During this shelter in place period, many of us have a lot of time on our hands. What a perfect opportunity to look more closely at the choices we make in our lives! We can look at whether we have fallen into habitual patterns in our income production, purchases, activities and investments. All of this falls into the aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path called “Wise Livelihood”. Maybe we had the intention to change things up, but we keep forgetting to do so. Maybe we have gotten a little sloppy, relying on shorthand answers to complex questions, making decisions based on faulty reasoning or outdated information.
Many of us are under the illusion that our choices don’t matter. They do! Every choice we make has a ricochet effect or a ripple effect. During the current pandemic, we have a good example of the ripple effect: If you wear a mask when you go outside, you set in motion a ripple — a.k.a. behavioral contagion — that others will likely follow. If you don’t wear one, your sending out the message that it’s not necessary. Never underestimate your power to influence others without saying a thing. It’s a dangerous assumption.
Another way we can get stuck in making unwise choices is believing that our long held opinions and judgments define us, so they seem etched in stone and enshrined. It may feel like a failure to revisit earlier decisions.
When we see thoughts, beliefs, judgments and opinions as the fundamental building blocks of our unique being, it can feel threatening to even question them, let alone let them shift and change in response to new information. But they are not who we are! They are simply patterns of neural activity that have accrued like dust bunnies unquestioned over a lifetime. You don’t have to get out the vacuum, but developing mindfulness allows us to see these patterns more clearly. Cultivating compassion helps us to look at them without turning away. (Reading labels on foodstuff is a healthy habit, but applying labels to ourselves is an unhealthy one.) And cultivating wisdom allows us to recognize their true nature — amorphous, free-floating, and not who we are.
When we recognize that, we are free to make wise choices in our lives, choices rooted in clarity and kindness. The other day I was buying produce, and I found myself choosing organic for anything I would be eating with the skin on — tomatoes, berries, celery, etc.– and non-organic for things I would be peeling anyway. Then I realized that I was operating out of fear of financial scarcity instead of compassion. I was choosing organic when it was ‘worth it’ for my health, but I wasn’t considering the health of the farmworkers who had to pick the crops. (This is not the first time I have had that realization! But I forgot it. That’s why revisiting our choices is an ongoing activity. Fortunately, the Buddha’s Eightfold Path is a constant guide we can turn to for clarity and compassion; it’s not a once-over exploration and then forget about it. It’s a lifelong companion for living with wisdom, ease, equanimity, compassion and joy.)
When we shift to operating out of compassion rather than fear, we are better able to meet all challenges in our lives. We can save for retirement out of compassion for our future self. Ditto obtaining health insurance, preparing for emergencies, etc. Switching our motivation from fear to compassion helps us be more skillful in all ways.
We may work at jobs that negatively impact life, not considering the harm we are doing to ourselves and others. We might notice how easy it is to ignore such considerations, to have a ‘go along to get along’ mentality. I worked in advertising, and while it was a fun creative job, I began to see how the psychology of fear was at the root of every campaign, even for worthwhile products. I quit when I became physically ill, probably from living at odds with my inner wisdom.
Wise Livelihood asks us to not turn away from seeing the impact of our choices. It may feel exhausting to have to make different choices, but it’s exhausting to have to defend to ourselves choices we’ve made. We might decide it’s easier to ignore the guidance of our inner moral compass. But to do so may involve other unskillful choices — addictions, deceptions and delusions — that lead to more misery.
Can we awaken fresh in each moment to make wise choices? Can we make the best use of this shelter in place period to question our choices in the marketplace and the impact they make on all beings? Yes we can!