The following keynote was given at the Connect VI Conference in Nanaimo, Canada, on June 15, 2013. The theme of the conference aims to stimulate local business, community, and political leaders to move into the future in a responsible and purposeful way.
LISTEN TO KEYNOTE
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THE KEYNOTE:
Thank you to the Snuneymuxw First Nation for having us on their lands. Thank you to our morning speaker Juma for sharing with us the Hero’s Journey. Thank you to Gary for showing us the power of vision and how quickly we can raise our energy. Thank you to Sean for showing us his vulnerability and calling us to do the same.
Thank you to all my fellow speakers and panelists, the organizers, the volunteers, the chefs, the conference center staff. And finally, thanks to all of you for coming out today and offering me the most precious gift of your attention. If you’re willing to come with me, I will take you deep. If you get uncomfortable, if there’s resistance, then you know it’s working.
But before I begin, I stand here offering a pledge: if you’re willing to join me, to go deep, I promise I won’t leave you there. I will guide us back out of the underworld – and with any luck, this evening’s celebration will be all the sweeter.
Searching for Utopia
I’ve very much enjoyed my brief time getting to know all of you. Your passion and enthusiasm is infectious. But one of the skills I’ve recently begun to learn, is how to listen and figure out what’s not being said. And here’s the question I found: we want to create change, but what are we changing to? What type of world are we striving toward?
I’ve been thinking about the word Utopia recently. Because in some way, this is the default answer that we’re unconsciously trying to articulate. Utopia seems to conjure a world free some suffering, free from hardship, free from environmental destruction, famine, war. A utopia is a world of peace.
If you look it the origins of the word, to its Latin roots, it literally translates as “no place.” Or “no where.” Later the meaning shifted to mean “a perfect place.” Put them together and you get: a perfect place that doesn’t exist. I wonder about our collective pursuit for a place that does not exist.
10 years ago I thought I had found my utopia. My paradise. Or at least the one that’s featured in all the postcards.
I was 2 years into my university degree, having switched faculties a few times, from Fine Arts to Computer Science to anything else I could find. I had entered into university right out of high school, fearing the dreaded spectre of being “left behind” as my schoolmates marched on to the highest awards and best jobs. Yet there I was in the summer of 2001, unhappy, when I saw a sign (literally) on the wall that spoke of a work exchange in the South Pacific.
Flash forward a few months later and I found myself on the perfect island paradise off the coast of Fiji. It was a gorgeous island, populated only by a backpacker’s hostel and deadly poisonous sea snakes. I even had my own little grass hut mere feet from the ocean. My own hut! On the beach!
For the next few mornings I awoke to the lapping waves and slowly made my way over to the breakfast cantina. A large Fijian women would serve me pineapple, rice and eggs, with a loud BULA! Which is the traditional Fijian greeting. Feel free to try that anytime you’re feeling down. BULA! It’s impossible to stay down.
Regular Fijians don’t necessarily use it with that much gusto, but I sure did.
9/11 – The World Finds Me
One morning, I awoke same as always and began my walk along the path between the huts. It was there I ran into the owner of the hostel. He shot me a grave look and asked “Did you hear the news?” I shook my head. “Buddy, I’m in a hut. On an island. No I did not hear the news.”
He looked at me and said, almost casually, “Two planes flew into the World Trade Centre towers in New York. They’re saying it was terrorists.”
My heart stopped. I didn’t believe it. But within the next few minutes there I was watching the CNN footage on a grainy TV, in the crowded breakfast hall with the rest of the backpackers and staff. People whispered, it wasn’t real. It was just a movie. The smoke, the fire. The people running from the wreckage. But it was real – and a single thought reverberated through my brain.
I’d fled the world, and yet the world found me.
Spiders and Banana Farms
A week later I flew to Australia to continue my journey. I spent 4 months in Sydney, which is kind of like Vancouver, except with a better tan, before heading north and ending up in the small town of Innisfail, just outside Cairns. I had taken work on a banana farm. Which sounds more adventurous than it was.
