Awakin Calls » Joel Solomon » Transcript
Joel Solomon: The Clean Money Revolution: Financial Wealth and the Inner Life
Guest: Joel Solomon
Host: Aryae Coopersmith
Moderator: Birju Pandya
Welcome to Awakin Calls. Every Saturday, we host a conversation with an individual whose inner journey inspires us and whose work is transforming our world in large and small ways. Awakin Calls are an all-volunteer-run offering of ServiceSpace, a global platform founded on the simple principle that by changing ourselves, we change the world to create a more compassionate and service-oriented society. Thank you for joining us!
Aryae: Good morning, good afternoon and good evening. My name is Aryae and I'm excited to be your host for our weekly Global Awakin Call. Welcome and thanks for joining us. The purpose of these calls is to share stories that help plant seeds for a more compassionate society while fostering our own inner transformation. We do this by holding collective conversations with guest speakers from all walks of life, who inspire us to live in a more service-oriented way. And behind each of these calls is an entire team of ServiceSpace volunteers whose invisible work allows us to hold this space.
Today, our special guest speaker is Joel Solomon. Thanks again for joining today's call. Let's start with a minute of silence to anchor ourselves into the space.
Welcome again to our weekly Awakin Call, today in conversation with Joel Solomon. As an all-volunteer offering, each Awakin Call is a conversational space that's co-created by many invisible hands. In a moment our moderator Birju Pandya will begin by engaging in an initial dialogue with our speaker Joel Solomon, and by the top of the hour, we will roll into a Q&A and a circle of sharing where we invite all of your reflections and questions. I've opened up the queue, so at any point you can hit *6 on your phone and you'll be prompted when it's your turn to speak. You can also email us at email@example.com, that's firstname.lastname@example.org, or submit a question or comment via our webcast form, if you're listening in online via the webcast.
Our moderator today is Birju. Birju is a long-time volunteer with ServiceSpace. With a background in finance that includes an MBA from Columbia Business School and a stint at McKinsey and Company, Birju focuses on the nexus of finance, systems evolution, and inner transformation. He's interested in how to bring the topic of transformation and human development into business and finance. Most recently, that's included bringing concepts such as dialogue practice and shadow work into the office. Birju has played decision making roles in several organizations committed to innovative transformational approaches to capital and investing. He's currently a member of the team, together with Ari Nessel, of Mobius, which calls itself a capital allocation office using an integrated capital approach to develop multiple forms of wealth, and as a board member of the Pollination Project. He will now introduce our guest speaker, Joel Solomon, and get the ball rolling on this conversation. Birju, over to you.
Birju: Thank you for that illustrious introduction, Aryae. Appreciate it. I would love to introduce our guest today, who as Aryae mentioned, is Joel Solomon. Joel's work in the world of service spans countries, businesses, governments, movements and beyond. He has been behind an activist retreat center. He has been behind an impact investing venture capital fund, several progressive movements, and most recently, the author of a book called Clean Money Revolution. This is really a tiny slice of his professional life, much less his personal one. When I first met him several years ago, what struck me was his overall orientation towards doing all of this stuff in the world with a lens towards inner transformation and a sense that there was nothing to lose. Joel, it's a privilege to be in conversation with you today.
Joel: I so appreciate it, and thank you to all the volunteers and both of you who make this possible — and to the listeners, if you're out there.
Birju: Certainly they are. I'd love to start with your early years. As I understand it, your father was a real estate guy. He worked for President Jimmy Carter, and I believe you were raised in the American South. I'm curious what has played a role in laying the groundwork in your early years for a life that focused not just on justice and activism, but also on the inner life.
Joel: Well, the origins come from Russian, Polish and German Jews who, like many immigrants from different backgrounds, left difficult circumstances behind and found their way to the North American continent to seek a better life and have the opportunity to live relatively safely and be able to pursue their aspirations. I grew up in the 50s and 60s in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was still the era of Jim Crow. The sixties were a time of a lot of turbulence in society. There was some inspiration, the Civil Rights Act, and very disturbing assassinations. The Summer of Love, Vietnam War. Those times had many, I guess I would say, disruptive or unsettling questions. I was, I guess, at the other end of that, as a young child and adolescent attempting to figure out meaning and purpose and living in what was known as the buckle of the Bible belt in between lots of missionary churches. I ended up in military school due to the very poor conditions in the public schools. The other options were religiously-based schools which weren't going to work for my background and certainly not for my parents.
So the important summary of that is that I'll be 65 in just over a week. This life span, where the world was to where it is now, has to be one of the most dramatic periods in history. Or I'll just say it's the one I lived in, so it seems profound. Those roots led to a lot of questioning. And that questioning led to seeking answers to the questions ‘What's the meaning of life and the purpose? What am I made of and what am I supposed to do in this incarnation?’
Birju: How would you say that manifested in the earlier years of your life, let's say in your twenties — particularly as it led to your ideas of how to engage in community?
Joel: My family were people that were always involved and engaged as citizens. I think some of that came from an understanding that it's better to be part of things if you're not from the majority culture. You're seeking safety and normalcy and a chance to live a good life in a setting where you might be looked at as other or different. It’s the basic human drive to take care of family and have a good life and be a contributor to society. That was the ethic I grew up in.
Birju: And somewhere along the way, that seemed to grow into a broader inquiry of how to play a role in community and service. I'm curious if you could share what made you find interest in the political realm, whether it was in Tennessee or in Canada, where you subsequently moved to. I'd love to hear your articulation of what you think about engaging politically, and how that may be different than how it may be traditionally thought of?
