When I moved to Tasmania over a decade ago, I believed I was heading to the promised land where I could breathe in the sweet coastal/mountain air, revel in the natural beauty and cultural delights while I built my global career remote working in between jetting off to urban hotspots when required. Technology was giving us freedom from desks and buildings, and the promise of lifestyle and economic contribution was being waved as the future.
Having worked in the Commonwealth public sector, I had seen the myth and the reality of presenteeism and I knew that attendance didn't equal output. I'd sat behind a senior staffer and watched the hours pass by as he only broke with his endless game of digital solitaire to day trade and get coffee. I had watched a manager have his staff taken away so he would quit, only to see him call the Departmental bluff and sit in his office watching movies until a redundancy round was offered 12 months later. I'd seen another staff member sit at his desk and read through several thick volumes of fantasy novels in protest for being passed over for a promotion. Oh yes, remote or teleworking as it was known then was being heralded as a way of shifting to an output based world, where peer scrutiny and interdependence would regulate and motivate staff rather than top down authority.
Anyhoo, none of that utopian dream shiz happened. I quickly discovered bosses didn't even consider teleworking in the main, and trying to work out how to communicate, assign workflow and sign the going away cards was just all to hard. I stayed behind a variety of desks for a few years. And then suddenly, it started to coalese. Especially in Tasmania, where there just aren't enough specialist peeps, or your market is off island and so therefore are some of your workforce - working with folk elsewhere started to happen. Real estate prices also happened in Sydney. Melbourne and San Francisco, and agile company CEO's were looking across the water to the same things that had lured me here. Having big name startups like BaseCamp founder's book Remote: Office Not Required spell out the many benefits of remote workers, empowered other people to try it for their business, and let their staff to choose a lifestyle that made them more not less productive while at the same time releasing a lot of expensive overheads. Technology got even smarter and products like Slack and Yammer meant that we could chitter chatter with our peers and not miss a minute of 'who took my sandwich' and 'can someone please empty the bins' while tracking the granular aspects of our project progress and milestones. And then after that decade of working for big gov, big education, and myself in small boutique consultancy, I finally started working remotely for a global edtech startup based in Sydney. And it totally doesn't suck.
So what does living the dream look like and how does it work? For businesses wanting to try it on, and staff wanting to make the pitch to their bosses, here are the things that I think make it work, and what has to be nurtured to ensure it does.
Some folks dig remote working, because they have certain aptitudes that make it their thang. For me, I love working on my own, not because i'm a monster or hate people, but because I like long tracts of uninterrupted time where I can intellectually sprint and not smash into an impromptu meeting or get drawn into a compelling conversation that fuels my FOMO. From years of side hustles, study and then my own business, I am a multitasking machine, disciplined and deadline driven. I don't need a lot of direction in my work and I know when to say I don't know what i'm doing and ask for help. This is a good set of qualities to have when it comes to knuckling down, making decisions, avoiding disaster and producing results. I'm a peoplenotpeople person, when they're there I thrive, when not, still thriving.
Remote workers need to be performance managed closely. As much so they can articulate how they are going and what is needed, as to get feedback on their performance. People need the chance to talk about where and how they are going, and be open and honest, and if performance management is done regularly and well, those talks build up a profile where if cracks or issues arise, they are easy to spot, and easier to talk about when a dialogue is already in place. If things aren't working for either party, then not discussing them or acknowledging them won't make them go away. As with my example of public sector staff who were frozen out or ignored as a management strategy, this simply made them more defiant and oppositional. Neither of those peeps in the examples were bad people, they were just unhappy and badly managed, and it brought out the worst in them and wasted a lot of money and time. Don't allow remote workers to be out of sight and out of mind, there still needs to be structure and management. Most workers who want to work remotely are super glad and grateful for the opportunity and understand how it improves their quality of live. I certainly see it as a priviledge not a right, and that I have to put in a bit more to make it work.
You need to be able to work happily and safely if you remote work in an environment conductive to it. Both my partner and I work remotely for city based tech startups, so we have a solid network set up (at our expense) so video conferences don't drop out and lots of devices can run at once without stressing the network. Our internet speed is adequate, with very slow fibre to the node NBN and some boosting. This was the most critical thing to get right, and again, we invested in that network to get it faster. We BYOT so we have the tech tools we like, and upgrade when we need to. Connectivity is an inescapable reality of remote working, so you need to make sure that you have a sturdy reliable internet connection. Space is important too, and getting a spot to do your work that is comfortable, with air and light also makes work a place you want to go. Don't scrimp on your infrastructure. I have a standup/sitdown desk, an ergonomic chair set up and all of that stuff that means that my WHS is the same as if I was in an office. Our skeletons matter and you need to ensure that you aren't putting yourself or your productivity at risk.
Living on the peri urban fringe of Hobart means I can be in the rural charm of a country town, and at an airport in 50 mins, or in the city co-working in 30mins if I need my fix of tech startup playmates. It's remote remoteness meets big city lights and it strikes a perfect balance . I also work in our Sydney HQ once a fortnight, which means that I keep abreast of the people and don't feel remote to our brand and can contribute to the culture. That's a pretty high frequency of travel, but as a startup sprinting into a massive global market, it is what needs to happen right now, and suits me perfectly. My partner travels maybe once a month/six weeks to manage a large infrastructure build project, and is much more remote based, different strokes for different projects at different times.
3. Projects + Comms
Remote working lives and dies by communication. Especially in the early days when everyone is adjusting to you not 'being there' making sure that you are included and remembered in critical conversations is important to get everyone out of the habit of working with what they can see. Using different channels for different comms helps: we have Slack for chatter, for teams based comms, for broadcast info and for one on one discussion. Email is for more formal comms and for actionable items, Google docs is for all our collaborations and FaceTime and Skype for meetings. We have a marketing standup meeting with FaceTime every morning to touch base, and the phone is used when a conversation that isn't text based is needed.
