As 18-35 year olds, Right Livelihood is an especially important practice. We’re at a time when we are beginning careers, developing passions, and finding our way in the world of professionalism. It is also a time when the work place is vastly different from the one that employed previous generations. Today’s professional jobs are highly specialized, requiring an extremely focused area of education. At the same time, the economy changes so rapidly that some jobs become obsolete, making our education irrelevant. Technology, coupled with the age of recession, has made entry level jobs hard to come by. As a result, the work force has shrunk at an alarming rate creating the modern phenomenon of a generation of baristas with Master’s degrees. In addition, union membership has been decimated giving employers more leverage over their employees, while workers are forced to make difficult compromises. Working today provides lower wages, fewer benefits, diminished security, and dwindling hope for an improved quality of life. With so few options and so little power in the work place, practicing Right Livelihood may seem like a luxury enjoyed by a lucky few.
I was recently invited to speak on a panel at a mindfulness meditation retreat for young adults. The topics given to the presenters to select from were Right Livelihood, True Love, and Beginning Anew. Of those three topics, Right Livelihood was not my first choice. My reluctance was not due to being unsure of what I wanted to say; no, the trepidation was because I was afraid what I wanted to say might be controversial. Fortunately, I’ve since given the talk and received positive feedback. Whew! So, I’ve decided to transcribe some of my remarks for a blog post.
But first, a little history regarding my work experience. I got my first job in high school at Taco Bell. My dad and I had been fighting for months because he wanted me to work, while I wanted to spend all my time doing what I loved, which was rollerblading at the time. It wasn’t a terrible job for a high-schooler. Though I was sometimes humiliated by customers and supervisors, I got to goof off with my friends who worked there and I made enough money to move out my senior year. I stayed in that job for a few months after I graduated and started taking classes at a community college.
The next summer, I was hired by friend as a Job Site Manager for a company that employed college kids to paint peoples’ houses. I liked this job a lot. As the Job Site Manager, my responsibility was to budget each project and set a schedule for completing it on time. In this way, I learned to develop some leadership qualities, and my crew become the most productive and highest earning on the West Coast. I also enjoyed working outside with a small close-knit group of people while climbing all over peoples’ houses in beautiful neighborhoods while meditatively painting every inch until it was bright and even. The only draw backs were snooty homeowners and wasps.
Alas, painting was only a seasonal job. When the summer was over, I resumed classes at the community college and began working at a saw mill producing the cross arms you see at the top of telephone poles. Clearly, I had begun to nurture a fantasy for a romantic version of manual labor, working class type jobs undoubtedly connected to masculine insecurities (see other blog posts). As it always does, however, fantasy clashed with reality, and demands of an extremely physical swing shift were too much for my body and mind to sustain in the midst of a full-time coarse load. I left that job after 10 months.
The next summer, I found myself in Alaska working on a commercial fishing boat pulling wild caught salmon out of the bay. While this too was a physically demanding job, the tranquility of the frontier provided enough rest and peace of mind to enjoy the work. When fishing season was over, I went back home and worked six months on an assembly line manufacturing luxury motorhomes; I didn’t return to college either. It was at this job that questions about my life’s direction began to arise, and I soon found myself dissatisfied with being merely a gear in our society’s production, consumption, waste, repeat machine. I was fired for too many absences and late arrivals. This was followed by a long period of unemployment – a time of my life characterized by depression, shame, and apathy. I consider it my lowest point fueled by thoughts that I was wasting my life, that I had no purpose, that I was a failure. Non-coincidentally, it was also the time that I found the Dharma.
Finally, I had some tools that helped me to look deeply within myself, identify my core values, and cultivate the energy to follow them. I took a job as a caregiver, finished my studies at the community college, transferred to the University of Oregon, and earned a degree in Family and Human Services. Since then, I’ve been serving people experiencing homelessness, addiction, crisis, oppression, and disability.
As a lay person, Right Livelihood has been a central component to my practice of the Buddha’s teaching. But, the job market is much, much different than the job market of the Buddha’s time. Still, the Buddha’s advice can be helpful in our quest to find fulfillment in our work. From what I’ve read, the Buddha basically described Right Livelihood as abstaining from a few professions that were harmful to living beings: namely selling weapons, slaughtering animals, serving intoxicants, fortune telling (or taking advantage of peoples’ superstitions), and making profit from profit (anyone else mad at bankers right now?).
