The alarm clock rings. I set it myself but it feels like it’s linked to some centralised system ordering the nation’s workforce awake. I swing my feet out into an unwelcoming, cold room; put on my clothes, including grey socks, grey suit, black shoes, and the white shirt I ironed the night before. As usual, I leave the top button undone and attempt to hide my disobedience beneath a colourful, strangling tie. I have a sense that I’m able to breathe in the space between the open top button and the loose knot of the tie, that some small freedom resides there.
I crawl out onto an icy, pitch-black street to join a steadily growing stream of commuters flowing like rainwater down the gutters and into the London Tube. I’m aware of an internal resistance, like a hand pressing on my chest, against which I have to push. I travel one and a quarter hours, with a single change at Tottenham Court Road, journeying from the South to the West of London.
At White City, I walk past the BBC TV Centre and spend the day at a desk answering hundreds of calls placing orders for computer accessories that I input into a PC for rapid delivery. There are fifteen of us in the open-plan office. When a call goes unanswered for 10 seconds, a blue light flashes on the ceiling; after 15 seconds, a red light flashes. Thereafter, staff from the marketing and accounts departments are expected to rush in and hit the phones. Every call I take is logged: time, duration, revenue earned, returns subtracted.
I hate the job. In fact, I instantly disliked the job so intensely that I felt relief in knowing that I would only last a few days. In the event, I will work there for almost two years.
I’m doing the job because I’ve been persuaded that I can’t do what I want in life (I certainly don’t want to be there!). I believe that I have to do what I hate within a friendly but subtly intimidating, firmly controlling hierarchy. I’ve been told that my CV has to be fed on a strict diet of continuous, full-time work. I have to suffer it, swallow it, take it. I have to start at the bottom and work my way up. I have to pay the bills. These are the cold, hard facts of life. The only other option is to be stuck in mindless, low-paying work for the rest of my life.
But it turns out that when you set off down the path signposted, ‘The Life I Hate,’ you end up experiencing variations on the theme. ‘The Life I Hate’ doesn’t typically turn into ‘The Life I Love’. It turns into ‘The Life I Hate’ plus extra responsibility, workload and stress within the same authoritarian structure. And yes, more money and status.
There’s another problem – the further you journey down the path of ‘The Life I Hate’, the further the path journeys into you. You become the path. If you force yourself to do what you hate, you have to become insensitive to your feelings. You have to become as cold, hard and tough as the life you’re leading. So you become adept at tuning out on early morning commutes across London to sit in grim business meetings, and hopeless at knowing what it is you would really love to do; hopeless at detecting and following that feeling, at enjoying your life.
Because tuning out is so vital, corporate executives tolerate enough truth to satisfy their consciences, but not enough to challenge their way of life. If you read the Guardian and watch the BBC, you can continue working for the Government, Big Pharma, Big Oil. If you read Noam Chomsky, say – if you really read him and take the issues seriously – you can’t. Well you can, but you will be tugging your heart in opposite directions. At one point, while working as a marketing manager, I decided to stop reading radical politics and philosophy – I literally threw my books away. The internal conflict was too painful, making me feel much worse about the work. But I continued leafing through the Guardian and watching the BBC, no problem.
Finding The Horses
Somerset Maugham described the lives of ‘most people’:
‘They are like tram-cars travelling for ever on the self-same rails. They go backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, inevitably, till they can go no longer and then are sold as scrap-iron.’ (W. Somerset Maugham, The Lotus Eater, Collected Short Stories, Volume Four, Pan, 1976, p.180)
Joseph Campbell played a big part in sending me off the rails:
‘My answer is, “Follow your bliss.” There’s something inside you that knows when you’re in the centre, that knows when you’re on the beam or off the beam. And if you get off the beam to earn money, you’ve lost your life. And if you stay in the centre and don’t get any money, you still have your bliss.’ (Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, ‘The Power of Myth’, Doubleday, 1988, p.229)
If ‘bliss’ sounds a bit soppy, Campbell clarified:
‘The way to find about your happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you really are happy – not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy?’ (p.155)
But what about money, the mortgage, eating? What about the cold, hard facts of life? Campbell’s advice: forget it, just do the thing you love – don’t give it a second thought. Things tend to work out when you do what you love, because you’re a lot better at it than you are at money-motivated tasks.
Alas, many people, particularly those of us who hauled ourselves up the school, college and career ladder, are not attuned to our bliss. It’s a melancholy sight when people stuck in work they hate, reply with a hopeless shrug: ‘But I don’t know what my bliss is.’
