Why I Love Patreon

patreon bannerPatreon is a relative newcomer in the crowdfunding arena. It’s only been around for three years, and less than a year in its current design incarnation. It’s growing rapidly, however, and for excellent reason. Unlike other crowdfunding platforms that operate on a strictly per-project basis, Patreon permits creators to fund their creative work on a subscription model. Patreon is, therefore, the first platform that offers the possibility of gift-model crowdfunding. That makes all the difference in the world – for me, and for a growing number of artists who have, at long last, found a viable path toward leaving behind their day jobs to focus on their creative work. If gift-model crowdfunding had been an option when I was starting out as a freelance writer, my career might have taken an entirely different trajectory.

When I first heard about Patreon in July 2014, I was immediately overcome with excitement. Here was something I’d long hoped and wished for; it almost sounded too good to be true. A breathless snippet from my personal journal that month reads:

“I see 22,719 likes on Patreon’s Facebook page, but none of my artist friends have liked it there yet. I wonder why? This could change so many artists’ lives!”

Earlier this year I launched my first Patreon account to support my writing, and although I’m still getting a foothold, it has already started changing my life.

How do I love thee, Patreon? Let me count the ways.

I love Patreon because…

…it’s the only crowdfunding platform that works on a gift model for patron and creator alike.

Most crowdfunding platforms are project-based. When the project is complete, the funding from project backers ends. Patreon’s subscription model, by contrast, allows for ongoing funding of a creative practice. Patreon can be used in project-based ways too, of course, but the key difference for me – the choice Patreon offers that isn’t available elsewhere – is that the subscription option permits creators to work completely within a gift model.

What that means, in my case, is that all the funds I receive from my patrons are gifts. They don’t need to be tethered to the release of a specific piece of writing, since I’m not required to sell my work in order to participate.

While there is a mutual understanding that there will be reciprocity over the long term – I am, after all, a writer, and this is arts patronage – my patrons are not purchasing anything from me. A purchase is something I’m obligated to honor by delivering a product or service to someone who’s paid me for it. Gifts I can accept with a thank you, and an open-ended timeframe for writing my next piece.

The trust this gift model embodies makes all the difference in the world. For one thing, since my Patreon campaign is still new, my day job must continue to take first priority for the time being. All writing projects must therefore be squeezed into my time off, which makes meeting deadlines a challenge. But there’s a much deeper benefit, too. When my patrons demonstrate their trust in me by pledging their support without expecting me to produce on a set schedule, I feel appreciated. It makes me want to deliver the best work I possibly can. By contrast, when people buy a product or service from me, that extra spirit of appreciation that a gift carries isn’t there. It’s an economic transaction, and nothing more. When I receive a gift of open-ended patronage, my response is deep gratitude, and the writing I produce under these conditions embodies the spirit of the gift also. As David Spangler writes: “A relationship that is coerced or that is dealt with as a transaction is never as powerful nor as rewarding as one in which all concerned willingly give of themselves.” Indeed. But before Patreon arrived on the scene, there was no viable way for me to carry out this working-in-the-gift vision as a writer without making difficult financial sacrifices myself.

I think it’s very important to be clear that I am working within a gift model rather than a sale-based one, because if I were operating a storefront, my patrons would have reasonable and clearly defined expectations for me to deliver what they’d purchased within an agreed-upon time frame. That works quite well for some creators, on Patreon and elsewhere. For me, not so much.

On a gift model, my patrons are expressing appreciation for work I’ve already written. They are also expressing their trust that, if I’m given the freedom to work on my own terms, I will continue to write more that’s worth their time to read. That trust goes a long way toward removing coercive elements from interfering with my creative process. My fickle and rebellious Muses will beat a hasty retreat at even the faintest hint of coercion. “It takes as long as it takes,” they insist. (I envy writers whose Muses cooperate readily with deadlines. It’s something I aspire to. Maybe if I court them – ply them with Muse-treats – someday it’ll happen for me, too. Even if it does, though, my Patreon campaign will still be run on a gift model, for a whole host of reasons.)

From my side, all the writing I release is also given as a gift. On Patreon I am free to release my work as I wish, without charging anyone an up-front fee to access it. This way, people who can’t or don’t want to be my patrons can still read my finished pieces online without spending money. And people who want to contribute, and are comfortable enough to do so, are given an easy and convenient way to do so.

…it provides an income to support creative work I’d be doing anyway.

I write every day. I’ve been writing since I was a child, and will continue to do so as long as I’m able, whether or not patronage is available. Words and ideas come to me – sometimes at the most inopportune times possible – and insist that they be written down, whether I like it or not.

