Have you ever noticed how certain questions grow like unruly vines in the mind? They twist around our straight and narrow places. They split apart the ego’s knowing, wedging themselves into the tiniest of cracks in our defenses and busting them wide open. These questions use the planks of our mental walls as scaffolding to reach the light and truth beyond the mind. These questions, of course, are a gift of grace. Aggravating as gifts of grace often are, the wise part of us feels a gentle affection toward them while the ego is afraid and resists. In the perfection of such things, the struggle only supports the growth, ego’s every effort to cut them back only produces two more sprouts, tugging at the roots only gives more air and space for growth. Odd, isn’t it? How difficult it is to surrender to the unfolding of grace, even though at our deepest level we know the power of these gifts.
I would like to explore a question that has been the focus of my energy and attention for some time. In fact, when I reflect back over my life, I recognize the thread of this question back to early childhood. This causes me to wonder if we bring such questions with us as inner guides into our incarnations to prevent us from drifting too far from the current life’s purpose. It’s a nice thought. Or maybe just another way of remembering that there is no escaping the grace that fills our lives. As in the song, we don’t always get what we want, but …we get what we need.
When Jordan and I first visited Peru in June 2008, we spent a day in Lima. Lima is a zoo of twelve million plus people, burdened with street crime, horrendous slums, street children and all that goes with a third world megalopolis. Being privileged westerners, we stayed in a charming little hotel with a flower-filled patio in one of the safe, high-end areas of Lima, Miraflores. On Saturday morning, we walked a few blocks to an outdoor organic market where, as these things happen, we met Alois Kennerknecht. Originally from Germany, he had come to Lima twenty years before and began to try to do some good for those he saw in need. He adopted us for the day in what was obviously the role of a wise elder. I had not known that I was seeking a guide or that I even needed one. Given that I was in the grip of a major life transition, one might think it would have been obvious. That it was not is a reflection of the ignorance and arrogance of the ego. But, in spite of the ego, grace stepped in and provided what was needed.
Alois drove us around the city visiting first a large, village-like mental hospital and then a sprawling orphanage. He has introduced the healing process of organic gardening to patients, children and inmates in many institutions in Lima. As a consultant, he promotes this work around the world. We saw some of his work and talked with him about how he had come to this particular form of service. He planted an intriguing question in my mind, or perhaps stimulated one that had been lying dormant for some time. It is a question that has guided much of my reading and research since our meeting.
On the surface, the question Alois presented is a simple one, “What’s really helpful?” In exploring the question, I realize how amazingly complex this question truly is. We passed the afternoon with Alois discussing how the efforts of good-hearted, well-intentioned people often did more harm than good because the full complexity of the situation they were entering was not understood. We discussed how it is critical to have a deep understanding not only of the problems but also of the people and the culture involved before launching into a service project. Otherwise the service is likely to be more a service to the ego, “the one that needs to feel helpful,” than a truly helpful act of service to others.
When large shipments of used clothing come into a community, the cottage industries and even large manufacturing plants that make clothing can be put out of business and many people can lose their livelihood. When a zealous young volunteer picks up the paintbrush, saw, hammer, rake or shovel, he or she often takes it from the hand of a local resident who is then unemployed. When I recently read the book “The Road to Hell” (as in the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”), I learned that in the recent past such short sightedness has had global consequences that remain powerful obstacles to sustainable progress for many countries, especially countries in Africa. As Jordan and I are slated to work in Africa with the Peace Corps, this certainly caught my attention. When I checked TED on the Internet for related talks, I learned that many experts on Africa are appealing for less aid and more investments.
Less aid and more investment? What could that mean? Perhaps it means that there’s a long-term plan for development of infrastructure, such as roads, hospitals, schools and economic processes that will outlive any current crisis. Perhaps it means that foundations for sustainable development in the areas of health, education and safety are created. It seems that from the western mindset, this often means creating markets and supports for consumerism, a constant flow of cash through the communities that then provides a tax base for public projects and stimulates “growth.” But, is this form of "development" always really helpful?
I see glimpses of these processes in Peru. Businesses invest in marketing, that is, the creation of desire and providing a product to meet this newly created desire. I assume there’s a flow of revenue generated by these efforts. I see local people with western products, maybe a three-liter bottle of Coke, a high-end cell phone or an iPod. And I certainly see the marketing in the giant billboards and in the television shows that are often blaring in the small cafes we frequent. When I recognize the multi-national corporations’ logos on these products, it makes me wonder just where most the profits end up.
