The words dharma practice are usually associated with images of sitting silently on the cushion. Too often our minds create a separation between practice and living in the world. This fragmentation is not what the Buddha intended. In fact, the foundation of the meditation is sila, skillful conduct in the world, expressed in the Eightfold Path as right speech, right action and right livelihood.
The ideal livelihood would seem to include these elements:
1) enjoying the task,
2) the feeling of making a contribution,
3) earning a good income, and
4) enhancing the dharma practice by cultivating non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion.
If the job you’re in is really a painful situation, there is the option of finding a better one. Practice doesn’t always mean letting things be. As we know from sitting practice, however, even the best conditions are subject to impermanence. Attitudes, situations and the amount of physical emotional energy we bring to our work can change.
I consider myself quite fortunate in livelihood. Besides spending much of my time sharing dharma on a dana basis, as well as counseling, I’m also in business distributing a product called Spirulina. This tiny plant not only brings health to many people, but I believe in time it will prove to have significant value in easing world hunger. Helping others in these ways while earning enough to support my wife and me is a really good situation. Yet, as ideal as it is, there are times when my enthusiasm wanes and I find myself wondering what work I can do that will really fulfill me! Fulfillment, I think, has less to do with the job than one’s capacity to feel fulfilled. If a strong pattern develops of dwelling on what’s missing in life, then fulfillment cannot be attained. How can it be, if the present moment is never enough?
When lack of enjoyment on the job is a problem, how different is it from dealing with aversion or boredom on the cushion? Like the hindrances when they arise, this is your present dharma. If the external situation can’t be changed, developing a different relationship to it is the challenge of practice. The difficulties that get in the way can help you see how judgments and expectations create additional pain.
Boredom usually comes from a restlessness or desire for stimulation that prevents us from giving full attention to the moment. The Vietnamese meditation master Thich Nhat Hanh has a wonderful practice he gives his students: washing the dishes to wash the dishes. This is different from washing them in order to get them clean so that you can sit down and relax, which has the effect of toppling us forward into the next moment.
If we can’t wash the dishes, then chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. During our cup of tea, we will only be thinking about other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future, and what that really means is that we are incapable of living even one minute of life.
Suppose someone unfamiliar with intensive retreats asked you to explain what you did that has created such enthusiasm and appreciation for the experience. He might think you’re a bit strange if you say, “I lifted my foot, I moved it through the air and then I placed it on the ground. Then I sat and watched my breath.”
“Sounds exciting,” he might reply as he retreated to look for more interesting conversation.
Yet those of us who’ve sat on retreats know the tremendous feeling of aliveness when we bring focused awareness to the here and now. With the quality of presence we bring to a retreat, a job on an assembly line can be as much an opportunity to practice as “lifting, moving, placing.”
Another important issue is having a sense of contribution through work. There are jobs that are more obviously service oriented than others, but it’s misleading to measure a job’s potential contribution solely by how noble it seems. An impressive service-type job can be done with ego and self-importance. Conversely, even the most seemingly mundane job can be used as a vehicle for expressing kindness and compassion. For instance, a certain toll collector who worked on a bridge I use radiated such loving energy that I would go out of my way to give my money to him. Bringing a spirit of good-heartedness to the job powerfully touches coworkers and customers, making a real contribution to their lives.
Money can be another difficult livelihood issue. If your income is low a useful question might be, “Are my basic needs being met?” If they are, then one way to work with the situation is to consciously undertake the paramita (perfection) of renunciation as a practice. The ultimate example is a monk whose only requirements are food, shelter, a robe and medicine. Renunciation doesn’t mean martyrdom but is more the spirit of “voluntary simplicity” that asks, “Can I be content with what I have?” With that attitude the mind that gets lost in wanting more has another choice.
Finally, what if the job doesn’t seem quite dharmic enough? Of course, if a job requires you to break precepts then that’s a high price to pay and it might be appropriate to look for other work. Other than that, if we relate to various hardships in work as opportunities to cultivate more patience, openness and balance, they can be used to enrich rather than hinder our practice. When work is hard, sangha is tremendously helpful in maintaining that attitude. Being around like-minded people reminds us of the possibility of acting skillfully with unpleasant conditions. Christmas Humphreys wrote, “The only miracle this path has to offer is a change of heart.” There is nothing outside of dharma practice if we have the proper attitude. The challenge is to nurture that attitude in even the most trying circumstances and in the process grow in our ability to embrace all of life.