Fortunately, writing brings me great fulfillment, as long as I can do it on my own terms. Even on the toughest and most frustrating days, I still love the process of sitting down and cranking out words. It’s a form of sacred service for me. Working within a gift model through Patreon preserves that meaningful service motivation in my creative process. While I need to pay my bills somehow, I decided long ago that I would not write for a living, because it introduces coercive elements that compromise the spirit of the work. When I’m writing for the sake of “earning a living” (I like to put that phrase in quotes to emphasize its absurdity), the goal is to prove my mettle in the capitalist marketplace, under the constant threat that money I need to meet my basic survival needs will be withheld if I don’t. My Muses sure don’t like them apples. In fact, one of the main purposes of the writing and activism I’ve done for the past 20 years is to help hasten the arrival of the day when the need for everyone to “earn a living” becomes a thing of the past.

Let me be clear: when I say I’m opposed to “earning a living,” what I oppose is the obligation to sell my time to employers to survive. I’m not opposed to commerce in general, nor am I opposed to receiving financial support from people who enjoy my work. To some, this distinction is merely semantic, but I strongly disagree. Working within a gift model is a different animal altogether from “earning a living.” They’re not even in the same ballpark, in fact. The former is driven by trust and appreciation; the latter is driven by coercion, implicit threat, and fear.

If I start writing for the money, my work becomes compromised, and my readers can tell the difference immediately. Some writers can churn out brilliant, inspired work even when their primary motivation to do so is monetary. I, however – a writer blessed (cursed?) with fickle, rebellious, stubborn Muses – have learned that I am not one of them. Whether or not my writing makes money has to be irrelevant – which is a difficult thing for me to manage in an extreme capitalist culture that recognizes no other means of deeming something of value than its ability to make money. So the only responsible way for me to release the writing I do for its own sake is as a gift. Until Patreon came along, there was no viable way for me to do both of these things – offer my work as a gift and also have hope of being able to pay my bills, if enough people supported my work.

When I am working in the spirit of the gift – as I am always doing whenever I am free to write on my own terms, rather than those of the capitalist marketplace – my creative flow, too, is gifted to me from a source beyond myself. That’s why I consider my writing a form of sacred service. Therefore, any price I might charge for the finished work feels strangely like both too much and too little. (Thanks to Charles Eisenstein, one of my favorite writers, for this insight.) On a gift model, and with sufficient patronage, I won’t have to charge a price at all – yet I will still be supported.

…for some artists, it offers a viable path out of the artists’ dilemma.

Without the privilege of patronage, spousal support, or a trust fund, my choices as a writer who wants to work within a gift model are limited to:

1) spending most of my time doing wage labor (assuming I’m “lucky” enough to find a job, that is) while my gift writing takes second priority, and/or

2) being broke and relying on charity (i.e., means-tested, woefully inadequate forms of government support) while I write.

That’s the artist’s dilemma in a nutshell. How do artists manage to fund the immense amounts of time and effort needed to create things worthy of being called art? For most, it’s either a day job or charity, or some combination of both. For some artists, Patreon has provided a way out of this dilemma that didn’t exist before.

Many people claim that “art should be free.” In a sense, they are right, as art ultimately belongs to the realm of the gift. But we live in a world where only those of a certain level of economic privilege can develop their creative talents and gift them to the world without compromising their ability to survive financially. Patreon is the first widely available option – as far as I know, at least – that does not require creators to compromise their artistic vision and creative freedom in order to receive financial support.

…it can free me to release my work online without fear of piracy.

The internet has made it trivially easy to copy and distribute many artists’ work at little to no cost. This ease of reproduction is one factor involved in the rise of crowdfunding platforms. But it’s also a double-edged sword, as it means the model of selling creative work in order to fund more of it has become even more insufficient for many artists. Artists often find to their dismay that their work has been taken without paying them, and used to make money for someone else. Artists invest years of their lives into their work; it’s unconscionable for our culture to leave them high and dry financially simply because their work has been released online and technology has made it easier for it to be copied.

As a writer, setting up my Patreon on a gift model offers the possibility of freeing me from worry about the way that unauthorized copying might impact my personal financial bottom line. I retain all copyrights to work I’ve posted on Patreon; I can always post it elsewhere. And I want everyone who’s interested to be able to read my writing, whether or not they’ve paid. Patreon opens the way toward this possibility for me: with sufficient patronage, one day I’ll be able to pay my bills regardless of whether or not my writing is copied. That means there will be no financial motive for me to waste precious writing time pursuing people who copy and distribute my work without my consent, since they will not be impacting my ability to survive.

There are other reasons, of course, that I might decide to go after someone who uses my work without my consent for their own gain. But at least with Patreon, I needn’t do so for the hope of preserving my ability to eat and keep a roof over my head.

