Years ago, one of my teachers related an incident when she walked into a New Age bookstore and glanced at a magazine rack. A title called “Self” jumped out and it reminded her of how obsessed our egos are with our perceived separate identities. (Aside – “Self”magazine could rightly be renamed as “How to Get Flat Abs” as that topic seems to be the focus of every issue). Modern materialistic humans are obsessed with their bodies, stories, desires, experiences, plans, fantasies. Why though, my teacher asked, why don’t we see a magazine called “Helping Others?”
To be fair, there are a few “helping others” type publications out there – “Yes” is one, but these are the exception. Everyone who buys into the fantasies being sold in popular culture is ultimately disappointed. Women are trained to seek happiness by pleasing a man with the perfect (unattainable because computer generated) body look. Men are trained to be sports heroes or war heroes or to marry their identity with various consumer products – cars, computers, or women – who of course are not “consumer products”, though that is the net effect of toxic materialistic conditioning – the objectification of all life as pleasure things for the ego.
If only the truth were known – the secret to happiness is not in chasing after the self-centered desires of the ego, but by dedicating your life to serving others. So when my daughter’s 8th grade teacher put out a call for speakers to share their experiences in volunteer service, it was a no-brainer for me to step up. A central piece of the Bright Water Waldorf School‘s 8th grade curriculum is to undertake a year long service project – at a food bank, or shelter, or senior home, or whatever service agency the child connects with.
Everyone has an instinctual urge to help others because humans are social animals. Helping and compassion are encoded in our DNA. Over millions of years, we have begun to understand that the best possible world occurs when we think about others and not put ourselves first, even sacrificing our own short term happiness if it contributes to the long term happiness of the community we live in.
When I was 14 years old, it was 1973, and I remember being anxious and even a little depressed at times about what I heard on the news. I didn’t have a smartphone or a computer of course, but I remember having an AM radio at my bedside and I used to watch the 6 o’clock news on TV with my parents, which was full of scenes from the Vietnam War. Mainstream media hasn’t changed – there’s still too much focus on sensational violence and objectification of women. What has changed though is that the media has become much more powerful because we literally carry it around in our pocket at all times. It’s good to unplug from all your devices on a regular basis, just drift on the currents of life and enjoy the beauty that is all around. As an acupuncturist, my job is to help people live a balanced life.
How we perceive the world depends upon the stories that we tell ourselves and that depends in large measure upon the stories that we read, hear, and the stories that we create and live in our daily lives. If our stories have kindness and compassion around every corner, then that is the world we will live in, and we will automatically sleep better, experience less depression and anxiety, and feel happier and more peaceful.
So in order to make a positive difference in the world, first we need to be aware of our story. Then, when we go out and do work in the world, our actions will be more powerful because they arise from a place of self-knowledge.
So in some sense, all work in society is service work, because no matter what job we have – whether it is a paid or volunteer – there is almost always a benefit to others, whether it is being a parent, teacher, health care practitioner, accountant, waitress, construction worker, even being a student. Remembering this increases your job satisfaction and life happiness in general. If you are only doing something in order to get a paycheck or a grade, or for brownie points, the joy disappears pretty quickly. But if you can remember, “I’m doing this in order to help others”, it relaxes your mind, makes you less obsessed with your personal short term enjoyment, and more content to just keep working at your project, like a parent who never gets discouraged dealing with the endless tasks of raising a child. It may seem a bit counter-intuitive but if you chase after happiness with a me-first motivation, it will always elude you. But if instead, you relinquish the thought of personal happiness and devote yourself to serving others, happiness will naturally find you.
In my late twenties, I lived alone in a small cabin on the seashore in remote Canada. Even writing poetry and doing meditation can be a form of service, but there is a time and season for everything. I decided to go to acupuncture school because I realized that my spiritual growth was incomplete and the next logical step was to live and serve more closely with others. However, at the time, none of it seemed very logical. There was actually a lot of chaos and confusion. So don’t be surprised when nothing goes exactly as planned in life. As long as you know who you are deep inside though, everything will be okay.
After graduating from acupuncture school, I started a clinic called CommuniChi with a goal of making acupuncture more accessible – both financially and culturally. My business model is a variation on what is termed a social business popularized by the work of Mohammed Yunus. The main idea is to balance economic sustainability with service to society. So making a profit is not the sole objective. Here is a picture of 3 sisters getting acupuncture together. One of the beauties of acupuncture is that it is very empowering. In other words, people who are experiencing illness heal more completely – not when I try to fix them with an attitude of superiority, but when I help them to discover their own life force. I just set the scene and then get out of the way. The same principle applies to volunteer work.
For the past 5 years, my main volunteer work has been at the King County Community Center for Alternative Programs. It’s a facility where people – mostly young black and brown males – who have been convicted of minor criminal charges – get sent instead of jail. I teach a meditation class there twice a month.
