Category Archives: Right Livelihood

Wise cultivation sometimes calls for transplanting!

I was traveling this week so there was no class. Still wisdom teachings are everywhere if we are present to notice. Visiting family and friends, it’s been a joy to see so many examples of skillful cultivation. To protect their privacy, I won’t name them or claim our relationship, but over the course of a few days my husband and I spent time with:

  • A man in his early fifties, whose professional life has been exemplary and satisfying, but who over the past couple of years has found his work situation untenable due to changes that were beyond his control. He worked hard to shield his employees from the harsher environment but found that the situation was taking a toll on his own health. He also recognized that for most of his adult life he had been living it in the way he thought was expected of him. Now, with children raised and out of the house, he could assess what was working for him and what was not, and he found the strength to make changes. We have never seen him happier.

Buddhist teachings encourage us to see that causes and conditions are not the source of our happiness or unhappiness. Believing otherwise entangles us in cycles of desire and aversion. Through our mindful compassionate practice, we befriend whatever arises in our experience. But the teachings also encourage us to maintain healthy community and to steer clear of those who, for whatever reason, seem to thrive on toxicity. So, when we consistently greet our current situation with friendliness, when we do our best to collaboratively create a life-affirming communal experience, and yet at the end of each day we are miserable, the Buddhist answer is not to ‘put up and shut up’. We are fortunate to live at a time and in a place where we have choice and the power to change our circumstances. All that potential can feel overwhelming and often it’s better to practice being with what is. But not always.

In the last post we explored the ‘lay of the land’ of our lives with the question ‘What am I cultivating here?’ If we have been mindfully cultivating our metaphoric garden, yet nothing beneficial grows, then we may need to make some skillful adjustment. Recently my husband, the gardener in the family, noticed that the bougainvillea he planted last year was not looking healthy even though it was in a sunny spot with regular watering and feeding. With a little research he discovered that this plant wants to be completely dried out and then soaked, and it wants a different combination of nutrients. So he made adjustments, and is hopeful that it will flourish.

Just so, the people we visited on this trip have been noticing, researching and adjusting their lives.

  • A woman in her late thirties was so stressed out at work that she went to a nearby therapist, who assured her that she was not alone, that he could write a book on all the patients he saw who worked for her company. This made it clear to her that no matter how much she tried to adapt to her circumstances, it would still be an ongoing challenge because the company’s culture was set up that way. Knowing her, I’m sure she did her best to brighten the lives of her coworkers, but she wasn’t in a position to completely change the culture of the company. So, like any wise gardener, she decided to transplant. She found a different position where conditions are more attuned to her nature, and where she feels valued.

It’s important to note that in both these examples, neither person is in the habit of blaming external conditions for their own unhappiness. They are collaborative cultivators of creative solutions. Only after careful self-examination and a clear eye to all that was going on, did they come to the conclusion that external change in the form of a transplant needed to happen. Of course, we hope our initial seed was well planted.

  • A man in his early twenties is so passionate about what he is learning in his last semester of college, and the ways that he is applying it to the internships and part time jobs, that he is a creative inspiration to us all. His girlfriend is equally passionate about her chosen profession. Their enthusiasm is infectious and we all look forward to seeing what they do in their careers. They have put down strong roots in an area that has all the right conditions for them to thrive. The future looks bright!

But you don’t have to be an about-to-be college graduate to have a bright future.

  • Another woman in her early forties has been working for a decade at a job that leaves her drained at the end of every ten-hour day. Even so, she has managed to pursue her creative passion in her spare time with stunning results. But she couldn’t see how to transition smoothly into a career that makes the best use of all her natural talents and abilities. A transplant was needed. But just as a plant may need to be trimmed up to put energy in the roots, she has now rearranged her life to lower her expenses and create enough space to pursue what she loves and get paid to do it. She hasn’t chosen an easy path, but it is one that makes her wake up eager to work every day.

How do you know when it’s time to transplant? When you’re leaning so far over to get a little sunshine that you’re practically flat on the ground. When new leaves wilt before they have a chance to open. When you feel choked, stressed from the heavy competition of more aggressive plants. Transplanting is not running away from life. It’s getting a clearer view and making needed adjustments.

