Right Livelihood or Making a Living
“The things we do for love are rarely the things we do for money.” Marcia Menter
When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them that I transform lives. Usually that evokes a lifted eyebrow and an unconscious step back. I can see from their expression that I might be joking and when I tell them I teach yoga and nutrition they relax, as if they had been holding their breath. Then they chuckle a bit at my presumption. “Really, yoga and food, can transform someone’s life?” And with a shake of their head, they want to know, “But can you get rich doing that?”
Years ago I made a conscious decision to do what I love in life, to do work that fulfills my spirit and brings me into harmony with others. In these difficult times when jobs are being lost and corporations control their employees with insecurity and fear, let us consider what it means to work for right livelihood.
People often fail in their careers because they have been trying to live out someone else’s idea of what a life’s work should be. They go through the day feeling miserable in their job, unable to give 100 percent to the work and their co-workers, seeing their future mapped out before them in one long agonizing stretch of time. Joseph Campbell once said that if you can see your life laid out for you, then you know it’s not your life.
Right livelihood is one of the eight noble paths—the attitudes and actions the Buddha laid out as forming the core of a spiritual practice. Right livelihood means that one must work in an occupation that benefits others and harms no one. Easier said than done for many individuals. When people are forced to work in conditions that are harmful to their health or to the environment because they need that paycheck, what is the alternative?
The Dalai Lama, when asked a similar question, responded that, “It may be necessary to fight against injustice outwardly, but at the same time we have to cope inwardly, with ways to train our minds to remain calm and not develop frustration, hatred, or despair. That’s the only solution.” Employing what he calls “analytical meditation,” the Dalai Lama instructs us to reflect deeply and at length on alternative ways of viewing our situations. Then we can take the appropriate action.
We tend to lock ourselves into thinking that there is only one way, and even if that way is destroying our health, we think we must stay with the job and do nothing. Take, for example, farm workers subjected to pesticide poisoning, or the carcinogenic chemicals that workers inhale in a number of industry jobs. We find ourselves in a paradox: Without employment we cannot pay the bills; without our health, we cannot work. This lesson extends well beyond an individual’s personal job concerns to a nation that needs to take compassionate action toward providing safe working conditions for all its citizens and for the environment in which we all live.
The job you do each day, the career you embark upon for the next stage of your life, the calling you answer to fulfill your destiny are all paths you follow to learn your lessons as a spiritual being. Using what you have come to know about yourself from the quiet observance of your thoughts, consider whether the work you do has a heart big enough to bring you joy and happiness, large enough to teach you how to become more compassionate and loving, and strong enough to support your day-to-day struggles in the workplace.