When people learn that I lived for 30 years on about $1000 a year, the reaction is almost always shock and disbelief. But truth be told, I lived well during that time and it was pretty easy.
Full text with links below the fold.
It started one late fall evening in 1970. Four and a half years earlier, I’d graduated from Brown University as a Russian major. Then, after two years in the Peace Corps, where I’d learned and applied a brilliant holistic systems methodology for community development, I was now living and working in Washington, DC.
I was the administrative assistant to the Director of the Student National Education Association. While the job wasn’t particularly creative, I was paid very well – back when money was still considered “real.” A couple of weeks earlier, I’d made my first “big” purchase – an inexpensive stereo system – and I was starting to think about what else I wanted to buy.
But that particular evening, everything changed. Walking the 10 blocks to my apartment, I noticed I was feeling really “antsy.” Like the visceral response you get when finger nails scratch on a blackboard…. It felt awful and I had absolutely no idea why I was feeling this way.
When I got up to my third-floor walkup apartment over the dilapidated “Hanky Panky Delicatessen” (which is no more – gentrified, like so much of D.C.), I practically threw myself into the overstuffed chair in my living room. Almost since birth, I’d discovered that I could get answers – really great answers – to difficult problems by doing what I call “go infinite and ask for help.”
This time I made a more direct appeal to the Infinite One. As I “connected,” I said firmly, in my mind, “Okay, God, you and I need a conversation. I have no idea why I’m feeling this way and I don’t like it. And, I know that YOU know why. So, I’m going to sit here in this chair until you tell me.”
It took about 15 minutes. Suddenly the epiphany came, clear and dramatic, like the proverbial 10 tons of bricks landing on the top of my head, dropped from 20 stories above: I was getting addicted to the steady pay check!
The next thought was terrifying, “If I get addicted to the steady pay check, I might forget who I am and what I came here to this earth to do!”
Then, “I’ve got to quit my job!!!…… NO!!! I’ve got to retire!!!”
“I’ve got to retire and do only what makes absolute sense to me for the rest of my life!”
Next, predictably, came the very loud “voice” that brilliantly uses scare tactics to keep you stuck in your current routine: “BUT YOU’LL STARVE!!!”
A quiet, rational “voice” then observed calmly, “No, you won’t starve. You have lots of skills and can earn enough money to live on. You type fast, you’re a great babysitter, you can walk dogs, translate or interpret several languages, plus you can learn new skills, too.”
The voice added, “You won’t starve. You just need to disconnect from the steady paycheck that distracts you from your real work. It’s as addictive as any drug and you have work you came here to do.”
The next morning, I walked into my boss’ office. “I’m retiring,” I said simply.
I was 25 and looked about 15. He stared at me in utter disbelief. “YOU ARE WHAT??”
I explained. When I told him the part about “getting addicted to the steady paycheck and forgetting who I am and what I came here to this earth to do,” he choked up and almost cried. I realized with compassion that he knew exactly what I meant. He’d gotten addicted; he’d never broken free; he’d never leaped off the cliff.
The curious thing about leaping off the cliff is that you suddenly discover you have wings! And, life with wings is amazing. Maybe even epic. Life somehow works out, often in extraordinary ways. And now, here I was, with maybe three month’s worth of savings to my name and after that…The Great Unknown.
I had no idea what I’d do next. Yes, I felt a little nervous but mostly I was excited.
Indeed, ever since creating this early retirement plan, I’ve been surprised and delighted a lot as the next steps just kept unfolding, unfolding, unfolding in amazing ways.
Each step of the way, too, the next step became crystal clear.
I soon found myself living in what’s today called “the gift economy.” You offer your skills wherever you are and people reciprocate. You share. You take just what you need and you keep looking for ways to be more and more of service. Again, people reciprocate.
As the oldest girl in a family of five kids, this attitude came naturally. You help out. You pitch in wherever you can to make things work better for everyone. Simple stuff. If I’m invited into someone’s home and we end up talking in the kitchen, I may start washing the dishes or sweeping the floor while we talk.
