Multicolored light is seen illuminating the palm of an opening hand

Opening to the Joy of Work

Making a living while living our values can be easier said than done, but Maia Duerr has discerned six keys for cultivating the qualities and conditions for doing abundant, cheerful, sustainable work.

By Maia Duerr

Photo by Dr. Daniel Medalie. 

The idea of right livelihood has been close to my heart since childhood, though I had no idea such a concept existed when I was a kid. I just knew I didn’t want to turn out like my dad. 

Nearly every evening when I was growing up, my mom and I would wait for Dad to come home from work. He was always late, and by the time he sat down to dinner, the food was cold despite Mom’s best attempts to keep it warm. Once the mealtime conversation started, much of it revolved around Dad’s discontent with his job. He felt perpetually overworked and stayed long hours to try to catch up—hence his tardiness to dinner. He complained endlessly about his boss. I sat there and witnessed my father’s unhappiness and felt heartbroken for both him and my future self. Was this misery awaiting me when it was time to start working?

My dad was a travel counselor for the American Automobile Association, a job he chose because of his own love of travel. Long before GPS, he would hand-create TripTiks for clients. These personalized maps showed the best route for your vacation. They included places you shouldn’t miss along the way, like the amazing natural rock bridge in Utah that nobody else knew about, or the quirky motel in Nevada that doubled as a peacock farm. I can still picture my father at his large wooden work table at home, tucked along the side of our dining room, getting his orange markers out and highlighting routes that would bring the most joy to the traveler. 

This should have been a great job for my dad. But in reality, he spent all his time and energy planning other people’s trips, rarely taking one for himself. Dad got two weeks a year, the standard amount of annual vacation in the United States at that time, and held that job for more than thirty years until he finally retired.

“Each of these six keys is easily worth a lifetime of practice; they invite us to grow in our professional lives as well as in the whole of our lives.”

My father’s experience and perspective were not unusual. Most of my friends’ parents had limited time off and expressed the same unhappy sentiments about work. When I was old enough to enter the workforce, the general consensus among folks I knew was that work was something to be endured rather than enjoyed. I wanted something different, but I had no idea what that looked like.

We spend a great deal of our life energy on this thing called “work.” If you have a forty-hour-a-week job, that’s where you spend at least half of your waking hours—and many of us work more than that.

Work can be a source of profound meaning and joy, but all too often, it becomes a source of stress and suffering. According to a 2016 survey from the Harvard School of Public Health, nearly half of working adults say their job affects their physical health, but only 28 percent of those believe that effect is a good one. Many reported negative impacts on their levels of stress, eating and sleeping habits, and weight. People with disabilities and in dangerous or low-paying jobs were the most likely to experience these negative consequences.  

Yet work can be a potent place for dharma practice, as well as a way to do something meaningful for the world and ourselves. If you spend time at a Zen center, you’ll quickly discover that samu (temple work/maintenance time) is considered a practice every bit as important as zazen. Chinese Zen master Baizhang (720–814) once said, “A day without work is a day without food.” My sense is that he meant that in two ways—literally, perhaps, but I also believe Baizhang was referring to the fact that work has the potential to nourish us just as food does.

When I started practicing Buddhism in my early thirties, I was drawn to the concept of right livelihood. The eightfold path, the fourth of the Buddha’s four noble truths, offers a compass to align our lives so that we can find freedom from suffering. Right livelihood (Pali: samma ajiva) is located in the morality (sila) arm of the path along with right speech and right action. According to the Buddha’s teachings, right livelihood is a way to earn a living that doesn’t harm others or oneself. In defining right livelihood, the Buddha named five types of businesses that laypeople should not engage in:

 Traditional Buddhist teachings on right livelihood were fairly straightforward; it was primarily a matter of avoiding work that had harmful consequences for the worker as well as those who purchased his or her product or service. Meaning and fulfillment weren’t part of the equation.

Things today are more complicated than they were during the Buddha’s lifetime. In most Western cultures, our sense of individuation is highly developed, for better or worse. We usually view work as an extension of our identity and a way to express ourselves. In addition, we’ve inherited assumptions that have been shaped by capitalism and patriarchy, often without much awareness. Beliefs like “time is money” can push us to override the intelligence of our bodies and hearts, to not listen when they quietly (or loudly) say to us, “Enough!” When we accept, without question, these kinds of beliefs and assumptions, we limit our imagination about more nourishing possibilities for work.

Our global economy is also very different from the village-based economies that existed during the Buddha’s time. There were certainly some trade routes like the Silk Road, but for the most part, transactions happened on a local level. In today’s interconnected and digital economy, it’s almost impossible to find a job or industry that, even if on its own is harmless, is not connected to another that is harmful. Nearly every industry is tied in some way to our climate-decimating consumption of fossil fuels. 