For me, instinct drives a lot of how and when I communicate. Sometimes you just need to pick up the phone, or in a world of Slack in the office, get up from your hotdesk and talk face to face. Initial meetings I like to do in person if possible or with video, just to get a shared sense of who we are, which makes shorthand in email and messaging less likely to go awry with careless misinterpretation of tone. Lots of comms helps to ensure that everyone knows what they are doing - and why and when it is needed. The halcyon dream of teams policing their own members by obvious weak links of output does work, and this democratic form of working together for the greater good is a motivating force.
You don't need a boss breathing down your neck when your neck is supporting a whole lot of other body parts and them you, the symbiosis works (where perhaps the analogy doesn't ha ha). Responsible autonomous workers know what they have to do and when and what their role is. Empowered with knowledge and skills, they can choose when to have a surf, or a nap, or take the dog for a walk or do yoga, and when to knuckle down and get the job done. This gives you three 8 hour days to choose from in every 4 hour day when planning your time, and often the day can be chunked up to mean you are constantly motivated and fresh on the page. With output based endeavours, there is no early or late start, there is just when the work has to be done, around daily meeting committments etc. This works super well when your customers are in different time zones. and especially, we are never too far away from a real time conversation.
4. The Reality
Remote working suits me perfectly, and I love it. And yes, there are a lot of trackies and ugg boots involved in my work wardrobe. If I lived in Sydney i'd still work a couple of days a week out of the office, as a change of scenery and quiet focus is integral to how I like to work. I get up early and start early, can meander around when I want, can work into the night if the mood takes me or on a weekend if I want to do something non work during the week. I don't watch the clock as I work to get tasks done, and often that is to make space for more speculative planning and strategy for the organisation and future opportunities once i've cleared my desk. This lifestyle means I can hang with my partner, pets and family and give them quality time. I'm integrated and also give the best to my work as I am in a creative and supportive space for me. I don't have to worry over the office being too hot or cold, or any of the things that can be a drag to manage for a group of individual needs. When I am in the office, its a treat and I really appreciate the company of my peers, it is like meeting up with a group of super smart buddies, and I take that warm feeling away with me for our offline comms. My environmental footprint is smaller, I spend less money on food and coffee, (and outfits, see comment re trackies) and I make time for yoga and meditation which in turn make me work better. I can throw in a load of washing, make granola, soak lentils and other goddess activities while i'm working which means time 'off' work isn't full of domestic shiz and an overwhelming misery.
Sure, remote working isn't for all people or all industries, but there are a massive amount that it is for that don't even have it on their radar. If you want to give it a go, give your boss and your organisation a strong reason as to why and how it will work for the organisation and its bottom line as well as your own needs. Trial it for a day a week for a quarter and review. More traditional industries move slowly, and even agile ones can take a while to get the value proposition. Most bosses I talk to have as their main concern the capacity to not be able to have the person 'on demand', so you need to understand what are the concerns of your workplace hierarchy and co-workers and make sure you hear and address them. If you can, give your staff a choice and see if they want to go remote, make it easy for them and make sure that the tech and channels are available and that you are part of a leadership culture of flexibility. Remote working is also one of the ways that equity and diversity especially for women can be enshrined, and by making work flexible men have more ops to go and do many of those 'school pick up' style tasks that hold women out of the workforce and senior roles for longer.
When the workforce is flexible, remote, half and half, whatever suits, you give people the capacity for creativity and expression, for integration of their lives and their jobs, and not creating the artificial lines that we have a work life and a non work life. There is no work life balance there is only life, and it is short and precious and much better when every part of it flows with harmony and happiness.
A friend of mine was talking to me about his business and some cool new video he had made. 'You wouldn't have seen it,' he said, 'now you're not social anymore.'
Say wha? We were at a Tasmanian food festival called Festivale, with about a million other people, it was pretty social. He was referring to my recent personal withdrawal from the world of Facebook and Instagram. In Gwyneth Paltrow terms, i've consciously socially uncoupled. I'm still friends with social media for business, but in all other realms we're certainly having some space. What was interesting and disturbing about the comments my pal made was that not posting every meal and waking thought on social media had made me somehow invisible, even thought I was there in the flesh, hanging out with meaning in real life and real time, completely present to him and my other buddies who were there.
As a digital strategist, i've been on social media for a while. I've been deeply embedded in it, a frequent user, and a strong advocate for it. This is my work, and I respect and like so many things about social media and the digital landscape generally for interconnection with customers, co-creation of products and creating meaningful two way narratives. What I don't like, which is the tension and porosity of my relationship with social media as part of my work, is what it is doing to us socially and culturally as people.
I'm on a soapbox made of sand, there's no denying it, a shallow search will find me all over the social waves up until recently. It was Kopan that really sounded the end of my love affair with social media as part of my personal life. Because its not personal. It is a public broadcast to all and sundry. At Kopan, so much time was spent meditating on our deep addictions to our identity, the sensory pleasures of life and our attachment to the permanence of who we are. In Buddhism, the work of meditation is to grow an awareness of how all these things are impermanent, and the goodness of our essential buddha nature being something that is untainted by our actions and identity.
We meditate to go within and try and retrain our brains to see our essential good qualities, rather than the 'dirt on the mirror' of our experiences and personal brand. What came up in meditation so clearly for me was the realisation of how much we (and I of course) sought external validation of who we are through social media. That the process of looking constantly for likes, or the anxiety and stress of not getting any or enough likes or that particular person we were looking for approval from, consciously and unconsciously drove how we presented ourselves and our images.
We do it so often, that the pattern of posting and looking for reinforcement, and doing the same for others is hardwired. This is us, being. But its not reality, it is a version of reality, a curated string of moments heavily filtered and mediated by a screen, selected to meet pre conceived approvals on a limited spectrum of appropriate posts for our audiences. We are playing to the crowd, and looking for the encore many times a day. We look for posting opportunities, and design our work, play, meals, events and looks often with a mind to how we are going to display. It just looks like us, but who is it really? There is an aspect of impermanence to it all, as the pictures move through moments and days and are quickly replaced, but the story we are creating remains.
