As the new year begins and many of us take stock of our lives, chances are that questions about work and career are front and center in our thoughts. After all, most of us spend more than half of our waking hours at work, and our jobs deeply influence every other aspect of our lives: the time we spend with family and friends, the material security and comforts we enjoy, the education we can provide for our children, the places we travel to, the people we know. Indeed, many of us take our careers so seriously that we identify ourselves by what we do at work.
Even though we consider our work so important, numerous studies have shown that millions of Americans experience some degree of job dissatisfaction. In fact, judging by the popularity of books like Toxic Success, Zen and the Art of Making a Living, and The Soul of Business, our culture seems to be preoccupied with the quality and meaning of work these days. As corporations continue to downsize while ratcheting up demands on their employees, more and more people face a stressful blend of deadline pressures and job insecurity that undermines their enjoyment of work and leaves them wondering whether they should search for a more fulfilling way to spend their days.
No matter what your circumstances are, you may find that your work doesn’t quite live up to your expectations, much less your dreams. Perhaps you don’t get to engage your creative talents or your altruistic impulses, or you find your coworkers aggressive and unfriendly. Or perhaps you simply don’t enjoy your job and you’re not sure why. Even if you’re an entrepreneur, determining your own work and setting your own hours, perhaps you wish you had more power to make a difference in the world.
If you practice yoga or meditation, you may also long to apply the principles you learn on the mat and cushion to making a living. That desire can lead you to pose difficult questions: How can you earn enough money and engage in work you enjoy without sacrificing your peace of mind, health, or spiritual values? How can you contribute your unique talents and gifts to the progress of the planet without damaging the environment or harming others? Can you be in the world but not of it, avoiding participation in the endless cycle of speed and greed that increasingly marks our culture?
If you’ve pondered these questions, you’re exploring what has come to be known as right livelihood.Though the term derives from the Buddhist tradition, right livelihood has evolved to refer more broadly to any meaningful, fulfilling work that makes a positive contribution to the world and expresses a compassionate or sacred intent. For some people, right livelihood takes the form of a career devoted to social change, ethical business practices, and environmental sustainability. For others, it emerges as creative, innovative work that directly expresses their deepest aspirations, passions, and talents. For many of us, it might simply involve doing what we can, at the jobs we currently have, to add to the world’s collective store of peace, love, happiness, and material well-being.
Whatever the form our own practice of right livelihood takes, most of us agree that it’s a process or trajectory rather than a destination, defined as much by our attitude and intention as by the actual activities we engage in.
Can This Job Be Saved?
Jennifer was a 32-year-old sales manager and soon-to-be vice president at a pharmaceutical company when she confronted many of the issues that lie at the heart of right livelihood. Jennifer had deferred finding a life partner and having children until she had achieved the material success she’d been taught she deserved. Now that she owned her own home in the suburbs and was earning a six-figure income, she sought my help in counseling because she found herself asking some tough and unsettling questions. (Her name and some details have been changed to honor her privacy.)
Jennifer definitely enjoyed her work—the contact with clients, the relationships with her boss and coworkers, the frequent travel. But as she pursued her passion for yoga and began to explore a healthy, spiritual lifestyle, she found cause to wonder whether her company was doing more harm than good. Her involvement with alternative healing had led her to question whether the benefits of the drugs she was paid to enthusiastically endorse truly outweighed their risks. And repeated news revelations of corporate malfeasance in the pharmaceutical industry prompted her to challenge the ethics of her own company’s policies, including aggressive marketing that attempted to sell drugs to people who might not even need them.
Jennifer was in a quandary. After nearly a decade spent building her career, she had begun to doubt the fundamental principles and practices of the industry in which she worked. And as she took stock of her life, she realized that being a sales manager gave her scant opportunity to express her more creative and spiritual sides. “What should I do now?” she kept asking. “Do I need to leave my job and pursue an entirely different line of work? Or should I stay where I am, do the inner work necessary to bring a different attitude to the work I already do, and express my creativity somewhere else?”