Joel: Well, there was a basic thought [I had] that where both lineages of my family came from, political circumstances made it dangerous, unsafe, and basically drove away those families, my family. The idea of being engaged [politically], having relationships and understanding how it all works, being a contributing citizen, probably made things safer. It also gave one an opportunity to move towards whatever fulfillment was/were the drives and goals of my family in a way that was a bit more of a mixing ground – where the business community was somewhat closed, the... let's say, 'religious traditions' could be divisive, given being Jews in the South, Civil Rights Era in Jim Crow. And those things were not simple. So the idea that you engaged [politically] and you'd be part of it means that you have relationships, maybe some respect, and you know how things work and you have a little better chance to have a peaceful life.
My parents met on a blind date at the 1952 Democratic Convention, the night after my father's Congressperson (then Senator and friend) had run for President, and the night after he lost the nomination – this was Estes Kefauver – to Adlai Stevenson. My parents ended up with a blind date in the last night of the convention. Later my mother, who was from Chicago, made the decision to marry and move to the South. Being involved as a volunteer in political campaigns was less common for a woman. She held positions of responsibility like being campaign manager for governor campaigns and things like that.
I grew up around political campaigns, licking envelopes, and going out and putting up yard signs and things like that. So it was just part of the ethic. I didn't really think of another way to be. I became very interested and ended up with a summer internship for Jimmy Carter, as a teenager at the Democratic National Committee in Washington, as Carter was preparing, unbeknownst to others, to run for President and go around the country campaigning for other Democrats. So you can see that this was just a normal part of life in many ways. It was very exciting for me as a young kid to get out of the South and go work in a presidential campaign.
Birju: I am curious how that early life experience continued to grow over time. I mean, you're still politically connected quite deeply and I'm curious how those early experiences grew over time to continue to involve the inner life and the community building aspect as you engaged with more and more nuance.
Joel: You can start with the meaning of life. You can move into very practical, personal wellbeing and maybe the ambition/motivation side, but also the caring for the world. How does one express that at a scale that one is inspired to do? Being involved in helping determine who the leadership is of a community or a larger geographic area has a very, very large influence on every aspect of the life of everyone who lives there. And despite how little or a lot we understand about it -- actually know the players and what the issues are -- politics is affecting every single part of our lives whether we want to pay attention to it or not. To ignore it is to give over a lot of personal empowerment and to become subject to how others choose to design and influence that.
Birju: Well, I want to jump into that, because I think that's an important piece that you're raising. Part of the reason why people ignore politics is the feeling that, if I engage in it the worst part of me will come out. And I'm curious how you traverse that, not just engaging with it intellectually, but being very involved.
Joel: Well, I'll bridge that to the other things we do in life. Business, money, and the accumulation of wealth have become in many ways the central understanding of why we're here and what we're supposed to do. Going from basic survival -- looking after our families and ourselves, and having a roof over our heads and food -- we live in a system that pushes us into realms which include many moral and ethical questions and ultimately spiritual questions which are heavily influenced by the government, the leadership, the public leadership that makes the decisions to define how society works, how the commons is handled, and what the ground rules are: who gets to participate, who doesn't, and who's taken care of and who isn't. So there is a simple kind of survival; look out for ourselves, give opportunity to our families, and care about the kinds of issues that will affect our lives and the lives of many generations. So, yes, it's got treacherous possibilities.
Our spirit can be stolen by power and seeking power and aggrandizement. It can tie into our feelings about money and wealth and gaining influence and connections and things like that. But it is the public realm. If we are in places that are attempting democracy and the ability for everyone to participate, to not do so comes at our own peril.
If we don't get involved and do the best we can, others will decide. And they'll set the rules and the patterns, the morals and ethics, really, of how the world around us is working. You either choose to be subject to it and ignore it and focus on other things and deal with the consequences, or you engage and attempt to bring your values, your vision, your meaning and purpose into expression.
Birju: So at a concrete level, would you have any suggestions on practices or things that you did so that you are sitting here at almost 65 and have kept your soul?
Joel: So there is the meaning of life and the quest for understanding why am I here and what's this all about. Probably if one is faced with some adversity -- gentle, medium or severe -- being a bit 'othered' in the society that you find yourself, and being kind of bombarded with societal values of what is the purpose and what are we supposed to do and what matters and how do I become a respected part of my community?
We also live in a system that has become dominated by the drive for money and wealth as the creator of safety and empowerment for us. In order to be safe, we might be able to make choices, we might be able to take care of our families. The system we live in -- in both the countries I'm part of in North America, U.S. and Canada -- respect and esteem from society around us, and the way that things evolve through the market system, have caused us to end up on a measuring stick that we internalize. It takes a very practiced and seasoned person not to succumb to measuring our value in the accumulation of wealth and money and the power that comes with it.
Birju: I'd love to use that as a transition to talk about the work you've been doing in the world of money. I'm curious what made investing interesting to you. What circumstances led you to guiding all of those investments into socially minded products and services?