I always try to see the clients there as being just like me in wanting to be happy and not wanting to suffer. I try to be humble and aware of my white privilege, remembering that I am not better than they are. Our positions could’ve easily been reversed if I had been born with dark skin into a culture of intergenerational poverty and racism. Reflecting on our essential sameness with others is important when you do volunteer work because our job isn’t just performing tasks. Our job is to empower others, spread kindness, and help others to believe in their divine nature – even animals
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a category 5 storm hit New Orleans. Top wind speed was 174 miles per hour, though these dropped to 125 miles per hour at landfall. The official death toll was 1,836 people in two states, mostly seniors. New Orleans is actually below sea level. So when the Mississippi River levee broke, the entire city flooded. Approximately 1.5 million people were forced to evacuate from their homes, and 500,000 people were in need of mental health services, many of whom were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. I talked to one person who lived in a poor black neighborhood who swam out of his second floor window when he realized that help wouldn’t arrive in time before his entire house would be underwater. According to climate scientists, more severe hurricanes and rising sea levels will become a greater problem for the world as climate change progresses during our lifetimes.
I heard about a new group called Acupuncturists Without Borders which had just formed to offer free acupuncture to people affected by the hurricanes in Louisiana. So I bought a plane ticket to Baton Rouge and drove a rental car to New Orleans. It was only 6 weeks after the Hurricane and the entire region was still a disaster zone. There were still thousands of abandoned cars lining the edges of the freeway, telephone poles leaning over intersections, none of the traffic signals worked, and driving was dangerous because everyone was in a state of shock to some extent.
This is the tent in the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) camp where I slept during the night and offered acupuncture during the day. At night, my head was next to a pair of diesel generators which ran all night to power the lights in the camp. The City sewer workers were staying in our camp. Normally we don’t think much about water and sewers workers, but without them in a big city, our lives would be impossible. They had the difficult job of restoring the city’s water and sewer service, and they would often return to camp at the end of a long day, tired and emotionally exhausted. Sometimes they found dead bodies during their work in heavily flooded areas, which of course was extremely stressful. The acupuncture helped them get through another day. Sometimes I had conversations with clients, but mostly my team members and I just created a safe space for people so that they could go within themselves and begin to let go of their trauma, stress, and sadness.
Sometimes we would go out and work with displaced community residents in churches, mosques, and public parks. Once we treated a group of National Guardsmen and women. If you look closely in this picture, you can see people relaxing with acupuncture needles in their ears. I remember one young woman at a church who told me she had been having suicidal thoughts. She had actually researched a plan online on how she would carry out her own death via carbon monoxide poisoning. After the treatment she left in a completely different state of mind – relaxed, smiling, and hopeful. I spent 30 days in Louisiana over the next 9 months and those kinds of moments were frequent. There’s really no better feeling than when you see your work relieve someone else’s suffering.
But even if people didn’t acknowledge our work verbally, it didn’t lessen the sense of satisfaction and fulfillment I experienced because I could tell, just by how people moved after an acupuncture treatment, that they were calmer and more peaceful. I could actually feel the energy in the space shift. I was part of their healing. The scars in my emotional and spiritual life were soothed at the same time.
When you have a motivation of helping other people – whether it’s serving food at a homeless shelter, or helping animals, or whatever your project may be, for the most part you will feel more confidence, less self-doubt and anxiety. Of course, there will always be challenges to overcome, but if you can remember your motivation of helping others, the challenges you face will be mere bumps in the road which will make you stronger in the long term.
This is a photo I took of my friend and colleague, Dr. Bill Wulsin, giving ear acupuncture to a resident of Oso, Washington at the Oso Fire Station in 2014, shortly after the mudslide hit their community, killing 43 people and destroying dozens of homes. Because we had both spent a lot of time doing volunteer work in disaster zones, leading teams, we saw the great need and brought together the acupuncture community in Washington to create a coordinated response, treating residents and emergency workers with acupuncture.
On the first day that we got here, I remember waiting for hours, doing nothing. We had introduced ourselves to the Oso Fire Chief and he literally had a phone next to both ears. He very abruptly thanked us for coming and told us to come get his attention if he hadn’t gotten back to us after a couple of hours. While I waited, I remember seeing a teddy bear, covered in mud in one corner of the station. I wondered where the child that belonged to the teddy bear was, whether he or she was still alive. Bill and I waited and every so often I made eye contact with the fire chief. He was under tremendous stress trying to care for his community while dealing with the huge influx of strangers who had come to help. I’m fairly certain that the 3 hours we waited was his way of checking us out, to decide if we had the right energy and motivation to help. With any volunteer work, there comes responsibilities and an expectation of trustworthiness. Finally, he walked over to us and said, why don’t you set up some chairs over in that corner and start treating people, so we got to work immediately after that.