Of course, it would be great if transplanting wasn’t necessary. A well-planned garden takes into account the nature of the plants and all conditions. But life isn’t always like that. Okay, life is rarely like that. Maybe a little initial research would have revealed that a plant would eventually overshadow its neighbors, or that it has runners that make it invasive. In our lives we can choose our next move wisely, but there are often things that we couldn’t have known: companies get bought up and the climate no longer suits us. But instead of giving ourselves a hard time, complaining about the situation, or distracting ourselves with mindless entertainment and overindulgences to compensate ourselves for our misery, we instead wisely assess, research, do some inner inquiry and see what needs to happen. Then we make it so.

Jon Kabat Zinn’s book title ‘Wherever you go, there you are’ is a reminder that all the changes in the world will not correct a habitually unfriendly way of relating to the world. If we make a big life change, hoping it will solve all our problems but then neglect to put in the time to cultivate spacious ease and compassion within ourselves and in all our relationships, the results will be a disappointing repeat performance of our previous experience.

But in these examples, there was skillful cultivation, skillful inquiry, and skillful adjustments made. I am excited for them all, and I trust that they will bloom!

What does this bring up for you and your life? Comments welcome.

 

Is this any way to make a living?

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 parvatticalls 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!

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benefit_corporation

https://stephanienoble.com/2014/01/11/wise-livelihood/

https://stephanienoble.com/2011/05/01/spacious-livelihood/

https://stephanienoble.com/2009/04/08/eightfold-path-right-livelihood/

What seems good but causes trouble?

The answer? Hope.

the author as a childPeople often find it strange that Buddhist teachings advise against hope. It’s such a positive sounding word. But think of it this way: When I was little I stated proudly that I could swim with an inner tube. How adorable that a little girl thinks she’s swimming when the inner tube is holding her afloat.

Just like that inner tube, hope makes us think we’re managing in life. But we cling to hope because we have no faith in our ability to navigate life. It buffers us but it also hinders us. We can’t dive deep and explore life in a natural way, learning from our experiences. And it’s dangerous because while we rely on it heavily, it’s not all that reliable. At any moment it could spring a leak and whoosh! Then what?

That’s why Buddhist teachings advise us to abandon hope. It may sound scary, but ultimately it is life-affirming and empowering. We can live much more fully without it!

I am sure you can think of many examples where hope seems useful. You hope that a loved one gets well, for example. But how pale and ineffectual that expressed hope is compared to  the Buddhist practice of sending metta — infinite loving-kindness, with phrases like ‘May you be well’. This infinite loving kindness is not a far off dream but an almost palpable presence that permeates all being.*

When we rely on an inner tube instead of learning to swim, we are afraid of the water and know we are no match for it. Just so hope is an expression of fear. We fear the future so we hope things will get better. But here’s the thing about the future: It is in great part a product of whatever we are cultivating right now. If we are cultivating fear and anxiety, it’s useless to hope for anything different. When we actively cultivate spaciousness of mind, lovingkindness and compassion in this moment — and act accordingly — then we are creating a sustainable, even joyful future for ourselves and those around us. To the degree that we participate in the world by voting, volunteering, keeping ourselves informed, questioning our assumptions, speaking up when our words are truthful, kind and timely; and engaging in wise livelihood, that joyful quality of aliveness ripples out around the world. 

Hope is a helpless stance, a bystander’s point of view. But none of us are bystanders in this life. So abandon hope! And dive right in!

*If metta is not something that speaks to you, then just think of it as a way of really centering in and being present and loving.

Wise Livelihood

In the Buddha’s day, the role each person played in the marketplace — their occupation and where they put their money — was easy to gauge. Today our local employer and our local market both draw from and perhaps cater to complex and often hidden international market, and we provide each other with an amazing array of services unheard of 2500 years ago.


But we each have a moral compass within us, that when ignored causes a feeling of being off-kilter. This moral compass guides us quite admirably when we slow down and pay attention to it. It lets us know when we are causing pain by the way we make our living and by how we invest and spend our money, for example.


A fellow Toastmaster named Olga gave a speech last week that moved me, especially when she said that she had previously pursued a career that made her feel ‘I lost my North’. Fortunately she heeded her inner moral compass, and changed careers. She is now working in the public sector for the good of the community. She is not a Buddhist as far as I know, but that moral compass lives in her without ever having learned about Wise Livelihood. And it lives in each of us.


So the Buddha was not the source of all wisdom. That universal wisdom is accessible to each of us if we quiet down and pay attention. And that’s what the Buddha advised, and that’s what we continue to practice through meditation. But the Buddha also provided a wonderful and comprehensive structure for us to look at what otherwise might feel like a morass of moral complexity: The Eightfold Path. Wise Livelihood is one of those eight, and the final one we will explore.