Joel: Well, as I mentioned earlier, capitalism was being questioned -- the powers of nations and how that was wielded. I think one of the reasons is that I was in a family that did question things and attempted to care about society and how things turned out -- maybe as a protective measure as Jews from Eastern Europe. You need to pay attention and be an influencer of society. But as I grew up, I felt that money became God for many people. It became clearer and clearer that class issues — who got the goods, who got to be part of the decisions and who didn't get — more and more concentrated as the economic world became increasingly a measuring tool for the question 'Are you a successful person, or you aren't'? There was a very practical part to it. Do you have a life where you get to make choices and you get to benefit from the positive outcomes of successful economic activity? Or are you left out all the way to the point where you can't really take care of your family effectively? So, watching that system and coming to think about it more and pay attention to it more, first, there's the drive to want to be successful enough so that you are not subject to it and you feel more empowered that you can take care of yourself and make choices and take care of your family.
So I came to the idea in that turbulent period of questioning of capitalism, how it created wars and how resources were shared and distributed. It creates a compellingness on the human condition to attempt to accumulate and judge success through that concept of a wall that money can give you to protect yourself and get you what you want. I looked at that and thought: Actually, the ethics and values there are not a given. The drive for security does not have to mean that you become exploitative, extractive and ruthless. Money, business and finance could be, and I think ultimately are, fairly neutral substances or circumstances or constructs. They can be used to do very important, positive and good things in life. So, it was very engaging as a motivated young person to use my intellect and wit and I guess personal passions to figure out how the use of money and financial success could be a deeply spiritual practice if used well; if deeply considered. To ignore it leaves too many of the wrong motivations, creating and dominating how society, culture, and life for everyone else is going to be. So, my kind of rebellious side and my drive to be meaningful and find a life that's doing things that matter, just drove me into those realms. I was exposed early-on to people that began to consider business as a possible tool for doing good in the world. I'll pause there.
Birju: So, I'd love for you to tie this into your recent book, Clean Money Revolution. Why did you feel this was an important book to write? Particularly, if you could tie it into the lessons at the level of the inner world, why money matters as a tool to engage with inner growth?
Joel: Well, I believe that money is a tool to represent the extraction of resources, either from human labor or from ecology. We are digging things up out of the ground or we're cutting down trees. We're harvesting parts of creation and monetizing it into a representation that allows us to have more of what we think we want or less if we don't move into that point of view. I think that money is embodied spirit. I believe that money has our name on it. That how we get it; what we do with it while we have it; where we put it; what we are invested in -- is actually our direct responsibility. We've come to a period where we distance ourselves and we offload that and don't look at what our money is doing right this minute while we're on this podcast. I may actually own slaves. I may be causing great damage to babies and children living next to manufacturing facilities that are pouring out pollution and damaging them. And while I enjoy the benefits of my money, if I choose to separate from what it's actually doing and the fact that my name is on it, I am making choices or not making choices and they're affecting other people in ways that I would be horrified to think about myself as consciously making that choice. So being unconscious doesn't really absolve us.
If we're struggling to put a roof over our heads and feed our children, the drive to just take care of that no matter what is understandable. But living in a system that supports and even encourages infinite accumulation of wealth, comes with it, a deep spiritual, as well as moral and ethical and political responsibility. So if that's accurate, and it was for me, I began to have no choice but to go into this profane substance and realm and do the best I could, at least for myself to take responsibility for my engagement in economic activity and in money and holding it and choosing what to do with it. I believe that this is under-attended to. I don't know where we get taught about the actual spiritual dimensions of money and what it means to have a stock market portfolio when we only look at how much it went up or down over time. Our quest to have more and more of it without stopping to think about why; how much is enough; and what is the responsibility that we actually have to know what that money is doing right this minute, while I go to sleep at night and every day. I believe it's time for a spiritual evolution around this that understands just how sacred this substance is and what it represents and to become aware of the responsibility that we have to use it wisely and for peaceful and compassionate purposes, especially once we have our own security and survival and basic needs met.
Birju: So, the way that I'm hearing you describe this is the architecture of money being based in a scarcity paradigm which makes people feel like it's not enough and it will never be enough. It is really meaningful for those who have "more than enough" as defined by some third party, but I'm also aware that we are in a really unequal standing here as a society. I read that in the United States over half of Americans would be bankrupted with a $400 unexpected expense. I'm curious if there are lessons that you've come across that are on the inner domain for the majority who may not have assets to even put in the stock market and are thinking about money in a different way.
Joel: The injustice that follows imbalanced ownership of wealth and capital becomes very, very severe and a lot of it is completely unconscious. I don't even know what the companies are that I own in my pension plan or my savings account over my stock portfolio. I don't know what they're doing to people in places elsewhere, and I'm able to get a pass card and disconnect from that, that it's not really my responsibility, it's just a diversified stock portfolio or it's just a business that my family got into that is a mining company, is a shopping mall company in my personal situation. This pass card that society and we have created for ourselves allows us to ignore the injustice and the suffering that happens from very poor distribution of the resources of extraction from planet and people.
I go back to politics for a moment and say government is where the rules are written and government can be influenced by money and power. If we don't engage and we put our head in the sand about that, we are subject to the outcomes and we reduce our agency and our ability to do anything about it. One of the biggest sufferings that follows is that the majority of people on the planet are living on less than a few dollars a day and struggling for survival. Even in industrialized and advanced capitalism, the rules get written by those who have power to influence the rules. So those of us with more money pay the least taxes on a percentage basis, ultimately. We have all kinds of tools and obscure clauses that allow us to hold onto and accumulate more money. We then influence the people who write the rules. If we have a wealthy society and we're not taking care of basic health, education, welfare, and giving opportunities to everyone, we're effectively creating quite an oppressive system, benefiting from it dramatically, and are not required to think about that or take any responsibility for it. This kind of point of view caused me to become a fanatical do-gooder, or at least to attempt to do that and to work in these most profane kinds of realms to attempt understanding and influencing how we might think about them in a more awakened and hopefully enlightened way.