My job, for 10 hours a day, was to wear a backpack of plant killer and walk around with my squirt gun, going up to each of the banana plants and killing the buds that were growing around it. The gun made a tiny squeaking noise with each push, a sound a grew to dread.
A few days later, when torrential rain was pouring down (as was common in the wet season) I remember reaching for a yellow slicker jacket. Before putting it on, I had the good fortune to open the sleeve first and found 4 hairy tarantulas waiting for me. I left the jacket alone.
Later in the fields, I walked with one of the other workers, Matt, a salt-of-the-earth fellow who had been on the farm for years. While he wanted to travel, he actually wasn’t allowed to leave the country because he’d been in an altercation with a police officer. Or as he put it “Too right I punched a coppah.”
I came across a mean-looking yellow and black arachnid, hovering in its web and turned to ask Matt “What about this one? Will it kill me?” Matt looking over, guffawed, and replied “Naw mate, it’ll just rot the flesh around the bite.”
I lasted 3 more days before booking my flight home.
Getting a job
When I’d left Canada, my father had been dismayed at my departure. “Don’t leave son! You’ll never end up finishing school.” While I assured him I would in fact return, I couldn’t have known it would be a banana farm that offered the best motivation to enroll right back at SFU and finish my degree.
Somehow I ended up in the School of Communication, which I hadn’t noticed before. Perhaps it’s a bit like the door to Hogwart’s at the train station. Invisible unless you’re looking. It was exactly where I needed to be: studying the power and nature of ideas, the Faustian bargain with technology, and quotes from Marshall Macluhan like “the medium is the message.”
I graduated 2 years later and proceeded to hunt for a job – which only appears to look like playing hours of Tomb Raider on the computer.
My method of job hunting raised the eyebrow of my girlfriend who also worked in the same home office and provided the majority of the household income.Needless to say, I doubled my efforts and soon found a gig as a copywriter at a local web company.
My days consisted of sitting at a quiet desk, writing marketing materials, occasionally doing graphic design, often finishing my work early but compelled to sit there watching the clock. Anyone who has worked the traditional 9-5 knows exactly the frustration I speak of.
The Splinter in the Mind
8 months later and I’m still in that basement. Seasons have come and gone. Even with the non-productive time, I really have nothing to complain about. My boss is friendly. My coworkers are affable. The pay is adequate.
Part of me whispers “Shut up! Don’t rock the boat!”
But still – something was not quite right. I had a very normal life but I couldn’t let the nagging feeling go. It was like in The Matrix, when Morpheus says to Neo:
“You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”
Buddhists have a similar description for the unease that follows all of us, no matter how successful we become. The word is “dukkha” – a persistent underlying anxiety. Like an ox cart with a faulty wheel that has slid slightly off kilter. I felt I wasn’t supposed to be living my life in a basement. I felt there has to be more to life than this.
One Week Job
In early 2007, my best friend Sean Aiken, who many of you saw speak earlier today, came to me with an idea to work one job a week for a year. That way, he could try a number of jobs and discover his passion. I helped him launch the website and the name “The One Week Job Project.” And off he went.
That summer, exactly 1 year to the day at my copywriter job, I decided to quit. The little voice inside my head had become more surly, like an annoyed police officer: Alright buddy, let’s go. Stop pretending you’re not going to do this. But what about the bills? I protested. How will… Come on. Let’s go.
That very night, I wrote my boss a parting email. The next email I wrote was to Sean who was on the road, almost halfway through his project. He may have been wrangling beavers or picking out a fashion line that week – I can’t remember. But upon hearing the news of my newfound freedom, his immediate response was: you should come on the road and film One Week Job.
Finding my passion
I should mention, my girlfriend had now become my wife. In fact, one of the terms she negotiated upon my quitting was she made me promise not to go on the road with Sean. Thankfully, I did anyway, because that leap kicked off 6 months of travel around North America, from Los Angeles, to New York, to Hawaii, capturing the journey and stories of others who had followed their passions.
One of the most important takeaways for me: out of all the people we met not one person regretted taking the leap, including my wife, who joined us later on the road.
