One City

One City

Finding a job, sitting in the woods


by Davee Evans

What kind of livelihood works best for a contemplative practice? To afford more meditation retreat time, I switched from full time employment to freelancing; and over the last four years my plan has partially succeeded, but it’s been more difficult than I expected and longer retreats have surprisingly been harder to pull off. I’d recommend the approach with some caveats, for those in a line of work that has a freelance community.

I was on a longer retreat in 2006, and worrying out load if I should be working and saving for my retirement instead. An older, wiser fellow named Alan offered that more retreat time meant that I needed a LOT less stuff when I retired. You know, becoming an unattached Buddhist and all doesn’t require serious shwag. So retreat was better than a 401(k) plan, he pined. And he seems to be living that truth. But I’m trying to be responsible too, might need to pay for my kids’ college someday – if I ever have kids. So I’m still trying to keep the career going instead of working at a retreat center for good.


At least one Rinpoche recommended we Buddhists start our own businesses, to have more flexibility for deep retreat. If you’re the top chef then you can set your own schedule. But for most of us, I still wonder if contemplative Buddhism in the West is possible, given how busy we all are. In more traditional settings, monks and nuns do a whole hell of a lot more sitting. Do you think deep contemplative traditions are really tenable here?

On the down side, freelancing I felt like I had less say in what I was contributing to. But that’s perhaps like any full time work. If work is scarce, there are less options and one might end up working for big oil, but if work is more plentiful one can pick and choose more positive projects. But in this economy I should perhaps be more concerned about finding any stable job instead of a specific kind. I have more friends out of work then ever before. And if you’re struggling to find work, who has the mindset to go on retreat?


My latest prayer: “May all beings find sustaining and fulfilling work.”

That same anxiety and restlessness looking for work was my ongoing experience freelancing. When I had work, I was worried about what was next. Then in between contracts, that was doubled. It would range from a nagging feeling that I was being foolish to irrational anxiety and thoughts like, “That was it; I’ll never find another decent chunk of work.” If I went on a meditation retreat while between contracts, that would steal my mind away. An interesting set of emotions to work with for sure — and maybe i’ll be accomplished enough someday to make better use of that — but for now disquiet.

I suspect Jamgon Kongtrul’s advice for retreats – make sure you’re safe, he wrote – holds true both physically and also financially. He was talking about both bears and bear markets.


Some things that I’d recommend if you try a similar approach:

  • Save more, spend less. My anxiety level was proportional to how much of a financial cushion I had to fall back upon during gaps.
  • Schedule retreats into longer contract terms, and negotiate that up front when preparing the contract. This doesn’t work for short projects, but longer ones you can slip a week or two into the middle; then head into retreat knowing that there is work waiting for you on the other end. That worked the best for me.
  • Stay in touch with former coworkers, and let them know your plan. The majority of my clients have been referrals or former coworkers.
  • Try out freelance clearinghouses like, those specific to your specialty, or the new even.

This work style has helped make retreat more possible compared to the typical American vacation allotment. I’m jealous of teachers who can swing a whole summer off, or Europeans who might get six weeks a year for retreat. So if two weeks of standard vacation isn’t enough for your retreat aspirations or those combined with some regular vacation with our non-practicing partner (who can’t fathom why you might spend all of your available vacation sitting on your rear) then give freelancing a shot.

Comments read comments(9)
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Anan E. Maus

posted October 2, 2009 at 10:38 am

Amazing as it may seem, the entire universe will bend to your will of spiritual devotion.
We don’t really have to worry so much about outer things. The more we are devoted to the inner world, all the secular problems start resolving themselves.
Doesn’t mean we can’t use some pragmatic wisdom. But it really has to be 99% spiritual devotion without a care about the consequences…and 1% pragmatic wisdom.

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posted October 2, 2009 at 2:18 pm

Hi Davee,
Thanks for your great post. It brings up some conflicts I have experienced as well – not so much in actual freelancing, but in thinking about how much money do I need to earn and what kind of career and retirement plan do I want to have. There are my ideals and hopes and then there is the reality I have experienced.
My parents owned a small business together since I was 10 years old. I have watched them struggle with money since they started. They had used all their retirement money and savings to start the company and every year it took all that they had to keep it going. They did this for 20 years. It was a miracle that the company stayed open but having it not run “in the red” was a good year. Any money they made went back into the company and not into savings.
This was fine until my dad hit his early late 70s/early 80s in age. His health problems began and even though he was not functioning as well, he still needed to run his business. He didn’t have the money to retire and since the company wasn’t that profitable, it wouldn’t be very valuable to sell.
In the end, my mom had to take on the burden running the company by herself while my dad stayed home. My dad’s symptoms from Alzheimer’s disease began to get worse and we did not know what we were going to do to take care of him. We all worked and we did not have much extra money to start bringing in the care he might need in the future. As we worried about this, we discovered my dad’s cancer had come out of remission and after a few months the doctors decided it was terminal. We all took turns taking time off of work to care for him. I was lucky enough to have an understanding boss who allowed me to work from home for the last 6 weeks of his life so that I could help care for him along with the home hospice care that Medicare pays for in cases of terminal illness.
To get back to my original point (and the point of explaining all of this), is that this experience with my dad has made me terrified not of having enough money for “stuff” when I get older, but just for taking care of myself. Health care is very very expensive. So are nursing homes, assisted living centers, or home care nurses. And while I think that we need to seriously overhaul the US health care system so that people like my dad can get the care they need, the reality is that it might not happen. And if so, I don’t want to end up 80 years old worrying about how I am going to have the bare essentials that I need to survive. My dad was lucky that he had family who was well enough off that they could take the time to support him in the last few months of his life. I don’t know what we would have done if we had to have cared for him through 10 years of deteriorating Alzheimer’s symptoms.
I want to be able to have a flexible job where I can take the vacation time that I want to fulfill my spiritual and personal desires. I want to live my values both at home and at my job. But I also don’t want to ever be in the situation that my parents were/are in. We may want the world to be different and say that there should be safeguards in place to take care of us when we are old, but in reality, people are falling through the cracks and no one is there to catch them.