Birju: Particularly for this kind of ServiceSpace audience that really dives into the spirit of gift ecology, I'm curious what your inner framework is that would say that this form of engagement is more skillful. Or is it more skillful, than simply choosing to donate the extra money that you have and to invite others to do the same and to say, look, let's not try to work with the anchor of the dominant paradigm and try to put makeup on a pig, for lack of a better phrase, but instead say, look, let's do away with this and just offer in the spirit of deep relationship. I'm curious how you would compare and contrast and what you feel is skillful.
Joel: I believe that it's very understandable that we make that choice and people who do should be applauded. The challenge is that most people are not doing that. For those of us that do have the intellect, the education, and the access to influence bigger systems or attempt to, I consider it a personal responsibility and a citizenship responsibility that we do our best to engage and influence those systems. A gift response is a very good one and should be part of all of our lives and all of our core practice. But if we create a life where we don't have to deal with these bigger issues, or we turn away from them, I believe that there is a citizen responsibility to participate in the ways that we can to create a more fair set of rules, regulations and behavior around questions such as the distribution of wealth, who gets taken care of and who doesn’t and who carries the bulk of suffering due to lack of resources, can’t put their kids through a good education and take care of them properly. Those of us who develop the ability to do that and consider that we've done enough are neglecting our responsibility to the larger whole, at least in my view.
Birju: Thank you for that. I want to pivot a little bit towards your thoughts on the idea of movement building. You've played a role in so many organizations, even coalitions, as I understand it. One that comes to mind is Social Venture Network which I think has been renamed Social Venture Circle, perhaps, which basically created the space for socially conscious business to exist. I'm curious how you thought about designing SVN and other networks that you helped architect such that the people who became exposed to these ecologies just couldn't help but walk in this direction of love.
Joel: I was very fortunate to find my way into those kinds of organizations with that kind of thinking and to meet people who were struggling with the questions that we're talking about today, being very pragmatic about combining their own drives to succeed and to have a good life and to have a good influence on others and combining business and money to support that. How do you align this very crass and worldly component into our deeper morals, ethics, spirituality, and the meaning of life? It was very inspiring to me to run into people in the early companies that believed that they could do good through these activities rather than simply benefit themselves and accumulate a fortress, basically, enough money to cushion us from all the challenges in life. That's where I got inspired to believe that there is an intersection and a harmonization of the inner and the outer that can come together, even in the crass world of extraction and accumulation, and personal hoarding -- a piling up of more and more external resources. That was a very exciting and creative space to be, a kind of liberation from me in looking at what I was experiencing early in the transformation of the South and Vietnam war protests and these questions of capitalism, which are very legitimate. How do we do a compassionate capitalism? How do we have an economy that works for more people? How is it that we can have massive wealth on the planet and have it distributed so poorly to the few and create lives of suffering and challenge and deep anxiety and stress for the many, and continue to push the system towards more and more of that imbalance? Business and finance could be a tool to represent our highest, deepest, best qualities. Why is it okay that Caucasian families in the United States have tens of thousands of dollars? I can't remember the exact number right now, but I believe the average white family has well over $100,000 of savings or asset base that they can call on. The average African American family is getting down close to zero now. A lot of that is structural. It's not about competency. It's about systemic regulations, tax policy, where the public dollar gets spent, and who benefits from it.
And there's a very unsettling outcome if this imbalance isn't tended to. As we go from under 3 billion people on the planet when I was born, to close to 8 billion today — in one human lifetime. And possibly 10 billion, for my children and grandchildren now. How we will live together, as we deplete the resources of the planet and we create very imbalanced and injust systems, that affect the billions while few have a great life. That is not a good formula for a positive future.
Birju: I'd love to dive into the designing of this. I have to believe that the ecologies which you have helped create are imbued with these perspectives, these perspectives that you propagated through design of a movement. I'm curious how you thought about that — or was there thought into it or did it just naturally happen?
Joel: Well, I think what happened is I found inspiration. I saw models of people trying things differently. I saw creativity and just the human expression, the beauty of the human expression that can manifest through a system where we can go out, have an idea, a product, a service and turn it into something that may change the face of how certain things are done in society or across the planet. And so, as I might have considered a pathway as a spiritual practitioner formally, offering healing and support for people in the human struggle, I began to see — far-fetched as it may be — that there is a path of service through affecting the larger economic and political systems that create the world we live in. And that is an embodied spiritual practice that felt like one of the greatest ways to make a contribution.
Birju: I want to shift over to talk about some of your work in activism. “Hollyhock” is a center that you helped launch, one of the preeminent retreat centers in North America. I'm curious how you feel working with activists and movements and how that fits into the broader work that you're up to, and particularly what the role of inner work is for activists?
Joel: Yes. Hollyhock is now 39 years old. That campus was also another form of inner skills retreat center, it had about a 12 year life before Hollyhock. The land that it's on was a summer gathering place that was one of the sunniest with a low bank waterfront access with lots of oysters, clams and ocean food and plentiful deer and a temperate climate where there was abundance in nature. So for eons it was a summer gathering place for the indigenous people that lived in the region.