Remember our Cooking Pot Analogy. 
Wise Livelihood, like Wise Speech and Wise Action arises naturally like steam out of the pot full of Wise Mindfulness, stirred by the spoon of Wise Concentration (practices such as meditation). The cooking pot itself is Wise View, wherein we see the dharma, the true nature of things such as the nature of impermanence and our inherent interconnection with all life (no separate self) and how we cause suffering. But the steam only arises if the flame under the pot is constant, sparked by the match of Wise Intention (to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation and to be compassionate with ourselves and all beings). The flame won’t be constant and the pot won’t stand without the logs burning under it being well laid and balanced, and that is Wise Effort — neither striving doggedly nor lazing and procrastinating.

When we find that our actions, words or livelihood do not seem very wise at all, we can look at our intention, our effort, our view, our degree of mindfulness, our meditation practice, to see why the wise ‘steam’ isn’t rising. It’s a very useful tool.

So here we are at Wise Livelihood. Since our sangha is mostly retired, or wisely employed, we will focus more on this investment/spending aspect of Wise Livelihood. (The Buddha’s list of unskillful career moves is at the end of this post.) Wise Livelihood is the overall impact of our engagement in the marketplace, not just what we do for a living. Why? Because money has the power to create jobs in one area or take them away in another, so the way we invest or spend affects the ways in which others make their living. We are not only concerned with our individual happiness, but with the happiness of all beings. This doesn’t mean we proselytize or tell others how to live or make their living, but it does mean that we try not to create unwise jobs through our marketplace demands.


Do you know your impact on the marketplace? Where your money is invested? Who is producing the goods you are buying? Under what conditions?


Bargain hunting is a valued activity by most of us who have had challenges in making ends meet. It is considered a high virtue, and sometimes a sport. But if we make purchases based solely on price, we may negatively impact people to whom, if we met in person, we would practice kindness. We rarely know for certain the answers to all the wise questions we might ask, but so often we don’t even try to find out if this garment we wear so intimately next to our skin was made by someone who suffered from unhealthy working conditions or whose pay was so minimal that they couldn’t feed themselves and their families. When we think through the choice, that bargain doesn’t seem like such a bargain anymore, does it?


We’re not going to throw out what we have, but we might set an intention to make more informed choices the next time we are shopping.


Of course, it’s not just our clothing but the food we eat, the vehicles we drive, the energy we purchase to heat our homes, as well as a myriad of other choices we make when we pull out our wallet and interact in the massive and intricate web of the marketplace. How are our choices affecting the planet and its inhabitants?


To live out our paired intentions of awareness and kindness we need to look at the policies and behavior of not just the makers of the products but the sellers of the products. When we shop at a store that pays such low wages that it’s employees are eligible for government food stamps, we are giving tacit approval of those policies. Is this wise?


If we buy produce that has been sprayed, we may be concerned for our own health, but have we given any thought to the workers in the fields who have their hands and faces exposed to this toxicity for so many hours per week? And what about the wild creatures and the earth itself, the water that runs off from a polluted field and pollutes the water, that 1% of the earth’s water that is fresh? Lots to consider. Buying organic becomes a way to send metta to all beings, not just a way to stay healthy in our own bodies.


If we invest in companies, or in funds that invest in companies, do we simply look at the numbers? Or can we look a little closer and see what we are giving tacit approval to by our investment. Clearly, a mutual fund that invests in companies that potentially cause harm is not a fund a Wise Livelihood investor wants to fund. To invest wisely, we look at the impact of putting funds and therefore power into the hands of people who are not aligned with our intentions. Through the practice of mindfulness we are becoming increasingly mindful that all beings are deserving of respect, kindness and compassion; that all beings are interconnected, all part of the same web of processes. Our consciousness rests in the sensations of this body at this time, but it is not in isolation. It is in interaction always, in every decision, every movement, every purchase and every investment.


Perhaps you have felt badly about buying or investing in something. These bad feelings are clues that your decision is out of alignment with your deepest intentions and understanding of the nature of things. When this happens, when we notice it, it is an opportunity to slow down, notice, look more closely at what is really going on here. But so often we don’t bother. We just feel bad. We just create suffering for ourselves as we continue to create suffering for others.


All of this may run counter to all we have ever learned about being smart in the marketplace. But in the process of buying and selling, sometimes it’s our ease and happiness that gets sold.