If you find Jennifer’s dilemma familiar, you’re not alone. Of course, the answers you’ll find depend on your life circumstances—and on the approach to right livelihood that resonates most with you. In recent years, three main views of what constitutes meaningful, sacred work have gained widespread popularity. First, teachers of Buddhism enjoin us to do no harm and, if possible, do good for others. Second, best-selling authors of personal growth books, who can trace their intellectual lineage to the Christian tradition of “finding your calling,” encourage us to “do what we love” and trust that the universe will support us in our efforts. And third, there are many religious traditions that teach that we can transform any activity into sacred work by the power of our presence, devotion, and intention.
As it turns out, Jennifer resolved her dilemma by drawing from each of these different but compatible approaches. After acknowledging that she couldn’t continue to work for a drug company yet was unwilling to give up her material comforts, she transitioned to a new career as a mortgage broker in an upscale suburb. Though this new career wasn’t in accord with some of Jennifer’s loftiest spiritual principles, it eased her troubled conscience and enabled her to make a meaningful contribution to people’s lives, while freeing up time for her to pursue her burgeoning interest in yoga.
Like Jennifer, each of us must find our own right livelihood by following our hearts while facing the reality of our unique situations. In this quest, examining the three main approaches to right livelihood can help us clarify a personal path toward a work life that better reflects our deepest values and sense of purpose.
As taught by the Buddha and his followers, the basic concept of right livelihood is simple: Do no harm. “If you don’t abuse or exploit people or the environment and don’t increase greed, hatred, and delusion, you’re practicing right livelihood,” explains Anna Douglas, a founding teacher at Spirit Rock Insight Meditation Center in Woodacre, California.
Longtime mindfulness practitioner Claude Whitmyer, an organizational consultant and editor of the book Mindfulness and Meaningful Work (Parallax, 1994), adds that right livelihood must also involve the other seven aspects of the noble eightfold path: right speech, right action, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, right views, and right intention. In other words, work that can truly support our spiritual unfolding must allow us to follow basic ethical guidelines, such as telling the truth and refraining from killing and stealing. In addition, such work should be performed mindfully, arise from the compassion and peace cultivated through contemplation, and acknowledge the fundamental Buddhist teaching of the interconnectedness of all beings. This is quite a challenging task for most of us, who may be struggling just to pay the bills.
But these fundamental guidelines have much to offer Western Buddhists, yoga practitioners, and others in search of a more socially conscious, spiritually based attitude toward work and career. In particular, the teaching of the essential interconnectedness of all beings, which implies that every action we take has untold consequences, has been interpreted to mean that right livelihood must be keenly attuned to the resources we draw upon and the impact we make on other people and the environment. If humans are going to survive on this planet beyond the next few generations, the teaching indicates, we must live sustainably—that is, in such a way that we replenish what we use and give back as much as we take. As the Native American tradition puts it, we must be aware of the effect of our actions on the next seven generations.
What Would the Buddha Do?
But right livelihood informed by such a refined sensibility often turns out to be easier to imagine than to implement, as Patrick Clark and Linsi Deyo discovered. Longtime Buddhists, the couple thought they’d found a perfect solution to right livelihood when they established Carolina Morning Designs, a firm that manufactures and sells meditation cushions. But the couple’s spiritual idealism and their aversion to the competitiveness of the marketplace initially prevented them from engaging in the business practices necessary to produce and promote their zafus successfully. “We were naive and idealistic at first,” Clark admits. “Our survival depended on gaining new customers, but we didn’t want to compete against other companies who were also trying to do good.”
At the same time, they faced difficult choices that challenged their commitment to environmental sustainability. “Cotton is one of the most harmful crops in terms of depleting the environment and using the most herbicides and pesticides,” Clark says. “But most people, even meditators, are unwilling to pay the extra cost for an organic zafu. We had to shift our attitude and learn to live with the economic realities. It’s idiot compassion to believe that you can completely avoid doing any harm. And even Buddhists need to meet their basic needs.”
As Clark and Deyo quickly learned, practicing right livelihood in the purest Buddhist sense can be difficult, perhaps impossible, given the extraordinary complexity of our political economy. At the time the Buddha was developing his teachings, many of his disciples were monks and nuns who depended on alms. And since many lay followers raised their own food and made their own clothes, they could mostly avoid doing harm, because they were able to observe the consequences of their actions directly. Today, however, every act has countless hidden ramifications. “The problem,” Whitmyer says, “is that every occupation requires us to sometimes do things that compromise our spiritual values—for example, using nonrenewable natural resources or not telling the whole truth. We can only do our best given the circumstances at hand.”