And so I believe that there was a deep history there of, during the times of more ease when it was all about going out and collecting food, telling stories, sharing lives, ending up in mating and coupling or however that all works, as people gathered and carried forward the traditions that had been guiding how the people survived and thrived.
And that history creates a fairly profound legacy to a piece of land, just like a place with a temple or a place of deep reverence and worship can do. There's a certain resonance that gets created. In that context the founders of Hollyhock came out of early Greenpeace. Greenpeace was launched in Vancouver and Hollyhock is an island about a hundred miles north called Cortez Island. It was influenced by the sixties, by the movements of those times and by the belief that we need to go deeper into the spiritual wisdoms of the times, the psychological understanding of the human being, the emotional body. How do we make ourselves a better manifestation of this incarnation? So it was driven by high ideals. The sixties and seventies were a time of asking a lot of the questions that I've just referred to — exploring what makes a good human, what makes a good life and what's our responsibility.
Well, gradually we've talked today about injustice and the poor balance of resources, who has access and who doesn't, who gets to have a great life and who doesn’t. That's the political realm, ultimately, the civic realm. So it was a natural bridge for me and for a number of the people involved with Hollyhock that we couldn't just do inner work and we weren’t only going to retreat to our own practice. That we needed to do what we could to bring those topics, questions, practices into everyday life, to affect how ultimately decisions are made and how society is designed. So a great inspiration was a place in Tennessee, by coincidence called “Highlander Center” where the civil rights movement had retreated and done trainings. We learned how to be together under difficult circumstances, face the race issues of the time, sense where spirituality came to inspire people, where to use singing and effectively worshiping together as forms of supporting each other to care and to be able to stand up to oppressive circumstances and help expand human rights. We saw Highlander Center and we saw another organization, the “Rockwood Leadership Institute”, out of the Bay area that was doing a kind of leadership training for people in activism and going into all kinds of walks of life, but going deeper with an understanding of the kinds of topics that we've been talking about today.
So we wanted to use the privilege and preciousness of having a beautiful place and a place where a long tradition and history and practice had happened. We learnt how to engage in the issues of today, both through activism, ultimately civic engagement, but also through different kinds of professions, trades, be it school teachers, helping professions, but also entrepreneurs and business people. And ultimately [raising] people that might give their life to working in political realms, to have a deeper grounding in psychological, emotional, and spiritual understanding and relational skills. And by creating that kind of environment, great social change and societal change outcomes might be more possible.
Aryae: Hi, everyone this is Aryae. I just want to briefly remind all of you who are listening that we invite you to share, your questions or comments with Joel Solomon, to engage with him on related issues that have been on your mind. So please, if you're on the phone, you can get in the queue by hitting star six or else you can submit a question or comment by email at email@example.com or if you're listening live via webcast you can just fill out the form online. So we'll be getting to that after the top of the hour.
Birju: Joel, I got the sense that you are almost done, but not done.
Joel: Yeah. Well I think I did enough, but I'll move to say that as now climate catastrophe faces us, justice catastrophe faces us, ecological catastrophe faces us, we have created a situation knowingly or unknowingly as humanity in which we must find deeper and more potent ways to look after the long term future and [redefine] money, power, business. Money, business, and power are some of the energy forms that caused the lust for more, infinite-more and cause us to disassociate from responsibility for each other and for society. It's time for a next level of spiritual evolution that allows us to re-sacralize these basic activities that have been relegated to. Go to our place of worship on the weekend and go back out on Monday and practice activities that don't represent what we’ve called for when we're facing our makers, so to speak. So I think that this is a time where we only ignore politics at our peril. We ignore injustice and unfairness at our peril, but more importantly at the peril of future generations and whether we will have an inspiring and uplifting future society or whether we'll have something that we don't really want to contemplate.
Birju: Yeah, there's a word that you said there that really touched me. Re-sacralize. I'm going to carry that one with me and I'm curious about your own re-sacralization process. I’m curious what you have become from these experiments that you have helped, launched in the world. There's so much, and I'm sure I'm still only touching the tip of the iceberg. Rather than the external focus of what those projects were I'm curious what qualities you are most touched to have developed and be developing?
Joel: The first that comes to mind is joy. Given the seriousness and intensity of the topics that we're actually touching on and the tragedies and overwhelming challenges that the world faces, along with the incredible opportunities and blessings that we can have, through success, using our intelligence. I think that finding a way to stay in touch with joy and be joyous is one of the greatest gifts that we can give to the world. It requires us to go deep into the questions and topics that we've been speaking about today or be very lucky that we happen to be naturally endowed with something like the ability to be joyous. But this is serious practice that requires a lot of discipline really. We have choices all day, every day, that we make and it's very easy to fall asleep and just choose for our pleasure or for what's easy or for what makes us feel more important and those kinds of things. In other words, I’d say, a lower vibrational choice. Meanwhile, we need to realize just how precious, how miraculous it is that we're able to incarnate and be here and experience all that is available to be experienced. But we also have very deep responsibility. I think people, at all times, have known that the greatest responsibility of being alive is to see that future generations will actually have as good or better a life than we do. I think all traditions have some version of that, and it's our job and our core responsibility to be the most embodied representation of what we most believe. We are ancestors of what's coming next. Being unconscious about that is a tragedy, to be conscious requires us to think through a lot of the topics that we're talking about today.