As a patron myself, I appreciate the fact that a great deal of the music, art, and writing I enjoy is readily available in digital format these days. I support digital art and music financially because it’s worth it on its own merits, but also because I want to contribute toward building a world where artists aren’t forced to take day jobs and give up art because they can’t sell enough of their work to live on. Patreon allows me to offer more of that kind of support.

…it can help facilitate a sea change in the way we talk about funding artists.

Patreon is demonstrating to the world that many things people have become accustomed to getting for free online (i.e., YouTube videos) have financial value as well as artistic value. This is a long-overdue and welcome change, and has much to contribute to the ongoing conversation about arts funding.

It’s especially difficult, I think, to be an artist in the US – not just because there is so little financial support available for the arts, but also because US-based artists must constantly fight an uphill battle against the dominant norms of their own culture. The arts are widely considered frivolous, so artists are forced to spend a great deal of time justifying the value of their work, to themselves and to others. People don’t have much sympathy: “You want to be paid to sit around and doodle all day?” Why, yes! Yes I do! And I want everyone else to have that option too, because I have faith in their creative spirit. I mean, think about it. Healthy human beings can only watch so many mindless TV shows before it gets boring and they start feeling the urge to do something productive or creative with their time. With enough of those days of paid doodling, the doodler’s skills would improve, and they would eventually be offering something of great value to their communities: art. Patreon opens more doors for that sort of thing to happen.

But even if it didn’t – even if the doodler never produced anything that could reasonably be called art – what, I ask in all sincerity, is the harm in making sure everyone has a roof over their head, health care, clothes to wear, and decent food to eat, regardless of whether or not they are productive?

…it can help facilitate a cultural shift toward recognizing and properly valuing creative and emotional labor.

When people aren’t paid for their creative work, the only people who can continue to create are the ones who have financial support from other sources. As a feminist, I am thrilled to see creative people – especially women, whose work is so often taken for granted and unsupported – bringing in enough funding through Patreon to not only quit their day jobs, but to demonstrate that there is an audience that values their work enough to support it financially.

The fact that an alternative like Patreon exists provides us with an additional incentive to take on the demanding emotional labor of unraveling and countering the many layers of social and cultural conditioning that tell us our work isn’t valuable and we should just get “real jobs.” It’s a safe bet that for most of us, by the time we’ve mustered up the courage to put our work out there and seek patronage, we’ve done a great deal of this kind of preparatory emotional labor behind the scenes.

Patreon is flexible enough to serve as a platform for financially supporting not only art, videos, comics, music, and writing, but also activism, web forum moderation, community building work, and many other kinds of behind-the-scenes work that so often go unappreciated. For the most part, artists who have a following that is willing to support their work can use Patreon to help make that a reality.

…it allows for work interruptions in ways that project-based crowdfunding does not.

If I have slow months and need to stop writing for awhile for whatever reason, my supporters aren’t left in the lurch, feeling that they paid into something but got nothing in return. If they do start to feel like they’re being cheated, they can simply withdraw their pledges. With platforms like Kickstarter, there have been numerous situations where the money was received and spent by the creator, but no product was ever created or shipped. In fact, I was on the losing end of one of those situations, and sadly, it soured me on the creator’s work, especially after my inquiries went unanswered. That isn’t a problem with a Patreon account set up on a gift model.

(If extended silences on my part were to continue for too long with no explanation, I expect that some of my supporters would decide to opt out, and they’d be justified in doing so. This is arts patronage, after all, not charity.)

…it offers flexibility on both sides of the patron-artist relationship.

Patreon is well-suited for people who have the skills to build a career around their art or craft, but haven’t yet been able to make enough money to devote themselves fully to it. Patreon contributions buy them the time they need to create, by making it less necessary to work at a day job to cover their expenses.

Creators can decide how much effort they want to put into fulfilling their Patreon rewards, anywhere along the spectrum from “minimal” to “substantial.” Patrons can decide whether or not to support a creator based on their level of interest in the work and/or the appeal of the various rewards offered.

I seek patronage in order to buy myself more time to write, so I don’t offer my patrons perks that take time away from my writing. I’m glad Patreon gives me that flexibility. If maintenance of my Patreon account itself became a time sink that interfered with my ability to write, it would defeat the whole purpose.

(And while I’m at it…one of the things I plan to write more about is how absurd and frustrating it is that our culture puts us in a position where we are forced to find ways to “buy back” our own time – because, as things stand now, employers have priority claims on it by default – in order to survive.)

…it automates pledges.

Automated pledges are wonderful for both sides of a patronage arrangement. They free creators from having to send out reminders, and free supporters from having to remember when to donate.

