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Publications ~ Right Livelihood

for Perspective
the Publication of The Association of Humanistic Psychology

Right Livelihood
by Fred Mitouer PhD

Work as if you don't need the money
Love as if you have never been hurt,
And dance as if nobody is watching!
                        ~ Richard Squailia

One path of the Buddha's teaching, The Eight Fold Path, is "Right Livelihood." It implies that if we support ourselves through human service, then we take care of our households and our communities while cultivating our spiritual lives.

My home is in the country and I teach and provide bodywork for a living. I've done well supporting my family and being of service to my community and I'm grateful that I've found work I love.

The idea of right livelihood, to me, is more than merely doing what you love. It is about being in relationship with the Tao and about making choices that keep your work alive and free from the commercial distortions that arise to co-opt our simple gifts.

One day I received a phone call from a distressed woman who described her husband's desperate and painful physical condition. He had fallen off a tall ladder and, suffered severe skeletal, neurological, and muscular damage. Joe had been treated with anti-inflamatories, muscle relaxants and a bunch of x-rays that indicated he probably would not be able to move again without a wheel chair or a walker at best. Six months had passed. Joe and Karen had no insurance. They had used all of their resources to get this much attention. The pain was not going away and the medication had created, in Joe, a foggy aura of resignation and despair.

They arrived in a VW van; Joe was driven to me horizontally. We carried him, effortfully, into my treatment room and laid him down and then had an interview. The very first thing that came out of Karen's voice was a teary confession that they had no money, no insurance, and not much hope, and that they didn't know what to do anymore.

I took this in and told them that I could treat Joe for free but that doing so might not be as good as offering him a work-exchange, but only if he got better. Hearing this Joe said, "I'm pretty handy." Just that statement coming from him shifted something in the room and I said "Let's get to work."

In two sessions Joe stood upright and could walk with a cane; in five sessions he walked down the street looking for work. I believe that Joe's dignity got mobilized in our work. It was this dignity, I am convinced, that mobilized Joe's body to respond to the traction, manipulation and soft tissue massage I administered. But the interesting part of this story is what kind of payment came back to me.

First of all, Joe called me, not long after our sessions, and said he was ready to build the trash shed and gate that we had talked about. Secondly, half the community noticed Joe's changes and I received more free advertising than I could have gotten from volunteering my work for a year. And lastly, while Joe worked on these carpentry projects, my young son became his assistant and learned about woodworking while I got a free baby-sitter to boot.

Right livelihood is about dancing with the world in a way that betters what is at hand. And for the offering of betterment, a profit accrues that is both material and spiritual. Everyone wins. In ancient Taoist China, for example, healers only got paid when the patient got better; subsequently, when the healing did not occur, no payment was awarded because no value was earned. This concept of value earned is bedrock to right livelihood.

The polar opposite of right livelihood is that of a win-lose paradigm when the bettering of ourselves is at the expense of others, when we want more and want to give less for it. Today, the managed health care system (H.M.O.s) is charging more money for less care that is delivered poorly and usually without heart. Because the politicians, insurance companies and accountants have taken over the doctor-patient relationship, human dignity has been undermined on both sides of the exchange.

Throughout history the healing arts have occupied a special niche in the life of a community. Like food and water, health care has been considered a universal basic that a moral society must provide its members in some dignified manner. The sad reality is that they are being co-opted by the dominant culture with its scarcity myths and its mechanistic reductions.

A recent cartoon* illustrates this:

Patient Bill of Rights (as finally adopted)

[pictures a patient, with arms above his head against a wall, and a hospital administrator, hand on the patient's back, reading him his rights:]

"You have the right to remain silent; you have the right to consult a doctor, if you can afford one; if you can't, one will be appointed for you by an HMO if you can afford that; anything you say can and will be used against you in determining your future premiums."

*by Toles/Universal Press Syndicate

I have always enjoyed conducting my business independently. Everytime I have worked with people who have paid for my services through some insurance claim, I have sworn I would never do it again. It seems that some intangible part of the work, or the relationship, became tainted by the system dynamics that came into play.

As alternative health practitioners, we are being courted by the mainstream principals to play their game. There is talk of upgrading our legitimacy within the public domain, coverage for all kinds of patient needs, special incentives for joining various professional organizations, and countless other teases to get us to become part of their new public relations front.

Today, the managed health care (HMO) system has been reading their tea leaves. Their quarterly reports and recent economic surveys show that thirty-one percent of the population is spending thirteen percent of their discretionary dollars on preventative and alternative healing arts treatments. This is good news for those of us who are offering the public these valuable services. And it seems the interest is growing. This same news is mixed for the HMO system. On one hand, lots of "health" dollars are being exchanged outside their umbrella, but, on the other hand, a whole new market has been generated without their having to lift a finger.

All the HMOs have to do is find a way to co-opt and legitimize their relationship to alternative services. It involves first defining the alternative services within the managed care model. Then it involves placing these defined offerings into specialized tiers that can be sold as Plan A, B, or C. And lastly, the co-optation involves placing treatment parameters and practitioner fees and patient costs onto their triplicate forms so that each Plan is followed according to its parameters.