Birju: The two words that really stood out to me from what you shared was “joy” and “responsibility.” And it brought to mind a quote by a dear friend of mine. He says “Joy is the matriarch of all emotions; she doesn't go where her children aren't welcome.”
Joel: Well, I feel my greatest privilege is that I have the opportunity to feel joy, and with joy, I can be a much better citizen. I can be a much better husband, father, grandfather, and community member. Because with the fuel of joy, I have a better chance to live my higher ideals and to pragmatically embody that and I did.
Birju: I wanted to ask a little bit about that husband, father, community member piece, if that's okay. I remember having a conversation with you several years ago, on a pier in San Francisco. I believe you said something to the effect of ‘I am an avowed non-procreator and here I stand before you as the father of several children and the grandfather of many more’, and I was just tickled by that comment. I still recall it all these years later and I'd love you to share a little bit of what's behind that reflection; reflections of surrender, integration, what it means to be part of an ecology that comes with having a life of service, you know, a world where others have their own callings.
Joel: That's a lot there.
Birju: Take it where you will.
Joel: So one of my inheritances was that my father's lineage carried a genetic kidney disease called “polycystic kidney” and most of the people that we know of in that lineage died of kidney failure too young. I knew about it early on, but I wasn't diagnosed until my mid-twenties. That diagnosis included that you might live a long time, you might also die soon and there's nothing you can do about it. Well, that was a call to action and it was a call to the pathway of attempting to understand who I am, what's the meaning of life, what's the purpose, and effectively the spiritual questions, the attention to my emotional and psychological self and to begin to have a basis to formulate a direction for my life. So there were many reasons for choosing non-procreation physically, that I didn't need to create actual human beings myself -- that back to this population growth, the pressure on the planet, the responsibilities of parenting, I thought for me, given this health situation, were better translated into my societal actions, my civic arena actions, my economic arena actions, and that the practice of being a good parent, as a daily activity, in every action I took. You could say being a wise person or a good citizen is just as well. That the world's full of plenty of children. We're not having a problem with sustaining our own species on the procreative side.
And I ended up marrying a woman who came with four children. That was a fantastic solution for me because I could father, parent, grandparent some of the many, many people on the planet, and particularly young people. And I feel that by making the choice to more widely distribute that kind of embodied love that parenting represents, that I was okay with that. I didn't have any drive to want to procreate actual human beings. I wanted to procreate a better world for all human beings. Maybe there is a fanciful notion to it. But that was real for me. And, so ending up now with a very large, sprawling family, children, grandchildren, godchildren, nephews, nieces, in-laws, I discovered that was actually a really good choice for me. I have all kinds of ability to love and be loved and enjoy the rewards of that. So I thought that this drive to procreate could be translated into worldly activity, the essence of it, and be someone that attempts practices to the my best ability to care for all children and to look at procreation in kind of worldly practices of how do I do business, how am I a citizen and what's my contribution to do life itself.
Birju: I'm glad I asked that question and it actually brings up another topic that we were just discussing right before we went on air here, which is on this topic of how climate is connected to wellbeing. This phrase that’s come out recently called “climate grief”, and how here you are with this large family who you don't have a theoretical appreciation for, right? A love of humanity. It's like a love for these people, and a greater awareness than perhaps most out there, on the kinds of calamities that we in our physical form, to the extent we identify with it, are going to have to collectively endure in the coming years and decades, sooner than perhaps we had originally anticipated. And I'm curious how you metabolize that where you are on the line between hope and hopelessness in a time of transformation globally?
Joel: Hey, big questions. That parenting energy that was not used for actual procreation of humans I believe fuels my drive to be a citizen and be a contributor and have a meaningful influence. We have in my lifetime moved from beginning to understand this, the negative side effects of massive industrialization and extraction of planet and people for great wealth and great accomplishments. And we are a species that like all species and, how ecology works, are beginning to overshoot. We’re too successful as a species and we're creating conditions that may lead to our demise or to very serious losses and tragedy. If we over-consume, over-pollute, over-damage, eliminate too many species and continue blindly moving forward, extracting, exploiting, and moving us towards disaster, there are side effects besides those practical ones, which include our emotional wellbeing, our psychological functionality, and our ability to stay in the practice of focusing on deeper and higher issues. So climate is one very grand way to understand the consequences that can come from unconscious and unbridled lust for more. I hope that makes sense.
You're now seeing manifestations that may lead to the demise of many billions of people. What a tragedy to live into, especially the scene that happened over one lifetime, which I think those of us, many of us who are older now have seen. How we deal with that as a species is a profound question now. The psychological effect for young people to be told that the future, that their parents have had, and that has looked so rosy and optimistic may not be available to them. This is the entire world full of humanity that now has to deal with this. That is a psychological and spiritual crisis. That is going to grow and we need to pay serious attention to it. Yesterday in Vancouver the city was shut down by extinction rebellion and other young people are having a strike around their frustration with how we are blindly catapulting forward in destroying the future for them. This is not going to go away lightly and we live in a very turbulent time, even though many of us still can have calm and peaceful lifestyles and not even have to pay attention to these issues. But those days are numbered. So we will have, and we are in a profound spiritual uncertainty, to what we thought was a given. He sees our overshooting our capacity blindly and recklessly. So I'll just go a step further and say that this is creating a new form of depression. We used to talk about eco-psychology. There was great grief and pessimism coming as species collapse and the natural world is just taking a bigger and bigger hit, and we experience the disasters of the side effects of toxics even affecting our genetic systems, all of which have put us into a time of a lot of grief, and yet we still have the capacity to solve this, but our systems and our power structures don't seem yet to be taking it on fully. That is a formula for a very volatile period of unrest that's probably upon us. I'll stop there.
