Right Livelihood is the final practice in Ethical Conduct on the Eightfold Path and is about how you earn a living and take responsibility for your choices. The ideal is to earn a living without going against the principles of love and compassion, and to do work that expresses the truth of your deepest Self. That means you’re not just working for yourself, but working to benefit others too.
To practice Right Livelihood you should avoid work that involves receiving money for something that directly or indirectly harms either yourself or others. You should aim to work in a way that promotes respect, equality and fairness. This means being honest and ethical in all your business dealings, and doing your best to find work that is meaningful and life enhancing.
Obviously, this isn’t always easy or even possible. Finding ethical work in a culture that has so much institutionalised inequality and unfairness is complicated at best. You have to work within the reality that you live in, and that can mean making some compromises. Many people struggle to find any kind of work and don’t have the option of worrying about whether it’s harmful or not. They may want to work and pay their way, but the jobs simply aren’t there.
In an ideal world, you should aim to earn a living by doing something that’s a natural expression of who you are. Regardless of your circumstances, you can make the effort to discover what that is and create opportunities for yourself, rather than waiting for others to make it possible. At least then you’ll have self-respect, even if you can’t earn much money.
Don’t be evil
The guidelines for Right Livelihood are very specific. Here’s a list of all the things you can’t do if you want to be free from suffering:
- Sell weapons or instruments for killing
- Trade in slavery, prostitution, or the trafficking of adults or children
- Trade in meat
- Breed animals for slaughter
- Make drugs or sell drugs that are addictive or intoxicants
- Make or sell any kind of poison or toxic chemical designed to kill
There are further guidelines for monks and contemplatives: they’re not to make prophecies or tell fortunes (even if they have the siddhis to do it). And you’re not encouraged to be a soldier (for obvious reasons) or an actor either!
It’s interesting to note the professions that aren’t included: banking or usury, and espionage or spying, for example. In fact, anything exploitative or demeaning would be suspect, and anything that diminishes someone’s humanity or dignity. There’s clearly room for debate, especially when many of the low paid jobs that people struggle with are so menial and soul-destroying. Finding meaningful work is depressingly rare for too many people, and is only set to get worse if the predicted rise of robots and AI continues to erode people’s options.
So to practice Right Livelihood you need to do work that’s beneficial to others, including animals, plants, and the earth. Use Right Mindfulness to look into your work to determine its impact and the consequences for others and yourself. It’s impossible to live without having some kind of impact on the earth, so you’ll have to strive to minimise the damage as much as you can.
In the end, Right Livelihood isn’t a personal issue. It’s not just about the work you do. Everything is interconnected, so your choices impact on other people directly and indirectly. You may not work in the meat trade, for instance, but if you eat meat you’re still supporting it. If you use Uber cabs, it may be convenient but you’re supporting the exploitation of their drivers.
It’s not easy to make the right choices in such a complex and interconnected world because it creates dilemmas that are hard to resolve. For example, I eat meat – mostly fish and chicken – and it’s not a choice I’m entirely happy with for multiple reasons. I’d love to go vegan, but that kind of diet would make me ill – there’s no way I could deal with all that fibre! So I compromise for the sake of my health. It’s not ideal, but neither is the world.
Ultimately, everything in your life feeds into Right Livelihood, so all you can do is meditate on the dilemmas it throws up and find the best solution – one that minimises the harm caused to yourself, others, and the planet.
Love the one you’re with
Where you work has a profound effect on you because you spend so much of your time there. Your approach to co-workers and how you deal with the stresses and conflicts that naturally arise throughout the day, provide an opportunity to practice mindfulness and compassion. If you find that your work is having an adverse effect on your health, either physically or mentally, then you’ll need to consider how to respond in a way that’s in alignment with your spiritual practice.
For many the only option is to make the best of a bad situation. You live within a set of complex relationships, many of which are outside of your control. Political and economic structures shape the way you live and it’s not easy to change them – it would take a long time and a collective effort.
But it’s still possible to practice Right Livelihood by being mindful of providing the best service you can and treating others with respect even if your work environment is less than ideal. You can be honourable even if others aren’t. This isn’t easy, but Buddhism always encourages you to deal with reality and not to run away from the truth. And reality is rarely simple or perfect.
Next time: Right Effort
Image: Psycho Crime