Though the job market is immensely more complex, and our decisions confoundedly more complicated, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the Buddha’s advice in choosing work that is minimally harmful. Already, we can take great satisfaction from knowing that we are contributing to a healthy planet and population. But, to understand a more complex system requires closer scrutiny. If we want our livelihood to be an aspect of our spiritual lives, as we should if we are serious about waking up, we have to look a little deeper. One of the best ways to do that is to come to Deer Park. At Deer Park, we practice Right Livelihood every time we have a working meditation. Working meditation is an opportunity to transform our relationship to work. From a results driven effort, we reorient our energy to emphasize process, taking time to delight in life, cultivate awareness of our actions, and express gratitude for the gifts given to us and the opportunity to give in return.
To begin our practice, we find it beneficial to concentrate on simple tasks like sweeping the floor, scrubbing the toilets, or washing pots. These simple tasks help us to practice bringing our minds to our bodies and dwelling in the present moment as we work. During my talk on the panel, I asked the audience to share what they enjoyed about working meditation. That it felt egalitarian; that we could take pride in our work; that we could be of service and have gratitude for other’s service; and that it balanced work, play, and rest were among the things mentioned. Then I asked, “By show of hands, who would be satisfied with a career in washing dishes?” No one raised their hand. “Isn’t that interesting?”
I think I have an explanation for this, and here comes the controversial part. If you spend any time on social media, you’re bound to come across a certain kind of meme. It usually looks something like this: A person is standing on a mountain top with their arms spread wide as, underneath, clouds stretch to the horizon like a sea of cotton. At the bottom of the image are the words, “Only you can follow your dreams.” Or this one: An attractive young woman is crouched on her knees between rows of luscious green crops, and in her hand she cups a mound of dark, rich earth with a tiny bud of a plant sprouting out. This image says, “If you do what you love, you never work a day in your life.” Kind of makes scrubbing toilets seem pretty crappy, right? (Pun intended).
Nothing against farming – I think farming is fantastic, and I’d probably love to be farmer – but, I think that is really bad advice. I’ve been seeing these kinds of images all my life; they were posted on the walls at my elementary school. As a result, I’ve grown up with the idea that I’m failing at life if I’m not completely passionate about my work, if I’m not doing something exciting and exotic. Recently, however, I’ve begun to wonder if I wouldn’t be more satisfied with my work if I had internalized these messages.
This attitude towards work is unique to our generation, at least in its depth and unquestioned devotion. We rarely ask, "Since when is work the meaning of life?” “Why do I expect work to be my source of fulfillment? “Why can’t I pursue my passions elsewhere?” Work wasn’t so complicated in previous generations – so heavy with existential crisis. People did what they had to to get by and found satisfaction in life through art, music, hobbies, and spiritual community. And, maybe a few wise ones took pride in a job well done. Now that I think about it, I don’t think the janitor in my school was particularly passionate about his job, but I’m really glad he was there.But today, if I go see a counselor for career guidance, the advice I’m like to receive will orbit somewhere around the black hole of “do what you love”.
My dad would say that is backwards. His advice would be “love what you do.” My dad was a welder and construction worker when I was growing. He nurtured a hobby in computers until he trained and educated himself enough to get a job in IT. Now, he manages the networks and computer systems for a pizza chain that has locations all throughout the North West. Though he gets paid more, has better benefits, and more job security, he doesn’t particularly enjoy his job; I’m afraid he doesn’t really enjoy computers anymore either. So, are you sure that once you get that exciting dream job you’ll be happy? Loving what you do is Right Livelihood because it removes the preoccupation with a fantasy for the future and places happiness right in the present moment. Be careful, though, with the word “love.” Here, I don’t mean the kind of love had for something that brings pleasure. I mean the kind of love for something cared for and nurtured. When I love my work in that way, I invest myself one hundred percent. I find satisfaction not in what I do but in how I do it, and I look for ways to keep it fresh and relevant.
This brings me to another teaching on Right Livelihood my dad gave me. I remember one time, when I was a kid, I went to my dad and said, “Dad, I’m bored.” He replied, “Do you want to clean the garage?” “No.” “Do you want to mow the law?” “No.” He said, “Then, you’re not bored; you’re lazy.” He didn’t mean lazy like we do at Deer Park when we recognize a need for rest and cultivate a practice of solitude. He meant a lack of spark, initiative, curiosity, vigor, and love of life. “Now, go mow the lawn, but before you do, you’ll have to fix the mower because it won’t start.” Today, I consider my dad a Zen master and, even though I took that lesson to heart, I never told him I was bored again. Now, when I feel uninspired by my work, I ask myself, “Am I really bored or just lazy?” If I want to be lazy, that’s fine. But I commit to it, enjoy it, and don’t complain.
Speaking of Zen masters, there is a story about one who taught his disciples about Right Livelihood. This master was old, and his students were worried that cultivating the crops they ate was becoming too hard on him. They knew he would refuse to rest if they asked him, so they hid all his garden tools, keeping him from working. For three days, until the students gave the tools back, the master refused to eat. Once they finally returned the shovels and hoes, the master gave them a simple teaching. “No work, no food.” No mud, no lotus.