My father, whom I deeply respected, had the life motto, “Leave the trail better than you found it.” As a moment-by-moment guide to living a good life, it works.
Within a few months I ended up in New Hampshire, auditing Chinese language classes at Dartmouth and earning money doing various odd jobs. I lived in a group house and food was cheap.
Within a year, I was offered a scholarship to attend a conference in Japan. I went, thinking that I’d try to get to China afterwards. But then I received what I’ve come to call a “Cosmic Assignment.”
Arriving in Tokyo in the summer of 1971, I was stunned by the dreadful state of pollution. I thought, “Someone has to write a book about this and expose it to the world so we can learn from this!”
In that moment, I had the feeling of The Great Cosmic Finger pointing right at my nose.
I immediately went into excuses. “But I don’t speak Japanese. I don’t know anything about their history or culture. I don’t know anything about pollution. I’ve never written a book before….”
A calm authoritative Answer came in the form of the impression of a voice in my mind saying: “Yes, but you’ve got child’s eyes and you will get the job done.”
Okay, I’ll do it.
I lived in Japan four years. Early on, I’d met a young American man who was in Tokyo on a Yale 5-year BA program. He was bored with his research and had a good science background. I invited him to accompany me on an early interview – and then to collaborate in writing a book. He jumped in with both feet.
The next three years we dedicated ourselves to understanding every angle of Japan’s environmental crisis, including traveling to 52 sites all over Japan to conduct oral histories that we recorded on a stack of audiocassettes taller than me. And, I’m tall!
As Dr. Paul Ehrlich wrote later, in our book’s Foreword, “Japan is the world’s canary,” referencing the fact that coal miners used to take a caged canary down into the mines to test for the presence of poisonous gases. If the canary died, the miners knew they needed to get out quickly.
We also studied the gathering global environmental crisis. The more we learned, the more we saw how the Japanese experience was a critically important wake-up call, with huge lessons for all of humanity.
I taught my colleague, Michael Reich, the KEEPRAH holistic systems approach I’d learned in the Peace Corps. Applying the KEEPRAH transformed our understanding of the situation quite dramatically. Then, we wrote the first (and, so far, the only) holistic analysis of the Japanese environmental crisis and its global implications. Island of Dreams: Environmental Crisis in Japan was published in English in 1975, and in Japanese the following year.
The other “bookend” to Dr. Paul Ehrlich’s Foreword was an Afterword by Ralph Nader. We had about 20 Japan experts peer review the manuscript; all were positively impressed with our efforts. Our book became a bestseller in Japan and sold well in the US, too. We had no marketing budget.
Around the year 2000, in the Princeton University Library, a Visiting Scholar from Korea stumbled upon Island of Dreams, read it and decided this book was important for Korea’s future. He translated it and got it published in Korean.
Insights presented throughout Island of Dreams shed a great deal of light on why the Japanese do what they do – including their reaction to Fukushima. High on my to-do list is to publish the book in a digital edition, adding an updated introduction.
As for my experiment in simple living, in the early 1970s, Tokyo was considered the world’s most expensive city to live in. I worked part time teaching a few hours of English each week, but my real work (unpaid and about 100 hours a week) was learning all I could about how Japan ticked and interviewing a wide range of Japanese to understand how and why their environment had become so terribly polluted. (This was, btw, an incredible way to learn Japanese).
My tiny 6’ x 9’ apartment cost $70 a month and most of the time I had a roommate to share that cost. Food was expensive but early on I became a vegetarian – on the same day I read Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappe. I ate two meals a day, mostly combining different types of beans and unpolished rice (for complete protein) cooked up with vegetables, salads, some yogurt (which I made), sprouts (ditto) and some fruit. I walked at least an hour a day and did yoga daily. Everything I owned fit into a few small cardboard boxes.