The more we tell the narrative, the more it becomes our truth, and the more we are confined by the world that we have created, that seems sometimes as hungry as a 24 hour news feed. The more I dug into my own posting, the more I asked what purpose all these pictures and opinions I had served. Who did they serve? The answer was largely me and my ego. What's worse, is that inadvertently, they had the power to harm. By my skiting and posturing about my food, and my travel and my stuff generally, perhaps I was triggering in someone else a deep sense of lack, or resentment, or sadness. Maybe what I had thought was modelling some form of excellence was merely modelling ego, and creating the very fixed identity that in the quest to understand Buddhism and myself I was being asked to gently and compassionately dismantle.
I'm keeping my meals to myself these days, and most of my other opinions, and trying to simply offer actual phone calls, quiet active listening with respect and empathy, and a laser focussed eye on my own mind, speech and body to see if I can go for more than a nano second without thinking or speaking with judgement and rampant opinions. I'm still a total fan of social media for business, and its power, but I stick by my decision to socially uncouple from the bardo of social media, and try and remain present to the limitless characters and array of filters that life already offers me to get distracted and beguiled by.
When I first became interested in Buddhism, I went to a workshop with my nuncrush, Venerable Robina Courtin (swoon) on death and dying, cheerfully called How to Have a Happy Death and a Happy Life. It was fascinating, and like the title suggests, reflected the Buddhist belief that our human lives should be spent preparing for our death and next (higher) rebirth. That we should turn our focus to being the best we can karmically, while purifying old negative karmas to ensure we keep a human body as a minimum vehicle for our consciousness to get around in. This isn't the blog post to unpack or discuss some of the immense ideas contained in that sentence, lets save that for another eon of time together. What that workshop did was really viscerally remind me about death and impermanence, and how we take being alive so totally for granted.
When I say we, I mean nearly all of us (except when we are in the grips of a serious or terminal illness or perhaps close to someone who is) are not in the daily mindset of death being imminent. In reality it is more of a miracle that we are still alive than that we will die. Even Ven Rob, who has spent the last 4 decades as a Buddhist nun working with death, impermanence and many prisoners on death row, said at the workshop that it was editing a recent book on death and dying that FINALLY made her begin to, at a more emotional and spiritual level, connect with the understanding of death as real and imminent. And she meditates on death every day. It is easy to say we're going to die. It is an infallible truth, even in a post truth world. The only reliable thing from the moment of birth is that we will at some point die. It is a dead set certainty. So why is it so hard to incorporate in our mode of living, and in our behaviour?
A desire to hold on to what we have in our minds as a fixed identity and all that entails with regard to our relationships with people, animals, houses, cars and experiences is no doubt part of that disbelief. All the complexity of our belief systems feed into our immortality in a behavioural sense, and of course our ego, which is control and command for the 'i'm going to live forever,' Fame school of theme songs. There are Buddhist practices that suggest every morning as part of meditation practice celebrating that you made it through the night, and meditating on the many tens of thousands of people who did die. I find this a fascinating beginning to the day, and do it quite often, along with using the idea that I could literally die at any time, and so better get on with being kind and compassionate to all sentient beings so I have some hope of getting my act together when death does come a knocking.
With my thoughts of death, meditation on death and impermanence, and that chunk of time at Kopan Monastery really honing in on the fragile grip my little flesh and waste machine has on life, i've observed a recent spate of deaths and our reaction to them culturally with interest and compassion, especially the reaction of the community in Melbourne to the deaths caused by one man and a fast moving vehicle. Those deaths were shocking, violent and inconceivable, a sentiment expressed by bewildered people struggling to understand how that incident could have happened. Stages of grief have been on raw display, with the question asked so often of how it could be prevented from ever happening again. I have no doubt that on the same day in Melbourne that four people were killed by an allegedly mentally ill and drug affected man, four elderly people died from natural causes. These deaths aren't shocking to us as we have in our minds a natural order of lifespan - we are born, live for many decades, and die peacefully in our sleep or surrounded by loved ones having achieved everything we were destined to do. That is the accepted narrative of a human life in the Western world, clean clear, dignified and gentle.
The death of babies, young fathers, vibrant young women and happy go lucky tourists exploring a new country is not the subject of our death narratives, especially when those deaths seem completely random. The victims in Melbourne were four people just going about their day, not planning that their lives were about to end without warning. Just an ordinary day, as they say, like any other. This is the seed of our grief and terror, the brutal reminder that death could happen to any of us, at any time. There were many thousands of people in Melbourne at lunchtime that day, and many who were directly affected when that car was driven up Bourke St Mall. Many people had a firsthand or first responder experience of just how easy it is to be killed and to die. The stark truth of our lives is our stuff can't save us, our love can't save us, our jobs can't save us, our families can't save us, our intentions can't save us. Whether we are good or bad people by anyone's measure. All the things that we work toward and gauge our success by, none of them are a shield to death.
As the country watched the Melbourne memorials and mirrored the sadness and anger across the country, a lone man also died in Brisbane. He was an actor on a film set for a music video, fatally shot in the chest when a prop backfired and killed him. News reports showed videos and images of a man at his physical peak, cut and buffed, a handsome man of action, who was about to get his big break in the film industry. He had gone to work that day like any other, in a profession that is fundamentally safe, an industry based on illusion and the magic of film. His death too brought the familiar responses of shock and disbelief - how could this have happened? It's a question we keep asking. We never simply say of course he or she died, we're all going to die and this was how their death happened, that death is itself unremarkable and the means extremely variable. An expectation, a time for acceptance and reflection and compassion.