The next part of my talk on the panel, I prefaced with a caution about another break from orthodoxy. Members of a meditation community can easily become accustomed to framing things in terms of happiness and suffering. After all, it was with happiness and suffering that the Buddha framed the Four Noble Truths. I think this can be a bit dramatic. Most of the time, what we’re really talking about, are things we like and things we don’t like – our attachments and our aversions. This particular panel was presented during a retreat titled, “Be Free Where You Are.” Earlier in the week, Sister Mai Nghiem, during a dharma talked asked us, “When do you feel the most free.” I feel the most free when I can let go of what I like and embrace what I don’t – when my attachments and aversions can no longer pull and push me around. What better time to practice that than at work?
Life really is work, isn’t it? My work isn’t finished at the end of my shift. I go home to do laundry, prepare meals, wash dishes, file forms, and on and on. There are always tasks to be done. If life is work, then work is life; that’s why it’s called “Livelihood.” Right Livelihood (“Right” as in the correct way to bring about satisfaction and contentment) is about living with this insight. It includes so much more than the job I have. It’s about the spirit I infuse into each of my daily actions. When I wash the dishes, do I use as little water as possible? Do I wait for the spider to cross my path before I continue sweeping the floor? What is the most beautiful and efficient way to format this spread sheet? Do I double check the results of my data so others won’t have to correct my mistakes? Do I treat every customer or client with respect and hospitality? If I work with the same kind of mindfulness and reverence as I enjoy when I dump the compost or scrub the pots at Deer Park, then I move steadily toward fulfillment and satisfaction at my job. At the same time, I find new and fresh ways to reduce harm and contribute to a happy and healthy society.
At this point in my talk, I could sense the audience getting squirmy. Their shifting postures gave away that they were getting nervous I might be talking about discipline. So, let me type it in black and white: Yes, I’m talking about discipline. We don’t like discipline – for good reasons too. Many of us have suffered trauma from being disciplined by some authority, parental or institutional. Besides, who actually enjoys inhibiting their impulse towards pleasure and instant gratification? Add to that the fact that, in meditation, we practice to be gentle and kind to ourselves, and “discipline” becomes an almost naughty word. In my talk, I hoped to remove the perception of a negative correlation between work and happiness; I hope to do the same with discipline. Indeed, discipline is essential to happiness.
Much of meditation practice is about cultivating self-love, holding ourselves with unconditional positive regard, nurturing our bodies and minds with proper nutrition and kind thoughts. Yes, this often entails cutting ourselves some slack when we come up short, giving ourselves an excuse to rest when there is work to be done, and indulging in some “non-productive” joy. But, there is another element in self-love that, unfortunately, doesn’t get discussed enough. For that topic, we return once again to my dad, the Zen master.
This lesson comes from another episode of my growing pains. I can’t remember what exactly I had done, but whatever it was I had acted with carelessness, or inconsideration, or laziness; and, my dad was disappointed. Though the true meaning of his words took quite a few years to sink in, now that they have, I’ll remember them forever. He said, “I expect the best from you because I love you.”
“I expect the best from you because I love you.”
Because my dad loved me, he recognized my potential. He saw that I had something to offer others, and he considered his job to be helping me see it for myself and to hold me accountable to my responsibility to be the best person I could be. It is the same when we love ourselves. With a deep practice of self-love, I honor my potential; I take pride in my contribution to the environment I inhabit; and, I don’t sell myself short. Sometimes I have to practice self-love by mustering up the motivation to do something I don’t really want to. Sometimes, I have to make the best of an imperfect situation. Sometimes I have to look deeply to see the wondrous dimension of seemingly mundane tasks. I do this because my dignity, self-esteem and spiritual development are worth it. I do it because I love life and practice to show gratitude in my actions and attitude.
Right Livelihood, the Buddha said, is about non-harming. In our hectic, complicated, and interconnected workplaces, harming happens in extremely subtle ways. To observe and transform them takes a dedicated mindfulness practice. Working without mindfulness, attention, and love constitutes an act of neglect, and the outcome of neglect is always harm – whether to ourselves, the people we are working with, or the environments we are working in. Whatever job I have, caring makes a difference. Love transforms work immediately. My presence helps me to see the value in even the lowliest of jobs, inspires the aspiration to serve the planet and its people, and opens up a whole world of satisfaction beyond work. I started my meditation on this topic (before having to speak on the panel) with the question, “What is Right Livelihood?” As I explore more, I’m realizing the proper questions to ask is, “How is Right Livelihood?” So far, the best answer I have is, “If it’s with love, it’s Right Livelihood.”