Aryae: Wow. It's so sobering listening to you and they're talking about depression. Most of my friends who are sort of paying attention and tuning in have started talking about feeling more depressed lately because of the things you're talking about. What do we do about it? I've got a couple of questions that I want to ask you. Lots of us hold the question, well, as an ordinary person without huge amounts of money or huge amounts of power in the world, what's the best way to deploy myself and what can I do? What small things can I do? I want to ask your opinion, given the politics going on in the US right now and the upcoming elections next year, I as a progressive Democrat probably get one to two dozen requests a day from various political organizations, for money — finance me, finance me, finance me. What's your take on that, from the perspective of a good use of money? Is that a good use of money or should one ignore that, and work for something more fundamental like campaigning for finance reform?
Joel: I think that the answer to those questions goes back to our inner skills, and our ability to self-reflect and choose what is aligned with what we care most about. There's no simple answer to it. And there's not a simple answer to a lot of things in life. And we don't really have an easy guidebook. We lived in simpler times at one point where we went to our place of worship and we got told how to behave and how to be a good person. And that's broken apart now, with the complexity level, and the severity of what's happening - where we're actually changing the geology of the planet through our activities. And we may have to look in the eyes of our grandchildren, and explain to them why they are inheriting a world where there was so much plenty, and so much success, and now it appears that it may be collapsing upon its own success.
So making the choice of where to engage, how to engage can be bewildering and overwhelming, and depressing, it can immobilize us. So the best thing I have to say about it is: We each have to find out where is our contribution, where is our calling, and where can we make a contribution. And that may be as a school teacher, it may be as someone that supports those who are suffering, it may be that we run for office, and it may be that we use whatever power and influence we have to do our best to influence these bigger systems.
I don't think there's anybody, truly, to tell us the answers to this, and it is a human dilemma that probably existed at all times. What's my meaning and purpose? How do I engage? But we got away with being able to ignore those questions for eons. We now have the ability to destroy in ways that never existed before.
Our human ingenuity, our technological prowess has put us in a position to do severe, severe damage. So, do I give money to various causes? Do I decide that I'm going to run for office? Do I look at my wealth, and where it is, and what it's doing to people in places, and do I make shifts there? And the answer is all of the above. And we have to use our reflective skills and our friends and communities to find where we can make a contribution that we believe in. And now the options are limitless.
So I know that, for myself, engagement in the political realm is a very high priority. To be involved in the activist realm that is questioning major societal directions and can actually make gains, be it legislative or shifting the practices of our corporations and economic systems. And we are in an all-out struggle for the future of humanity and sanity. Be optimistic about that, and also recognize that it is a very perplexing and challenging time for people.
Aryae: Great answer. No one size fits all. No easy answers, huh?
Birju: Aryae, could I jump in with a comment on that?
Birju: I just wanted to name how I metabolized what you just said there, Joel. I was thinking, as you were sharing, about the author Anand Giridharadas. I don't know if you've heard of him or his book 'Winners Take All'?
Joel: That's last week.
Birju: There you go. So he's got this book on the bestseller list, basically calling out the billionaire class, and he gave a fantastic example to me. We are creating a dichotomy. Imagine, when slavery was happening, if everyone got together and said: "You know, what we should do is that we should really come up with a certification for those people who aren't using slaves and we really start to call attention to them and create prizes for them and start to allow people voting with their dollars to help shift our attitudes towards slavery over time.” I mean, that would sound absurd. And he was using that [example] to make the case that there are certain things where collective decision-making is really needed, and you don't want the billionaire class to be driving the change.
What I hear you saying is, well, let's not create that dichotomy, and whatever tools we have, let's take that kitchen sink and toss it at this issue. That feels quite resonant to me, and I just wanted to share how that landed for me.
Aryae: We have a caller right now. I will call on you. You are online.
Wendy: Hi, this is Wendy in Half Moon Bay. I loved your discussion of money as an embodied spirit, and money is sacred. But I wanted to get into the topic of joy, and what's in my mind was what Emma Goldman said, "It's not my revolution if I can't dance to it.” I kind of remember that, growing up in the sixties. But I'm wondering, with the acceleration of climate change and also, the acceleration of income inequality, what practices do you have to build on this joy, and how do you manifest it when so many people around you are grieving and angry?
Joel: You're asking a spiritual practice question; I'll take it that way. Well, first, I consider I have a responsibility, as part of the privileged class, to figure out and to think about these topics and questions that we're speaking of, and to find my own path to joy, and to alignment, that it feels that my life is focused on things that actually matter, that give me satisfaction, to feel that way about myself, that I'm doing the best I can. And that requires constant practice, questioning, being open to questions. Anand is doing a great job right now about the do-gooder class, questioning if this is just really a fashion in many ways. Are we really going at the core issues?
The best that I can do is understand [that] I'm responsible for my own joy, and for my own, let's say, dealing with enough of the pragmatic issues of life, and acknowledging and understanding just how privileged I am that I can even spend time in this conversation, have an opportunity to write a book and talk about big issues. But I have to find the pathway of practice for me, that embodies the qualities that we're talking about, that matter the most. And I have to regularly to think back from my deathbed and think about what it is that I want to know, how many moments was I able to make conscious choices that are about larger questions than just my own survival.