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posted October 2, 2009 at 10:44 pm

Thank you for the comments! they were quite contrasted. I agree with Anon that there is a percentage of time for practical concerns, and at least lately I’ve been putting more toward that than 1% for better or worse.
So how much practical concern is necessary for a spiritual life? Moreover, how much practical concern supports and encourages a spiritual practice. If I’m struggling to eat, then there is no chance of retreat. So having retirement savings is both allowing practice in our later years and also taking responsibility for ourselves in our community, and those savings don’t have to be all about comfort they could just be what’s reasonable. They could be part of what makes the practice possible. So I’m in favor of mixing practical concerns with spiritual practice, not sure how to avoid that.

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posted October 3, 2009 at 5:00 pm


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Anan E. Maus

posted October 3, 2009 at 10:18 pm

this is off-topic and if you feel it necessary to delete it, please feel free…
there is a nice opportunity for spiritual folks to offer some help to those who are in prison.
The Prison Dharma Network is accepting donations of spiritual books for prisoners:
Donate Books to Prisoners
from the Prison Dharma Network
Every year we send thousands of donated dharma books, free of charge to prisoners and prison libraries. We always need donations of new and used dharma books (or any books on contemplative spirituality, meditation, yoga, NVC, stress reduction, etc) from individuals, booksellers, or publishers.
Please send book donations to:
Prison Dharma Network
PO Box 4623
Boulder CO 80306
Therefore, we have worked out an arrangement with Tricycle magazine to send used magazines from our members to prisoners.
Please send (used Tricycle magazines only) to:
Tricycle: The Buddhist Review
Attn: Prison Project
92 Vandam St., 3rd floor
New York, NY 10013

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posted October 4, 2009 at 4:44 am

I heart prison contemplative programs. I hear good things about PDN in particular, around since 1989 I believe. Great to hear Tricycle is supporting them as well.

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posted October 5, 2009 at 1:23 pm

“…both bears and bear markets.”
Great line.

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posted October 6, 2009 at 6:02 am

Great article thank you!
On the subject of ‘practical concerns’, isn’t that what your Buddhist practice is, including retreat? Why are we doing it if we don’t consider it the most practical option? Are we not going into retreat to purify our negative karma and create the good karma to ultimately see all beings (including ourselves) having all their needs met, all the time?
If we really believe the goals of the path are attainable, isn’t retreat THE most practical thing you could do?
Check this – a talk by Tibetan Buddhist monk Lama Sumati Marut on the Jivanmukti – a practitioner perfected by the path (including retreat) ‘in this very lifetime’. It’s do-able, practical, and achievable, but only if we see it that way and don’t let a Plan B stop us from doing all that needs to be done to get there.
In many ways you are right,there is little time to practice in this modern western life. But then the Buddhists texts were saying that centuries ago too. There are no more distractions now than there were in the past, just different ones. The human mind will be distracted by a cool stream on a hot day as easily as a google search on a late night work session. Another way of putting it is – the human mind is no more distractable now than it was 2500 years ago.
And can you imagine what it’s like to live in a monastery … I mean outside of our romanticized western notions of it? 200 farting snoring spitting men doing the same repetitive tasks everyday in an enclosed space with very little quiet day or night.
Maybe you could argue that we are in a better position than many of the monastics of the past with our access to the highest texts of many traditions at our fingertips, and the vast commentaries on them all in our own language, and they can be downloaded in a second. Amazing teachers poured out of Tibet in vast numbers to explain these teachings to us in our on home towns or close by. Incredibly good karmic ripenings!!
thanks again for a thought provoking read, and all the best with the retreat!

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posted October 12, 2009 at 1:52 pm

thanks darin. i do agree in many ways we are much better off now. especially in terms of wealth. historically only a very few could afford to engage in a spiritual practice. then over time more and more could as basic needs were met more efficiently. to have enough to eat and be safe now is a lot easier.
i think this week i’ll try to write a little about retreat generally, or the quality of retreating even if for a few minutes every day, as a kind of practice of distancing from our daily concerns. so i agree that retreat is practical, just that the distinction of retreat still seems useful. put another way, there seems to be some usefulness in removing ourself from the usual stream of things. could just be for a weekend. non-practitioners also do this, intuitively going to nature or taking a vacation. but there seems to be some need to separate physically and mentally from daily concerns now and then in many recommended paths. but i don’t doubt there is a complete path that doesn’t include more traditional retreat. i’m counting on it even, since i don’t have time to do a 3, 6, or 12 year long intensive retreat and still have a career or family.

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