In which I got up early… and it was actually a pleasant experience!
I got laid off a year ago yesterday.
Since then, I looked for work for six months and had a total of two responses, and then I applied for and returned to school but my classes are 85% online. I have an on-again/off-again contracting gig for a friend in California, but it’s also online. Other than the occasional gig, running into G’ma in the kitchen, and the nights I go out to bars (something I’d like to do less of, really), I’m very much isolated.
Forced isolation is considered to be a form of torture, you know. It doesn’t seem to have a very nice effect on mental health.
Last week, I decided to volunteer. Somewhere. Doing… something. Anything, really. I didn’t care, I just knew it was time to switch over from ‘passively doing no harm’ to ‘actively doing something possibly helpful.’ I chose to offer myself to Helpline for two reasons: I knew where their building was, and Sheila over at the U-B had recently written an article about them so they were at the top of my awareness.
I found their site, read the descriptions of the types of volunteer help they need, and clicked on the email link. I wrote a short message offering to volunteer and clicked Send… and my message promptly bounced back. A short investigation revealed a typo on the page, so I corrected the email address and sent it off with an offer to fix their website, too!
A few days later, I got a response from the director. We set an appointment for me to go through the application process.
Last night, I remembered that the appointment was this morning at 9:45 (IN THE MORNING!) and I tried to go to bed early, but I’ve been sleeping until eleven or twelve (or one or two!) for weeks and weeks and I just wasn’t tired. I set both alarms for eight and started watching a relaxing documentary on Netflix.
It was about Ram Dass and the stroke he’s suffered and it’s called Fierce Grace. It’s been in my queue for about a year. During the section about being with his Guru in India, he said, “So I asked Maharaj-ji how to get enlightened, and he said, ‘Serve people. Feed people’.”
Not retire to a cave in the Himalayas or do severe tapas or meditate five hours a day or renounce all worldly attachments, but “Serve people. Feed people.”
Heh. Interesting. So, smiling, I turned off the movie and put myself to bed. Surprisingly, I didn’t have much difficulty going to sleep.
I’ve been on a serious Vedantic reading jag lately. Not in a sort of “I guess maybe I should read this” sort of way but in a “I really feel compelled to read this right now” sort of way.
I’ve devoured a few of Amma’s Awaken Children series, and Her Upadeshamritam, and Autobiography of a Yogi, and The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali (the Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood commentary is FREAKIN’ AMAZING), and The Concise Yoga Vasista, and Daughter of Fire and it’s all basically the same: descriptions of the same scene from unique perspectives. Unlike six witnesses describing what might as well be six different accidents, it’s actually six mirrors reflecting the same underlying reality.
While the scriptures give instructions for practice and explain over and over how the mistake of intellect came to be and how the mind is the cause of all suffering, the saints all advocate bhakti (devotion) along with some form of karma yoga (action selflessly dedicated to the Atman): don’t just donate some extra money, but get yourself out there and do something.
Serve people. Feed people.
I woke up completely when my first alarm went off. I’d only been asleep for about five hours – which, as you know, is half my usual – but miraculously wasn’t foggy or woozy. I hit snooze anyway and cuddled with my Amma doll for ten minutes, but I got right up out of bed the next time the alarm went off.
G’ma was quite surprised to see me up before nine, but I told her why and she seemed to like the idea. “I don’t have any money,” I told her, “but I’ve got plenty of time.” I showered and dressed and ate and aired up the tires on my bike and rode about half a block… and then turned right around and went home to get a hat, scarf, and pair of gloves because BIKE RIDING IN DECEMBER = WIND CHILL FACTOR, mmm’kay?
I made it to Helpline with seven minutes to spare, parked my bike, shoved all my mismatched knit items into my backpack, and headed inside.
The lobby was rockin’ when I went in. There were five people working behind the main desk, and six or seven clients in the lobby.
There’s an area at the back offering free clothes and bread; at the other end is the regular desk where clients can take a number. I hadn’t even been there three minutes when a woman behind the desk indicated the ID she was holding and asked me if it was mine. I hadn’t heard her but had seen her beckoning to me and told her I was there “for a 9:45 with the director?” She asked me my name and then grinned and nodded when I told her. “Ah,” she said, “we thought you was comin’ in yesterday!”
