Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Work Therapy: Part 1

In my post of January 19, 2011, I wrote about some similarities in the experiences of the Therafields community with those of the Zen Centre of San Francisco during the 1970s and early 1980s. In both cases the thrust for developing the built environment came from the top, and though the motivations and forms differed, the over-all results led to a significant shift and diminution of the original praxis of both organizations. Richard Baker, the abbot of Zen Centre at the time, was not just a charismatic teacher and leader; he was as well an adept businessman with an innate ability to promote and showcase his products in ways that drew not only more adherents but as well, wealthy and influential patrons. Even before the death of his teacher, Suzuki-Roshi, he had worked tirelessly to develop businesses that could keep the nascent Zen community self-sustaining. When he assumed the position of abbot this entrepreneurial and expansive propensity became more pronounced. In time the Centre was running a bakery, a large, sea-side high-end restaurant, a store selling vegetables and other produce from the Centre’s own farm, the farm itself, buildings to house the various individual adherents and often, their families, and, a monastery/retreat house that catered to lay-people.

Needless to say, all of these enterprises required an enormous amount of care. The day-to-day work was carried out by the “students,” those who had entered the community to practice zazan – that is to learn about themselves in relation to the cosmos through meditation and living in the present moment. As the businesses grew and were successful, more and more labour was required to maintain them. In time many of the students were spending most of their time running, for example, the restaurant or the bakery. Working a twelve hour day leaves little time for meditation or instructions from their teachers. The work itself became the practice.

Until the purchase of the farm in 1967 there was no “Therafields.” There was only Lea’s practice. Work was needed to transform the farm into a center for marathon retreats. The core of her practice, those of us living in house groups and/or attending her standard groups, threw itself into this process of transformation. By Christmas the farm was essentially ready. But the work didn’t stop there. The farm house had to be fixed up for those beginning to form a staff group. In the summer of 1968 a garden was planted, a vestibule was added to the barn, and, Lea and Harry purchased their farm down the road called The Willow. The Willow underwent a succession of improvements, culminating in 1971-72 with its massive extension and renovation. At the farm various improvements were on-going: up-grading the washrooms and the kitchen, creating a large barbeque pit and a pond, developing what became known as “the cooks’ loft,” a building for the “Striders” group of construction and fine-finish workers, a root cellar and a greenhouse, new bedroom/group rooms upstairs in the barn, and, the renovation of the huge loft in the barn for larger meetings or parties. Other work in the rural setting included the renovation of the schoolhouse across from the Willow and the up-grading of other properties purchased in the vicinity of the farm. In Toronto 310, later, 316 and 318-20 Dupont St were purchased and substantially renovated to create offices, group rooms, bio-energetic rooms, and later, a restaurant.

Like at the Zen Centre, all of this activity required a massive involvement of volunteer labour. The early work on the farm was entered into enthusiastically by Lea’s clients, keen to establish a place of our own. As the needs of the construction/renovation machine grew apace, enthusiasm gradually began to lag. A system of moral press-ganging was begun which started right at the top. Lea used every opportunity to speak in groups or in “emergency” meetings called in the city about the importance of work as a central element of our community. Members were encouraged to speak about their desire to work or to confess their failings to adequately contribute. Each of her learning groups was exhorted to take up the challenge of tackling projects that were unfinished. Their clients were to be brought up to the farm or to the Centre to help out. They were to be taught that they had entered into a working community and that a certain amount of participation would be required as partial payment for their therapy.

Lea would appeal to the men to be manly, to muscle up to the work, in a sense to prove their love for her, their faith in her, by being helpful in whatever desperate need was then being trumpeted. Didn’t they know that Visvaldis’ attraction to the community had been because it was a working group? This assertion inverted the actual progression of events as Visvaldis and Lea met and were drawn to one another before the purchase of the original work project: the farm itself. Moreover, though many of the improvements enhanced living and working conditions in the environment, much of Lea’s urge for driving the literally incessant construction and renovation rolled out from 1967 to the mid-1970s was to give Visvaldis a focus and a sense of purpose within the community. Ultimately the demands of the work projects drained the community not only financially but also morally and spiritually. The central vision of the early movement: to receive, learn about, and utilize psychotherapy in one’s own life and, for some people, in helping others, became mired in the constantly renewed demand for and conversation about physical work, by then an important end in itself.

An example of the kind of focus brought to bear about the constant need for volunteer work can be seen in a meeting held in the large group room of the Centre on Dupont St. in December, 1973. All working therapists were asked to show up that evening for a talk with Lea and Visvaldis about the current state of the various work sites. Lea began by saying that the working side of the Therafields enterprise was in a sorry state. She went on to say,
“All of us have the same feelings about the importance of physical work but we’re not getting across to our dramists (then the word for clients) the importance of this aspect. When we got the farm, we at that moment committed ourselves to becoming a working group. There’s no question about that, but when ten people show up to work instead of a hundred, it’s ridiculous.”

Rob spoke up to say that there were always lots of reasons why people slacked off work but that periodically we just need to have our butts kicked. He was clearly including himself in needing that treatment. Visvaldis then spoke about his view that,
“It seems that the pioneering spirit has gone after building the Willow….There seems to be no urge now for building offices for our therapists and the greenhouse up north is dragging. Lea’s office is slow. The spirit that was with us when the Willow was built is not just around. Not in too many. We should ask ourselves why this is so because it was really a dramatic experience there.”

A few people spoke enthusiastically about the work projects and about getting their clients more involved but as usual with these meetings no real answer was given to Visvaldis’ question: why has the spirit gone out of the work? Most present generally kept a low profile. No one came right out and said – “because we are tired of always having to work. We have other things in our lives that are important to us. We are constantly under pressure to perform and moreover, to pressure our clients into performing. We’ve had enough. Give it a break. Stop pushing more and more projects”. To utter such truths would run counter to the myths that Lea and Visvaldis wanted to perpetuate. Lea’s initial statement underlined her determination and delusion, if in fact she really believed it, that “all of us,” i.e., all there present had the same feelings about the primacy of on-going physical work within our community. This particular meeting ended with Lea joking a bit and then saying, “I having a feeling that people are raring to go. Is this right or not?” From a few: “Oh, yes.” Lea: “Would anyone here really interested in tackling this, utter some sound?” Great deal of sound then and laughter. Fade to black. Little accomplished.

One of the group therapists reflected later that “The notion of work as a form of therapy had its good aspects. People said, ‘We can make use of the work experience as a revelation of inner conflicts and work with them.’ But soon there was pressure to exploit people who were in therapy to help out with the building of facilities. There was quite a variety of ways that the therapists handled that pressure. I protected my groups. I gave speeches about people being able to come and work if they felt it would be good for them. I didn’t want to use the super-ego. But that wasn’t common. The stated position was to use the authority of the therapist and to get one’s clients to go. So that was a bad scene.” Like at the Zen Centre the centrality of physical work had the effect of eroding the values and the spirit of the original group as well as diverting its energies and focus from its primary praxis.

In the next post I will write more about work therapy, this time from the perspective of the men and women who dedicated much of themselves to its success.

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