I recently left a job that I had done for nearly six years, a social services government job that meant a great deal to me, that I considered a part of my spiritual practice. This job was, I hoped, a way to practice Thich Nhat Hanh's Fourth Mindfulness Training: awareness of suffering, trying to be present for those who suffer, so we can understand their situation and help them transform their suffering. And this is where the limitations of this job revealed themselves. Being with my clients meant I needed to take the time to listen to them, and be open to what they needed help with, but that wasn't acknowledged as part of the job, really. The "real" job was grilling them for information so I could decide whether or not the government considered them deserving of a monthly sum that most of us would not consider to be enough to do much more than pay rent and buy some very basic groceries. I wasn't there to be a guide or to be present: instead, I was a judge. Either they met the standards for the program, or they didn't, and if they didn't, I wasn't able to refer them to some other potential source of assistance because we had no training in that area at all.
What I learned is that the U.S. social service safety net has a big hole in it, and eventually, I began to feel complicit in this corruption of democracy. The Eleventh Mindfulness Training deals with right livelihood, and reminds us not to live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. Every day, I had to ask myself: Does this work help realize my ideal of understanding and compassion? Is it at least a step in that direction? I barely had time to answer the question; I was too busy working, doing what they wanted me to do. I was becoming cynical, angry, closed off, abrupt and irritable. I wasn't sleeping well, and had little energy to do anything when I got home from work. Being a judge wasn't something that I could stomach any longer...in truth, I was starting to feel like a jailer, herding people back into cages where they could be kept under control and away from more fortunate members of society---as though any one of us couldn't just as easily find ourselves in the same position.
In "Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Mystery and Authority," Starhawk poses the question: What would you do, how would you live, if the revolution wasn't something far off, was already here, happening right now? I thought more and more about that...and it became obvious to me that if compassion (instead of the economic bottom line) was designing a world, the job I was doing for the government simply wouldn't exist. I got out of there a few months ago, and feel much better about what I'm doing now, a job at a college, working directly with students. I'm still kind of a judge, but I'm in a better position to help them navigate the system, at least.
I don't understand much about economics, but all around me, I see the evidence: We need to start taking care of people, and, instead of judging them for what they lack, ask ourselves if their basic needs are being fulfilled, and what they have to offer. In the process, we will all benefit.
You can read about the 14 Mindfulness Trainings and see Starhawk's homepage