Early in my career, I worked in the mental health field. On one hand, this felt like right livelihood because I was in a position to help alleviate some degree of suffering for the patients and clients I worked with. This was very fulfilling. But there was another side to the profession: most of my clients were being prescribed powerful psychotropic drugs that caused terrible side effects. I recognized that I was complicit in the work of a pharmaceutical industry that places profits over people, and this greatly disturbed me. Such moral dilemmas are common in our contemporary world of work. 

When we look deeply into just about any profession that, on the surface, seems designed to serve people, we can see how the forces of capitalism distort that original intention. Health care isn’t actually about supporting health; it’s about maximizing profits for insurance companies and CEOs. Education isn’t actually about supporting youth to learn; it’s about developing a pipeline of future workers and training for habits that conform to the status quo. And on and on. If you’re a health care professional or teacher spiraling into burnout, you’ve experienced this dynamic firsthand.   

So, it would seem useful to look again at the Buddha’s original teaching on right livelihood and consider how it might translate to our times. Perhaps in addition to not causing harm to yourself or another, right livelihood should be grounded in nourishment, self-care, and the capacity to express your gifts through your work, work that matters deeply to you and that gives something back to the world. Thich Nhat Hanh put it beautifully in his book, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings:

To practice Right Livelihood, you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others…. Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living. 

I would add that right livelihood must be supported by an infrastructure that offers a living wage and as much flexibility as possible for the worker to determine the conditions that are most conducive to their work. Worker sovereignty would be the gold standard. The Mondragon Corporation (located in the Basque region of Spain) offers an exemplary model of what this can look like. Mondragon, which comprises eighty-one separate, self-governing cooperatives with nearly seventy thousand people, centers the worker. Members of these cooperatives are invited to participate in management, decision-making, and profit sharing, and they receive support in the form of health care and job training. All of this is possible because of one of the fundamental assumptions of the Mondragon Corporation: “labour [is] the principal factor for transforming nature, society, and human beings themselves.”

I realize I am wading into treacherous dharma waters here. Buddhism is not fundamentally about lining up perfect conditions. Rather, it’s about practicing with whatever conditions we encounter. However, the Buddha himself ventured into some social engineering, offering a prescription for a healthy society in the Cakkavatti-Sihanada Sutta. In this sutta (found in the Digha Nikaya of the Pali canon), the Buddha tells the story of a king who refuses to heed advice to give property to the poorest members of his kingdom. A series of increasingly negative consequences follows, resulting in the downfall of his society. As David Loy has noted, in this sutta, the Buddha casts poverty not as an individual challenge but as a social problem that can lead to the dissolution of civil society. The implication is that the Buddha’s solution to poverty, and crimes related to it, is not to punish people but to support ways to meet their basic needs. In the same way, right livelihood has the potential to meet the essential needs of our work life. 

“The Buddha’s solution to poverty, and crimes related to it, is not to punish people but to support ways to meet their basic needs. In the same way, right livelihood has the potential to meet the essential needs of our work life.”

Before I had a consistent meditation practice, my tendency was to escape the dissatisfaction I felt in one job by jumping into another without giving much thought to what was going on inside me. Not surprisingly, I often ended up feeling equally miserable in the next job. It might take a month, it might take a year, but I’d find myself in the same predicament. Worse yet, I couldn’t understand why.

I wanted to figure out a way to have work be something that I didn’t just tolerate, but found joy in, something that could be a vehicle for personal and spiritual growth. I tried so hard to find a different path through work than the one my dad got mired in that I meandered through five different careers, including mental health professional, writer, anthropologist, nonprofit executive, and most recently, consultant. Within those professions, I’ve had more jobs than I can count.

As I went through my winding path in search of work that I could love, I made many efforts to figure out if there was a path better suited to me than my first career in the mental health field. I read books like What Color is Your Parachute? and Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow. I went to a career counselor and took aptitude tests. The results of one test indicated I should be a lawyer, which I doubt would have been a good move. Each of these strategies offered a few helpful insights, but something wasn’t clicking on a more meaningful level.

As my meditation practice deepened, and through a great deal of reflection and inquiry, I discerned six keys that can help create the conditions for an updated version of right livelihood. Like the aspects of the eightfold path, they work together and enhance each other.

1. Become Intimate with Your Core Intention

Your core intention is your “why”—the urge that motivates you, your reason for being on the planet. Zen Buddhist teacher Hozan Alan Senauke says it this way: “We are responsible for the world and to the world we live in. A gift has been given to us to share with everyone.” This intention lives inside you at an emotional level, and it’s where you feel most alive to yourself and the world around you. From my perspective, understanding your core intention is essential to right livelihood. In fact, it can’t happen without it. 