Buddhist teacher and social activist Joanna Macy, coauthor of World As Lover, World As Self (Parallax, 1991), agrees. “Right livelihood is far more complex now than it was in the time of the Buddha, because we find ourselves in economic and ecological relationships that are simply unsustainable in the long term,” she explains. “To the degree that we participate in these relationships, we inevitably cause harm in some way through our work.” That doesn’t mean we need to relinquish our efforts, but it often means we may need to adjust our idealism and our own expectations. “In such an imperfect world,” Macy says, “the closest we can come to right livelihood may be to hold the right intention and do our best. In this sense, right livelihood may simply mean keeping your eyes and ears open to the sources you use and the effects of what you do, and responding to what you learn as much as you can.” In other words, perhaps the best we can manage is “good enough” livelihood.
Finding Your Calling
Although buzzwords like interdependence and sustainability appeal to our sense of social and ethical responsibility, they aren’t the primary motivation for everyone who yearns for right livelihood. Many of us are more concerned with finding work that lights our hearts, ignites our passions, and keeps our juices flowing day after day. Fed up with a deadening 9-to-5 (or 8-to-7) grind, we’re searching for a career that gives expression to our deepest interests, talents, and dreams—creative “soul work” that lends our life meaning and purpose. While bowing respectfully to the Buddhist injunction not to cause harm, we may be more attuned to mantras like Joseph Campbell’s “Follow your bliss,” Carlos Castaneda’s “Choose a path that has heart for you,” and Marsha Sinetar’s “Do what you love, the money will follow.”
“Everyone is a unique being on this earth with unique gifts to share,” says Michael Toms, coauthor with his wife, Justine Wills Toms, of True Work (Bell Tower, 1998). “To the extent that we contribute our gifts, the universe supports us. Finding our true work involves following our inner voice, heeding the spiritual call, and living our passions.”
Toms knows something about this—he is the founding president of New Dimensions Broadcasting Network, a nonprofit foundation that produces a weekly radio program about personal and social transformation. “It’s important to give our passions priority,” he says. “If we can’t do it in our work, we can begin outside the workplace, and it will gradually grow. Sometimes a passion leads to income-producing activity, sometimes not. Often it may be necessary to subsidize your passion, as we did for years with New Dimensions.”
“Meaningful work involves bringing your own unique talents and gifts to the task of serving the world,” agrees career counselor Sue Frederick, who teaches at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “The quickest way to get people in touch with such work is to encourage them to share their dreams—the secret dreams inside their hearts. People just light up when they talk about the work that is or would be meaningful for them.”
Beneath the sanguine approach to right livelihood that the Toms and Frederick espouse lies a confidence that our deeper passions, interests, and urges naturally guide us to make a unique contribution that sets our own hearts singing and benefits others as well. Or in other words, deeply aligning with our individual creative impulses brings us into alignment with the needs of the whole.
But the “follow your bliss” approach raises some thorny questions. Isn’t a real estate developer who destroys environmentally sensitive habitats to build new golf courses and expensive condo complexes following her passions? Doesn’t Osama bin Laden heed the call of his inner voice when he organizes and launches terrorist attacks? How can we know, in other words, whether our deepest calling will truly benefit others? Don’t we need other guidelines, such as the yamas (restraints) and niyamas (prescribed observances) of yoga, the ethical precepts of Buddhism, or the injunctions of the Ten Commandments?
“The ‘do what you love and the money will follow’ approach can be based on ignorance,” Macy says. “The work that we love and the money we earn may have some pretty nefarious sources and consequences. You can be an awakened, conscious person in service of an unconscious system. Unless you are attuned to the consequences of what you do, you are not practicing right livelihood, no matter how much you love the work.”