We should see it coming, but we've all drunk the cool aid of the natural death, and the expectation and entitlement of every one of us to that full sentence of our own mortality, myself included. Our unique special oneness, that domain of the ego, endorses and reinforces this belief. Because we don't live in a society where there is wholesale death, rampant infant mortality, war, famine, unchecked disease or out of control lawlessness, our contexts support it too. Also because we tend to not talk about death, as if the mere mention of it will bring it swooping towards us wielding its scythe, there is an awkward gap in comfort and familiarity about death, so it never becomes normalised. We don't know how to be conversant about death, so we aren't, whenever and however it comes to us or others.
There are so many varied ways that the human body can become dead, we are quite the vulnerable animal. It's rather astonishing that so many of us live so long. Whether you subscribe to a Buddhist philosophy or not about the importance of mental and lived preparation for death, a good death can be had by anyone. And as the Buddhists recommend, this tends to be a result of living a good life, being up to date in your affairs and having a slate clean of regrets and unfinished emotional business. Things like resolving conflicts, telling people you love that you love them - often, being honest and open and authentic to what you want in life and how you want to be. Of course that works best when how you want to be is of and in service to others, a life that is not selfish or self oriented, as it has been proven over and over that having a generous outer life leads to a rich inner life.
For me, waking each day and acknowledging that it is a miracle i'm still here even if I don't truly get it on more than an intellectual level, forces me to think compassionately about all those who have died, and all those who are living with the grief. That action makes me start the day in a state of gratitude and loving empathy with many millions of strangers, and my little world dramas aren't so important. As I take each action like driving, eating, crossing the road, I try and remember that death is certain, only the time is uncertain - am I making the best use of my time, my mind, my body. Have I worked hard enough at the preparatory practices so if I am faced with death in an instant I remember what to do. Perhaps you're thinking this is a dark and maudlin mindset. This is only true when death is dark and maudlin, not a reality of life that can produce great joy when the rarity of having a functional human body and being born in a country of wealth and safety is taken into daily consideration. Our imminent death should be a cause for celebration and presence to our lives.
There is no legislation, or increased police presence, or any act that could prevent what happened in Melbourne happening again there or elsewhere. It is part of our very humanness that these events happen, and part of that humanness is that death will happen, the time and method of which remains unknown. I'd like to see us talk more about death, with our friends, partners, children, families, strangers. How we deal with it, plan for it, how we can be compassionate for those experiencing it or the grief of loss, what it means to die well and how we can be relaxed and prepared at anytime for the impermanence that we embody. Changing our stories about death and the illusion of permanence to a more open space where we could swap fear and blame for calm and conversation would be a start. Not looking for an explanation for the inevitable unexplainable would also help acceptance of the duality of our birth and thus our death. If you're reading this, you woke up alive today. Now that is something to celebrate.
One of the messages that was repeatedly taught at Kopan durning the November Course was that the benefits of practice are subtle. Over and over Lama Zopa Rinpoche simply said "sooooooooo subtle, sooooooooo subtle." I have to admit, as with so many things, I didn't really get it. My intellect got it: there would be no lightening bolt or seas parting when the effects of meditation and practice sank in. It wasn't a dog and pony show, it was something way more human and mundane - but in a sparkly realisation way, of course was what I secretly believed. The actual unknowing of things is a dangerous vacuum that gets filled with all manner of potentials. So even though I knew I didn't know, I still created a spectrum of all the concrete things that meditation would bring me and how i'd know.
One of the things which is always noted about a meditation practice is that it gets worse before it gets better. The mind gets more manic and uncontrollable, and it feels like you are throwing serenity into a high speed blender. That's why you have to practice and do it more than once or twice. Chances are you will be rubbish at the start, and as you practice get better and better. It is the act of doing as much as the doing that embeds the value and practice in your neural pathways as a positive activity and eventually things move into place.
As is the way of things, a few of my pals took up meditation around the same time I did. While the ace in the hole of that is that I have a sangha of meditation buddies to connect to and relate with when i'm on the cushion trying to keep my blender under control, it also means that people who I regularly have discussions about the big questions of my and their life have all got a solid 12 months of very regular if not daily practice under their belts. I was talking to one of my dear buddies the other day, and she said something about herself that was so profound in its awareness that it stopped me in my mid shopping with her tracks. What she said isn't for sharing in this post, the key point is that I have known this gal for several years, and watched as she worked through some issues with the usual pendulum of grace and frustration. Her realisation about herself was so massive, and so insightful, that it cut across many of the blocks in her life, bringing her clarity about why things were the way they were, her part in it all, and the patterns that repeated because of her behaviour and beliefs.
But wait, there's more. It wasn't just that this awareness had surfaced, it was that with this knowledge, her response was to simply know. She didn't feel she had to rush out and dramatically change things, there was nothing to change as she and the behaviour were impermanent. She saw that now in any situation she had a new vantage point from which to observe what was going on, rather than reacting right in. By knowing she had already neutralised the situation. It was at this point when I understood through her the expression of awareness + equanimity that I moved from mere intellectual knowledge about what subtlety was, to an appreciation of how it arose and how it was integrated. Soooooooo subtle. Soooooooo subtle. I put this entirely down to my pals regular meditation practice, by making the space in her mind and compassionately observing herself, the dust of illusion had rubbed off enough to show the aperture of innate knowledge. She had begun to know herself, and not judge herself or shy away from what she saw.
I couldn't have been more excited about this turn of events than if a sea had parted or the sky had sent a golden beam down on her head. I'm consequently seeing many more tiny subtle shifts in behaviour and attitude as I look for the minute awarenesses and changes in behaviour in myself. It's like building a sand castle one grain at a time, and appreciating the perfect placement of that exact grain and the structural gain, rather than groaning with frustration at the mountain of work still to come. I've had my own small awareness in the last week about the payoffs of subtlety. While I rock a meditation practice day in day out, my yoga practice, despite spending two months in a daily immersion in 2016 to build a yoga neural superhighway, was still massively intermittent. It worried me. I'd sit in meditation, looking at my yoga mat and berate myself for not getting on it. I wouldn't get on it, just berate myself then head off to the kitchen for breakfast. Berating myself about not doing a yoga home practice became a substitute for yoga.
