okay for me, personally—and for my family—what is “enough?” Once you can be clear about that, then anything you get beyond that, you don’t need. At that point, right then and there, it becomes more than enough—by definition. And when you have more than enough, it’s a surplus—and you can share that, which is wonderful. Right? It actually makes it quite clear.
RW: I’m guessing that “enough” isn’t some stringent kind of austerity, but includes, let’s say, happiness, some kind of meaningful feeling.
AC: Well, yes. I would say “enough” is some way to meet our fundamental human needs. And our fundamental human needs include community and belonging and beauty and spaces that bring us to life—and an engagement with the world that is responsible and healthy. All these things are fundamental human needs, not just “did I eat something today?” Because nobody wants to be part of a revolution where you’re sitting in a tree and it’s cold outside and you’re eating bugs. Nobody wants to be part of that. They want to be part of song and celebration and moving into a life that’s more glorious and connected—because those are fundamental human needs.
And I found people misunderstand what simplicity is. Simplicity is not a race to the bottom. Simplicity is a way to streamline your movement into your own priorities. It’s a way to get rid of distractions, a way to release the burden of so many things in your life. And that frees you to move into the life that you actually want to live. This is the beauty of simplicity.
RW: That’s the thing. I think we all actually have a feeling for this—and you mentioned it earlier—finding a way of life that really brings me to life, to really be alive.
AC: Yes. You just reminded me of a Joseph Campbell quote. “People aren’t looking for the meaning of life. What people are looking for is the experience of being alive.” I mean that’s it. So we keep buying a bunch of crap trying to get the experience of being alive, but that’s just pleasure. And pleasure is almost irrelevant. It’s actually about what is my true joy? And what does it feel like to be engaged in the mystery that’s flowing through me, to experience grace on a daily basis?—which involves suffering and grief and some of the things we try to avoid in this culture, as well. This is what it means to be fully alive.
We want to laugh all our laughter and cry all of our tears, as Kahlil Gibran said. You know, we actually want to be in it when it’s messy, and nobody knows what’s going to happen. I mean Joseph Campbell also said that if you can see your life laid out in front of you—step one, step two, step three, step four—all that you can know is that is not your path.
So the other side of that is that we can’t have a plan. We want to be happy. We want to be fulfilled. We want to experience joy. And if we’re going to be honest, we actually don’t know how to do that. All we know is what our bodies and our hearts and our minds are calling us into today. What’s the next right step? You know? We’re like a car in the dark that is being navigated by its headlights. We can only see about 100 feet down the road. That’s what we’ve got. And if you just think you’re going to drive in a straight line to 500 miles away, you’re going to wreck in about five seconds. And the wreck is the constant feedback that we get from our culture if we’re trying to plan out our lives.
You have your perfect plan for your straight-line, 500-mile trip, and then midway through the day, you end up in a wreck. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. But like I said, none of us live the lives we imagined. So how do we stay present and take action in the moment, taking the next right step towards—not towards titillating pleasure—but towards an authentic engagement with what’s being offered to us in the world.
RW: Good stuff, Adam.
AC: Okay. Simplicity, service, social engagement. Now there is number four and number five, right? Number four is self-transformation. So whatever practice that means for you, and then asking how we, as a community, support you, personally, in engaging with that.
If you visit the Possibility Alliance and come back two years later and we are more angry or more stressed out and have less time on our hands, the experiment is failing. It’s time to pull the plug. And you need to tell us that. You know, the whole idea is for us as individuals and for us as a community to be loving and supporting ourselves and each other, to be more in line and engaged with the reality of the world happening around us.
So self-transformation is a piece of that, whether it’s quiet time in the morning, whether it’s walking in the woods, whether it’s singing and dancing, or whatever it is. And maybe it’s all of those, plus many other things. So we work that into our rhythm, too, so we have quiet time in the morning, which is optional. Many of us sit together and have quiet time in the morning. We have a Shabbat celebration on Friday evenings where we all gather together to celebrate the work of the week and anticipate the rest of the weekend. We have a Quaker ceremony on Sundays where people share silence together for an hour. So there are different things that we do as a community to work on both communal transformation and self-transformation. That’s number four.
And then number five; it’s one of my favorites. Because there is this great tradition, or unfortunate tradition maybe is a better way to put it, for which I think Dorothy Day is the poster woman. There was a poster in the Catholic Worker that I was part of for three years. She is sitting with this very dour look on her face—just super grumpy, which I can’t do because I’m smiling too much right now. Just so grumpy. And there is this line that says, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy rotten system.” Which I am not disagreeing with. But there is another reality happening at the same time.