Creators don’t want to have to constantly remind people that they need support. Patreon provides a way for the creators to ask just once, and for the patrons to select their contribution level just once. Then everyone carries on with their lives. Meanwhile, creators keep on getting paid and are freed to focus on their art, and supporters keep on feeling good because they know they’re making more of the art possible.  If they really like what the creator posts, they can increase their pledge any time. Win-win.

(Creators who are trying to expand their patronage do, of course, need to keep reminding people that their Patreon account exists. But once they’ve managed to attract a critical mass of supporters, they’re home free, because receiving the pledges is automated.)

…it encourages expression of appreciation.

Since I’ve released my writing on a gift model for a long time before Patreon came along – in 2004, I even gifted away an influential website (whywork.org) that I spent many years developing – I’ve occasionally been asked:

Why should anyone pay for your writing when they could read it for free?

One answer is that they recognize that the writing they’re getting “for free” (I prefer to say “as a gift,” because that’s what it is) has many years of time, effort, and skill-building behind it, and they want to recognize and honor that work. Another answer is that they want to express appreciation – to let me know that my work has enriched their lives somehow. A third is that they want to make it possible for me to write more. It can also be a way to connect and say a personal thank you without obligating either side to enter into a more time-consuming sort of interpersonal relationship.

Sure, there are people who will read it “for free” – some who do so just because they can get away without paying, some who like it but not enough to support it financially in an ongoing fashion, and others who would be happy to pay for it but just can’t afford to be a patron. That’s all perfectly fine with me, and fully expected. However, there are also plenty of people who, when given a chance – especially when reminded that there’s a person behind the writing they enjoy, and that person needs to pay bills too – will be happy to contribute. Those are the people who become patrons. Most audiences want to pay creators a reasonable amount for their work to express their appreciation, especially when they know the money will benefit them directly. Patreon has made it easy and convenient for them to do this.

…the support I receive through gift-model patronage multiplies.

If my patrons make it possible for me to write more by freeing me from the need to sell my time through wage labor, that blessing will open up more opportunities for me to be of service to others as well. Proofreading other writers’ work, for example – something I very much enjoy – contributes to the artistic excellence that makes it possible for them to attract patronage, and deliver the best possible work to their audience. By freeing people to do what they’re best at, Patreon therefore opens more possibilities for our communities to be doubly enriched.

When creators work within a gift model, there need be no contradiction between what we would call self-interest and the interests of others, because gift models further both at the same time. Supporting a creator so that they can better be of service spreads abundance, rather than scarcity. I love the saying in volunteer communities that “it isn’t service unless both people are being served.” In other words, the person providing the service should receive as much (or more!) than they give. If this isn’t the case, it’s possible that they are simply doing the wrong kind of gift work for them. But the much more likely possibility is that the economy we have now is parasitically extracting real value away from those of us who do gift labor. Dig deeply enough, and it can be seen – as feminists have often pointed out – that the money system we have is actually dependent on gift culture and unpaid work.

With a Patreon campaign set up on a gift model, however, nobody has to lose out or be scammed at the expense of someone else. Outside of Patreon, if I want to offer my writing as a gift, I pay the price for doing so, because time spent working for free is time I can’t spend on something that brings in income to support myself. As a writer with gift patronage, though, I can get paid for creative work I’m already doing, and will continue to do one way or another. My writing can be made available to the public on a gift basis also, so whoever wants to read it may do so regardless of their ability to pay. I can set things up so that patrons only get perks that won’t interfere with my ability to write. Patreon gets a fair cut of my intake, in exchange for providing the service that makes all of this possible. And finally, Patreon has given me a solid reason to believe that one day, if all continues to go well, I may be able to leave behind wage labor and sustain myself with what I do best: writing. Everybody wins here; no one loses. Gift-model crowdfunding via Patreon is the closest thing to an unconditional basic income that is currently available to me. What’s not to love?

…it opens more possibilities to work with ease.

I have always believed that work need not feel like soul-numbing drudgery, suffering, or struggle. Under the right conditions, even the most mundane work can become satisfying and meaningful – even when it’s difficult, tedious, and demanding. At the moment, most of my income comes from my house cleaning jobs, so I have lots of opportunities to test this theory out!

One thing I’ve noticed that confounds the dominant culture’s work-is-drudgery norm is that my creative abilities seem to sharpen when I am free to enjoy idle moments of unstructured, aimless play, without any expectation whatsoever (whether it’s self-imposed, or imposed by others) that I should be productive. Few creative people are fortunate enough to work under conditions that promote such ease and joy, however, especially when we’re trapped in the belly of a beastly culture in which our value as human beings is routinely judged by our productivity. Using Patreon on a gift model can open more possibilities in the direction of working with ease, one creator at a time.