As you might expect, we had a lively discussion in class about Wise Livelihood, especially around the difficulty of obtaining accurate information to make informed choices. As an example, one of the students in class had recently been to El Salvador where she said she was allowed into an area called a free zone, where manufacturers, employing Salvadorans, created goods that they labeled ‘Made in the USA’.


This is not an entirely new scheme. In the 1950’s ‘Made in the USA’ could mean the product was made in a town in Japan with the name of Usa! So it is indeed very challenging to do the right thing when our labels contain insufficient and, as in this case, erroneous information.


Yet we do what we can to live in a way that doesn’t cause our inner moral compass to lose its north. That’s going to be different for each of us. But in this process of coming to understand how we fall into the morass of misery, it’s quite useful to acknowledge that sometimes it’s how we blind ourselves to our powerful impact on the world in all kinds of ways, big and small.


Powerful? Yes! Remember the power of the choice by many people around the world to divest from South African stocks, and the role that played in ending Apartheid? We are powerful! Make these choices count, and let us ‘find our North.’
———————-


End Note (excerpted from Access to Insight’s extensive text and commentary on Buddhist teachings. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/waytoend.html#ch4)

“The Buddha mentions five specific kinds of livelihood which bring harm to others and are therefore to be avoided: dealing in weapons, in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), in meat production and butchery, in poisons, and in intoxicants (AN 5:177). He further names several dishonest means of gaining wealth which fall under wrong livelihood: practicing deceit, treachery, soothsaying, trickery, and usury (MN 117). Obviously any occupation that requires violation of right speech and right action is a wrong form of livelihood, but other occupations, such as selling weapons or intoxicants, may not violate those factors and yet be wrong because of their consequences for others.”

Eightfold Path: Right Livelihood

For many of us, how we make our living is tightly woven into who we are. One of the first things people ask us when they meet us is “What do you do?” because how we choose to make a living offers people clues into many other aspects of our identity, including our values, skills and interests.

In inner exploration we discover that what we do is not who we are, yet the Buddha acknowledged the importance of our work life. It is the action we do all day for most of the days of our adult lives, so our work needs to be Right Action if we are to free ourselves and others from suffering. This is called Right Livelihood.

On the surface Right Livelihood seems pretty straightforward. The Buddhist sutras offer guidance on the kind of jobs that cause suffering, and if we adhere to them we should be set in this department. Check this one off our list! But as we explore this aspect of the Eightfold Path, we find that it is just as tricky and deep as Right Speech or Right Action because it has multiple aspects.

The first and most obvious aspects is to choose a job that is in keeping with our deepest values so that we are not fighting inner battles every time we go to work. I worked for a decade in advertising. The better I got at my job the more insidious it seemed. I realized that I was learning how to trade on people’s fears. In essence every ad ever written says,’ Without this wonderful product you will be less.’ Less attractive, less happy, less safe, less productive, less appreciated. Just less. A real dukkha making job!

I refused to write advertising copy for products or companies I didn’t believe in. I remember saying no way to a liposuction client. I had my limits! But even if every word I wrote was true, it didn’t feel like Right Livelihood to me. By the end of the decade I wrote an eight page harangue about how advertising was the root of all evil. I may have gotten a little carried away, but clearly it was not the profession for me.

I remember at one point saying to a co-worker, ‘I feel totally separate from myself.’ That would have been a nice clue to have heeded, instead of just laughing it off as a strange sensation. What my inner wisdom was trying to tell me was that I was being untrue to my own core set of values, as well as struggling to be the role I thought I should play.

I didn’t quit. In many ways I liked my job. It was often fun and creative, I enjoyed my coworkers, I was helping to support my family and secure our future. But finally my body spoke up. Illness as messenger. I came down with CFIDS (chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome). I write about this more in my book Tapping the Wisdom Within, so I won’t go into it here, except to say that I hope others in a similar position won’t wait for an illness to force them to quit a job that makes them feel ‘separate’ from themselves.

So how do we determine if the work we do is harmful to ourselves or others? Fortunately we are not totally on our own to figure this out. We have the Five Precepts to guide us. As you may recall from our discussion of Right Action, they are:
Refrain from killing or harming other beings.
Take only what is freely given, refrain from stealing, exploiting or deceiving.
Refrain from misusing of our sexuality.
Speak truthfully and kindly
Maintain clarity of mind by avoiding intoxicants.