We are part of the most majestic, beautiful piece of creation that we will ever know about! What beauty we are surrounded by! We are dealing with two truths at the same time. Yes, we are part of the filthy, rotten system that is complicit and violent. And we’re part of this amazing natural, beautiful, wonderful world that we cannot even possibly grasp.
So practice five, then, is celebration, joy, gratitude and silliness. Not taking ourselves too seriously. How many religious traditions just end up in dogma and taking themselves too seriously? Or social movements? Or community projects? Thinking that there is a right way of doing something, and whether you want to or not, you end up falling into the dogma. The line of good and evil runs down the line of every human heart. We’re all engaged in that struggle all the time.
Pancho: I just want to plug in right there, because how does the Possibility Alliance approach the so-called economy?
AC: Right. So gratitude, celebration, joy and silliness. One of the phrases we have is “there is nothing to accomplish,” which is utterly radical in this culture. There is nothing to accomplish. There is only the means that are becoming the ends. So the way we’re living everyday is producing what we want to see at the end. Instead of having a house and wanting it to be built by a certain time, then being frustrated and stressed at the inevitable foibles of life; how do we live into joy and presence while we’re building the house? Masanobu Fukuoka said “the ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of food but the cultivation and perfection of the human soul.”
RW: That’s fantastic. And Pancho, I think you’re saying let’s talk about the gift economy.
Pancho: Adam has a very interesting approach in terms of conventional currency.
AC: So there’s also this idea of the gift economy, which some people are getting more and more familiar with. There are a lot of ways to talk about the gift economy, but the first thing we say is that we don’t charge money for anything we do, for anything we’re providing for you, whether it’s hospitality for two weeks if you’re staying with us, or whether it’s one of the many classes we provide—and we’re hosting classes a lot: making candles or how to work with draft horses or conflict transformation or restorative circles and nonviolent communication. We don’t charge money for any of it. It’s also not free, because “free” is a capitalist economy’s measurement of zero. In a capitalist economy, people associate price with value. So if you say that something is free, people will think first of all, it’s probably not worth much. And second, they have no responsibility to it, really.
RW: Absolutely. It’s a problem. I mean this whole idea of “free.” And it’s devalued immediately.
AC: Right. So I feel that the word “free” and gift economy have nothing to do with each other. I think they’re polar opposites. We say that we’re providing something of great love and of great worth, which is not denied to anybody. It’s openly accessible. And there’s a responsibility inherent with a gift, as opposed to a commodity, where you pay for it and you get to do whatever you want to with it.
That commodity system leaves us very free, and it also leaves us lacking connection. This is what Marx meant by alienation, I think. With the gift, it’s just the opposite. Gifts create a bond between us. They create a relationship between us. And not only create, but reinforce it. So gifts and stories are the lifeblood of a functioning community. Gifts and stories are always constantly exchanged between people. And gifts carry stories. So gifts actually increase in value the more they get passed around. As opposed to a commodity, which over time depreciates.
“Oh, my friend gave me this ball, which he carried around Nepal with him. He gave it to me because we had a great evening one night; we talked and I said something that really kind of changed his life. And he wanted to pass this on to me. And now, because you’re here and I haven’t seen you in so long, I want to pass this on to you so that you know how much I care about you.” In receiving the gift, you’re allowing yourself into that deepening of the relationship. And it’s carrying all those stories with it.
So what we say when people come to the Possibility Alliance is that we’re providing something of great value to you. And it’s up to you to assess what that value is, and then to receive it: to allow yourself to feel the experience of receiving a gift. And then, to choose what to do with that. It’s up to you whatever you choose to do with it. It could be paying it forward. It could be paying it back in some way. It could just be allowing yourself to experience the feeling of transformation and not knowing what is going to happen, but then making choices in a new way, once you leave.
Some people choose to leave federal currency with us, because they know we do have bills. Some people write us a thank you letter later with five pages of feedback on how we could be doing things better. Which is great. We love that. Some people go back to their communities and we never hear from them again. But we know that they’re doing great work there, because we hear it from other people.
Louis Hyde describes the gift as something that comes to you unbidden, transforms you and then leaves. So the nature of the gift is to move. It moves through us and does something to us when it comes through us. Then we’re left with gratitude and transformation. Then moving into that gratitude and acting on that transformation, transforms our lives and the lives of people around us.
RW: Beautifully put.
AC: The act of giving a gift invites us into experiencing life in a different way, especially in this culture. It is a doorway into the world of the mystery, because we don’t know how the gift operates. We don’t know how it works. The gift comes to us, like Louis Hyde said, unbidden. We don’t know from where it came, oftentimes. Why in the world would you stay up for three hours baking me an apple pie, when you could have been doing something so much better with your time? “Better”—something so much more utilitarian with your time. Right?