As in the west, this marketing draws heavily upon stereotypical provocative images of beauty and sexuality that set an ideal of feminine beauty and attractiveness that represent only a tiny fraction of women in the world and an even a smaller fraction of Peruvians. Many of the native women we see here have a natural radiance and beauty and a modest expression of sexuality. Many of these women carry themselves with an air of strength and confidence earned through generations of self-reliance. Is it helpful to them to be so obviously minimized and ignored by the media? Does such marketing make a positive contribution to the generations of indigenous practices that provide a safe foundation for the raising of children and the passing on of traditional values of respect for nature and other peoples? Is the aggressive cultivation of a consumer mentality among these people who are struggling to escape poverty a helpful thing to do? Are there any better options?
What I think I have figured out so far by pursuing this question is that most often I don’t have an adequate level of understanding of a given situation to know how best to be helpful. Until I do, it seems that my best option is to support service organizations that objectively do have a comfortable level of understanding. I am realizing that at this point in time, the best that I can do for the indigenous people of Peru is be a fundraiser for organizations that have an obvious helpfulness. Jordan and I are involved with three such organizations in and near our little temporary home village of Taray, Peru. We are asking for your help in providing them with much needed financial support.
Especially during this holiday season when sharing our abundance with those less fortunate seems a natural extension of our cultural traditions and values, we feel that these are timely opportunities. Each of these organizations allow a marvelous leveraging of the American dollar because in Peru, much can be done with little. The cost of an evening out in one of America’s mid-range restaurants can make a significant difference in the lives of these gracious, gentle people. A gift of a hundred dollars can pay the salary for a skilled schoolteacher for a week, provide the means for purifying a small mountain community’s water or cover the cost of critically needed medications for many months.
Please consider supporting these organizations as a part of your holiday sharing.
Winapaq: The pet project for Jordan and myself is the small eco-village where we are currently living. Winapaq is a non-profit organization committed to the preservation of the indigenous customs, language and culture of the Incan civilization. Two TED videos by Wade Davis, a Harvard anthropologist, illustrate why such programs are so critical at this time in history.
The school at Winapaq provides free education to some thirty children, ages five to twelve, with much of the instruction offered in their native language of Quechua. The children also learn Spanish, English, science, geography and the usual academic courses taught in public schools. We have witnessed the joy of the children as they play and as they participate in the rituals that reflect the deep appreciation for nature that is a hallmark of the ancient Incan civilization. We hear them in the mornings when, in a circle, as they sing welcome, “buenos dias,” to their professors, fellow students (“compraneros”) and to mother earth (paccha mama).
We participated along with the children in a ritual associated with the preparation of the soil and the planting of crops in the village’s large organic garden. Supported in a community of teachers and parents, the children actively offered blessings to the seeds and gave thanks to the soil, rain and sun that would bring the seeds to life. From the ritual of sprinkling a special drink on the seeds to the closing of the furrows by riding on a log pulled by two large bulls, children as young as five or six participated in the ritual. The light in their eyes was testimony that these rituals connect them to the joy of being close to the earth. For these children as for their ancestors, the natural world is a living, breathing organism that communicates directly with them and they directly with it.
For Jordan and myself, Winapaq is a project worthy of our support. We hope that you will agree and make a tax-deductable donation to Flowing Dharma through the PayPal link below. Flowing Dharma is a 501.c.3 organization and has no administrative expenses. 100% of the donations made during this holiday season will support Winapaq. Alternatively, you may let us know via email that you would like your donation to be used for the support of Louisville, Kentucky area dharma projects including providing space for area sitting groups, mindfulness workshops and meditation retreats.
We recognize that there are many worthwile projects. Some may have more appeal for you than an alternative school for indigenous children. You may be led to support basic medical services or other forms of health-related interventions. We have two such projects of which we have personal knowledge and are confident of their significant impact. One is an established medical clinic with an impressive history of providing much needed health services. The other is a project that provides water purification systems to remote mountain villages and as I learned just yesterday, will educate lay health care providers in these villages as well.
Both of these organizations are doing amazing work with very limited cash flow and little overhead. Both depend extensively upon volunteers. Like Winapaq, they represent excellent opportunities to leverage your financial donations while making a tangible difference in the lives of these gentle, underserved people. Please consider making a tax-deductable contribution via their respective websites.
Thank you for your support of these worthwile projects.
BTW, Jordan and I will continure to share our experiences abroad on a Wordpress blog. We hope you find our posts interesting and encouraging of, to use Joseph Campbell's phrase, "following your bliss" to your own life's adventure.