Conscious effort is only one element of what’s involved in valuable creative work. The best work I am capable of, I’ve found, arises through the back-and-forth interplay of structured effort and relaxed ease. Leisure is not just a way-station to refresh us on the way to more work. It is an integral, inseparable, essential part of the creative process. (I’ll have more to say about this in my book On The Leisure Track: Rethinking the Job Culture. If you’d like to help ensure that I have time and energy to finish writing it, you can become a patron!)

Gift-model patronage through Patreon is the biggest, most encouraging step toward making it possible for creators to work with ease that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.

…it helps me unlearn the internalized Protestant work ethic.

Writers Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, in their recent book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, offer this astute and thought-provoking insight: “The central ideological support for the work ethic is that remuneration be tied to suffering…People must endure through work before they can receive wages…they must prove their worthiness before the eyes of capital.”

Our culture enforces this toxic “you must suffer to earn money” ideology in all kinds of ways. One of the things I can do to resist this harmful enculturation is to affirm that work – even paid work – should involve joy and pleasure. To do this at deep levels, I must take on the emotional labor of rooting out all the manifestations of this Protestant work ethic in my own thoughts and behavior – not an easy task, because some of those elements are deceptively subtle. To take just one example, consider a situation where I decide to give myself a reward for working. The need for a reward presupposes an adversarial relationship between me and the work. (True gift work, by contrast, is its own reward…even when it’s difficult.) And where might I have picked up the idea that remunerative work must entail suffering? Why, at the hands of the Protestant work ethic, of course. If left to our own devices, so the argument goes, people would do nothing but lie on the couch watching Netflix and eating bonbons, and no one would ever do any work. So work is something I must be goaded to do against my will – something I must endure. A reward is what I deserve at the end – but only because I’ve earned it properly with my suffering.

There’s a chapter in On The Leisure Track, my in-progress book, with the working title “Do What You Love, Lazy Bums Who Refuse To Work, and Other Lies of Job Culture.” In this chapter, I unpack and critique various ideological and behavioral manifestations of the Protestant work ethic, and use personal narratives as a lens through which to illustrate the processes of mental and emotional labor involved in unlearning them.

Those manifestations are many, and they are deeply rooted. However, there’s good news: if we are committed to unlearning other forms of oppressive cultural conditioning – racism, queer-phobia, transphobia, fat shaming, sexism, classism, and so on – we can use the tools and methods we’ve acquired in that work to help us unlearn the internalized Protestant work ethic as well.

Patreon can serve this unlearning process well, too. By making it possible for more and more creators to be paid for doing work they love, Patreon is helping to give lie to the ideology that underlies the work ethic: that remuneration must be tied to suffering.

Never underestimate the power of that. It is changing lives. Thank you, Patreon.

…it is not charity.

In a recent article in Jacobin magazine, writer Keith A. Spencer critiques Patreon as part of a social model of charity that “perpetuates the illusion that capitalism is basically just.” “Crowdsourcing our basic human needs,” Spencer writes, “implies that the welfare state has failed…In its place, we are offered a world where our value is based on how much donors think we’re worth.”

I’m certainly under no illusions that capitalism is “basically just.” I think Spencer is absolutely right to critique the charity model. The social safety net we have in the US is woefully inadequate at best; that is easily seen just by scrolling through social media these days and witnessing the endless stream of crowdfunding campaigns from struggling people in need of things like emergency dental care or child support. Nonetheless, I think Patreon is far and away the most emancipatory crowdfunding alternative available today for artists who can attract even a modest following. I think it’s a big mistake to lump it in with platforms that focus on charitable giving, because Patreon is not charity. It’s not “free money,” even when it’s used on a gift model. It is patronage. Supporters aren’t “donors”; they are patrons of the arts.

As basic income activist Scott Santens has written: “By encouraging people to pursue their passions and at the same time earn incomes from doing so, people are one by one becoming emancipated in a way that is new in the world. This kind of freedom hasn’t really existed before…Patreon is emancipatory because patrons aren’t paying creators to work. They’re freeing creators to create.”

As for what I’m worth…well, as I write these words, I am receiving approximately $50 per month from my patrons. That may not sound like much. But since the results of my fruitless and demoralizing job-hunt in recent years would seem to indicate that I’m currently worth nothing at all to employers, and since the federal government has made it clear in no uncertain terms that I’m only worthy of receiving food benefits if I can prove I’m doing 20 hours per week of state-approved “work activities,” $50 a month given freely – by people who like my creative work and want to enable me to do more of it – makes an enormous difference in my life. Especially because the funds were given to me as a gift, and an expression of trust and appreciation. I didn’t have to suffer for them. I didn’t have to earn them through wage labor. I didn’t have to fill out countless forms and endure insults to my intelligence and dignity in order to prove to my patrons that I’m worthy of being fed, the way I do when I apply for government assistance. The money was given freely, not begrudgingly.

