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May 17, 2015

Can “Right Livelihood” Bring Home the Bacon?

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Recently, I saw an interesting question in one of my Facebook writer’s groups regarding the Buddhist principle of “right livelihood”:

“It often happens that people ask me, “How can a person as Awakened as you work a job like that?”

(I proofread documents at the IRS.) 

I always have to say, “Would you rather it be filled with un-Awakened people? People who are sad and un-mindful?”

But this got me wondering. What are everyone’s day jobs?”

What followed was a list of the many jobs the group members have done including veterinary assistant, strength coach, limousine cleaner, social worker and ice cream scooper. My own response included waitress, bartender, dancer, mother, yoga instructor, reiki healer and writer.

The question we were trying to answer was: which, if any, of our past or present jobs constituted right livelihood. Someone quickly pointed out that a definition of right livelihood was needed. I found several, but for me, this rang the most true.

“The idea of ‘right livelihood’ is an ancient one. It embodies the principle that each person should follow an honest occupation which fully respects other people and the natural world. It means being responsible for the consequences of our actions and taking only a fair share of the earth’s resources.” 

The idea is that to lead a truly spiritual life and stay on the path of awakening, we must choose a profession that is in line with our spiritual principles. But what does that actually mean?

Can we be like Donald Trump erecting towers across the world emblazoned with our name and still be considered to have a right livelihood? Or must we be like Thich Naht Hahn, the legendary Buddhist monk who devoted himself to a selfless life of study and spiritual teaching?

As it often does for us regular folks, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Reflecting on this spiritual riddle, I realized that the jobs I have done in my life fall in two very clearly defined camps: one in which I was doing whatever I perceived I had to do earn money and the other in which I was doing things I love to enrich—not just my finances, but also my life.

Not surprisingly, the jobs in the first camp happened when I was younger, while the jobs in the second evolved as I matured and began to understand who I was and how to honor myself.

But let’s say I wasn’t fortunate enough to be able to do the things I love. Let’s say I was still a bartender. Would I be able to sling drinks in a way that aligns with my spiritual principles? I believe I could.

Why? Because the key is not just what we do, but how we do it.

We don’t need to trade in our favorite clothes for a closet full of vestments to find meaningful work, but we do need to make sure a few things are in place. If we do, pretty much any job can constitute right livelihood.

The corollary of course, is that any job done without these things in place—even those considered the “most” spiritual like priests, yoga teachers or mid wives—can not constitute right livelihood no matter what the trappings.

Whether we are a bus driver, the CEO of an influential organization, or the Pope himself, these 5 personal expectations are paramount.

1. Mindfulness.

No matter what we do, if we do it in a state of inattention it is as if it hasn’t been done at all. When we experience each detail of our actions—even the tiniest thing like licking stamps—they become rich with meaning.

The bonus is, when we are consistently mindful the world becomes increasingly dynamic and we are never bored, making even menial work fascinating.

2. An Intention of Non-Harm.

This may be the toughest tenet to navigate. One of the definitions I read about right livelihood actually listed bar-tending as something that didn’t qualify because bartenders are distributing potentially harmful substances.

Anyone in the military, the police force, corrections or many other types of employ will have to examine their motives and intents with extra scrutiny.

I think even such people, however, can come from a genuine place of universal love.

3. Compassion.

An intent not to harm is the beginning of compassion. The full realization of it is the nonjudgmental acceptance of all people (including ourselves), and the wish that we all be free from suffering and the cause of suffering.

This is also called a practice of “loving-kindness”.

4. Gratitude.

To work in a state of gratitude alone goes a long way to right livelihood. It is gratitude that keeps us open and aware and able to appreciate every moment we are given no matter how dull it may appear to be.

5. Joyfulness.

This might be the most important aspect of right livelihood. As Daniel Scharpenburg said in his excellent article Applying Right Livelihood to Any Occupation:

Even if you are in a workplace surrounded by people who are sad and negative all the time, you can still do something. Be the change. Be positive. Fill yourself with joy.”

If we are thoughtful, sincere and joyful, any job we do—even if it’s proof reading documents at the IRS—can be deemed right livelihood. Imagine a world in which every person did their work with mindfulness, compassion and gratitude. That’s a place I would be excited to live in.

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Author: Erica Leibrandt

Editor: Alli Sarazen

Photo: John Atherton/Flickr

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