It was actually easy to live on $1000 / year. For one thing, I had no interest in acquiring “stuff” or going to fancy restaurants. Public transit was inexpensive and much of the time I walked – for the exercise.
Once I paid for rent, food and transportation, my money went into paying for travel and for buying audiocassette tapes – to do interviews with people all over Japan. Initially, transcribing a one-hour interview into English took about 60 hours. I did this with Japanese friends who wanted to learn English and this proved to be a fine language-learning method. Plus, we had great fun in the process.
By early 1975, my simple living caught the media’s attention. I got “discovered” (a good story) and suddenly was being paid like a rock star to share my ideas on nationwide TV and radio, to do interviews for print media, write articles, etc.
My core message was consistent: “Don’t import the worst the West has to offer. It’s destroying Japan. Go back to your own roots. You have a beautiful culture of elegant simplicity, with a deeply spiritual foundation.” Japanese, apparently, were hungry for my message. Plus, they saw I was living like their grandparents used to do.
I saved this unexpected money to use for whatever “Cosmic Assignment” was next. And soon the Assignment came, even as I was getting more and more famous – but while I was also feeling increasingly despairing that my message wasn’t really changing anything. Something more was needed.
One morning, I awoke with the clear “knowing” that it was time to return to America. It was time to use my holistic systems training to study my own country – because America was having such a powerful impact on the whole world. As my Japanese friends put it, “When America sneezes, Japan catches a cold.”
I returned to America in the summer of 1975, to organize and carry out, with about a dozen people, a 5000-mile bicycle trip in a great zig-zag route across America. “Project America 1976” was life-changing for all of us. I’m currently retyping the manuscript of the book I wrote about our extraordinary adventure.
My book, Travels With Hope (Kiboo to no Tabi), became a bestseller in Japan and I was brought over to do a book tour. I never published it in English because, through a curious chain of events, I got swept up in America’s nascent anti-nuclear movement.
I was the first person hired to kick off the brand new “Mobilization for Survival,” a coalition that included grassroots activists and large activist organizations, all opposing nuclear weapons and nuclear power, and calling for clean energy technologies. This “real job” had a miniscule salary but the work felt important. I agreed to take it on for one year.
I lived in a group house in Philadelphia and worked 10-hour days, including weekends. I didn’t eat out and bought almost nothing. Again, the lesson seems clear: if you’re using your gifts to serve a greater purpose in life, you’re somehow provided for.
Indeed, while working for the Mobilization, I used most of my meager $6,000 / year salary to support our movement activities. One time, I paid almost a month’s salary for a colleague to attend a meeting so she could make a critical intervention. It worked. My own living expenses stayed well under $1000 that year. I was amazingly healthy and happy.
After completing my year with the “Mobe,” I had the strong feeling that if we were in the White House, we wouldn’t do much better than the current occupants. I saw so much pettiness and backbiting in the anti-nuclear movement. But, I reasoned, part of it had to be in me, too. And that part I could do something about.
I next spent several months digging deep into my own psyche, seeking to clean out any negativity I could find. By this time I’d realized that the more I went out into the world, the more inner work I needed to do – another expression of “garbage in, garbage out.”
By the end of 1978, after much inner cleansing, I had the growing feeling that there was Something I was supposed to do. I sensed Another Cosmic Assignment.
To get clarity on that Assignment, at the end of 1978, I went to Florida where a friend had given me use of a small house to do a 10-day juice fast. Alone, I drank a glass of freshly squeezed juice daily, plus lots of water, meditated and asked The Infinite for guidance on my next steps.
Perseverance furthers. On the ninth day, I got my Assignment: “Go out and interview people of all walks of life on how to make America and the world more secure and their positive visions of the future.” I was ecstatic.
I soon began doing interviews for a new book that was published four years later. Surviving: The Best Game on Earth made the longer NYT bestseller list and Library Journal selected it as one of the top 100 books in Science and Technology for 1984. Translated into Japanese, Surviving became a bestseller there, too. I did book tours in both countries and connected with amazing colleagues everywhere.