Never underestimate the effect that kind of trust and support can have on a writer like me who lives close to the financial bone. I don’t have any desire to strike it rich. My desire is to be of service to the world by finding ways to do the work I’m best at within a gift model, instead of shoehorning myself into an ill-fitting job to make money. I want everyone else to have that option too, of course, which is one of the reasons I support unconditional basic income. How can creative people be of service to the world when we’re so drained from poorly fitting jobs that we cling to because we desperately need to put food on the table?

That $50 I receive from my patrons every month may not yet be enough to free me from wage labor, but it comes to me in the spirit of the gift, which makes it worth far more to me than its face value. It tells me that my patrons believe in me and my work, and that is priceless.

Think of Patreon not as charity, but as harm reduction for a certain segment of the arts world, and a step toward demonstrating the liberating potential of unconditional basic income for creators. Within the context of a capitalist system that is already fundamentally oppressive in its requirement that we sell our labor and time to survive, Patreon can fill some deep needs – needs that, in the absence of an unconditional basic income, many artists are unable to fill any other way.

That’s why I love Patreon.

****************************

(Thanks for reading!  If you enjoyed this piece and would like to help make it possible for me to write more, please consider becoming a patron.)

Charles Eisenstein on work, leisure, and ‘not-doing’

Full desk clip art (PD)I’ve just finished reading Charles Eisenstein‘s inspiring new book, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible.  It is every bit as brilliant as 2011’s Sacred Economics, and I recommend it just as highly.  In lieu of a new blog post from me – I’m working on several, but none are ready yet – I’d like to share an extended series of quotes from the new book that are particularly relevant for rethinking the job culture.  Enjoy!

“Immersed in a system that never lets us rest, that condemns laziness and pushes us toward ever-increasing busyness through economic pressure, we…tell ourselves we must always be doing something.  Time’s a-wastin’!

“The primary habit that arises from it [existential scarcity] is the habit of always doing.  Here and now is never enough.  You might protest that most people in the Western world spend vast amounts of time doing nothing productive at all, watching TV and playing video games, but those are displacements of doing, and not nondoing.

“I am not saying that it is bad to do.  I am saying that there is a time to do, and a time not to do, and that when we are a slave to the habit of doing we are unable to distinguish between them.

“A good time to do nothing is any time you feel stuck.  I have done a lot of nothing in the writing of this book.  For several days I was trying to write the conclusion, spinning my wheels, turning out tawdry rehashes of earlier material.  The more I did, the worse it got.  So I finally gave up the effort and just sat there on the couch…with no agenda whatever of figuring out what to write.  It was from that empty place that the conclusion arose, unbidden.

“…do you find yourself contracting a case of the fuck-its?  The procrastination, the laziness, the halfhearted attempts, the going through the motions – all indicate that the old story isn’t motivating you anymore.  What once made sense, makes sense no longer.  You are beginning to withdraw from that world.  Society does its best to persuade you to resist that withdrawal, which, when resisted, is called depression.  Increasingly potent motivational and chemical means are required to keep us focused on what we don’t want to focus on, to keep us motivated to do that which we don’t care about.  If fear of poverty doesn’t work, then maybe psychiatric medication will.  Anything to keep you participating in business as usual.

“You can’t just do whatever you feel like.”  “You can’t just do anything you want.”  “You have to learn self-restraint.”  “You’re only interested in gratifying your desires.”  “You don’t care about anything but your own pleasure.”  Can you hear the judgmentality in these admonitions?  Can you see how they reproduce the mentality of domination that runs our civilization?  Goodness comes through conquest.  Health comes through conquering bacteria.  Agriculture is improved by eliminating pests.  Society is made safe by winning the war on crime.  On my walk today, students accosted me, asking if I wanted to join the “fight” against pediatric cancer.  There are so many fights, crusades, campaigns, so many calls to overcome the enemy by force.  No wonder we apply the same strategy to ourselves.  Thus it is that the inner devastation of the Western psyche matches exactly the outer devastation it has wreaked on the planet. […]

“…it is scary to not do, or rather, to not impose doing.  Most of us have grown up in a society that trains us, from kindergarten or even earlier, to do things we don’t really want to do, and to refrain from things we do want to.  This is called discipline, the work ethic, self-control.  Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution at least, it has been seen as a cardinal virtue.  After all, most of the tasks of industry were not anything a sane human being would willingly do.  To this day, most of the tasks that keep society as we know it running are the same.  Lured by future rewards, chastened by punishment, we face the grim necessity of work.  This would all be defensible, perhaps, if this were were truly necessary, if it were contributing to the well-being of people and planet.  But at least 90 percent of it is not.  Part of our revolution is the reunion of work and play, work and art, work and leisure, of have to and want to.

