What Is Right Livelihood?
“When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music. To love life through labor is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret. All work is empty save when there is love, for work is love made visible.” Kahlil Gibran
The idea of “right livelihood” originally comes from Buddhism and refers to work that is consciously chosen, performed with full awareness and care and leads to enlightenment. It means we show our love for the world through our work and should avoid work that hurts or exploits others. Work provides us with an opportunity to put our beliefs into action.
In my consulting practice, I often work with people whose work, through a series of circumstances, has chosen them. Sometimes these career choices seem arbitrary. One person liked a professor he had in college and therefore took up that person’s occupation. What many deemed “practical” dictated their direction. Some chose a professional graduate school so they would be qualified to do something, only to realize in their first job that that they do not like the work itself. Sadly, career choice is often not inspired from a passion or a particular talent or need of expression.
“We like to think that we have chosen our work, but it could be more accurate to say that our work has found us.” Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul
A married person with a family sometimes makes career decisions based on what is best for the family. Work that does not harm others and supports our family is important. If we find our options are limited while we raise a family, we can be thankful that we have a well-paying job, and can plan for a career change to more fulfilling work when the children have left home.
Right livelihood is also about being present in the moment and doing the work that needs to be done. I t means concentrating on each task at hand. All parts of the work are important, including the paperwork many of us would rather not do. It means being willing to do the “grunge” work. Mother Teresa said that there is too much preaching and not enough doing. “Take a broom and clean someone’s house,” she says. “That says enough.”
I have a client who was miserable working at a large law firm. She gained weight and had difficulty completing her work, even though she was very capable. Changing law firms did not improve the situation. Then she went through a thorough assessment process with me where we looked honestly at who she is and what she wanted. She discovered she really wants to work from her home making draperies or other crafts. She now has a two-year plan to make that happen. In the interim she worked out a three quarter time schedule with her old firm that allows her time to take better care of herself, pay off debt and plan her business.
Opus, as defined by Jung, is the “work of the soul.” Often when people come to me unhappy in their work, it is because the work does not fit them. It does not nourish the soul. Our work is a reflection of who we are. But if there is a discrepancy between the work and who we are, then the soul suffers. It could be that we did not do “good” work or that the work itself doesn’t represent who we are.
When I was a stock broker, I felt the essence of providing people with investment options was good. People should save and invest their money. But the brokerage environment is competitive, narrow in job scope, and focused on making money for the broker and the firm. Just the nature of the commission sales compensation system can lead to concern more for the size of the paycheck than recommending investments that are suitable for clients. I thought there must be other work I could do that was more a reflection of who I am and would more fully utilize my talents, skills and need to express myself. I did not feel that I had a special “talent” as a stock broker; I could not stand out in the industry. But I feel that I have a special talent for career consultation and coaching, and I contribute to my clients and add value to their lives. And the feedback I get from the universe (from having some success in this endeavor), supports that there is some truth to this assumption. This does not come from an inflated ego, but from working in two different occupations, feeling like things were not “right”, and conducting a thorough self-assessment process where I was honest about my skills and abilities. I also went back to graduate school and continue to invest in learning. And as I develop my business, I am clear about my strengths and weaknesses so that I do not get pulled in directions that will not fit for me. I make conscious choices that sometimes mean sacrificing income or prestige.
Right livelihood is about earning your keep on this planet and doing work that supports life. According to Marsha Sinetar, “It means doing your best at what you do best.” It means being proactive, honestly evaluating our options and making conscious choices. Right livelihood means contributing to our chosen work in a way that expands the work itself and grows us in the process. Trovare lavoro