By now I was doing a lot of public speaking, workshops, consulting and coaching. My main message was simple: we need to create a new “life game” and each of us who chooses to play The Game can make an enormous difference. Also, I said, the emerging new world we’re co-creating will work by a very different set of principles – which, by playing what I called “The Best Game on Earth,” we can test on the ground right now.
I was also deep into designing The Game, teaching it in workshops and playing it myself in an ongoing way. With the help of wonderful Japanese and Soviet colleagues, I introduced The Game in Japan and then in the former USSR and later in Europe.
By the early 1980s, I had brushed up my Russian and was also doing regular citizen diplomacy trips to the former USSR. Later that decade, I was invited to Moscow as one of 30 participants in a US-USSR Citizen Summit Conference of “Social Inventors for the Third Millennium.” My social invention was The Best Game on Earth.
In June of 1979, I was guided to found the Center for New National Security (CNNS), a small nonprofit organization dedicated to redefining national security and to laying out new directions.
While the benefit of a nonprofit organization is generally to receive tax-exempt donations. I was so busy doing my work that I never did any fundraising. From time to time, people who were inspired by what I was doing would insist that I write them a letter – “Just give me even half a page!” – so they could make a donation to CNNS.
When the time is right, I’m confident I’ll connect with a wonderful fundraiser who’ll help me up my game! At any rate, CNNS is still operational and in good standing
During the decade of the 1980s, I lived with my mother for seven years after my father died. I offered to pay rent but I think she felt she got so much out of my company that I shouldn’t pay. Of course I covered my other costs – and eventually bought a car – a 1969 Datsun 510. Cost? $100! Everything I owned fit into my car.
Those seven years gave me the rare opportunity to help my grieving mother return to enjoying life again, after my father, an amazing man who was the love of her life and husband of 42 years, died after four years of illness. I recently described a bit of that experience in a guest blog called “My Mama Experiment.”
Still vegetarian, I continued doing 10-day juice fasts – four times each year – for the entire decade of the 1980s. I found this practice to be a wonderful support – of my inner work, my work in the world and excellent health. These were periods of deep inner renewal and integration, during which I meditated a lot, strengthening my connection with the Infinite One.
By this time, I’d realized that my only real “job” in life was to stay connected with the Infinite One as much as possible. And, the process of designing projects with this focus on staying connected made life so much simpler – it was rather like taking dictation from an Infinitely Wise Source.
I did seminal work during this decade. In addition to designing many systems components of The Best Game on Earth. I wrote my little book, Butterfly – a tiny tale of great transformation, which tells the story of humanity’s transformation through how a caterpillar turns into a butterfly. This little story has now become a global meme.
I also identified a number of key leverage points for transforming civilization and began designing inspired projects around them. A large part of my work has involved helping others with their projects. Most important, in my view, I continued building a network of wonderful and influential colleague-friends around the world – which led me to Robert David Steele’s important work and his inviting me to write this article.
In 1993, at the age of 49, I received a small inheritance after my mother died. With it, I bought a piece of land near Harpers Ferry, WV. My new Assignment, something I’d wanted to do since I was in my early 20s, was to build my own house with my own hands.
I lived in a tent for four months until my house – technically a “garage with living space” – was under roof. I hired a friend with carpentry skills. He came and pitched a tent nearby. Then, curious neighbors came to check out rumors of “a woman living in a tent up on the hill who’s building her own house.”
When my neighbors showed up, I’d greet them with a smile and, “Would you like a cup of coffee and a piece of freshly made apple pie?” I cooked the pie in a simple metal box “oven” on top a Coleman stove – similar to an oven I’d made two decades earlier in Japan, out of a metal cooking oil can and a heavy wire coat hanger (for the racks). And of course I served them real coffee, no yukky instant stuff.
“Can I come back and help you?” Soon, my “project” turned into an old-style community barn-raising. We all had enormous fun along the way.