At the beginning of this year, I joined about 50000 other people on a meditation app that I totally love called Insight Timer in a 365 day meditation challenge. This felt a bit lame as I meditated every day and was kinda just gaming the rewards, but the group feel is lovely. The 365 day challenge started with one minute of meditation, two minutes the next day, three the next and so on until everyone was doing 20mins. The idea being that a little regularly was much better than none at all. On day 5/365 I had a little revelation. I needed a yoga 365 to get myself into a daily habit. The subtle part was noticing that I had a lifelong (adult) habit of doing things in a none too subtle way. When I thought about yoga, I thought I had to be doing a 90 minute class at full tilt. Even my approach to getting a practice hadn't been to simply do a practice it had been to spend 8 weeks smashing out classes to become a yoga teacher.
The answer was to just do a little yoga every day. So I started my committment of 10 minutes for 365 consecutive days. If i'm sick or tired I can just do savasana, but unless i'm dead or in a coma I have to roll out the mat and get on it and practice yoga. And I have, every day since I decided to do it. I can always find ten minutes, at both ends of the day and in between. And hey presto, I have a daily yoga practice and a mat that doesn't sit in the corner of the room giving me the guilts. This may seem kinda obvious, but I never would have dreamed of only doing 10 minutes of yoga. What was the point I would have thought - its not enough. Yoga is the point, and it is enough is the answer. And it is teaching me that a little done mindfully and with full intention and committment is enough, in all things, and far more valuable than doing nothing. All of these awarenesses cascade throughout the day to remind me that little acts, little thoughts, little words, they all make a difference, and when they are positive acts, they can make a big difference.
What's that rustling sound? Tumbleweeds gently rolling across the journal? The sound of noble silence has accompanied my November and December entries, but I do have an excuse of sorts, having been ensconsed in Kopan Monastery at the November Course from 1st November until 5th of December and, well, the rest of the month was all bhakti business teaching and Christmas cheering. I wanted a little space between doing the course and writing about it as I needed to get a little settled and integrated with it all before I tried to explain it.
Frankly it was hard. Far far harder than I had imagined it would be. After all, having survived eight gruelling weeks of yoga teacher training, how hard could 4 weeks be I thought. And we now know the answer was HARD. I've struggled a little bit to work out why it was so hard. Of course there is a swift and simple answer (spoiler alert here): my mind. In reality, I probably reacted exactly as I was meant to. The November Course isn't supposed to be easy. It's not a luxury retreat, its 30 days of intense self investigation under the guise of learning the teachings of the Graduated Path to Enlightenment, also known as the Lam Rim. For Westerners, even ones like me who have spent a bit of time studying Eastern philosophy and religious traditions, these teachings are deep, confronting and intense. They ask us to radically review everything we know about WHO we are, to conclude that everything, ourselves and our identities included are impermanent and empty.
While conceptually this is able to be understood, it is the move from intellecual understanding to wisdom and realisation that may take more than a few lifetimes to master. The teachings were dense and brain bending, but while I may have had more than a few moments of wanting to throw in the meditation cushion and come home, I forced myself to keep sitting, and listening, and meditating and squirming at my self discorvery. I observed how I wanted to run into the arms of sense distractions, pull a doona over my head and not have to know what I know now about the effort required to practice compassion - and how much throughout my life I hadn't done this. At the time I thrashed around in my brain looking for all the things I could blame for how hard it was. And actually, I came up pretty short. The food was delicious, the monastery was beautiful, the monks and nuns were kind and helpful, the bed was comfortable, my roommate was lovely and so were the other 200 people on the journey with me. Even the weather was hot and sunny everyday, not the mid winter thermal inducing freeze fest I had packed for. Nope, there was nothing wrong with Kopan. That left only me, and my mind as the culprits of my struggle.
I learned a very good lesson on retreat, and actually am daily having little snack size wisdoms arising from what was poured into my brain during those daily teachings. I thought I was nailing the spiritual life, and that my righteous daily meditation, cruelty free eating, and attempts at bhakti were reward worthy. What I realised was that so much of this activity was totally motivated by my own sense of ego and identity, I was doing it for me, not for service or for others. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't invalidate the efforts, as at least I wasn't torturing kittens and making purses out of puppy fur. The realisation is that I fall so easily into the trap of self cherishing and attachment to wordly sensation or samsara, and that the work of compassion and service is far, far harder than I had wanted to imagine.
I came home exhausted and a little freaked out by the whole experience. I wondered if I had lost my faith and all my spiritual aspirations were some cruel kind of emperors new clothes? I thought perhaps I just didn't have what it took, that all of my austerities and practice were pointless. I wallowed around in my mind for a while, in a warm bath of poor me, and then realised that I was still doing it, back in the trap of myself as the centre of the world. All I had to do was be of service, to take little daily steps of kindness and that alone was exactly what the complexity of the Buddhist teachings boiled down to in their essence. Make this life the best it can be to prepare for your next one. There was no need for a monster self indulgent crisis.
Here were the truths: learning is hard, some experiences are hard - that's what makes them valuable learning. Teachings and teachers can be challenging, which is good. Growth and change takes work, lots of work, and the rewards aren't fast or personal. But doing the practice, as i've sung from my soapbox so many times before, that is the pathway, a little bit every day. Despite my deep self questioning, I never stopped my meditation, my mantra, my committment to the daily non negotiables. Even though it may have been begrudging at times, I swiftly came back to the joy of a spiritual practice. I got that my blocks were staring me down from the mirror, and while it would have been easy to give up, it was the tyranny of easy that I was ultimately fighting against. The November Program was one of the toughest things i've done, (and i've done a few in the name of curiousity, self development and seeking) but ultimately it is also, I suspect, going to be one of the most profound and long lasting experiences that will inform the next passage of my life and my work.