Here I am now, 6 years later, and I haven’t stopped making films since. Sean and I finished the film about the project, which aired on CBC. I’ve since shot and produced numerous other shorts and web series. And more recently, I co-produced the feature documentary Occupy Love, which premiered in New York City last month.
In short, I have found my passion.
A Reusable Grocery Bag
Much of my work has centred around social and environmental activism, and so I’m particularly acute to the ongoing crises that have been unfolding around the world. More rainforests being cut down. More ocean’s acidifying. More glaciers melting. More unbelievably bizarre reality TV shows: Vanilla Ice Goes Amish.
I had an epiphany one afternoon in the summer of 2010. I had just returned from the grocery store, and like a good green citizen doing my part, I had remembered my mesh reusable grocery bag. After putting away the food, I popped into the closet to put away the bag, which if you’re like me, you have another grocery bag to hold the bags. So I stuffed the bags into the bag, and there was barely enough room for them to fit. I had so many bags from each time I’d forgotten and had to buy more.
And that’s when it struck me. I was drowning in reusable grocery bags, yet in no small way, acts like this were supposed to be “the answer.” We could save the world if only we change our lightbulbs, drive a little less, use cold water when washing clothes. Given the enormity of the shift we actually need to make as a species – these acts suddenly seemed utterly absurd.
Those of us alive today are the result of millions of years of biological evolution. Now, I can only speak for those of us in the dominant culture – but why aren’t we acting like it?
Many of you are familiar with the question: “If a tree falls in the forest, and there’s no one around to hear it… ” Zen Buddhists call this a koan – a paradox or riddle meant to provoke enlightenment.
At that moment with my reusable bags, another koan emerged in my mind: Why is it that the so-called most advanced society on earth can’t seem to stop the march towards destruction?
The Busy Trap
There was an article a few months ago in the New York Times called “The Busy Trap.” In it, the author outlined the popular fad of the times, which is to profess often, even when not asked, how busy you are. Swamped! Buried! Sometimes it’s like a competition.You worked 50 hours last week? Well get this… I worked 70.
Where does this busi-ness come from? Surely, it comes from the ever increasing cost of living and the need to the pay the bills. But everyday, I feel like I’m falling further behind. If I’m not shooting a film project, I’m writing a blog post, or figuring out how to make a better smoothie, or wondering why I never have time to see my parents, and how old is my nephew again? I’m a terrible terrible Uncle. And look at how clever my Facebook status was, and how many Likes do I have by now? And I’m waaaaay behind on Game of Thrones. Like Episode 1 Season 2 behind. And so on and so on.
The author of the Busy Trap says it bluntly:
“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy.”
In short, our busi-ness keeps us from looking at why we’re so busy. Why we feel dukkha, why we have that splinter in our mind. Some existentialists will say this is the fear of death. The fear that your life will end, and everything you worked so hard to attain.
From that perspective, it makes perfect sense therefore to get what you can while you can. Around Vancouver, these new Pepsi billboards popping up like mushrooms, the new slogan is: Live For Now. I can’t possibly think of worse advice we should be hearing than that. Because that’s exactly what we’ve been doing.
So what’s the story behind the story? My Zen teacher Michael Stone once said to me “Our greatest fear is not that we will die, but that we have never existed at all.” In other words, our greatest fear is that we will never do anything meaningful with our lives.
The Dark Twin of Happiness
The dominant culture of North America, and today, much of the world, implores you to seek Happiness. You’re reminded every time you turn on the TV, read a magazine, buy a self-help book, and so on.
If all your desires can be satisfied, goes the narrative, you will find happiness. It’s a bit redundant to most of us here now, we all know money cannot buy happiness right? And yet, we continue to follow the trajectory anyway, as if bound by some invisible chains.
Personally, I’m not that interested in Happiness. For one, as soon as you allow the pursuit of Happiness as a worthy goal, you setup a conflict with other emotional states. Happiness becomes desirable over sadness. If you’re not happy, people start to wonder what’s wrong with you. As if the problem can’t possibly be what’s out there, so you internalize the trauma as judgement.