“Our discomfort with a teaching like “You don’t have to do anything” comes in part from our thorough indoctrination into the work ethic, which holds that without the discipline of doing, nothing gets done.  If there were no grades hanging over their heads, no paycheck at the end of the week, and no internalized habit of work such devices have created, then most people wouldn’t keep doing what they do.  Only those who work for the love of it would continue – only those whose work gave them a palpable sense of service, of contribution, or of meaning.  In preparation for such a world, and to prepare such a world, let us cultivate the corresponding habit: in whatever way makes sense, let us practice trusting the impulse to work, and when it is not present, let us hold each other through the panic, uncertainty, and guilt that may arise.  […]

“You don’t have to do anything – why?  Not because nothing needs to be done.  It is that you don’t have to, because you will do.  The unstoppable compulsion to act, in bigger and wiser ways than you knew possible, has already been set in motion.  I am urging you to trust in that.  You needn’t contrive to motivate yourself, guilt yourself, or goad yourself into actions.  Actions taken from that place will be less powerful than ones that arise unbidden.  Trust yourself that you will know what to do, and that you will know when to do it.  […]

“When somebody is showing signs of distress and tiredness in organizing a specific activity we always ask – do you feel connected with what you are doing?  Does it make you happy or do you feel that you need to sacrifice for it?  If this feels like ‘work,’ stop it!”

“Doing only what makes them feel good, only what makes them feel connected, only what doesn’t feel like work…does that mean they get less done than when they were driven by urgency and seeking to be more efficient?  No, they get more done.  […]

“Not that there is anything wrong with work.  Work and play, work and leisure…it is time to question these polarities.  That doesn’t mean indolence.  When I worked in construction, the labor was sometimes very strenuous, but it was rarely an ordeal.  I didn’t have the feeling of fighting myself or forcing myself.  There is a time to make great efforts, a time to push one’s capacities to the limit.  We have after all been given those capacities for a reason.  But struggle is not supposed to be the default state of life.”

~ pp. 106 – 138

Is Nothing Sacred? Thoughts on Leisure and ‘Doing Nothing’

Sipping teaWhat images and thoughts come to mind when you hear the word leisure?

Many people automatically associate leisure with what people do in their ‘spare’ or ‘free’ time (i.e., time spent away from paid jobs), or with pursuits such as entertainment, vacations, or sports.

I think we need to delve deeper when we think about the meaning of leisure.

What happens to leisure when we live in a culture where nearly everyone is expected to have paid jobs and work long hours just to earn their keep?  How much of our time is truly free in a culture like this?

Leisure gets an unfair bad rap, if you ask me.  Too often it is dismissed as something less worthy of care and consideration than the useful productive work that needs to get done, or as a kind of guilty pleasure that is only available to a privileged, rich elite who can afford it.

One source of the problem is the way we think.  We’ve internalised the Protestant work ethic to such a debilitating degree that leisure has become trivialised and morally suspect.  We worship effort and busy-ness instead.  Workaholism is worn as a badge of pride and moral superiority.  We overvalue activity, exertion, and even drudgery, while simultaneously undervaluing the ability to be receptive and allow things to happen as they will.  This obsession with work crowds out time to reflect and contemplate alternative ways of life.

I reject the idea that my worth as a human being – or anyone’s, for that matter – should be measured by willingness to work hard at a paid job.  I don’t want to live in a world where I’m only allowed to feel like a worthwhile person if I am expending huge effort to accomplish things on an economically approved timetable.  I want to live in a world where I can use my gifts to do high quality work of the heart and spirit, while trusting that my support will come through using those gifts in accordance with divine Will to provide what others want and need.  I want everyone else to have the same option.

While it is no doubt true that some things can’t be accomplished without a considerable expenditure of effort, it has also been my experience that there is a way of working – a beautiful, playful, even awe-inspiring way – that is only available to those who can set aside the cultural brainwashing of the work ethic long enough to allow themselves the pleasure of relaxing deeply into the experience of true leisure.  The kind of work that is done from this place of inner balance cannot be rushed; it takes the time it takes, and that’s that.  Most artists understand this intuitively.