She gave me an application and a non-disclosure on a clipboard, along with a tabbed volunteer manual. I sat (I learned later that the nice lobby chairs are a recent donation that the staff’s pretty proud of) and filled out the paperwork. Then I skimmed the manual until the director came out and got me. His smile was genuine, his handshake was warm, and I liked him immediately.
I dropped my backpack in his office, and he took me on a tour of the place. I met a bunch of wonderful people. Apparently they’ve been paper-only until this last year; there’s a retired volunteer who is helping them switch over to the computer age. (When I met him, he asked me what I did. When I said, “Internet and networking,” he huggedme, saying, “Networking! Welcome aboard!”) The director told the staff that I’d be fixing the website as well, and there were many smiles.
Everyone was incredibly warm and friendly and nice. I saw where the blankets are stored, where the emergency food is kept (most food requests are handled by the various food banks), and the freezers (donated meats and bread). The head volunteer – she’s been there for eight years – said that she’s excited to “have computer person around, for the little things.”
It was like a job interview, except nobody asked me why I wanted to be there or asked me to describe my biggest weakness, and it was about four hundred times warmer and more welcoming. I just could not stop smiling!
I’m going to do 2 or 3 shifts a week during Christmas break to get trained and up to speed; after that it will depend on my school schedule, but I really hope to do at least one shift a week.
Helpline’s services are fairly extensive. They do intake for all of the local food banks, they handle emergency rent and utilities, they can offer referrals to all sorts of other services, and if you’re homeless or starving you can just walk in and grab a loaf of bread or a coat without even having to speak to anyone.
The hardest part will be learning the rules for various programs. Some forms of assistance, like help paying a utility bill, for instance, can only be utilized by an individual once in a specific span of time; all of those details will need to be learned, of course, but until then I have my volunteer’s manual.
My motivations for giving my skills and time away for free are entirely selfish.
I live inside my head too much, and it’s manifesting in miserable waves of panic and anxiety. I’m hoping that volunteering will help to turn my stupid mind away from itself, where it does nothing but cause me to suffer. (Just the other night I witnessed the mechanism by which I give myself panic attacks; it was interesting and terrible at once. I saw myself think, “It’s interesting that these conditions exist and I’m not having a panic attack,” and then “normally when I notice that my heart rate is so high, I begin to notice how tense my muscles are, and I get that flush of worry, then adrenaline, then fear…” and “funny how I’m not panicking right now” and then, SURPRISE, the symptoms came on the heels of the thoughts, and I was watching the mind curl in on itself and I saw it all happen as if from a distance… but once it truly began, I was inside it, and it sucked. Blegh.) (Needless to say, my identification with my body is still complete even if my identification with the world seems somewhat less intense.)
Without a job, very nearly all of my social interactions take place in bars; if I want to see people, I have to go to a bar because I don’t know anyone anywhere else. That clearly needs to be rectified, because, um, eewh.
I am very focused on my sadhana. Beings who have realized unity with That tell us to serve the poor and needy; why, I’m not exactly certain, but there must be a reason. It seems counter-intuitive, since we’re exhorted at the same time to cultivate non-attachment and dispassion, but whatever. My life seems uniquely structured for me to volunteer; it couldn’t be better structured if I’d shaped it this way on purpose. I choose to take the damn hint already! The ease and flow of the process so far makes me think it was about time.
I wrote here awhile ago that I’d never found in meditation anything more charming than the outside world; that’s changed. I’ve been meditating every day for a few months now, which I’ve done before, of course, but now I want to meditate. I’ve found a place in there that is more charming than the outside world; it was there all along, but somehow it’d never mattered before. (Heh. Suffering is good because it always brings me back to mySelf… even though it fucking SUCKS to suffer.)
I still have absolutely zero concentration, but apparently that doesn’t matter as much as patience and enthusiasm. And grace, which I’ve been receiving bumper crops of lately. Related: japam really is all that.
I start my training on Monday. The director seemed prepared to have a password for me by then so I can fix that broken email link.
Between now and then I have some QA contract work, a gig, and two parties. Life is good.
I’m so excited!