Naomi Matlow shares three ways to practice right livelihood at work.
The Buddha’s eightfold path is an active outline for the individual capacity to achieve freedom in this lifetime. In the words of Bhikku Bodhi: “The ultimate task of the eightfold path is to eradicate the defilements that sustain bondage to samsara.” But where does work come in? Sometimes clocking into work, getting the pay check, and paying off the bills can feel an awful lot like samsara, an endless cycle of birth and death.
Perhaps we can say that there is no such thing as ‘work-life’ balance on the eightfold path, because separating ‘work’ and ‘life’ already puts one off balance.
When describing the path’s factor of “right” or “wise” livelihood, the Buddha instructed his practitioners to not support their lives through unethical and harmful means toward unethical or harmful ends. Our work should not only refrain from strengthening our shackles of endless suffering, but also help in opening the gates to greater freedom. Like everything along the Middle Way, the individual at work is not separate from their vocation’s means or ends. A key to the pursuit of freedom in livelihood may lie in the root of the word vocation itself.
The etymological root of the word vocation is from the Latin word vox meaning “voice.” Our personal voice, or our “calling,” can be seen as a part of what it means to pursue a professional life that is wise. What we do, and perhaps more importantly, how we make do, supports our freedom in this lifetime rather than acts as a barrier on the path. Perhaps we can say that there is no such thing as “work-life” balance on the eightfold path, because separating “work” and “life” already puts one off balance.
This is not to say that if you aren’t currently pursuing your hobby as a ticket to wealth and prosperity, you’re practicing wise livelihood incorrectly. Rather, your life is a full expression of your personal calling, and freedom is even available when paying off the mortgage. As Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel writes in the Ask the Teachers section of Buddhadharma:
The workplace — like any other place — can be a rich environment to practice dharma. To influence a situation may just mean extending a bit of warmth and kindness, or finding nonreactive ways to creatively finesse the flow around us. People need more tenderness and sanity in their lives, and they need examples. If we can provide this, people will notice. In turn, they may discover that they are capable of doing the same. To extend kindness, warmth, and insight is the true vocation of a practitioner.
Practicing living our vocation, our calling to be free, at work is something we can do everyday. Here are three ways to practice right livelihood at work:
There are a number of ways to practice mindfulness at work. For example, paying nonjudgmental attention to the clicking of your keyboard keys under your fingertips or the temperature of your coffee.
Compassion can go a long way in the workplace, for both yourself and your colleagues. Try listening compassionately to coworkers and giving yourself self-compassion when stress arises.
Try practicing the power of the pause, like Pema Chödrön’s instructions to take three conscious breaths. You can try taking a moment to ground your feet before you respond to your boss or take a solo walk outside between emails.
The business of getting free is a lane on the path, and like everything else on the path, it is both oh so simple and oh so hard. It is practical but it is challenging. It takes effort but invites greater ease. The paradox of life inevitably continues.