Being a practitioner of mindfulness without a system of ethics may help one relax, become more focused, or be less reactive in difficult situations, but much deeper benefits are available to us and to those around us when we begin to practice from a place of intentional wholesomeness. The eightfold path in Buddhism provides a helpful guide for ideals or standards we can aspire to in order to ensure our practice truly benefits us and others with whom we are irrevocably interconnected.
The fifth rung of the path, an aspect of moral discipline or virtue, is Ethical (Right) Livelihood. Our world is monetized and so most of us must work to meet our basic needs. We are expected to spend at least half of our waking hours earning our keep. So if we wish to live a life that is wholesome and based on our highest values, how can we do so if our job requires us to harm others, either directly or indirectly?
…a householder knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income. – Dighajanu (Vyagghapajja) Sutta: Conditions of Welfare
Sure, it would be nice to have a job that does amazing things for the world, but most of us are doing well to just be able to survive. The method by which we make a living can be ethical or unethical in many ways, both subtle and obvious. If evolution and personal growth is our aim, it is important to look beyond our paychecks and ask some penetrating questions.
On the most obvious level we might ask ourselves, “Does my work involve killing, injuring, sickening, or oppressing other beings?” It isn’t hard to see how these tasks are incongruent with a compassionate life. But, we can also harm others through duties that involve deception, greed, exploitation, or squandering of natural resources. Are we expected to mislead people in order to make money? Do we get ahead primarily by stepping on the backs of others? Are we working to excess in order to hoard more wealth than we need – tying up resources that could benefit others? Does our work harm the environment on which we and other beings depend?
And what is wrong livelihood? Scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling, & pursuing gain with gain. – Maha-cattarisaka Sutta: The Great Forty
There is also much good work out there to be done that truly benefits others, although sadly our culture does not tend to reward these roles as richly as many other professions. Does your job help provide people with basic needs? Do you help create something useful that makes lives or the environment safer or better in some way? Do you protect other beings or help maintain their safety? Does your work attempt to heal other beings or ease their suffering in some way? Are you spreading happiness through your chosen vocation?
If you’ve had a nagging feeling that the work you do is unethical, I invite you to begin to think about how you might make a change. Is it possible to transform your job from within so that your particular duties are more beneficial? Can you encourage your employers or colleagues to reconsider the way they operate the company? Can you engage in some additional work (maybe volunteering) to undo the damage that is done? Will you need to pursue a different career altogether, and if so, what do you need to get the ball rolling? Are you willing to investigate other opportunities? Is there someone who can act as a guide or a mentor? Although it may seem daunting to consider, the long-term rewards of living a life in alignment with one’s highest values can be priceless.
The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. – Mahatma Gandhi