And we have the Buddhist sutras that add a few specifics: It is not Right Livelihood to deal in arms, slaves, meat, alcohol, drugs or poisons, or in making prophecies or telling fortunes.

If you do none of the above, hooray! But we need to delve a little further. If we work for a company, we need to make sure that it adheres to the precepts as well. If we work for a large corporation, this is challenging, as corporations are legally required to make as much profit as possible for their shareholders. Between what is legal and what is ethical from the point of view of the Buddhist precepts, there is a lot of wiggle room. So we need to do some research about our own company, because our job is intrinsically entwined. Now if our company is not, in our view, living up to ethical standards, we have the choice of leaving or of staying and trying to change the ethical culture. But if we want to end the suffering of ourselves and others, we don’t get to say “Just doing my job, it doesn’t have anything to do with me.” Right View, that vaster vantage point in which we sense our connection to all that is, precludes pretending that we are somehow separate in all this and therefore not culpable.

So, say you’ve chosen a profession that is Right Livelihood, your company is highly ethical – yay! Now there is the way in which we do our job to consider. Bringing all the aspects of the Eightfold Path and the Five Precepts to bear on our interactions with co-workers, clients, patients, customers, suppliers, etc. means bringing loving kindness into every interaction. As always we start that loving kindness with ourselves, so we are not beating ourselves up all day every day. Then we send metta to each person we meet, each email we send, each voice we hear on the phone.

When we act as a conduit for infinite radiant metta (loving kindness) we transform our own experience and the experience of those around us. This is powerful stuff. In fact, power as usually perceived in the workplace – who gets to boss whom, who gets the fanciest title, the corner office, the most money and best perks – that kind of power pales in comparison to the empowerment of infinite metta. Think about it: The supposed result of all that power and perks is happiness. But being a conduit of metta brings immediate, expansive and true happiness. The other is just fool’s gold. Some perk!

All right, you’ve chosen a profession that is Right Livelihood, your company is highly ethical, and you bring loving kindness into your interactions at work. So now you can check Right Livelihood off your to do list, right?

Well, not so fast! Because Right Livelihood isn’t only about how we make our living but how we, by our behavior in the marketplace, set other people up to make their livings! If we don’t make our living by killing animals but we benefit by others doing so, i.e. we eat meat, poultry or fish, then that is not Right Livelihood. We are contributing to the harm, both to the beings who are killed and to the person we are encouraging to do the killing – i.e. letting other people do our dirty work for us.

If we raise crops using chemicals that poison the environment, that is clearly not Right Livelihood. But if we knowingly purchase those crops we are also culpable, because we are helping to create a market where it is not commercially viable for a farmer to cease using those chemicals.

If we employ people at wages that leave them and their families hungry and at risk, then obviously that isn’t Right Livelihood. But if we purchase the products produced by manufacturers who treat their workers poorly, then we are also culpable.

And then once we make a purchase, we are responsible for it. If we dispose of it in a manner that harms the earth, that is not Right Livelihood either.

As an investor, Right Livelihood asks us to investigate thoroughly what exactly we are using our money to support when we buy stock.

So Right Livelihood takes into account not just how we earn a paycheck but how we interact in the marketplace. It takes into account every person whose life is touched by our interaction, and the very earth as well.

Now this is a lot of responsibility! By this time in my dharma talk my students were ready to join a monastery in order to avoid all these complicated pitfalls! Stop and notice if you are feeling in your body any sense of burden or exhaustion. Perhaps you feel Right Livelihood is impossible, given that as consumers we are not often given enough information to make wise choices, and the thought of having to do the level of research required to do so.

So what do we do? We do the best we can. That’s going to be different for each of us at different times in our lives. But keep in mind that Right Livelihood is a guidepost on the Eightfold Path that lights our way to liberation, the ending of our own suffering. When we are suffering, we can look to it and see if any of our actions are causing this suffering. We might experience this suffering as being at odds with our true selves, having developed a schism between what we believe and what we do. At that point it becomes less painful to change our actions than to continue to suffer the schism. We just want to be done with the ongoing inner battle, and come into a sense of integrity, wholeness.

When we access Right View and see our deep interconnectedness, then we really get how we harm ourselves when we harm workers on the other side of the world by supporting the industry that oppresses them — when all we thought we were doing was getting a great deal on a cute shirt!