After a while, you may end up with only two choices, Oprah or Prozac.
The other issue with setting up Happiness as a goal is even harder to catch. It’s like standing in the middle of two train tracks that appear to converge on the horizon. And yet, as you walk towards them, they continue to recede into oblivion.
The tracks never meet – or you could say they meet ‘no place.’ Sounds dangerously close to Utopia.
Grief Is Getting It
It was Krishnamurti, the great Indian philosopher who said “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a sick society.”
I submit to you, if you’re willing to take your hand off the throttle of your life, that there is intelligence in the anxiety. This intelligence, so familiar to teenagers, yet misinterpreted by adults, is knowing that things aren’t supposed to be this way. Work isn’t supposed to suck. Styrofoam isn’t supposed to last hundreds of years after minutes of use. The Gulf ocean isn’t supposed to be drowning in spilled oil. And we aren’t supposed to accept how many species have gone extinct since the sun rose this morning.
If you really let these proclamations hit you, if you stop, breathe, it can take your breath away. In fact, it’s supposed to break your heart.
Going on Strike #Occupy
It might surprise you to know this feeling was and is at the heart of the Occupy movement. Between the news coverage of hippies asking for handouts, drugged out anarchists, and hipsters with bongos – there was the deep understanding that our civilization needs change at a fundamental level.
Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics, wrote a seminal piece early on the movement. When the mainstream media asked the Occupiers come up with specific demands, Charles wrote why “no demand is big enough.” He said:
“No one deserves to live in a world built upon the degradation of human beings, forests, waters, and the rest of our living planet. Ultimately, we are protesting not only on behalf of the 99% left behind, but on behalf of the 1% as well. We have no enemies. We want everyone to wake up to the beauty of what we can create.”
It took Rolling Stone magazine over 40 days from the start of the occupation before their journalist finally got it. In a piece cleverly titled “How I learned to stop worrying and love Occupy Wall St” he realized: this was the first time anyone had ever gone on strike from their own culture.
In Liberty Plaza, and later at encampments around the world, there emerged a willingness for people to sit down and look each other face-to-face. They said “we don’t know how to fix this. Neither do our political leaders or our captains of industry. But maybe if we sit down together, we can figure out how to proceed.”
How many of you have heard of The Yes Men? They’re merry pranksters who pull stunts like impersonating corporate spokespeople and sneaking into private conferences to expose truth at the highest levels of power. At Occupy Wall St. I was privileged to film one action where they gathered about 20 Occupiers and put them in nice suits.
They didn’t tell anyone what the action would be, though they made sure to yell loud and often that “This would be an arrestable action!” The rows of police nearby took notice, and followed the marchers as they headed for the famous bronze Bull on Wall St. I believe their chant then changed to “Castrate the bull! Castrate the bull!” They held cardboard signs but they kept the writing hidden.
When they rounded the final corner, with the rows of policemen escorting the group, lights flashing, suddenly the Occupiers in nice suits, who looked convincingly like bankers, flipped over their signs to reveal “BROKERS AND POLICE FOR THE OCCUPATION!”
Cameras started flashing. The media went into a frenzy, the police were waving their hands…but it was already too late. The photos went viral on Facebook and Twitter.
You may believe this trickery was a form of dishonestly, but the beauty of the trickster is always to raise questions no one is asking. Why weren’t the police joining the occupation? It was also their future the Occupiers were fighting for.
The wonder of Occupy Wall Street was this imaginative response to crises was happening ALL THE TIME. After the march, I spent a few more hours in the plaza, soaking up what I can only describe as joyful humanness. Malik Rhassan of Occupy the Hood said it best “I’ve never felt so human in my life, in coming out here.”
But it was a joy that could not last.
The End of Occupy Vancouver
After New York I returned home to find Occupy Vancouver in full swing, a similar place of beauty and humanness. I watched hundreds of meals offered freely every day. I stood in the People’s Library among all the donated books. I listened to musical performances and lively debate at most hours of the day and night. I felt buoyed by a sense of idealism that perhaps, maybe this time, real change would happen.
