The Business of Beingness

Workshop participants get down to James Brown after lunch.

Workshop participants get down to James Brown after lunch.

Sunlight streams through a skylight into the upstairs living room in Café Gratitude’s Central Kitchen. A dozen people mill about in their socks and pin on name tags. Under their names, many have added, ‘I AM _____,’ and filled in an affirmation: love, in service, present.

We settle down onto a circle of pillows on the floor near a fireplace and wait, wondering where Saturday will end up. I, too, was there to participate in the six-hour workshop that promised to teach techniques for building a spiritual community for “financial success and spiritual satisfaction.” This particular session is free, but follow-up seminars regularly run $200 to $300 a pop.

“Today in this room we’re just trying something on,” begins instructor Aya Megan Marie Brien, blue eyes twinkling. The petite 28-year-old sits, one leg folded under, snuggled under a fuzzy blanket.

Co-instructor Jon Marro picks up on the trying-on theme. “It’s just a jacket to try, but if you like it, keep it on, or just tailor fit it to yourself.”

So far, so good, I think.

The daylong Sacred Commerce Introduction Workshop has been taught for the past five months through Café Gratitude, an organic, vegan, raw cafe that opened at 20th and Harrison in 2004. For Matthew and Terces Englehart, who started Café Gratitude, business and spirituality are one. They’ve written five books on “practicing being abundance,” including Abounding River, Plenty of Time and Sacred Commerce. For them, the model works.

They now boast five locations around the Bay Area, and the Mexican incarnation, Gracias Madre, will open on Mission near 18th Street next month.

Employees often participate in in-house seminars. In addition, managers are encouraged to attend Landmark Forum programs, and as the East Bay Express reported this summer, those who don’t find themselves unemployed. Even customers get a taste of the spiritual. Drop in, and you’ll inevitably be asked questions like: What’s in the way of you being here, being present right now? Or: Where are you not living up to your own standards?

As the religion writer for Mission Loc@l I decide to explore and ask if I can join. At the start of the session, I announce to the other participants that I will be writing about it. No one minds.

Brien, who began working with Café Gratitude almost five years ago, explains Sacred Commerce. “We are appreciating money as an exchange of spirit,” he says. “We believe profit is about love of enterprise.”

Gratituders, as they call themselves, believe true presence of mind, body, heart, and soul comes from five qualities of “beingness”: thoughts, speech, beliefs, actions, and attitudes.

“The goal is to be a human being instead of a human doing,” 31-year-old Marro says, looking around at us. A pregnant participant rubs her belly.

Give people a product you believe in and care for, they say, and the money becomes the ebb and flow of spiritual goodness for all.

I can groove with this, I think — people believing in their products and putting their money into quality. It’s still unclear how this is spiritual but I’m not out yet.

Then Brien announces that the students, at our varying levels of “beingness,” will try a Being exercise. My stomach clenches.

In two rows of six we line up, face to face. First thought: This is so awkward. I glance around the room sizing up my potential partners – a tough-love hippie guy with tattoos, a colon hydrotherapist with a commanding presence, an array of Gratituders already trained in this stuff.

I decide to go for the short-haired college student. She’s innocent-looking, unintimidating, I like her headband.

Just then a woman, Rooni, runs into the workshop late, and it just so happens I know her from the outside world. We end up being partners — but awkward! —  she doesn’t recognize me.

We’re told to consider all the information coming silently from our partners. I try to tell Rooni with my face that we know each other, smiling, almost giggling. Is it working?

Wide-eyed, Rooni looks intently, openly, lovingly into my face. But without a flicker of recognition.

Then we’re told to hold hands and acknowledge a quality of “beingness not doingness” in our partners. Around us, partners comply with the prescribed sentence structure. I acknowledge you, X, for being X.

Rather than say, I acknowledge your great outfit, each partner alludes to something “true” to the person’s essence.

Instead of saying, “I acknowledge you, Rooni, for being the amazingly inquisitive, totally enlightened best friend to my ex-boyfriend’s mother,” I awkwardly blurt out, “Rooni, we know each other,” and launch into a long-winded explanation.

Beingness, at this point, makes me flinch.

Acknowledging is huge here. “We create people in our speaking and our listening,” Marro says after the exercise. If you see someone as stingy, call them generous. The simple act of doing so can change the world around you.

Is this genuine, I wonder, or just passive aggressiveness?

“Everything around you is neutral and you impose your being on it,” Marro adds.

If you change your thoughts, it will change your life.

Marro, who was raised Catholic in Vermont, tells me that many people in the Gratitude community attend the East Bay Church of Religious Science, a nondenominational congregration in Oakland. “My big qualm with organized religion is that it sometimes can cause separation,” he says. “You’re Catholic, you’re Jewish, you’re Buddhist, whatever. For me, this can hold all of that.”

