On Right Livelihood & Values
With world events this past week my state of mind has fluctuated wildly as I’m sure it has for many others. I wrote about this last week in terms of how things can fall apart at the macro level, but at a very personal level thousands of miles away from conflict, it’s also hard to carry on without being carried away.
When I look back on the week I was most mindful when I was very focused on a problem at work and I was most unfocused when this intensity continued into non-work hours. In other words, doing deep work was centering, and checking twitter dozens of times a day, was not (surprise!). I’ve written about the importance of concentration to happiness before but, alas, it’s hard to not fall into the habit. The main difference is that this time I actually did need to check Twitter for work. Why? Well, there’s a war going on and it’s related to what I was working on…
When I first started this newsletter the entire premise was this exact dilemma - how to be mindful when your job requires you to be constantly online.
Now, did I need to check that frequently? At some points yes, but often not. Could I have been more grounded by meditating more? Sure. But to a certain degree if you’re working long hours, glued to your desk and following a war, it’s very hard to be centered.
Ultimately, there are certain environments that are just naturally more conducive to mindfulness and compassion than others.
One of the eight noble truths is Right Livelihood - quoting Thich Nhat Hanh in “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching”:
[Right Livelihood is the idea that] “you have to find a way to earn a 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.”
“Bringing awareness to every moment, we try to have a vocation that is beneficial to humans, animals, plants, and the earth, or at least minimally harmful. We live in a society in which jobs are sometimes hard to find, but if it happens that our work involves harming life, we should try to find another job. Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be aware to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living.”
There is a phrase in Buddhism “You have to eat, sleep, and shit. That's unavoidable. But beyond that is none of your business.” This is similar to Krishna in the Bhaghavad Ghita telling Arjuna that fighting in a war at a deep level is not wrong since ultimately everything is empty and interdependent… And while sure, ultimately everything is empty, it doesn’t mean that if you have alternatives you shouldn’t choose carefully.
Among all jobs there are fundamentally certain environments that make nourishing compassion difficult. There’s the industry itself - e.g., dealing in weapons, drugs or slaves. There’s also the job environment - e.g., if you don’t feel people have your back and you don’t have trust, it’s going to be hard to not think about how to find a safer place. Next, your job also has to match your personality. For example, I have a good friend that is a surgeon - it matches him perfectly. However, for me just the idea of doing the job gives me pause, let alone the sleepless nights and on-call nature of the profession required. I am terrible when I don’t sleep...
And finally your job needs to match your values. This is one of the areas that I think has become trickiest in most corporate environments. I remember being at McKinsey and telling a Partner I didn’t want to work on a fast food project - the idea of optimizing fast foods to maximize consumption was not something I was comfortable with. The Partner looked at me like I was crazy. In retrospect I’m very happy with that decision but why did he look at me that way? I think it’s because ultimately most of us work in companies where we are expected to just execute whatever it is we are told to do no matter what it is - we get paid, and we do. That’s the contract. Usually that’s fine (we often chose the company for a reason), however, if it what you work on requires you to sacrifice compassion, or actively do something that you consider hurting other people, is it worth it? Is it not worth at least trying to find something more aligned? Your values are too important to leave at the door.
These posts normally have clearer endings but I think this is mostly an open rumination. We spend so much of our lives at work, how we spend it is important. May you be able to do so with mindfulness and compassion.