Downshifting at LastApr 04, 2009
by Richard Lawton
image by Mohamed Hassan
After years of dreaming and planning and taking small steps, Richard Lawton is making the leap, downshifting from corporate executive to forest dweller
After years of dreaming and planning, I finally made the transition from working full-time in a corporate office to moving to the Catskills full-time, downshifting to part-time work from home. The many scenarios that I created and revised on spreadsheets over the past eight years since 2001 suggest that getting to this milestone has been orderly and predictable...far from it!
2001 was a year full of momentous events which touched the lives of many in ways that led them to reconsider their lives and their priorities. It was a year of endings and new beginnings. It was a year in which I experienced two unexpected deaths...the death of my father, and the death of my 19-year marriage. In his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, William Bridges makes the point that all transitions begin with “endings,” followed by what he calls “the neutral zone” out of which a new beginning can emerge. This “neutral zone” is a time of uncertainty and often unsettling disorientation, but it’s also a rich and important time of gestation and introspection...a time that our society generally sees as unproductive, so it’s often skipped or rushed through to the “next thing.”
While Bridges explains the characteristics of each stage, he rightly points out that they don’t always unfold in a strictly linear, sequential fashion. That’s certainly been true for me. After my divorce, I bought six acres of land in the Catskills near a Buddhist monastery where I had been studying for several years, planning to eventually move to the area. The next year, I built a modest sized home that I used as a weekend home until just two months ago.
So I had planted the seeds of a new beginning, but I had responsibilities with a family to support and two children to put through college. Over the next few years, as I worked on my spreadsheets to figure out when I could afford to take some risk and transition to my “new life,” many questions emerged such as “What will I do?”; “What is most important to me?”; ”Who am I?”; ”How do I live this life well?” As I worked with these questions, life went on: I changed jobs within the same industry, moved my primary home (a small apartment near work) four times, fell in love, learned to sail, went to meditation retreats when time allowed, put my son through college, moved my daughter into her college dorm and turned 50.
In his book Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up, Jungian analyst James Hollis talks about the ”provisional self” in the first half of life as being largely a function of our conditioning in order to live within society. The necessary challenge in the second life is shedding the provisional for the authentic...our own unique path. He writes: “To acknowledge the inevitability of change, and to go with it, is a fine and necessary wisdom, but our natural tendency is to resist the dissolution of what we have managed to accomplish.”
I’ve followed a fairly conventional path so far, and it’s been very good for me and my family. But increasingly I found that it no longer nourished me in a deeper sense, and that it was time to go “off trail” even though that would mean walking away from much of what I had accomplished and a certain identity. While the downshifting transition I just made is significant, it’s not as radical as some that I’ve considered...and I know there are more to come.
Last night, I watched a DVD in which Joseph Campbell talked about Hindu mythology and the ”forest dweller” stage of life, when around the age of 45 (often when a first grandchild is born), it was customary for people to disengage from worldly concerns and go to live in the forest to pursue more spiritual concerns.
I haven’t gone to that extreme yet. I still earn a living (at a much lower salary), but am now able to spend one day a week doing volunteer work at the monastery, attend more retreats, and go to morning and evening “zazen” meditation pretty much every day.
It’s early yet, but I definitely feel that I made the right move, and I feel very fortunate and grateful for having the opportunity to do so.