Questions On Right Livelihood
Posted by Aryae Coopersmith on Aug 25, 2017
Right Livelihood: where we are materially sustained by doing what makes us come alive, in a way that helps alleviate suffering in the world.
What did you want to be when you grow up? Colleen shared, “A friend of mine asked that and I remember looking at a book I filled out when I was in kindergarten and I wrote that I wanted to be a piano teacher. I am gaining inspiration from my young self because I believe that at some level, we know what we want. I don't play the piano now, but I think what I liked about my piano teacher is she was kind to me and present with me.”
Annabelle wanted to be an astronaut, while making a pact with her neighborhood friend for becoming a physicist. :) Fabrizio had the “happiest” job, doling out ice-cream at Scoops, while Anand dreaming of becoming bus driver and Anuj, a martial arts instructor. Sophie, a college student, is just starting her "first" jobs. :)
Aryae reflected on how, after working with thousands of people on “right livelihood”, he’s come to see it as more of a path than a destination.
Yaniv went down memory lane and agreed: “Many times in my life I’ve dreamed the perfect job -- and I actually got it! But it was always a let down. Maybe it’s not about finding the best job?”
Nandini wondered, is it possible to be heart-centered in a head-centered work atmosphere?
As a contractor, Nikhil gets to add a price tag to his labor. What’s the right thing to do? Put the maximum amount and donate the surplus? Put an arbitrary amount and return the profit to the client? Ask the client to pay what they want?
“If I put a price tag on my art, is that putting too much pressure on my art?” Colleen asked. Maybe it’s better to compartmentalize employment from price-less service?
Deven quoted Aurobindo’s “chamber where glorious enemies kiss” and the notion of integral wealth where we can attempt to bring together seemingly opposing forces.
That chamber is more easily accessible at a social responsible company. Fabrizio gave the example of Bob’s Red Mill gave away his company to employees. Anuj spoke about Renuka Ardhya who went from begging on the streets to running a big company. Aaron Feurstein went one step and bankrupted his company for the sake of his employees.
Or further down the mission-oriented lane are nonprofits, which sounds great on paper but has its own challenges. “I work at a nonprofit, but it’s supported by sponsors, incessant fundraising and internal competition,” Anand said. “No matter how you earn a living, engaging with money is itself problematic to some degree. Where do you draw the line?”
Annabelle probed deeper, “Is all money created equal?” What if some funders have sketchy business practices but support good causes to offload their guilt or gain PR?
Parag eloquently noted, “There’s multiple forms of capital, but also multiple forms of profit.” Does a profit-seeking mind, no matter what the capital, prevent us from right livelihood?
Bela's husband recently asked her, “If I died, what would you do?” She responded, “Probably serve in a spiritual community. What would you do if I wasn’t around?” He said he would help animals. Individually, both wanted to serve, but somehow coming together, they got mired in thinking of mortage and other compromises in the monetary paradigm. What is it about social contracts that feeds this misalignment?
Zilong, whose writing on the topic originally led to this circle, threw in the million dollar question: how do we live right while we wait for right livelihood to arrive?
Small personal practices seem to help, as many reflected. As do noble friendships.
Rina said she moved across oceans to be anchored near her parents. Nikhil juxtaposed his complex coding skills with simplicity: “In Buddha’s past life, he survived by picking up ‘simple skills.’ Maybe that’s a key. As my life gets simpler, I feel like it becomes easier to open important doors.”
In society, we see a spectrum of value-creation and Deven spoke about ‘Swadharma’, where we are all finding our own calling.
“Does our personal struggle arise when our inner growth outpaces outer environmental pressures?” Anand wondered.
For many, right livelihood is about getting to do what makes you come alive. But Rajesh countered, “Is there something deeper than doing what makes us come alive? Can anything we do make us come alive?” Xiao agreed, citing the example of Guan Yin Boddhisattva, who had myriad forms but one practice of leading with heart.
Fabrizio wrote, “More and more, I am coming to realize that pursuing my own happiness is not satisfying. True happiness only appears when I make other people happy, or at least suffer less.”
Aryae’s mentioned Reb Zalman’s daily prayer: “Please deploy me today according to Your will.” He added, “When that happens, right livelihood will take care of itself.”
In after hours, Parag summed it up like this: “Whatever I do, if I can lead with inner transformation, I am equipped to hold the perfect tension between opposing forces. Then, perhaps right action can arise.” Like a guitar string. He added, “The subtler but more real challenge is -- what inner structures am I addicted to, which prevent emergence of a harmonious livelihood?”
Forty years ago, Anand dreamed to be a bus driver, but with self-driving buses now on the road, that dream may no longer be valid. What else is invalid? In Buddha’s time, right livelihood might’ve been possible. Is it an oxymoron in today’s market society?
When asked about how he survives outside the market, Zilong shared humbly and ultimately concluded, "Any second that I'm not holding my end of the bargain, I'm going in debt. What does it mean to live under that sword in each moment?” Every thought is a deposit and withdrawal, and with great consequences. Perhaps right livelihood is a swimming pool before we can find right action in the ocean of any moment.
“Whatever we do, we must remember that clock is ticking. We don’t have time to wait for the perfect conditions,” Fab reminded us. “We must embrace the now, to serve whatever is in front of us.”