And yet, for those that were following the drama, it ended in tragedy. 23 year old Ashley Gough from Victoria died of a drug overdose while staying at the encampment, which ultimately proved the final ammunition for the city to shut it down. What wasn’t as well known was a previous overdose had occurred a few night’s before, and a life was saved by an Occupier paramedic on the scene.
Occupy Vancouver did not cause Ashley’s death, and forcibly shutting down the encampment certainly did not prevent the multiple overdoses that continue to happen every day on the streets of Vancouver. Occupy tried to shine a light on the shadow of our current system, and yet, became a outcast because of it.
There is grief in recognizing: it could not have been any other way.
I’ll admit, I didn’t understand the full nature of grief until I went to the deserts of Nevada, for the festival known as Burning Man. Some call it a drug-fuelled pagan spectacle, but most others who’ve actually been there, call it Home.
You may have heard they burn a giant effigy of a man there (hence the name), but less people know about the spiritual heart of the event, which is contained in The Temple, an ever-changing structure that sits at the furthest point of the encampment. At the beginning of the week, the structure is bare. By the end, no place is left unmarked. Poetry, messages to lost loved ones, photographs, memories, toys, manuscripts, all of it is placed in the Temple. The Temple is a place for public grief.
It is the most powerful and sacred place I have ever been. It was also a place I didn’t know I needed. My teacher, Stephen Jenkinson, speaks of that which is gone from the dominant culture. From the time we lived in villages, there is much we no longer experience. In fact, we have distanced ourselves so much from that way of life, that even the gone has been gone-d. All we have left is the memory of a wound.
The Temple reminded me of that role, of sharing our grief with others. Because in our grief we also recognize our indebtedness – we recognize everything, everyone, and every being that had to occur – for us to have this moment now. All the strivings of our ancestors, all the animals that have perished, all the oil that has been siphoned from the ground, all of it.
There is grief in recognizing this miracle and this debt. As Stephen Jenkinson says, “Grief is not what fuels you to pay back the debt. Grief is understanding you never can.”
Not Obligation but Reorientation
This understanding of indebtedness is not to be confused with some kind of “original sin,” this idea that humans have a fatal flaw built into their DNA, and therefore, our task is to contain the damage we are compelled to inflict on the world.
Nor is this a manifestation of “not being good enough” to exist. I know many of my friends who are activists, artists and entrepreneurs who continue to operate from a place of almost manic service, as if they somehow need to earn the right to have been born.
No. What I mean by indebtedness is a reorientation in your relationship towards yourself and the world.
From Self-centric to Life-centric
I’ve long been fascinated with the worldview of indigenous cultures. Last year, I attended the International Indigenous Leadership Gathering in Lillooet, which brought together a variety of First Nations voices to discuss how to better engage, or perhaps a better word: grapple with the onslaught of the dominant culture.
Indigenous peoples are rich in diversity and expression – and yet I do believe they share certain commonalities when it comes to the function of ceremony.
The indigenous have long understood that the fundamental orientation of a child is SELF-centric. This means their core understanding of the universe is that it revolves around THEM. This is a necessary stage in the development of childhood, learning about the world, taking in all the sights, sounds, smells. From this perspective, the SELF is the only story that matters.
And yet, left to their own devices, the passage to adulthood is not an inevitability. Living cultures know that SELF-centric humans are dangerous if they continue to operate towards the world in this fashion, and so they developed the practice of initiation.
There are various stories of initiation you might have heard, usually involving some kind of physical or mental hardship. Fundamentally, the role of initiation is about more than becoming an adult. It’s about breaking down the SELF-centric worldview, and replacing it with a LIFE-centric worldview.
From this new understanding, you are no longer the center of the story. This does not mean you lose your individuality – on the contrary, your identity now derives from your relationship to the land and your community. Meaning is no longer up for grabs – the necessity of your existence is now obvious. Your role is to ensure that the story of LIFE continues.
Take care of your inner self, yes, but know this: there is nothing fucking wrong with you.