Having my own house made living on less than a thousand a year quite easy. I heated with a wood stove, cut my own firewood, and used electricity sparingly. My electric bill was $12-13 a month. Today it’s about $20, because the company raised the rates several times.
When I learned that my blood type was that of meat eaters (O+) I started eating a small amount of meat again but my food bill stayed low, especially as I grew much of my own food and limited my driving to one tank of gas a month.
I continued to do public speaking, consulting and coaching. Japanese colleagues brought me over to Japan several times to give talks and workshops around the country.
In the early ‘90s, I was trained by Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone as an Advanced Practitioner of their Voice Dialogue Process. This brilliant holistic methodology for working with inner-personal and inter-personal dynamics beautifully complements the KEEPRAH method I’d been using.
Not long after the new Millennium, quite suddenly, I realized that I was about to receive a new Assignment. It was now time for me to enter the mainstream economy and, as part of this, to have the experience of paying a mortgage and having debt, while continuing to do all my other work. The reason for this seemed clear: I needed to experience for myself what most Americans were going through.
I found the mainstream lifestyle unpleasant and stressful. But I did learn valuable lessons. In addition to having greater empathy for others caught in “the Matrix,” this experience has inspired me to come up with new escape strategies that I share in my coaching and consulting and will write about in the future.
Two years before American society went through its convulsions in 2007 – 2008, a friend of many years called me up and began telling me about an amazing place in south-central Ecuador – the so-called Valley of Longevity, where life was simple, healthy and people often lived to be up over 100. After 10 days of her phone calls, I took her up on her invitation to visit.
Two years later, a dear friend, Richard Wheeler, and I went down to Ecuador together and, near the end of our trip, we were “spiritually hijacked” by a semi-abandoned farm where “Something” wanted to happen.
We bought the farm and were inspired to name it the “Garden of Paradise.” Our vision is to work with friends and neighbors – locally and around the world – to turn this weed-covered farm into something that will be as close to the Garden of Paradise as we can all envision.
Our thought is, if enough of us around the world work to transform our small local places into gardens of paradise, sooner or later we can turn the whole Earth back into a Garden of Paradise.
To put it another way, our Garden of Paradise is also a new model of rural development, one that will hopefully encourage people to live and work in the country in sustainable and interesting jobs, so as to slow the huge exodus of country folk that’s overwhelming urban services all over the world.
Already, our Garden of Paradise has made history. With the help of our lawyer, Dr. Carlos Bravo, Richard and I successfully used a breakthrough set of laws created in Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution. These laws give Nature legal rights that are defensible in courts of law.
“Rights of Nature” is a breakthrough in legal concepts that scholars say is on a par with ending slavery as a legitimate institution (after 5,000 years of legitimacy) and giving women the right to vote. To read more about our lawsuit, click here.
Five years ago, in the midst of our lawsuit and just after I completed my first novel, Return To The Garden, I nearly died. The “perfect storm” struck me. We’d just arrived in the Garden of Paradise after several months in the US. I didn’t think to change our bed sheets, a serious mistake I’ll never make again.
That night, an unknown creature (possibly a brown recluse spider) bit me as I slept. Months later, after passing through hell, I learned this bite had overloaded my immune system so that two prior Lyme Disease infections exploded with the highest bacterial counts my doctor had ever seen. In addition, I later learned, I also was over-run with e-coli and parasites.
In less than a month, I lost 40 pounds. At 5’9”, I now weighed 100 pounds and looked like a cadaver. From being vibrantly healthy, I was unable to walk or go to the bathroom without enemas. I could barely breathe and each day that was becoming more difficult. My organs began shutting down.
My entire torso felt as if it were on fire and every day was growing tighter and tighter – as if an invisible corset were being cruelly tightened. I had to exert maximum mental discipline to keep from collapsing into fear.
Very late one night, as I lay in bed gasping for breath, I was gently surrounded by an extraordinary Field of Perfect Love.
