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Metta’s Fuller Circles

Welcome, dear readers, to another month of taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into the world.

I am still volunteering at a small, family-run vineyard, 51 degrees north of the Equator, described in last month’s article, “The Grapes of Metta.” After experiencing the unexpected wrath of a fellow volunteer and housemate, I went for a long walk in the spirit of the much-used quote from Louis D. Brandeis:

If the broad light of day could be let in upon men’s actions, it would purify them as the sun disinfects.


Brandeis was a lawyer and associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1916–39. He was the first Jew to be named to the Supreme Court, and often worked pro bono for the freedom to address the wider issues involved in a case, which earned him the nickname “the Robin Hood of the law,” at The Economist magazine.

With each step, I let the sunshine of the UK’s most recent heatwave disinfect the month-long toxicity I’d just survived. I texted our host an account of the happenings while they were still fresh in my mind as it was on my conscience that the person in question would land at a placement with young children or vulnerable adults. 

Our host not only believed me but rang the organization matching volunteers with farm placements to raise the alarm on both our behalves. She apologized profusely for unintentionally putting me in harm’s way. I assured her that these things happen, and that—given all the coincidences leading to this final show-down—perhaps we were playing a longer game by helping people we may never meet?

It transpired that this particular volunteer was already on headquarter’s radar after being turned down for a job with them in the past. And while we’ll never know the full story or outcome, hopefully our joint testimonies were enough to stop further poisoning of the network’s well of good will.

On my return, I marveled at the quick turning of the Wheel of Dharma when I found every one of the windows of the volunteer accommodation opened wide and two new arrivals already moved in.

Last month, I described learning to prune the tops of growing grapevines to open up the canopies and let in more sunshine, tucking in any wayward sideways branches to protect them from passing tractors and mowers. This month, I learned the next stage: stripping leaves to expose emerging berries to more sunshine for ripening.

At first, my two new fellow volunteers and housemates felt like a breath of fresh air. One was traveling Europe, and the other was learning English and keen to visit London for the first time on their days off. Considering the weird and wonderful agendas I’d already stumbled upon this summer, these seemed innocent enough motivations for volunteering on an organic farm and I resolved to enjoy the new sweetness of conversation, music, teamwork, and communal cooking.

However, as the Wheel of Dharma continued turning, I found myself feeling more and more exhausted despite enjoying their company and the farm work. Not only was I volunteering my 30 hours of farm work a week, but suddenly I was also cook, cleaner, résumé proofreader, English conversation teacher, travel agent, in addition to shouldering everyone’s tasks whenever they were offsite. I’ll admit, there were moments when I found myself nearly nostalgic for last month’s hostile silent treatment!

Just when I thought this free-range plot couldn’t thicken further, I crossed paths with someone working for the organization connecting us all. They explained how it had all started in the UK some 50 years ago to encourage the exchange of local organic farming experience and practices. Since then, the network’s model has spread to some 130 countries worldwide.

In theory, this expansion sounds very positive. In practice, however, headquarters was hoping to return to its roots by tucking in any wayward sideways branches to protect the network from being exploited for other purposes: in other words, keeping it more local by matching volunteers with farm placements within their own county.

And then, after just four months of circulating within my own local network of the UK, I already understood why.

I’ve encountered as many motivations for volunteering on organic farms as I have volunteers: everything from mental health issues to spiritual missions to saving money to exiting the mainstream to backpacking to losing weight to learning a new language to supporting digital nomadism to substance abuse. Some days, I’ve secretly wondered whether I was the only one actually concerned about the future of our planet.

Until now, I had opted to drive in my own lane whenever I bumped up against motivations different to mine in the form of hosts or volunteers exploiting the scheme. It wasn’t my place to impose my personal beliefs about the parami of dana onto others. But sometimes it’s a blurry line between acceptance and willful blindness, and determining when obstacles are character-building or The Wheel of Dharma’s redirection.