The Impossible Task
I can see from your faces you recognize the enormity of the task at hand. Gazing out at our present circumstances, you can see we have a lot of work to do.
We are living at the end of the era, the brief moment in time that was catalyzed by the shift to agriculture and the harnessing of cheap energy. It’s not enough to tweak the systems we currently have – even sustainability does not go far enough.
What I am advocating is a cultural evolution. For the dominant culture to relinquish the enshrined truth that WE are the centre of the universe instead of one magnificent corner of this grand tapestry.
If that sounds daunting, Charles Eisenstein puts it bluntly, “It’s impossible, actually.” Thankfully, he doesn’t stop there. He says: “It’s impossible from the old understanding of reality, but possible from a new one.”
Which is another way of saying, we are called to live from the future.
Living from the Future
Spiritual teacher Thomas Hubl says the future is not to be understood as a moment in time that has not yet occurred, but an embodiment of the emerging consciousness today. He calls this a “global awareness” which is increasingly being held by many people in small pockets from all corners of the world. Perhaps you experienced it here today.
Here are 3 ways you can start living it right now:
First, recognize that living from the future is in fact, living from the past. Indigenous peoples have lived on this planet for thousands of years without pushing it to the brink. Clearly, their worldview must have been on to something. We must listen whole-heartedly to the deep wisdom and leadership from the indigenous voices who are the original inhabitants of this land.
And those of us who are recent arrivals to this continent must ask ourselves the unthinkable question: how long will the land belong to us? And when will we finally belong to the land?
Which leads me to the second way of living from the future: practice interdependence. There is nothing in the world that depends on humans to exist. It is humans who are utterly dependent on everything else to exist.
It is one thing to recognize this truth – take some LSD or spend a week in meditation, but far more challenging to enshrine interdependence in our lives and governing institutions. Ask yourself: how do you feed the World? And I don’t mean grow food, but how do you feed the Mystery?
From this perspective, we also understand that each one of us does not have the ‘save the world’ alone. Change is fractal, each act reflects throughout the whole. If we are truly interdependent, than all you must do is your part. Offer your gift in service. Pay attention to the small things. Every act is significant. Every act is heroic.
And lastly, we must relinquish Utopia. In our quest for “the perfect place” we have forsaken the place we already have. There is no world more perfect than this one. There is no better place to start than right here.
Utopia is not some place to get to – but a way of being in the world.
The Shambhala Warriors
I have one final story to offer as a re-imagining of utopia. This story was told to me by the director of Occupy Love, Velcrow Ripper, (yes, that’s his real name), who was told the story by spiritual teacher Joanna Macy, who was told this story on her journey through Tibet. This is a story about the mythical kingdom of Shambhala.
There comes a time when all life on Earth is in danger. Great powers have arisen. Although these powers spend their wealth in preparations to annihilate one another, they have much in common: weapons of unfathomable destructive power and technologies that lay waste our world.
In this era, when the future of all Life hangs by the frailest of threads, the kingdom of Shambhala emerges. You cannot go there, for it is not a place. It exists in the hearts and minds of the Shambhala warriors.
The warriors train in the use of two weapons: compassion and insight. Both are necessary.
You have to have COMPASSION because it allows you not to be afraid of the pain of the world. With that wisdom you know that it is not a battle between “good guys” and “bad guys,”, between the 99% and the 1%, because the line between good and evil runs through the landscape of every human heart.
And the warriors need INSIGHT to see clearly, to recognize and offer their gifts to the world.
Now here’s the most important part: You cannot recognize a Shambhala warrior when you see her or him, for they wear no uniforms or insignia, and they carry no banners.
Right now I’d like you to look around your table, offer an moment of eye contact with those who you’ve spent the day with. Don’t be shy. Stay open. Stay grateful. Working together, sharing, connecting, living from the future.
Then take a moment to acknowledge the work that you have done today.
See yourself as a Shambhala warrior, worthy of the title, and the lineage of all who came before you.
This is a call not to feel obligated, not to hoist the weight of the world on your shoulders.
But to live more deeply, in service to your community…
…and to all Life.