And it's my responsibility to figure out my own psychological and emotional self, so that I'm as constructive and contributory as possible and soaking up as little, uh, self. Let's say, if I make myself less needy, [instead of] filling my insecurities with meaningless activities, and devoting myself [to a life of service], as much as I can understand what a life of service is. These are the practices and responsibilities that get me, at least, to the starting place of being a better contributor. And if I have resources, access, and privilege, I'd better use them as well as I possibly can, to contribute in a positive way. Because I think that whatever the meaning of life is, if there is anything after life, it will be, partially, determined by how well I use this life. And regardless of whether there's anything else, the responsibility of having the privileges that we do, requires contribution and giving back. I think it's a natural cycle of life, that we either drain from everyone else, or we find a way to be contributory.
And we're each gonna find that in our own ways, but the key point is that we continue to practice.
Wendy: Thank you.
Aryae: Thank you Wendy. We're getting close to the bottom of the call. Maybe another question from me and maybe some closing reflections from Birju and from you, Joel.
I just have a sort of a practical question, a simple one. You talked about what we do with our money and how that influences the world.
So I've got a modest investment portfolio that helps generate income for my retirement. Okay. And one of the companies whose stock that I hold is a pharmaceutical company that's created a lot of good lifesaving products over the years, but was also involved recently in the opioid crisis. So the question is, get rid of that stock because of what it's done in the opiod crisis or hold onto it because of all the good it's done with other products, or what is your view of responsible investing in that type of situation?
Joel: The starting place is the conscious practice of looking at those questions. These are very, very complex and personal ultimately. I'm able, because I'm involved in entrepreneurship directly, I've made a choice not to invest in public markets, and the kind of question that you're addressing, because I can. I'm more involved in small business, with innovators and the front edge of people that are creating products and services that are imbued with the best that we can know today. And so my day job is something we call "mission venture capital." It's basically an investment firm that invests in early growth stage companies that are involved in organic food and regenerative agriculture and environmental technologies, which takes us into climate issues. And we, like a typical investment firm, we take money from individuals and organizations all over the world. And our job is to go out and find aligned mission-strong companies that are also successful businesses. This is a compromised activity. We have to make compromises in order to engage in these, you know, in the commercial sphere, but we need to do it.
So each person is going to have to figure out where the answer is. Do I invest in the pharmaceutical that's creating life-saving drugs and also causing? And these are representations, I believe, of our belief systems and who we are as people. And we need to take responsibility to understand what it means to own private [inaudible], whose success will depend on cutting healthcare costs.
Aryae: Right. Thank you. So yeah, I get it, that it's up to each of us to look within, and then come up with our own strategy for what's right. Got it. Thank you. Before I ask a final question of you, Joel, I want to ask you Birju, any final thoughts, reflections, question on your part?
Birju: Thank you, Aryae. I think, first of all, I'm just holding a spirit of gratitude that we're having this conversation, and I'll share with you what I'm holding from the call. Joel just spoke to it here, that we all have agency in many ways, and many of the forms seem to be unconscious for the bulk of our society -- perhaps all of our society, just at different levels. And so the question is, what does it mean to get into the arena of honoring our own agency? How can we do that in a way that our own unconsciousness does not grow, but that we grow through the actions of engagement? And in that way, the profane becomes the sacred. Politics and business and money and power and fame -- they become tools to wake up, and perhaps offer the same to others. Joel, I'm so grateful for your paradoxical path and for the spaciousness that you had to offer your lessons to this community on Thanksgiving weekend, no less.
Joel: Well, I'm deeply honored and gratified that I have the opportunity to hold forth on these huge questions. And I think it's a responsibility for all of us to do the best we can to develop our own answers to these questions. To ignore them is to hand it over to systems and people who may care a lot less than we do. And so if I can leave any one message, it is we must be engaged. We must take on the biggest challenges that we can, do the best we can, and stay awake.
Aryae: [laughing] Wonderful. You know, we have a traditional last question that we ask our guests in this call. I feel like you may have answered it already, but maybe there's more. So the question is, how can we, as members of the ServiceSpace community, support the work that you're doing in the world?
Joel: You can find, we can each find our own pathway of maximum contribution to the long-term well-being of this beautiful creation. And if we remember that we are ancestors of what's coming in the future, and if we can think from our deathbed from time to time as a practice to check ourselves and see if we're doing the best we can -- we're not going to be perfect, but we can be better and we can do better. And those of us that have enough wealth and material-plane benefits, becoming billionaires, so to speak as a metaphor -- let's become billionaires of good deeds. Let's become billionaires of love of the future. Take care of whatever needs we believe are necessary for survival and well-being, but let's be sure that our contribution is the best that it can possibly be.
Aryae: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Joel, for being with us today and for sharing this vision of all of us becoming billionaires. Thank you so much, Birju, for your very thoughtful and skilful interviewing. As we do on all these calls, I want to invite all of us on the call to take a final moment of reflection to hold this space together.
Thank you everyone. Thank you again, Joel. Thank you again, Birju, and have a wonderful rest of your day.
Birju: Thank you for the expansive share.
Joel: Thank you so much. It's unbelievable to get to talk about this level of topics. It's an incredible honor, challenge, and an opportunity -- and great to do it with you.
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