I just got my ass seriously whupped in a hot yoga class. I'd been hanging out to go to Yoga to the People in Brooklyn, as they have an ethos about yoga and its availability for everybody and every body that completely resonates with me, with the tagline ALL BODIES RISE. I'd booked an AirBnB down the road from the studio and close to my favourite park for running, and was loving having excellent recreation options plus all the tasty treats in the one hipster neighbourhood. When I rocked up for a hot one hour vinyasa class, the instructor asked me if i'd done hot yoga before. I said yes. Of course I had, it was one of my preferred styles living in a (very) cold climate, and I had a mildly smug inner monologue about being an experienced yogi - i'm a yoga teacher you know. He mentioned again it was a hot class, and that it was hot for the whole session and once in you needed to stay in. Yep. Hot yoga. Got it. He talked me through some breathing exercises that they started the sequence with and off I went, ready for the session.
One of the things I loved about the marketing for YttP was they so actively endorsed yoga as a lifestyle choice that was transformational and accessible. Explicitly not at all about the outfits or having banging bodies. That made me happy as I think so many people don't even begin with yoga as they think they are too inflexible or uncool or chunks or daggy or whatever, and because of that miss out on the amazing benefits it can bring as a practice. I noted as I looked around the room that I was the only one not in a bra and hotpants. Even the men were in micro shorts. But there I was bringing the diversity with a t-shirt and leggings. The class started on time with the pranayam as i'd been shown. It was instantly clear that the teacher was excellent. I think we had only got about ten minutes into the routine when I thought I was going to faint or puke or both. Hot yoga. The whole class is hot. Must stay for the whole class. I pushed into the next standing posture in a slippery un co-ordinated way. I was getting that starry, blurry, about to hit the deck feeling. I went into child's pose, and the instructor discreetly told me to flip over as child's pose would make me even hotter. I slumped onto my back.
This was not my beautiful life as a yogi and yoga teacher. This was me, wondering if I would spend the whole class in savasana, bathed in my own vomit and tears. The ego was amazing. Roaring like a five year old inside my head about how it was too hot, how the website promised equity and equality but clearly I was not getting my needs met lying like a broiled whale in a pool of sweat. I swung from rage, to injustice, to indignant righteousness to limp collapse. But I kept on giving it a go. I made it into vrskasana, but went down for trikonasana. Managed natarajasana, but no way was I getting into ardra chandrasana. Did I mention how hot it was? The other yogi's in the class were also having some down time in meltedasana, so my ego recovered a little, and I kept reminding myself to shut the fuck up and do what I could with grace in the moment. To lie on the mat and listen to the instructor and really appreciate the lovely sequence he was doing. I felt like I was cooking from the inside, like those kids who do to many drugs at dance parties and end up with broiled organs. I wondered if I would be the first person to experience that at a yoga class.
Finally we moved into floor postures, which I had been excelling in for most of the class. An interesting thing had happened as I tried and rested, and watched and sweated, I had really connected in to the fact that it was ok that it kind of wasn't happening like I expected it to. I was doing only what I could, and owned that. I kept getting back up again, and working at about 20 percent, and hitting corpse pose in between and breathing. I really felt the heat, and I thought about the suffering of people who lived and worked like this, how uncomfortable life can be, and how incredibly lucky my life was that in minutes I would get up, have a cold shower and return to my life of comfort with my body that worked pretty good most of the time. It was hot and I was right there with it, not as me in boo hoo victim mode, but in the moment, knowing it would pass, and I could struggle or surrender, and simply catalogue the experience. The class finished. I wasn't lying in a pool of puke having my organs run through an ice bath. I wasn't elegant, or graceful, or a long cool streak of Lululemon. I was a beet coloured overweight yogi with a limited range of movement who had survived and thrived.
When I swung by the desk as I was leaving the instructor said 'You did so great, you really looked after yourself.' I couldn't have been more chuffed. It what we are trained for, in YTT to instil in our students. To simply work with what is possible on the mat that day, that hour, not heroic backbends that leave you in traction. I wasn't any better or worse than anyone else because everyone in the class was in their own version of 40 degree heated hell together, each wrestling with their own egos and insecurities and trying to wrangle their minds, bodies and breath into some kind of discipline. We were all one, all together, just moving from breath to posture to breath.
Now i've cooled down i'm still walking on air, that asana kicking really reminded me of what the practice is about, why its important, and why I choose it and the lifestyle that goes with it. There's another class on tomorrow. I think i'll go. All bodies rise.
Bhakti Business - The Yoga of Business is in full edit mode. It is exciting and a little nerve wracking to get the comments back from my beta readers, but the outcomes so far are beyond thrilling. It is nothing short of awesome as a writer to see people connect with your ideas and make them resonate with their own motivations and experiences. Unsurprisingly since my head is back in the manuscript, i'm seeing signs of bhakti business everywhere. My radar is fine tuned, my ears are like little bat sonars and i'm hearing people talk about their frustrations, their sadness, their attachments, their dreams and the search for contentment and stillness in overstimulated lives. Maybe that's all projection, but its my mind and i'm sticking to it!
I caught a snippet of the ABC's One Plus One program last night with Australian comedian Charlie Pickering being interviewed. You can check it out here if you haven't seen it. Charlie Pickering said a couple of things that so directly spoke to his awareness of his dharma, and what dharma is and how it operates in our lives. If you are unfamiliar with the term Dharma, depending on your school of thought or spiritual lineage can mean different things. The Hindu connotation of dharma is that your dharma is the right way to live. It’s personal in as much as only you are able to determine what your dharma is, and like a fingerprint, it is different for everyone. Some of us are born with a very clear sense of what we are here to do. I can only speculate on why that is, and in the bigger scheme of things knowing it and living it doesn’t always correlate.
