Lion's Roar

Forum Essays: Work

Buddhadharma readers share their experience of Buddhist practice in everyday life as it relates to work and the workplace.

By Lion’s Roar

Whether or not one’s work constitutes right livelihood often has more to do with the way in which one performs the work, rather than with the work itself.

As a lawyer, this is particularly true for me. Every day I am presented with opportunities to practice my profession in a manner rooted in greed, intolerance, impatience and anger. As a Buddhist I have had to ask myself whether it is possible to be a successful lawyer while practicing right livelihood at the same time. For example, when negotiating with a hostile and aggressive attorney, can I get the best result for my client by practicing Buddhist principles such as compassion, or can I only obtain the results my client expects by reacting equally aggressively? Can I pay my staff, let alone support my family, without some level of greed? Can I successfully take a hard-line stance on a position, reacting as though that stance inherently exists, while at the same time acknowledging to myself the empty nature of that position?For me, right livelihood depends on confidence in the Buddhist approach and discipline in following that approach. Although my profession can lead to a livelihood rooted in unwholesome actions, through confidence and discipline it can lead to a livelihood that positively impacts the lives of many people throughout the course of my career.

In my profession, there are endless opportunities to practice love, compassion, joy and equanimity. My clients, with their seemingly endless woes and problems, allow me deep reflection into the Four Noble Truths. Each and every case allows me to delve deeply into the chain of cause and effect. The Buddha’s teachings verify themselves time and time again.

Todd C. Schroeder
Ottawa, Ohio

I find that the phrase “right livelihood” is not very well defined. It is intentionally vague to allow practitioners to develop their thoughts on what is and is not right livelihood as their practice matures.

I chose my career right out of college, thirteen years ago, long before I paid any serious attention to the dharma. With what I have learned of the Buddha’s teachings, I do not consider my career to be right livelihood. I’m an engineer and I design equipment that uses huge quantities of oil and gas. This equipment contributes to pollution and the problem of dwindling natural resources. Lately, my company has been in the news, charged with profiteering. It is aiding a military action I do not agree with. I feel I am working for the enemy of the dharma.

Working in the engineering world, I am required to make certain sacrifices for the purpose of my career. I feel the need to disavow my relationship with my partner, who is referred to as my “roommate” or as a “friend.” When I first began working at the company, I tried to integrate being a gay man with being an engineer. It did not end well. My co-workers no longer wished to work with me, and my position stagnated until I left it.

There is an underlying feeling of futility to my practice, which is partially due to my career being at odds with what I see as right livelihood. But how does one pay the bills and meet other financial obligations when one leaves a financially rewarding, yet dharma-less career? I’m sure there is a solution to this koan, but I have not yet experienced career satori and have no answers.

Peter J. Westervelt
Houston, TX

In the eighties, I shared an office suite with other professionals in a big office building. It was a very sterile, serious-looking environment. We all wore suits and projected the image that we were not only professional but expensive as well.

When I had the opportunity to move into my own space, I changed all that. I got a suite of my own in a lovely old mansion with windows that could open. I put a fresh arrangement of flowers in sight of clients as they walked in and had a five-minute “quiet period” before I started meetings. Even though it cost me a bundle, I did not raise my prices. The changes resulted in an overwhelming amount of business, which allowed me to go on a two-week retreat and a vacation with my family. My only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier.

Fern Alix LaRocca, Certified Financial Planner
San Francisco, Calif.

After nearly thirty years of dharma practice and a variety of endeavors I admit to having an old and nagging issue with work: How do I stabilize and contain retreat and meditation experience, and carry it forward into action?

The practice of meditation is central to developing greater vision, but experiences arising in meditation are evanescent. Trying to bring the insights you gain from intensive practice into your life, stabilizing them and living by them—without having developed a supportive lifestyle—is like being handed water without a vessel: it just runs away. If life is a vessel, how can it be shaped and molded to hold what needs to be held?

The Buddhist meditative tradition seems to say that the virtue of practice is in what’s lost, not what’s gained. That’s outrageous and foolish from the point of view of a credential-oriented and materialistic world, but that’s really our wisdom paradigm, isn’t it? —Stripping away the layers of confusion to uncover awakened mind, which isn’t anything tangible at all.

That sounds good, but with a stripped-down mind I find livelihood even more challenging than before. The world after intensive practice may be bright, pure and free of entrapment—at least for a while. But at the same time much human activity looks meaningless or even distasteful.

Conduct is often spoken of in the tantric tradition as “enhancement” of the realization from practice. Activity is the way to mature and actualize. What’s enhanced is your vision and your resolve in rejecting activities not in accord with that vision, at the same time searching out and passionately engaging what’s congruent with your inspiration. While commitment to vision brings some hardship, being willing to shoulder goodheartedly such a burden matures you as a dharma practitioner.

I think we should engage in all sorts of activities that have potential for expressing human kindness and dignity. It’s risky turning down income in favor of vision. And the specific type of thing you do may not be nearly as important as your outlook.

Phil Karl
Boulder, Colo.

From one point of view, right livelihood means that certain types of jobs are “right” while others are not. From a different point of view, it’s not the job or role we play that is “right,” but the state of mind and quality of practice we bring to our “work” that matters. From this point of view, right livelihood suggests that the daily challenge is to wake up with our tasks, interactions and activity, in whatever form they take. We do them mindfully and strive to see the true nature of what is happening, regardless of the role we have or the organizational forces around us.

I work in a corporate setting and have a leadership position where many issues and problems compete for my time and energy. For a long time I struggled with the notion of how to bring my practice into my daily life. I seemed able to do it on weekends, with long meditative walks in the woods or at the beach, but mostly I was unable to bring a sense of presence to my work life, which overwhelmed me with issues, conflicts, tensions and the daily onslaught of too much to do. I would start each week refreshed and watch my state of mind gradually succumb to distraction and fatigue. I longed for the respite of weekends and vacations, when I could further my practice with retreats and periods of sitting, away from the busyness of life.

At some point, I realized that my image of what “practice” is or should be was the very thing that was holding me back. I longed for calm, orderly states of mind and I had some belief that if I worked hard enough I could achieve these at work and function with some kind of equanimity.

I now try to practice in a very different way, a way motivated by watching my mind rather than trying to control it. I seek mindfulness first in driving to work—attending to the vibrations of the car, the subtle or dramatic variations in climate and traffic, and noticing how my mind gravitates to the scenarios or problems that I am likely to face later in the day. At work I practice in my daily interactions by noticing how I relate with others and by observing my mind’s qualities as I tackle different types of tasks. I have learned that my work world is full of teachers and that I have daily opportunities to practice patience and detachment.

Of course, this nice enlightened vision of my practice is not completely true either, but I have learned that right livelihood is right where I am now, doing whatever needs to be done in whatever job or work I do.

Name Withheld by Request

While I struggled for many years with the feeling that my work was not contributing to society in a way that I would call meaningful, I now feel extremely privileged to have the work and the life situation that I do.

I work at a small Catholic NGO that offers hospice-at-home services and organizes self-help groups for the bereaved. I had heard of this organization many years ago and during a period when I was out of work I offered to do some volunteering. After doing this for awhile, I suggested to the director that it would be a good idea to have a psychologist on staff, and that I would love to be offered a half-time position. She did not need much persuading and at the next board meeting the suggestion was approved.

I find that this type of work enhances my own personal practice. Relating to others’ pain and suffering opens my heart and gives me food for relating the teachings not only to my own life, but also to the lives of others.

Karen Hagen Liste
Oslo, Norway


Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.