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The Birth of a Meditation Cushion Salesman

Finding the Bridge Between Buddhism and Capitalism

by Patrick Clark ©2000

 

When I first met Linsi Deyo she was busy crafting a pile of funny round cushions she called zafus. I was impressed. Here was a woman who found a trade which employed her in a rural Appalachian community where most of the rest of us were driving to the city for work. Little did I know, some day this woman would be my wife and business partner and I would be a meditation cushion salesman.

Really we were a good match because we shared a similar quest. Linsi and I both subscribed to the same credo--that the current economic climate which exploits people and the environment to produce profit for the stockholders was in need of reform. I always wanted to create a right livelihood--a business which would support my rural lifestyle, provide a meaningful service to the community, and be pollution free.

I wanted to be a part of the Green Business movement which promoted ethical and ecological business policies and practices in the workplace and beyond. The idea is that if businesses use energy-efficient and recycled products and equipment to produce the same, and uphold high ethical standards, it will create a more just and sustainable world. The leader of the movement is an organization called Co-op America which lists over 2,000 business members in its National Green Pages and publishes a quarterly magazine.

The green business movement was almost 2600 years old--founded by Shakyamuni Buddha--before Green America began in 1984. Right Livelihood was a part of the Buddha's Eight-fold Path to enlightenment. The eightfold path is formula for creating a life and a world of caring and compassion. It involves a system of cultivating mindfulness or awareness in everyday life. Now, under a different name, a lot of people were interested in right livelihood. A new market of green consumers had evolved, and I believed I had found the bridge between Buddhism and Capitalism.

Unfortunately, neither Linsi nor I had the knowledge nor the resources to effectively run a business or tap into the booming Buddhist market. With majors in Philosophy and Environmental Education, our only business education was the school of hard knocks. We were well meaning, idealistic, social and environmental revolutionaries and artists who wanted to merge our ideals with our livelihood.

Instead of having worked toward a career, we had spent years learning how to live a sustainable lifestyle, grow vegetables, bicycle for transportation, cultivate inner awareness, recycle paper, plastic and glass, write to our Congress people, boycott WalMart and participate in local environmental groups.

So how could we maintain this lifestyle and make a viable living? Can they go together, or must one sacrifice sustainability while at work in order to support sustainability while at home? How does one operate in the market economy with nonviolence? How does one make a living without supporting a system of destructive resource use and dysfunctional social practices? These were our koans. (A koan is a Zen riddle which reveals an aspect of enlightenment when unveiled.)

One early lesson came the day the electric man knocked on our door with a 'collect or disconnect' order. Our $7,000 per year income wasn't paying the bills. Without money, even a green business cannot survive. The only answer was to sell more cushions.

Our friends felt sorry for us and offered much advice: "Why don't you sell them at football games? They would be great for those hard stadium seats." Everywhere we went we sere dreaming up ways to sell more zafus. We even considered bumper stickers: "Your one stop for enlightenment."

But this whole idea seemed like capitalism, which we thought was the opposite of Buddhism. WasnÕt ours suppose to be a noble right livelihood? Wasn't Buddhism, and our business, a sanctuary from the market economy where one is bombarded with tacky and pressuring messages to 'buy this' or 'eat here?' How could we promote our cushions without encouraging materialism and competition against other companies who were trying to do good as well? And so we became fascinated with the world of money and business.

Perhaps if we could master it, it would somehow become friendly. We might even unravel a mystery to open our minds and create a dramatic shift in consciousness.

As we began this exploration, we learned that even a green business needs to make use of many of the same procedures and prinicples as a standard business. Just because we "do good" doesn't mean we will automatically do well. We decided that if we didn't learn (ugh!) how to manage our business and money, we might as well go find regular jobs. Number crunching, marketing and advertising, systems design and analysis--these were the things we had to learn. The paradox of being a green consumer is that it costs more--because you are paying the true environmental and social costs--so you need to make more money. (How can we afford solar panels and get off the grid if we are struggling to buy organic carrots?) And to be truly green you need to make money in a way which fosters sustainability.

How many of us can say our work, or the company we work for, does this? Or the companies where we invest our money? Or the products we purchase? Basically, the quest for survival is still as primal to us today as it was to our stone-age ancestors. Immediate personal survival usually overrides concern for long-range, planetary well being.