What does seem to be universal is that no matter how we try and navigate around it, we are brought back in by a tide that calls us to what seems to be stitched deep into our sense of self. This purpose is our dharma, and thus our right way to live. Thereis in reality no simple English translation of dharma, and in the Buddhist traditions it means subtly a different thing. The Buddha taught a method of dharma or dharma practice, rather than a religion. The dharma in Buddhism or buddhadharma is not something to believe in, but something to do. The Buddha challenged people to understand the nature of anguish/suffering, let go of its origins, realise its cessation, and bring into being a way of life that had at its heart the best interest of all sentient beings. The dharma is a method to be investigated and tried out. It starts by facing up to the primacy and universality of suffering, then proceeds to apply a set of practices to understand the human dilemma and work toward a resolution.
In a world where we are so influenced by the opinions and actions of others, and forensically study the minutiae of ours and others lives through the portal of social media, our own path is difficult to discern. When we live in a state of comparison and judgment, under the perpetual threat of criticism and social shaming, we end up parroting the behaviour of others hoping that it will serve us and keep us under the radar. We do as we are told, or as we think we should, and hope that through this strategy happiness will appear. What we get through this method of being is suffering and endless layers of false perceptions to reverse as we sink more deeply into the mire of sense attachments. In the process, getting further and further away from even the hint of a concept like resting comfortably in our own divinity, our dharma or simple happiness.
Charlie Pickering wanted to be a comedian from early childhood, where often we see the first clear markers of what makes us feel that we are us. As he points out in the interview, it is an awkward conversation to have with your careers counsellor at high school, so instead of pursuing what he really wanted to do, he went to uni and became a lawyer. When he got to taking his articles so he could practice law, he looked around the office and noticed that the most successful lawyers were also the unhappiest. It was here that he did something really brave. He saw that pursuing this line of work was going to make him unhappy, he knew that he still wanted to be a comedian, and so he quit.
I think there is some genius in his timing, comic and otherwise. If he had simply finished school and tried out comedy, it would have been much easier to fail and not keep getting back up. To have his 'comedy period' seen as a gap year before he grew up and got a real job. By finishing his degree and beginning his career in law, he demonstrated to himself that he could work hard, achieve results and make it. But he also demonstrated that just because he could do it, didn't mean he should. To get that far and then abandon his career for comedy, that really upped the stakes. He was driven to succeed and he really wanted it. This ambition and drive is evident in both his work ethic, his material and ultimately his success. Comedy is his dharma, finding humour in all things is what motivates his life and that, for him, is enough. The interviewer asked him in the interview how he was going to change the world. And it was his response to this question that was the biggest reveal about the extent to which Charlie Pickering is actually embodying his true nature of self.
If we just unpack the question for a moment, the idea of 'changing the world' is an overlay of how much we all are expected to aspire to bigness. Especially if any level of celebrity or notoriety has been gained. It's not enough to just do your thing, there needs to be a world changing element in there for extra sauce. We all are told by endless Instagram memes to dream big, to stop playing small, etc etc. All inferring once again that we are not enough. Charlie looked bemused by the question for a brief moment, and responded by saying that he had no interest in changing the world, he was only here to find humour in things. That was all. I love this notion, the idea that in our dharma we are enough, and to be complete and content is in itself perfection. He didn't need to 'play big' as by modelling his own authenticity, the practice of his work as a comedian, and the path of choosing who you are over what you think you should be, he couldn't play any bigger if he tried. That is living dharma.
I stumbled across this excellent piece of writing by Kristi Coulter on Medium, about her growing awareness of the pervasiveness of alcohol use (especially with women) and her experiences once she gave up booze. It, her and the platform Medium are all winners, and I highly recommend an afternoon swimming in short form musings. Good for the soul.
On January 1st this year I also gave up booze. With an impending 2 months living yogi at an ashram I wanted to get in training, and not being known to do things in a moderate way, I went method style headfirst. Initially I thought i'd have three months off, and re-asses my inputs when I got back to life and reality in March. For anyone who knows me or follows my Instagram feed, I was a total booze hound. I loved the wine industry, the bespoke spirit makers, the inspirational cocktail designers. I loved hanging with buddies over wine, and getting off my chops when the occasion called for it.
The decision to stop drinking while easy with project yogi in train, had some bigger downstream concerns as my time at the ashram came to a halt. I didn't want to start drinking again. I really liked living in a spiritually centred way. What excuse did I have when I re-entered my normal life to keep living la vida wowser? Who was I going to be if I wasn't the me that was feasting on BBQed creatures and snapping pictures of champagne bottle roll calls the morning after?
More critically, what would life be like not sharing glasses of wine with John McGee? 17 years of love had seen a lot of wine under the bridge, and so much of our travel and leisure involved hunting down new wine regions to explore, new hipster bars globally - what if my decision actually derailed our relationship? To even contemplate what I considered to be a rock solid love affair to be held together by wine o clock was enough reason to have a serious look at my relationship with alcohol.
There were friends I had that over a couple of decades, good friends, that I hadn't hung out with without drinking. Like ever. It felt crazy that I had such an attachment to booze and its culture. I never considered myself a problem drinker, but I was beginning to think drinking was a problem. Of course I could give it up any time as they say. I had regularly undertaken periods of fasting and cleansing without drinking, and I didn't drink every day. But I clearly had an enmeshed relationship with alcohol and more broadly I think we have a cultural problem with drinking. It is so easy to keep the bevvies coming without a whole lot of self investigation as to why everything festive, sad, hard, celebratory, or even mundane comes with a side order of intoxicant.
Yogi's and other assorted spiritual pundits don't drink for pretty simple reasons. Intoxicants get in the way of enlightenment. They distract you from your vows to live life without suffering and no one likes an early meditation session with a thumping hangover. With enough yoga, meditation and pranayama you can achieve some awesome states of enjoyment. In Ayurveda, alcohol is classed as a rajasic substance, which is overstimulating for your doshas and takes you away from being in a sattvic state, seen as the optimal mode for happiness and contentment to prevail. For me, the journey of stopping a thousand sips started with just continuing on not drinking booze when I got home.