For any consumer who has observed the recent track records of medicare fraud and government spending ($16,000 Army screw drivers, $785,000 National Park Out-Houses), there will be little pause in coming to the conclusion that alternative healing services don't need the legitimacy given by the traditional medical establishment. In fact, legitimacy is already being bestowed upon alternative health care by the people's pocketbook . I think the scientific research that most establishes the right livelihood of alternative health care is the careful observation that new consumers have been making about their friends and neighbors, the one's who have been feeling better and happier since receiving those cranial treatments, homeopathic consultations and, of course, those regular massages.

Basically it comes down to what Freud called the pleasure principle. The world of massage and bodywork is generally about feeling good and there are some unconscious taboos in our culture about feeling good in our bodies, especially when money is exchanged for it. But if we get a massage treatment for pain, that can be clinically written up, then we don't have to mess with this pleasure business stuff in our collective mind. Also there is the business aspects of making money from sick people as opposed to investing in health by finding ways to feel good. If people derive pleasure and enjoyment from healthful activities, they tend not to get sick and need the allopathic services of the medical model.

A new business atmosphere has naturally grown out of the grass roots human desire for a better world. And in this new world people really just want to be free to spend and earn within a spirit of abundance, pleasure and freedom. And this is very new.

I remember a time, before the greening of the healing arts, when most any bodyworker was viewed in massage parlor terms and never received much respect. Conversely, many well trained healers had difficulty perceiving themselves comfortably in practical terms of money. Today, I can say I am a somatic therapist because I am helping people understand their bodies but, really, I am still administering pleasure for money. And this is a revolutionary phenomena, people making money nurturing one another.

Historically, the suspicion of anything that links pleasure with money or work has been eloquently criticized by Karl Marx, Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse. Today, you can drive down the west side of New York City, sit down in a specialized massage chair for fifteen minutes and be (non-sexually) plesaured right on the street. I don't know if all those street massage practitioners are professionally trained, insured or have a business license or file with the I.R.S.. What I do know is that people are finding love in their work and in this case find their work to be about a loving exchange.

Twenty years ago, many students would bring their spiritual aspirations to their professional studies with me but, when it came time to focus on marketing their hard won new skills, many of these people would freeze. They would make comments like "I can't charge for love," "You can't put a price on this gift," or "I could only accept an offering, like a meal or a little firewood, or maybe a little editing on my manuscript."

Over time I noticed that these same people would make massage work a sacred hobby, carry on with their "day jobs," and often feel frustrated by having to earn their rent or mortgage by doing work they disliked. These same people were generally too tired to give massages, needed one instead but would not want to pay for it. This whole style of perception seemed to beg the question "Can joy and work be synonymous?" And this is the question that the spirit of right livelihood offers us. Can we re-frame our beliefs about scarcity and abundance, about the ethics of pleasure, household support, community service and spiritual growth?

Of course we can. All we have to do is transform our competitive "tight assed" thinking which has dominated the flow of resources within the marketplace, this same thinking that effectively controls the flow of wealth in almost every exclusive political and economic circle.

From a strictly somatic perspective the circulation of biological wealth (life force) or chi, kundalini, or prana generates the feeling of unity, aliveness and well being. When circulation is blocked, a tight, charged and stagnant energy becomes encased and causes deficiency and breakdown elsewhere. From my experience of touching thousands of pelvises, for example, I have found that the tighter the ass--the more constricted the sacrum--the more needy-greedy behavioral symptoms of separation, fear and manipulation appear. This fear originates in the realization that core biological needs for Eros and creativity will not be met. It is scary; it is about living in the City of Scare or in scare-CITY.

I continuously see the body-politic as a macro-representation of the individual human body. Biological repression of erotic feeling, which Wilhelm Reich so astutely observed, causes us to seek gratification in secondary needs, such as the accumulation of wealth and the security apparatus to guard it. Hence, biological armor grows into socio-economic grasping and armament in the forms of litigation, automatic weapons, domestic violence, commercial fraud and free floating anxiety.

In contrast, there is the place of "a-Bun-dance," implying that a juicy pleasurable life force is moving. We professionals in the healing arts are continually working with this life-force phenomena and see the circulation of it as essential for health and happiness. It is the blockage of this chi that is the cause of all biological dis-ease. And it is the unblocking of it that will set us free, physically and spiritually.

The Taoist philosophy of ancient China captured the abundant wonder and natural flow of The Tao that nourishes as it moves. Human energy, when it moves through society in balanced ways, emulates and arises out of this "flow" . The poet Tu Fu writes:

Lovely rains, knowing their season

Always appear in spring. Entering night

Secretly on the wind, they silently

Bless things, with such delicate abundance.

These metaphors from the natural world speak volumes about faith, simple faith, not blind religious faith but the kind of faith that allows the belly to relax, the mind to calm. Like rain, coming in its season, and wind, blessing all it touches, there is a flow that both unites and distinguishes individuals in society.

This flow, if we listen, teaches us there is a proper placement for each kind of offering we make and a series of right-relationships that constellate around each offering. When we enter this flow, "right placement" in community finds us. We instinctually move and rest knowing "what goes around, comes around" and thus there is always "enough" because the "flow", or tao , takes care of all that it moves through. Right livelihood then is the practical extension of finding our right relationship with tao. When enough people change the way they perceive work, aliveness, the body, community life and the natural world around them, there will be a cultural mind shift. It is this change that our best hopes for the new millennium rest upon.

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