Living in that place where our actions and our values are not aligned is uncomfortable. I know this from experience. The process is ongoing. It starts with noticing not just our actions but the excuses we make for our actions, and in the process of observing with great compassion, we may begin to observe a shift. This shift into a more connected sense of non-harming, where we take responsibility for our actions in a more joyous way and let go of the punishing, sacrificing mentality we had thought would be necessary, is a lovely gateway to liberation. But it doesn’t happen overnight. If we beat ourselves up about it we slow the process and squelch the possibility of truly coming into alignment.

Once we come into some sense of alignment, it’s important to continue to be mindful, noticing our thoughts and actions. We may become unskillful in a different way, developing a sense of purity around this, vowing that from this day forth we will live in perfect Right Livelihood, and make it our mission that others do the same. All we can expect from such action is misery in our ambition, our striving and our failures; as well as misery for those around us who will tire mighty quickly of any proselytizing we do in our new conversion.

As the Buddha did, we find the Middle Way. This is not the half-hearted way, mind you, and certainly not the half-assed way! This is the way full of mindfulness and compassion for ourselves and others. When we allow this awareness to unfold gently and with Right Effort, we create joy and ease, and, to the best of our abilities, Right Livelihood.

An Introduction to the Noble Eightfold Path

Now we begin on the Fourth Noble Truth. To review the first three:The First Noble Truth is that there is suffering, the Second that it is our tendency to grasp and cling that causes this suffering, and the Third is that the end of suffering is possible. (For more in depth discussion, refer to prior posts in the archive at right.)

The Fourth Noble Truth is that The Noble Eightfold Path is the means to end suffering by developing Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

On our first encounter with the idea of there being ‘right’ views, speech, etc., we may bristle. We don’t want to be forced into a particular way of speaking or thinking. We want to speak authentically and think for ourselves.

For me the single most powerful sentence the Buddha spoke, the one that drew me to Buddhist study in the first place, was “Be a lamp unto yourself.” (Before I ever undertook to study Buddhism, I had that quote on the back of my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.) For me, this list of do’s and don’ts just didn’t jive with that statement.

Since becoming a Buddhist practitioner it has been easy to just ignore the subject. There are so many rich veins of Buddhism to explore that even over the course of many years The Eightfold Path rarely came up in any dharma talks in weekly classes or retreats I attended.

But then when the upper retreat hall and residences were built at Spirit Rock, they installed a beautiful hand-painted prayer wheel in the pedestrian entry gate. It is adorned with illustrations of the Eightfold Path. As you walk through, you take a handle — perhaps the one named ‘Right Effort’ — and spin the wheel. Then that focus of Right Effort (or whichever handle you took) stays with you as an intention.

In my comings and goings, I always enjoy spinning the prayer wheel. I remember one day I was walking through, and I had a bit of an aha moment about the Eightfold Path. I recognized that I had resistance to being told what to do, but that in fact, these were not dictates that I must subscribe to or rules of behavior I have to live by, lest I fail to be a good Buddhist. Instead I could see them as useful guideposts, so that when I am suffering I can see them in the fog of my misery shining a helpful light to help me see the cause of my suffering.

For example, say I am feeling oddly discomforted and don’t know why. I can mentally review the Eightfold Path to see if there is anything there to guide me. Say that on this occasion when I come upon Right Speech, and then I remember that the night before I had been talking about someone, telling a story that wasn’t mine to tell, and now I have this residual sense of ickiness, as if I truly have wandered into a sticky and stinky bog in my mind. But now I can see that by not adhering to Right Speech, I had wandered off the Eightfold Path.

That guidepost sheds the light of awareness on my behavior and brings me back on the path. Each time I find my way back, I have learned something valuable. And though I will probably wander off the path many times in many ways, these guideposts help me return more quickly, so that my suffering is shortened as I develop the habit of looking to the guideposts for cues to my current discomfort.

If a path sounds constricting, like a ‘straight and narrow’ path, the truth is that this path is incredibly spacious. For by staying on the path, we free ourselves to be fully present in every moment in an unencumbered way. And that is deep authentic connection indeed.

Over the coming weeks we will explore the aspects of the Eightfold Path. Each is a facet of the same jewel of wisdom, and they are so deeply inter-related that insight in one aspect brings understanding in another. Together they have the capacity to enrich our lives, sweeten our relationships and deepen our practice.

Yes, the Buddha told us to be lamps unto ourselves. But he also offered these guideposts to shed light on our path in order that we may brighten and strengthen our own inner light.