For the past eight weeks we have been exploring the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. Now we look at Wise Livelihood. This is not only our work but our interaction in the marketplace: How we invest our money, where we choose to purchase things, and how we interact in these exchanges. With a growing sense of being not just interconnected but actually one seemingly infinite energetic and organic being, we begin to see how what we do affects this wondrous web of life. We’re not locked up in a limited view that believes it’s possible to ‘win’ while ‘others’ lose.
When you are making your living in a way that isn’t aligned with your truest intention, you can feel it in your body — the tension, the anxiety, the out of kilter sensation. If you don’t heed this valuable sensory feedback and make a course correction, you will make an unskillful adjustment to compensate.
You might, for example, compartmentalize your work-life. But then where are you if for a good part of the time you are going unconscious? You end up living somewhere in the lapse between your truest self and this person who feels you must do this job. Your thoughts are full of justifications, self-blame, guilt and excuses for continuing on this course. You feel separate from what matters to you. Unethical living is painful. Persisting to live in this manner can lead to illness, addictions, depression, despair, falling out with those you love, and a general failure to thrive.
I know this from my own experience. I am a writer and writing is a good skill to have, but it can be put to many uses, not all of them wise. I was in advertising for a decade of my life. It was fun! I loved the creative challenges and the camaraderie. To the degree I was able I made sure my work was ethical, in that the clients I wrote copy for offered useful services. In the most traditional sense of Right Livelihood, there was nothing specifically wrong with my work. But at some level it felt wrong, and I didn’t feel I had the time to look at why. Instead I forged ahead, did what I had to do, and lost myself in the process.
Does any of this sound familiar at all? If you are employed, is your work aligned with your ethics? Or is there a quality of sacrificing ethics for the bottom line?
Beyond work, Wise Livelihood has us look at where our money is invested. Where are you purchasing your clothes, food and household goods? What is the impact of your choices in the marketplace? Are you mindful or oblivious in all these transactions? The world is so complex now that it is almost impossible for anyone to live in a manner that is impeccably ethical, even though most of our intentions are good. But to whatever degree you are willing and able, it is worth looking at your choices and seeing if they are aligned with your truest intention and your core values.
Years ago I received a small inheritance from my beloved grandmother, a tiny percentage of some mineral rights in the Texas Panhandle. Each time I got a $30 royalty check it felt like a loving gift from grandma. So I held onto the mineral rights for many years. My husband and I liked to joke that I was an oil heiress whenever the random check would arrive. It was all very sweet and innocuous. But at some level I was uncomfortable with profiting from the oil industry.
Protecting the environment is deeply aligned with my truest intention. I feel strongly that we can only solve all our human problems if we have a healthy planet to sustain us. While I have always felt this way, the increase in global warming really reminded me that I don’t want to be part of the problem. We switched to 100% Deep Green energy for our home. We leased an electric car to be our main transportation. And I sold my mineral rights. I no longer get little checks from grandma, but I have a sense of being true to myself. But I can’t be self-congratulatory, because I can look around and see that there are other areas where my interactions in the marketplace are not as aligned with my truest intention. It is an ongoing process. But I try to make it a loving exploration rather than a reason to beat myself up. That’s important. When I was younger I had such a strong sense of environmental guilt that I felt like I didn’t deserve to take up space on the planet. I don’t know where that came from, but fortunately I was able to recognize that I am of this planet, and while I need to be mindful of how easy it is to use up way more than my fair share of it, still I belong here. I don’t have to erase myself.
I had a conversation this morning with someone who had dreaded looking at Wise Livelihood because she felt that her work would not meet the requirements. She was relieved to discover that in the traditional sense, it did. But even so she is still not happy with her work, but that discomfort seemed more related to Wise Effort, or the lack thereof. Like many careers these days, she is expected to be in constant communication from the moment she wakes up in the morning, with IMs (instant messaging), email and phone calls with clients and staff. We discussed the possibility of making sure she does a regular practice of meditation each morning, even if only for ten minutes before launching into checking emails. And then to make her workday like a dance, being so fully present, so anchored in physical sensation, so much about creating spaciousness with compassion, that she could actually perform all the interactions as part of her practice. If this sounds like a tall order, it certainly is. But she is a practiced meditator, and if anyone can do it, she can. It will be an interesting experiment.
I have written an number of posts on Wise Livelihood, shared below. But I have also added a link to a Wikipedia definition of ‘Benefit Corporation’, a new way of incorporating a business so that all participants benefit, not just shareholders. This seems like such a skillful trend!
While I enjoyed the whole article, what makes me write is your expression of guilt, the feelings of not deserving to exist or take up space on the planet and your sense of not belonging. These are things I also experience and wonder how you came to peace with them? Was it a gradual process or did you consciously address them somehow?
Thanks for your comment and very thoughtprovoking question. I will have to think about how I came to peace with my feelings of environmental guilt, and whether I am at peace with them completely. And whether it is beneficial for any of us to be completely at peace in this regard!
But I will say that I do remember an aha! moment when I came home to the fact that this body is just as much a simple expression of life living itself as the body of any other creature. Yes, our creativity and industriousness in compensating for lacking many of the things many other creatures already have in varying degrees — warm fur, wings, gils, agility, strength, stamina, etc.– has in the past two centuries caused us to venture down a path that threatens the well being of all life. But that doesn’t mean that we are abhorent and destructive by nature. We just took a wrong turn and those of us that recognize this, which is fortunately now the majority of humans, are trying hard to self-correct that course. And I take great heart in the amazing accomplishments that our inherent ingenuity and love for all species and the earth itself has collectively created, alternative energy sources being the most obvious among them.
Guilt is useful if we let it lead us to self-inquiry and discover where on the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path we have veered away. If we can let guilt be a messenger, then act on the message, we can let go of the guilt. It has served its purpose. But when it comes to the environment, we are quite far from manifesting Wise Action in full, so the guilt may still be there, individually and collectively, encouraging us to do more.
I hope that answers your question. I so appreciate it! Thanks again. – Stephanie
Wow! Benefit Corporations! I have been wishing for something like this when speaking with clients, and now I have a real entity to point to. Thank you for mentioning it.
Isn’t that cool? I’m so glad you will be able to share it with your clients!
Thanks, as always, for the enlightening post, Stef. I, too, worked in advertising (on the Chevron account, no less) and found myself questioning the ethics of it all. Not having worked F/T for 12 years now, I know I have major blocks with right livelihood…trying to reinvent myself and do something that really matters to myself and wanting to help people, but finding myself falling back into the trap of what I’m good at (writing to sell product, media work, etc.). Lots to think about. Be well.