Paradoxcially, artists in particular are sometimes perceived by onlookers as ‘doing nothing’ at precisely the times when their creative selves are in fact most deeply engaged and they are in a state of flow.  As a writer, I have spent years passively writing an essay or book chapter – doing the invisible labour of pondering, digesting, and researching the ideas I want to present – before I get to the visible labour of actively writing it.  As the process unfolds, there are often times where I’m enjoying a leisure activity such as lounging around or reading a book, and it may appear that I’m just goofing off at those times.  All stages of the process are essential in producing a finished piece of good quality writing, yet only the final stage is likely to be perceived by an outsider as real work.

Yet leisure is the ground from which the best work so often emerges, and the soil through which creativity bears some of its most delicious, ripe fruit.  In this sense, to be at leisure is to be very actively engaged indeed.  Lounging around can be a purposeless way of being purposeful – a way of allowing my unconscious mind freedom to roam and generate creative insights.  When I allow myself to be fully at leisure in this way – something that is actually quite a bit more difficult than it sounds – I notice that my writing flows from a deeper place.  It is a place that affirms joy, pleasure, mystery, and wonder.

Flashes of creative insight are gifts.  If I refuse to open myself to these gifts – if I neglect to make room for them because I am mired in emotional conflicts or unexamined work ethic beliefs that prevent me from doing nothing and being fully at leisure – I am being cut off from a deep source of wisdom.

I speak out in praise of leisure because I believe we need a lot more of it – and we need it for its own sake, not just because it can be a path toward better quality work.  I contend that there is an oft-overlooked connection between leisure and right relationship to the divine.

Genuine leisure, in the deepest sense, is a condition of meditative attunement and openness of the soul.

It is a way of being silent – and a way of comporting oneself in the world – that facilitates and strengthens connections with divine forces.  It is an attitude of active receptivity, a presence of mind, and an affirmation of mystery.  It contains a dimension that Charles Eisenstein, in his brilliant book Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition, aptly calls “the experience of the abundance of time.”

Taking a break from work, in and of itself, would not necessarily qualify as leisure, since a break is something that is usually justified only by virtue of the fact that it readies a worker to take up effortful work again.

Being “off the clock” of a paid job, in and of itself, is not necessarily leisure either.  Much of an employee’s time away from the job is spent in commuting, de-stressing and recuperating from work, preparing for the next day of work, and so on.

Laziness, idleness, sloth, boredom, and distraction: none of these are what I mean when I speak of the value of true leisure.  In fact, I would argue that boredom and the constant need for distracting activity or entertainment are both conditions that are born of a chronic lack of leisure: an inability to be still inside.  They are one manifestation of an inability to truly do nothing.

To see this, ask yourself: have you ever allowed yourself to do absolutely nothing?

I’m not asking if you’ve just shirked your responsibilities or called in sick to work so you could play computer games or watch TV.  Just about everyone has done things like that.  I’m asking if you’ve ever genuinely done nothing.  Nothing at all, except fully allowing yourself to sink into languid silence, or perhaps enter a deep state of relaxation and repose.  If you’ve done this in a spirit of inquiry, what happened when you did?

Did you notice that your mind raced?  I sure did.  Every critical, guilt-tripping and worrisome internalised voice I’ve ever absorbed through living in a work-obsessed culture started admonishing me even more stridently than usual: How can you justify frittering away time like this?  You have an endless To-Do list.  Time’s-a-wastin’.  Time is money!  You can’t afford to be unproductive.  You need to be Getting Things Done!

It’s one thing when the opposition to leisure comes from an outside source, such as the media or our social circles.  It’s quite another when we realise that we’ll have to face the conflict we are carrying around within ourselves if we want to learn to be at leisure in a deeper way.  We will have to take on the inner Puritan that admonishes us to be productive and useful.  We will have to unlearn our internalised work ethic bit by bit, the same way we unlearn internalised homophobia, racism, or sexism.  We will have to learn how to get out of our own way.  We will have to learn to do nothing.

We sometimes ask “is nothing sacred?”  My answer to that potentially subversive question is YES!  It is.  ‘Nothing’ is sacred indeed!  To do nothing – to truly do nothing, in the sense I describe – is, in fact, a deeply sacred way of being.  It is when we are doing nothing that our deeper selves have room to emerge freely, and we can give ourselves over to spontaneity, play, discovery, and exploration.

In a culture that worships hard work as a measure of human worth, to advocate a deeper, more respectful approach to leisure is a form of counter-cultural resistance.

Our culture is desperately hungry for this kind of leisure.  Even if we cannot articulate it, so many of us sense that something important is missing, and that we need opportunities to experience leisure as a connection to the divine – as a celebration of life.  We are starving for it.

So let us renew our appreciation for true leisure.  Let us learn how to do nothing, in the deepest sense.

Because ‘nothing’ is sacred.