It was way easier than I thought in my catastrophising of all social occasions and friendship wastelands. People were still interesting, parties were still parties, celebration and commiseration part of life and heart felt. John McGee was still divine, and as a bonus he, and all my other buddies now had a designated driver. In the spirit of not being in denial or worse judgemental smugness, every now and then I sip someones wine or have a mini cocktail. My once razor sharp palate doesn't dig the taste of the alcohol anymore, so I end up just having a sniff of the nose of a pinot or nibbling a marascino cherry and not feeling at all deprived.
This isn't a treatise on the evils of drink, don't get me wrong. It's a musing on my own surprise at not only stopping drinking, but realising how much something as ordinary as a liquid played in my life and choices. It seems bizarre. There were definatly times for me when drinking was a silencer about feeling unhappy and unfulfilled. I absolutely did and said things when drunk that I would never have done when sober, and not all of them hilarious Facebook worthy memes.
Social stuff aside, i'm absolutely sure that my productivity, my spiritual practice and study would all have dropped away if I had returned to my lifestyle of sensory pleasure. Getting up early to meditate and do yoga in winter would NOT have happened, being disciplined would not have happened, and so this austerity has in turn given me a whole swag of motivation and projects that I can absolutely get done. It has also freed up cash, which is a good thing when I am taking chunks of time off earning revenue to write books and hang out in ashrams and monastries.
These are of course a path of investing in future growth, but not supporting the cost of bottles of wine and outrageous restaurant bills makes the balance seem better. For the first time we have planned a trip to Portland and New York not around the most direct route to cocktail bars and Michelin starred restaurants, but where the yoga studios, running tracks, Buddhist temples, wholefood supermarkets and vegan diners are. Uh huh. It's a brave new world. Stay tuned in September for an Instagram travelogue of pretty mocktails, puja and faux meats.
There is a creeping guilt when journal entries are somewhat irregular. I could launch into some excuses, but all i'm going to say is the manuscript for Bhakti Business is finished! Phew. Writing the new book has been amazing. From getting the greenlight in April with an August deadline, i've hurtled like a pinball around emotions, panic, not being enough, fear then determination and resolve. I'm something of a method writer, so this was just perfect for the type of text that I wanted to write. As I birthed through my own dharma, I was given such clarity and insight into what I needed to say, and the right sequence to say it in. The editing process has begun, and now I have time to reflect, take a breath and get ready for the next stage. And some journaling!
There were so many 'a-ha' moments as I was writing, and i'm going to share some of them with you over the coming weeks as we lead up to pre-sales in November. But this is the one that is still sitting with me today. I have written a lot in the book about material spiritualism, the trap of harnessing our true nature of selves to explicitly finding our passion and purpose for self cherishing material gain. It's an artefact of the nineties, that exploded with the idea you only needed to use a little magic and manifest the things of your dreams to find happiness. More on this later in a dedicated post.
One of the hangovers of this belief system, and especially when it relates to the self and to business, is the expression 'fake it till you make it.' We've all heard it, and many of us feel that we are already faking it through our lives, hoping no one will notice we haven't a clue what we are doing or why. But lets unpack it a little bit. Fake it till you make it is endorsed by well meaning spiritualists and business gurus alike. As you delve into life, and especially when you are on the path hunting out your true nature of self, you are learning new information and mastering new skills with the discipline of practice.
You may literally at this stage be feeling like you are at any minute about to be called out by real professionals on your ignorance and lack. This is imaginary and its that old Ms. Ego bitching and moaning again rather than reality. As we are getting in the business of bhakti business, this is an occasion where you can step back into the position of observer and take a subjective look at how this concept sits with you and your values.
Faking it till you make it is fundamentally all about what other people think of you; it is trying to keep a front of reputation for a faceless crowd, so you can backfill it and eventually be that big gal on campus. This has got ego written all over it. The reality of life is that you are learning, and don't know everything (please introduce me when you meet the person that does). This is a beautiful opportunity to take people on the journey with you from day one and let them experience it with you. As Ram Dass says, falling flat on your face is an act of leadership, as it encourages all of the people who are too trapped to do what you are doing to believe in themselves and their capacity.
You may or may not fall on your face. The point is it doesn't matter. This is not a matter of being or feeling fake. Rather, it is like in Buddhism when you are making the choice to be bodhisattva: you are choosing to live as an enlightened being so you can in turn enlighten all others. You meditate on being Buddha as though you possess all of the qualities of a fully enlightened being and behave as one with complete compassion. You aren’t the Buddha – yet. In doing this practice you are acknowledging that within all of us (yes, ALL of us) there is the capacity for enlightenment in this lifetime.
It much easier to do nothing if you feel there is no way you can reach the finish line. By acknowledging what’s possible, then you are the only impediment. And you are already working hard to get our of your own way. I've come up with an antidote saying to eradicate the epidemic of 'fake it till you make its.' For all those bhaktipreneurs that want to live in the real its time for you to 'be it till you are it.' This is living bhakti, and when you are in the moment, filled with unconditional love, working to serve all sentient beings, you've already made it.
I'm bucking the trend of 80's post punk humanitarian bands as I love Mondays. A wide open door of newness and opportunity. So today's Monday came on the heels of a Sunday in Murwullimbah where the rain was so relentless I was googling ark designs. Bright hard sunshine with a feeling of power that pushed through the damp and grey. As a writer, I am always indebted to bloggers that review my work and take the time out to interview me. It's always a double treat when they bring a love and understanding to my work. With Love for Books did Dogs of India proud with this piece and a little giveaway to boot! Happy Monyay and enjoy.
Dr Polly McGee is one part writer, and many parts assorted thinker, do-er, talker, eater, chef, explorer, yogi, kirtaneer and dog wrangler. She has worked in kitchens, bars and restaurants from frantic to fancy, managed multi-million dollar innovation grants programs, advised hundreds of start-ups on how to refine their business ideas and source funding, and championed causes from a variety of soapboxes, lecterns and stages. Now she is devoted to spreading the love though Bhakti Business, combining the ancient principals of yoga with contemporary lean startup practices.