Whitmyer concurs that the “follow your bliss” model of right livelihood requires careful calibration. “Do what you love and the money will follow—if you’re doing the right thing,” he says. “But you need to explore ‘love’ and ‘right’ in great depth to fully understand this saying. The exploration begins in the center of your being, with a conscious effort to improve your mental, emotional, and physical health. You need to cultivate a level of awareness that allows you to notice your emotions and become less reactive, and you need to hang out with people who are similarly conscious and aware.
“The challenge in the ‘do what you love’ approach is to access a deeper level of being, beyond the ego,” he continues. “When we drop into the center of our being and let the ego rest, what we really want is identical with what’s wanted. But unless we do that, the ego’s in charge.”
Want What You Have
The third primary tributary in contemporary ideas about right livelihood is one that flows against our mainstream culture of materialism and individualism. In our country’s growth-obsessed social climate, we tend to promote a view perhaps unique to the United States: that each of us has not only the capacity and the opportunity but also the obligation to do and become whatever we set our hearts on. We forget that we may have limited control over our career trajectories due to the constraints of money, resources, energy, health, familial support, and social status. Instead, we are taught to believe that we should be the masters of our fates, and we’re encouraged to feel guilty, restless, inadequate, and dissatisfied if we don’t succeed in living up to our most ambitious expectations.
In contrast, the Indian culture that gave rise to the wisdom teachings of Buddhism and yoga generally embraced the idea that each person is destined to fulfill a particular role, or dharma, in life. From this perspective, our job is not to maximize our potential or shop around for work that’s personally fulfilling, but to create right livelihood out of the work we’ve already been given—by dedicating ourselves to it, mindfully and wholeheartedly, for the sake of God and the greater good.
As the Buddha taught, the secret to happiness is to want what we already have instead of wanting what we don’t have. In keeping with that teaching, any truly dharmic approach to right livelihood will help us find both peace and fulfillment in whatever job situation we currently face. Indeed, the Buddhist literature is replete with stories of people who used the power of their intentions to make sacred their work as butchers, street sweepers, prostitutes, tavern keepers, and other seemingly undesirable, and even unsavory, occupations.
Perhaps the most exalted expression of this traditional approach to right livelihood comes to us from the Bhagavad Gita, one of the seminal scriptures of Hinduism and a bible for the practice of both karma yoga (selfless service) and bhakti yoga (devotional yoga). In the Gita, Lord Krishna, an avatar of the god Vishnu, expounds the view that only action performed as worship of the Divine, without any attachment to the results, brings lasting fulfillment.
Responding to Arjuna, a warrior who agonizes over whether to fulfill his duty even though it means he will end up killing his own relatives, Krishna teaches that “those who perform their duty with no concern for the results are the true yogis—not those who refrain from action. Right action requires that you renounce your own selfish will and act without attachment to objects or actions.”
Of course, most of us in this day and age have a great deal more social mobility and choice than the men and women of ancient India did—and thus we have more freedom to consider our ethical concerns and personal passions as we seek right livelihood. But all of us can benefit from an approach to work that incorporates Krishna’s advice.
The path of selfless action that Krishna recommends can transform any activity into spiritual practice; it serves as a blueprint for a truly yogic approach to right livelihood. When we view our work as an opportunity to stop clinging to a personal sense of what we need, want, or deserve—surrendering our limited ideas of what needs to be done to the mystery of the Divine as it unfolds—we’re cultivating the attitude that the Christian mystics describe as “Not my will but Thine be done, O Lord.”
For those committed to finding lasting fulfillment amidst the many demands of work and career, perhaps only such wholehearted surrender will ultimately suffice.
In the final analysis, what makes our livelihood “right” may not be the nature of the work or the consequences of our actions—although these factors certainly do have some importance—but the qualities of heart and mind that we bring to it. When we are joyfully immersed in our labors—at one with the flow of the moment, seeking to be of service yet unattached to the outcome—the separation between inside and outside, self and other, work and play dissolves, and even the most difficult, distasteful job becomes sacred work.
Former YJ editor-in-chief Stephan Bodian is a Zen teacher, licensed psychotherapist, and spiritual consultant. He’s the author of several books, including Meditation for Dummies and Buddhism for Dummies (with Jon Landaw). Visit www.stephanbodian.org for more information.