2. Value Your Gifts and Time

When we say something is valuable to us, we’re actually saying that it is worthy of our time and energy. Typically, we assign value to things outside ourselves, and we use external measures such as job titles and salaries to determine how valuable we are. Exploring this key can help us recognize our inherent value and the gifts we have to offer, which can dramatically shift our orientation toward our work.

3. Break Through Inertia and Take Action         

The first step in making a change is often the most difficult, and we usually need to come to terms with fear and delusions of various kinds. This can be a Manjushri moment, in the spirit of the bodhisattva who cuts through delusions with a flaming sword. Once we begin to move in any direction, momentum begins to take hold. This key supports us in cutting through our delusions, taking action in regard to our work life, and creating new, more fulfilling possibilities.

4. Make Friends with Uncertainty

Change can be a scary thing, especially when it comes to livelihood, because it’s connected to our identity as well as a sense of financial security. One of the biggest obstacles to creating or finding work that matters is our difficulty in tolerating the feeling when we’re faced with uncertainty. Often we aren’t willing to sit in a space of not knowing. If you find yourself freezing up with fear at the thought of making a change in your work situation, this key can help with viewing uncertainty as a place ripe with creativity and potential.

5. Think Big and Make the Most of Your Resources   

In this context, “Think Big” refers to breaking out of self-imposed limitations about what’s possible, of thinking we don’t have enough of what we need. I believe all of us have a natural brilliance that yearns to come out and be expressed in the daily activities of our lives, including our work. This spark longs to be seen by others in the most authentic way possible. This is buddhanature, our awakened self, and it is luminous and radiant. That luminosity is present in all of us, but we often forget it or lose our way. When you focus on this key, you develop your capacity to work from a place of vision and intention.

6. Build a Circle of Allies and Ask for Help

The people we surround ourselves with amount to a powerful vehicle enabling us to make changes that can lead to right livelihood. If you’re feeling alone on the journey to transform your relationship to work, this key reminds you of the essential role that other people play in this process. These are people who will embody a more liberating way of working (and living), and by doing so, will expand your sense of what’s possible.

The strengths and qualities that go with each of these keys can be cultivated through contemplative and other kinds of exercises. For example, I often invite clients to do something called “Mining for Gold” as a way to discern what might be their core intention. This involves taking an inventory of their past jobs (including volunteer work) and uncovering where they felt resonance with their inner life and values. Sometimes the results can be delightfully surprising. One woman loved to cook for family and friends, but as we went deeper into the inquiry, she started to see that it wasn’t cooking, per se, that was her core intention but rather a desire to nourish people. That intention could manifest in various ways. Cooking was just one of them. This opened up all kinds of new possibilities for her to consider in her work life. 

When I started to explore these keys in my life, it became clear that I needed to be in a profession with an expansive perspective, something I finally found in graduate studies for cultural anthropology. I saw my tendency to undervalue myself in work settings and negotiations, mirroring how women are systemically undervalued in most mainstream economies. And I discovered that I had inherited a tenacious set of limiting beliefs from my parents through no fault of theirs. All these insights became a pathway to work that I loved, and to growth as a human being as well. 

A holistic model like this can be a helpful framework for making choices that lead us to a contemporary version of right livelihood, one that takes into account the social, political, cultural, and psychological dimensions that distinguish our time from the Buddha’s reference points. That livelihood will look as unique as we are; there is no one-size-fits-all solution. For some of us, it might mean we view our current job from a new perspective and find fulfillment by more consciously bringing our core intention forth. For others, it might involve a radical career change to more closely align with one’s core intention. For some, it could mean starting a small business or nonprofit organization that serves as a vehicle to express their values in the world. 

Our time on this planet is short, and work is one of the primary vehicles for discovering and sharing our true selves. Each of these six keys is easily worth a lifetime of practice; they invite us to grow in our professional lives as well as in the whole of our lives. The more we are able to develop these qualities, the closer we’ll get to creating joyful, abundant, and sustainable work that embodies love and compassion for ourselves and for the whole world.  

Maia Duerr

Maia Zenyu Duerr is the author of Work That Matters: Create a Livelihood that Reflects Your Core Intention. A student in the Soto Zen lineage for many years, she has served as the executive director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the director of Upaya Zen Center’s Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program.  Maia also has a master’s degree in cultural anthropology from the California Institute of Integral Studies. She draws on all these experiences to create tools for integrating mindfulness into the workplace. Maia lives in Northern New Mexico.