As long as there aren’t too many more beingness exercises, I think I will survive the afternoon intact. But after lunch comes clearing, the heart of the Sacred Commerce philosophy.

Each day, Café Gratitude’s 110 employees sit down individually at the start of their shifts for a five-minute clearing with a manager, according to the book Sacred Commerce. The company estimates it spends $230,000 per year on clearing.

The idea is to gain “access to the present moment, the only known location of the sacred,” says Sacred Commerce.

“It’s not because we feel like it every day. It’s a commitment to create a space where people are present and open-hearted,” says Brien.

If an employee doesn’t have the “space available” to be cleared, the manager will send them home.

Back in our session, Marro asks for a volunteer. I shrink into my seat.

Satori, the colon hydrotherapist, bravely volunteers.

The rite starts with a question. What in your life is still causing you pain?

Satori answers, and Batul Slatten, the clearer, mirrors back word for word what she says. Get present to those feelings, Slatten says. What emotions are you feeling now because of the memory?

Slatten meditates on Satori’s answers, and then asks the question of the day.

What do you love about your life?

Clearing, Satori tells us later, “felt like my heart space opening.”

We break into pairs to practice, but I have trouble getting present to my feelings. I’m unsure I want to share with a stranger. I’m unsure how “getting present” is going to catch on with most people.

Of course, someone listening can work wonders. But this seems excessive. I’m unsure how that incident on BART needs to affect my time at work. Isn’t work a space to get away?

Does anyone else actually try to “clear” employees?

Yes.

Ike Shehadeh, who owns Ike’s Place, a sandwich shop at 15th and Castro streets, was first “dragged” to a Café Gratitude workshop by his girlfriend. By the end of the weekend, he says, “a lot of the things they were saying I felt I could apply in my own life. I thought I could do all this stuff in my business.”

Though Shehadeh says he doesn’t necessarily agree with every philosophy behind Café Gratitude, he has begun to clear employees, and is sending management to the workshops.

“They just go and look at everything, and they take the parts that they feel help and start applying them.”

Natalya Watson, a senior at UCLA with an inquisitive look, met Marro in August at the Café Gratitude booth at Outside Lands Music Festival in Golden Gate Park. “I quit my job after I read Sacred Commerce,” said the 20-year-old, who traveled to San Francisco specifically for this workshop.

“Now I want to create viral ways of getting the message to other people.” Watson is considering writing Gratitude-style questions on UCLA bathroom mirrors.

After six hours, I’m still hesitant to run out and graffiti my world with proclamations of Sacred Commerce as the be-all, end-all future of capitalism. The look-into-my-eyes pieces are a bit too groovy for my taste.

Still, when I walk out into a windy Mission dusk, there’s something about the Gratitudian’s conviction that makes me smile. It may be a little silly to the rest of us. But for them, it works. Besides, does it really matter what we think?

6 Comments

  1. mcas

    So… as a Religion Reporter for this blog, and with the ‘Cult!’ screams of other local blogs, you seem to have left out any mention of spiritualism/belief system of Landmark/Cafe Gratitude… you basically described a personal experience of a Summer Camp-style trust exercise without any substance…

  2. Drew

    It’s fine for Gratitude to encourage the use of these methods, but it’s not okay to demand employees to pay their own hard-earned cash on Est. Shame on Mission Local for sugar-coating a personal experience to validate coercive business practices. Until Gratitude formally changes their policy in writing, I will not be dining at their restaurant.

  3. Profile photo of Nina Goodby Nina Goodby Post author

    Hi Drew,

    Thanks for your comment. In this particular piece I was giving a sense of what the Sacred Commerce seminar was like specifically. But if you would like to add more from your own knowledge please do.

    Best,
    Nina

  4. Profile photo of Nina Goodby Nina Goodby Post author

    mcas,

    Thanks for your comment. The content of the workshop was commerce and how Cafe Gratitude makes theirs ‘sacred.’ The piece ended up being as much about business as spirituality. If you have more to add that I may have missed, please do.

    Thanks,
    Nina

  5. Landmark was founded by the creator of Scientology and it IS an expensive cult to beware of.

  6. Mark, Landmark was founded by Werner Erhard, founder of EST who cribbed a bunch of dross form L. Ron Hubbard who made up Scientology. What Hubbard didn’t make-up from his fevered imagination, he stole from just about every religion and pseudoscience known at the time (1950) and created Dianetics which became the “Church” of Scientology to avoid prosecution by the FDA. Most of you will grow out of this self-absorbed woo. I eventually did.

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