AC: But instead, for “no reason at all,” you took time to bake me a pie and you’re bringing it over today. Maybe you even left it on my doorstep, you know. You didn’t even get to see me. You spent valuable time to do something for me that you know that I will appreciate, which completely goes against the utilitarian culture of time is money. Right?
We’re operating in a different way that’s full of mystery and intrigue and it plugs us into the fundamental laws of the universe, which—like I said earlier—operate in ways we have access to, but that we don’t have control over. So the gift does this really magical thing of creating bonds, which is our true power. Our true power comes in the resiliency of a whole that is formed beyond ourselves. It plugs us into something that’s bigger than our individual being. The gift facilitates that.
So there’s a power that comes with the gift that we don’t really understand, but we know is true. We see it happen. And when gifts stop flowing, all of a sudden the community starts to break down, especially when we shift to a commodity-culture instead of a gift-culture where people do things out of love and respect for each other. When things become commodities, then we have to pay each other for it. And then every time we do that, it breaks that relationship, because there is no relationship in a commodity.
RW: Pretty concise.
AC: Economy comes from the Greek word oikos, which means home. I know people have different experiences of home. But ideally a home is a place of intimacy and connection and of the security of being seen and knowing that you’re loved. It’s this ultimate experience of belonging. This is ideal. So in a home almost all the exchanges are done out of love and reciprocity and mutuality.
I am going to do the dishes for you. And by the way, that’s three bucks. Or, I am going to make dinner for you. Oh, and this is a $12 meal. That doesn’t happen, right? So I’m suggesting let’s expand this notion of what our home is, because we live on the earth. We live in this community. I don’t just live in this house right here. I literally live in this community, as well. Economy means management of a home. So what could it mean to expand the notion of home economy?
The gift economy plugs us into that. This neighborhood is my home. So I am going to do things for my neighbor and I’m not going to charge them for it. I am just going to go do something, because I care about them. I know that they’re important. Not only that, I know the body of the community is my own body. A lot of First Nation people called their tribe their body, because they knew they couldn’t exist on their own.
The ultimate and utter fallacy of our modern paradigm is that we think that we can actually live as individuals, as the rugged individualist, which is a total lie. The idea that you can have your computer, you can buy things without talking to anyone, you can do work at home, you can drive to wherever you need to go to and you can exist without ever seeing anybody. We call that “individualism.”
The truth is that every single thing that’s a part of your life and that allows you to do all those things was created by hundreds of people and you have no idea of who they are—or where they are. The computer that you’re using, the car that you’re using, the gas that’s in your car, the roads that you use to get some place, the house that you’re living in, all of that was created by people. It’s just that we don’t have relationships with any of those people anymore.
So we’re living in the fallacy that we don’t need each other. Whereas the truth is we actually need each other for every single thing that we’re creating in our life. And we need the natural world as well. But our modern economy doesn’t actually account for any of that. It doesn’t account for functioning social systems. And it doesn’t account for functioning ecological systems. The GDP can’t measure those things.
So what I’m suggesting is let’s expand our notion of the home. Let’s do things out of love and caring for each other, because that’s what the reality is. The reality is that we actually do need each other. And I would much rather be responsible and recognize my need for people that I have loving relationships with as opposed to being reliant on people and systems that I have no access to, no knowledge of and no idea what I’m actually doing.
Pancho: See? You see why I wanted this conversation?
RW: This is important. I’m grateful for this, Pancho. There is something toxic about our extreme idea of individuality, meaning I can pleasure myself any way I please without any awareness or concern about what it costs anyone else. What you just described is a different view, which is so desperately needed now.
Pancho: And it’s not coming from the guy with the hat and the funky accent. It’s coming from someone who comes from a conservative family.
Sam: And one of the things you’ve been sharing is how the gift is so closely tied with culture and beauty and metaphor and all the things we might think of as art. I mean it’s like your bow to the sun. That is an artful response to the magnificence of life. And it’s something that seems to be closely tied with our capacity to process all of this in a way that engages others, and honors the interconnections that we have in ways that can be passed on multi-generationally. Commodification closes off those little nuggets of inter-connected beauty and sells them on shelves in the marketplace.
AC: Besides our thinking minds, I think the fundamental thing that makes us human is our ability to appreciate beauty—and that it is beauty that really saves us. I’m not saying the other stuff isn’t important, but if beauty isn’t a part of it, why be involved with it? I experienced something in the Himalayas that there are no words for. And that’s the experience of being alive that we’re seeking. So let’s seek the things that go beyond words and the true beauty of our essence.