Consider British spiritual teacher Russel Williams – now an extraordinary, vibrant 95-year-old – who qualified as an electrician during the Second World War, and who had the option to start up an electrical business:
‘That was the plan… And I realised that if I followed this path – starting up this business – it wouldn’t make me happy.’ (Russel Williams, ‘Not I, Not Other Than I,’ O-Books, e-edition, Steve Taylor ed., 2015, pp.136-7)
Contemplating several possibilities, all of them felt like, ‘The Life I Hate’:
‘The only thing left was to walk away – literally – and hope that something would show me where I was supposed to be going. So I left, with just a few shillings in my pocket. It was the summer of 1945. I started walking, and carried on, walking and walking. I lost track of time. It could have been weeks or months.’ (pp.137-8)
Crossing a moor one day, Williams met a showman with a broken-down bus. They struck up a conversation and the man asked him:
‘Do you know anything about horses?’ (p.138)
Williams ended up grooming, feeding and watering horses for a circus. But this became much more than just a job:
‘I grew to love the animals. I felt a strong connection with them. It was impossible not to, living with them 24 hours a day.’ (pp.140-1)
He was determined to understand the horses fully, wholly, through careful observation:
‘So I set my mind to watching and observing every detail, every moment of the day, for days on end.
‘After about three months, as I became more concentrated on the horses, I noticed that I wasn’t thinking anymore. My mind had gone quiet. I realised that knowing and thinking are two different things, and that you could know without thinking… I had a strong feeling that I was finally going in the right direction, that this was my path…’ (p.141)
Williams later realised that the task he had set himself was actually a form of mindfulness meditation:
‘In effect, I was meditating about 20 hours a day, 7 days a week for three years, completely absorbed in caring for the horses. It was a life of continual service, with no thought for myself.’ (pp.141-2)
At the end of this time, Williams describes a profound shift in awareness, in fact an enlightenment experience, that has never left him. He has been president of the Buddhist Society of Manchester since 1974, but does not consider himself a Buddhist.
My own experience of walking away from ‘The Life I Hate’ was easier on the shoe-leather. I walked the short distance from the office to my flat one summer lunchtime and never went back. I had decided to follow Campbell’s advice, with no idea of what work I could do that might replace corporate work, and no idea how I would feed myself when my few savings ran out. But I had decided I would no longer do what I hated for money and would instead do what I loved, for nothing.
In my case, that meant writing political essays, philosophical essays, stories, observations, jokes – hundreds of pages of them. By the next spring, I was supporting myself by teaching English to foreign students three hours a day. Compared to my full-time office life, it was like floating on a cloud. Best of all, I only had to work half-time, and could spend the rest of the day just reading and writing.
The important thing, I think, is not so much to follow but to locate your bliss. In truth, once you’ve found it, there is nowhere to go – it’s inside you. Simply slowing down, working part-time, helps us get away from the more maddening, exhausting aspects of work that swamp any attempt at introspection. This allows us to become more mindful, which actually means more mindempty, less bogged down in thought.
As Williams found in observing his horses, when we pay close attention to something other than thought, thoughts subside. When that happens, we make an astonishing discovery: inside us, lies a source of great peace, kindness and joy that is ordinarily obscured by clouds of thinking. This is what Buddhists call our ‘Buddha nature’. It is that simple. And that difficult, because the whole world is ceaselessly insisting, with great certainty, that our bliss is out there: in him, her, this far-flung country, that exotic job, this salary, that mewling infant… We have always looked out there; it has never occurred to us to look inside.
We are distracted from, unaware of, the happiness that is forever blazing away inside. Certainly it is a mighty force, but then the world is a planet-sized distraction preventing us from noticing.
The Great Escape
I thought I had to tramp the Tube, hack my way through endless business meetings, to somehow end up in a better place. And yet I found a better place by simply walking away. So what about the cold, hard facts: earnings, pension, financial security?
If following your bliss is your highest value, financial security cannot be a key concern. You can’t do what you love because you love it and because you’ve identified a little ‘niche market’. Yes, one might conceivably live a more difficult life in some ways and even die earlier as a result. But then, in my corporate career, I was not fully alive, either. The time I spent in those offices was a threadbare, hair-shirted, hovel of an existence. I sacrificed hundreds of weeks, years of my life, to financial security, the CV. In the 25 years since I hung up my business uniform, I have avoided numberless miserable, stressful and, above all, achingly boring moments.
By contrast to these real savings, the thousands of pounds my early ‘retirement’ cost me are insignificant causes of dubious benefit. I’ve never really noticed the absence of that money; I’ve never needed it. But I needed the freedom to do what I want. And what a treasure that is: to be free to do what you want on any given day. To do what you really love to do when you want to do it. And to not do it, if you don’t want to.
The world does not end when we follow our bliss, quite the reverse. The destruction of the environment is driven by wage slaves who can never have enough because they’re trying to find the life they love by travelling deeper into the life they hate. When more self-betrayal makes us feel even emptier, we keep stuffing that emptiness, turning the world into a version of the wasteland we feel inside. When we sacrifice our bliss, our present moment, for some supposedly Higher Cause, our heart dies, the rainforests die, the climate dies, people die. The conformist grey of our suit, the unaliveness we feel as we trudge to work, spreads, suffocates and kills.
The great escape begins with slowing down, leaping barbed-wire thoughts, tunnelling attention into the body, and finding a centre of comfort, of bliss, there. As Williams says with wonderful simplicity:
‘The main thing is to be aware of being comfortable within. If you can do that, you can observe things which come in and produce a little discomfort, and examine why they produce the discomfort. You can quietly observe them and then return to the comfort.’ (p.218)
David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org