The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Fail and What to Do About Yours was a book which turned our perspective and our business around. The term 'E-Myth' refers to what most people believe an entrepreneur is: someone who knows a trade and has a great idea to start marketing their creation or service. Author Michael Gerber calls this an 'entrepreneurial seizure'. What is overlooked, according to Gerber, is that running a business takes management skills. It is not enough to just know a skill or design a product. At a certain point a business gets too big for one or two people to manage. Then there is no organization or system set up to facilitate the quantity of sales needed to survive in our highly ordered and competitive market place. This is the reason most businesses fail within the first five years of operation.

We were a case in point. Cushions and materials and papers and equipment were all over our house, porch and barn. Our bills were often paid late with stiff fees, and taxes not filed on time. We could never keep up, much less increase our orders. We didn't have a profit and loss statement, (we barely knew what one was) so there was no way to analyze anything about our business and make informed decisions. We could not even take a small vacation.

We read the book in 1997 then signed up for an eighteen month correspondence course in the E-Myth Academy. Since then we've put in hundreds of hours quantifying, measuring, researching, projecting, imagining, fixing, and systematizing everything from inventory to production to marketing and hiring.

When we realized we netted around $12,000 in 1997 (after over a decade in business), we wondered if it was all worth it. So many years of our lives were invested in building a dream that wasn't sustaining us, or fun even. It had become mostly a matter of survival by that time. For two people to live off of $12,000 they must be very creative.

But we were more dedicated to making our chosen lifestyle work than to moving to the city. In the fall of 1997 we relocated to a different community where some Buddhist friends allowed us to build a tiny, movable house on their land. We rented a cheap building nearby to run the business. For the next year, almost every day--including weekends--was spent setting up our lives in this new environment, building our passive solar trail shelter on the edge of the Pisquah National Forest. For months we were constantly exhausted and burnt out, barely able to go on and face the new day. We were living in the old world of do-it-yourself subsistence (make-it-or-do-without) and the modern world of high pressured business (analyze, quantify and compete), with no space or rest in between or at either end.

Why would we work so hard for so little? What was in it for us? Because there was no turning back. We had worked ourselves into a predicament and now we were working to get ourselves out. We couldn't go over it or around it, we had to go through it. Call it karma or circumstance, the fact is by that time there were no other viable options. In trying to create a better world, we had created a very stressful and unstable life--sort of the opposite of our ideal.

There is always the possibility or hope that a business will "take off," a.k.a. The Great American Dream. For us, extreme wealth was not the aim, but a balanced and reasonable lifestyle. But business is unpredictable and could go either up or down. So how does one maintain a sense of equanimity when the future is so uncertain? Perhaps entrepreneurship really is anti-contemplative--or could it be the supreme practice? What better opportunity for understanding impermanence and meeting one's projections head on, while practicing mindfulness "on the fly".

Eventually our efforts paid off. The blossoming of the Internet allowed us to achieve visibility without vast advertising resources. By the time the orders started rolling in, we were ready; we had built up our infrastructure and production. Carolina Morning Designs finally emerged as a lotus out of the muck of personal struggle. Today all five of our staff maintain a rural lifestyle in a place where most residents commute--IF they are lucky enough to have a job. In our present world, the simple act of living where we work is a miracle. It has allowed us to plant gardens, bicycle to work and create community.

This is not yet a 'rags-to-riches' story, the kind that most people expect. This is a story about finding a path that integrates money and values, lifestyle and career. Our business modal which is upside down--make things domestically with eco friendly materials--goes against everything around us. Our local country newspaper considers us an inspiring example of success in an economy which has been going downhill for a decade due to foreign trade. In their words, "Belief and total commitment, taking the risk, and patience. Carolina Morning Designs' 'overnight success' was 18 years in the making. And they may well be illuminating the path to economic progress--with a spiritual component--that will help guide our county's future."

sweethome

This is the 10 foot by 10 foot trail shelter we built and lived in for 8 years in Celo, North Carolina. Photo taken in 1999.

barncullowheenewesletter

This is the barn in Cullowhee, North Carolina that housed part of our business for several years. Photo taken in 1997.

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