This is an image of “comfort dogs” that were brought to Oso. I think these two came from Texas. These are highly trained animals that can sense where in a person’s body there is pain or energy blockage. When I was sitting near them, one of them immediately came over and leaned affectionately against my left knee where I’ve had 3 surgeries.
So this is a bit off topic, but I feel it is important to mention. Volunteer work can teach you a lot about the world. If I had never volunteered to set up an acupuncture response in Oso, I might have easily believed what I read in mainstream media, that the mudslide was a natural disaster caused by an act of God – too much rain. However, independent forestry experts tell a different story. The forest at the top of the mudslide had been logged repeatedly for almost a century, including one parcel very near to the edge of the hill where the soil gave way, only nine years before the slide. When the forest is healthy, the roots can absorb a lot of rain. But when all the trees are gone, the rain quickly seeps down into the ground and lubricates the soil, increasing the likelihood of mudslides.
On January 12, 2010, there was a major earthquake in Haiti. Although it only measured 7.0 on the Richter scale, more than 300,000 people died due to the widespread collapse of poorly constructed buildings. Haiti is the most impoverished nation in the western hemisphere and because of the extensive corruption in the government, many of the buildings were not built according to proper codes.
Some history is important here also, because about a year before most of you were born, Seattle had an earthquake which measured 6.8 (very similar to 7.0), but only 1 person died of a heart attack. So clearly, the magnitude of the disaster in Haiti was radically amplified by the effects of poverty. So why does Haiti have so much poverty? Haiti was first colonized by Columbus in 1492 and then the French after 1625. In 1804, an uprising of slaves won victory over Napoleon’s army and established the first republic run by indigenous people in a formerly colonized state. However, the French, English and the U.S. then set up a trade embargo against Haiti as punishment, refusing to allow Haiti to participate in global trade until Haiti agreed to pay France 150 million gold francs for what they viewed as their lost property (the slaves!) This crippling debt has affected Haiti ever since. So here again, volunteering opens up many opportunities for learning about the world. I never would have learned any of this had I not stepped out of my zone of comfort and decided to go to Haiti.
This blog is a form of media, it’s a story – a true story – but nonetheless, a story, and how I present it, what themes I emphasize, influences the emotions of my audience and it influences my emotions. This is MY Story. Because I’ve shown several slides with images of the aftermath of disaster, I’m purposely changing the emphasis of these last few slides in order to balance things out a little bit. Here’s a quote by Fred Rogers, aka Mister Rogers):
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
So this goes back to the point I made earlier about the importance of what kind of stories we are exposed to in determining our mental outlook. For Fred Rogers, he feels hope and optimism because when disaster strikes, he focuses on the compassionate response of emergency workers.
Volunteer work leads to self-discovery and wisdom. These two are related. Again, these truths aren’t something I can teach to you just by showing you some pictures and telling you a few stories. You can’t learn them merely by reading a book or watching a documentary. All I can do is point the way. Your job in life is to discover these things for yourself.
What I can say is that by doing volunteer work, I’ve realized that I am a part of something much bigger than myself. When I was in Haiti, once I was woken in the middle of the night by a large earthquake. The walls of the concrete room were shaking and making strange noises. It was as if I could feel the bones of the earth grinding and creaking. Fortunately, it didn’t last long and I survived to tell you the story.
But before I finish telling the story – I’ll mention here that I also volunteer with King County Public Health’s Medical Reserve Corps and one of my jobs is educational outreach. And since September is National Preparedness month – if an earthquake were to hit in the next 5 minutes, what should you do? Anyone? Move away from the windows, get under a desk or a table, and hold on. If you can’t find a table, be aware of anything high that might fall over. Lie down next to a wall, behind a sofa if you have one, cover your heard. Crouch in a door frame.
Back to my story of the earthquake in the middle of the night. Time stopped at the moment, and I realized that the earth is alive, just like you and I. It speaks in the form of hurricanes, fires, floods, earthquakes, landslides, climate change, and sometimes beautiful late summer days. The Hopi nation has a word called “Koyaanisqatsi” which means “life out of balance”. In order to bring life into balance, we need to first heal the human spirit which mostly has lost awareness of how everything is interconnected.
My identity can not be separated from the greater circle of life. My happiness is intertwined with your happiness and the happiness of every living creature on the planet. How I live my life, what I eat, the work I do including volunteering, what I spend my money on, how I think – all of this has an influence on the vast web of life and on future generations.
When I dedicate my actions to helping others, especially free of any motivation of personal gain, then I lose my mental sense of separation, which is a big cause of suffering in modern life…the sense of isolation and loneliness people feel. That wisdom is the key to freedom and will always create a refuge for you in times of difficulty and challenge. Now go out and volunteer with your precious life!