Most new volunteers make an effort in the first week, and then the slow creep of playing the system begins as they shorten their hours or cherrypick the easiest jobs or disappear during group tasks, or as they fail to pull their communal household weight or help themselves to a host’s resources without asking. Some were comically blatant about it, while others put on Oscar-worthy performances to hide their motives or to take credit for the work of others, depending on who was within earshot.

As I stripped away inner leaves to expose why I was feeling so exhausted to more sunshine, I reminded myself that I wasn’t anyone’s manager or mother or teacher or judge, and there wasn’t much that I could do about the behavior of other people except to focus on my own learning and leading by dana example.

But what if leading by dana example only leads to shouldering everything for those with different motivations? Wasn’t this just circling back to the toxic working conditions that inspired this free-range experiment back in April? The irony that those of us staying true to the overall scheme’s keeping-it-local/sustainable farming intentions are the very ones being depleted by people focused on taking rather than giving wasn’t lost on me.

Perhaps, then, it was time to prune and tuck this unsustainable experiment altogether and move on? Or, in the words of cosmic comedian Steve Bhaerman, also known as Swami Beyondananda:


Watching my host also grow more and more tired, I stopped peddling by acknowledging that while together we’d successfully weeded out one particularly toxic volunteer from the network, there were still more subtle ways the network, my host, and I were being exploited.

I asked them pointblank whether they were truly receiving the help they needed from the exchange. The outcome of that honest chat surprised us both. While we were both feeling exhausted by certain aspects of the exchange as we were both naturally givers, ultimately we were both getting what we needed . . . from specific sources.

And so we devised ways and tools for my host to keep closer tabs on the volunteers, such as checklists and clearer boundaries around resources. And I took a few days of rest and then decided to see the summer through to harvest, alternating between their vineyard and my last beloved “forest school” placement.

Regular readers may remember me coming to a similar full-circle conclusion when I wrapped up seven lily-padding years combining location-independence and meditation-practice at the end of 2017, before settling for a time in Liverpool. Rather than seeking pastures new or coming to an abrupt end, in that final year I opted for the middle way of returning to the places where I already knew I was valued and could make a difference.

My host then surprised me by asking about Vipassana meditation! I had a private chuckle at the even bigger circle the Wheel of Dharma was closing with that question, as I’d sat my first 10-day meditation course in the next valley over from their vineyard some 13 years ago. In turn, this had sown the seeds for my lily-padding years, which had then led to pruning Vipassana courses from my life for feeling unsustainable.

And then some newly arrived volunteers, an American digital nomad couple, surprised me further over dinner by explaining that they were already feeling ready to wrap up their globetrotting after a recent stay in Edinburgh. When they’d initially set out on their travels 18 months, they had equated freedom with location-independence. However, in Edinburgh they’d discovered where they really wanted to settle and that all that traveling had simply been a means to re-equate freedom with living somewhere other than in the US.

I honestly can’t yet tell where all these closing circles are leading me, but I do trust that by focusing our efforts on where we feel valued and where we can make a difference, the Wheel of Dharma will redirect us to where we will best thrive. And that sometimes by working pro bono, as Louis D. Brandeis did, and returning to grassroots—as volunteering for an organic farms organization is currently attempting to do and pivoting our dana, as I am—we can tackle the wider issues so that everyone’s needs are met in sustainable ways.

Or, to metta-morphose Joni Mitchell’s classic song “The Circle Game:”

There’ll be new dreams maybe better dreams and plenty
Before the last revolving year is through

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In metta’s circle game

See more

Are You a Giver or a Taker? – Adam Grant’s TED talk (YouTube)
Swami Beyondandana
WWOOF – Half a Century Old! (WWOOF)

Related features from BDG

Young Voices: Dana: The Power of Communal Learning
The Soul of Soil: A Portrait of Frith Farm
Every Choice Is a Mistake
The Dana Dilemma: Is It Buddhist to Pay for Teachings?
Planting the Seeds of Enlightenment
The Gift of Giving: Dana in the Pali Canon

More from Living Metta by Mettamorphsis

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