Very gently, I was given the clear choice: to live or die.
It was also clear that I was completely free to choose…and that there would be no judgment, either way. I tell the story more fully in The Healing Power of Butterflies, including the miraculous way I was connected with the doctor who saved my life.
Today I believe that we – humanity as a whole – are being offered this same choice: life or death. I call it the “Deuteronomy Choice,” as set forth in the Bible:
I set before you this day
the choice between life and death.
And therefore, choose life
that you and your descendants may live.
I chose life that night. Despite the fact that, at the moment I was given this epic choice, death looked far more attractive than life, I chose to live so that I could complete my work.
I saw that for over 40 years, much like Robert Steele and other colleagues, I’ve been gradually creating important building blocks of a transformed – butterfly – civilization. If I died, all of my yet-unpublished efforts would be lost.
And now, we are all in the position of making this choice: Life or death. As Buckminster Fuller put it, “Utopia or Oblivion.”
Friends, life is changing very fast now. The “Deuteronomy Choice” faces all of us today – and will not just affect human beings. Since 1970, over 50 percent of the large mammals on Earth have been killed off. The web of life in the oceans is collapsing. Credible scientists tell us that we’re in the Six Mass Extinction Event. Past Events killed up to 90 percent of life on Earth (Permian).
The fact that we – humanity – are on an unsustainable course seems so obvious now, doesn’t it?
Our current reward and incentive system drives the endless growth of consumption and extraction. The very design of fiat money and money systems pours ever-more resources into the hands of a tiny minority. The result? A nested set of poorly designed systems that are driving all of us (INCLUDING that tiny minority) toward a cliff, like lemmings.
It’s a long drop, with gigantic sharp boulders below. If we go over this cliff, we’ll all lose – and for thousands, if not millions of years.
Another more hopeful way I’ve shared this perspective with audiences goes like this. Humanity is on a train that is hurtling down a set of old tracks that are about to plunge us over a high cliff.
More and more passengers on board the train are waking up, realizing that “something more is going on” and “something’s terribly wrong.”
So far, the driver of the train seem to be oblivious of the danger ahead, including the fact that he, too, will die if we go over the cliff.
Near the cliff we can see people who have been working feverishly – some for decades – to build new track that will take us safely around the lip of the precipice.
Other people are building a switching mechanism that will take us relatively smoothly from the old track onto the new.
On board the train, a growing group of us are working our way forward, explaining the situation to the passengers and urging them to prepare themselves for big changes.
And now, some of us are up in the very front car.
We’re edging up to the driver….we’re leaning down to speak quietly in his ear.
What we’re about to say is, “There’s a big cliff up front and the current track will take us over it and we’ll all die. So, in about 10 seconds, you need to pull that lever to put you on to the new track – NOW!!!”
This is our Collective Deuteronomy Moment – and is it is coming up fast, friends. And, each one of us is being called now to play our own unique parts so that together we can make it safely onto the new track.
As each one of us steps forward to embrace this challenge, we are choosing life. We are making the critical difference in determining whether we, as a species, will live or die.
Together we are determining whether or not the Earth’s biosphere – which includes us – will be regenerated by our collective intelligence and commitment.
The Good News is that we have everything we need to create a beautiful, sustainable, peaceful civilization. What I’ve been calling a “global butterfly civilization.”
The decision to act is a personal one. The effectiveness of our action demands a collective response with greatly-enhanced collaboration skills. We know how to do all of this.
To conclude, I turn to the closing words of my 1984 book, Surviving: The Best Game on Earth:
“In The Best Game on Earth, all of us — all nations, races, religions, ages and systems of belief — are valuable players. Each of us can make a critical difference in shaping our collective future. And my own experience has taught me that the more whole-heartedly we participate and give, the more we receive and the more joyful The Game becomes. Thus [as Goethe said]
“Whatever you can do or dream you can,
Begin it: Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”