Why Right Livelihood Isn’t Just About Your Day Job

Why Right Livelihood Isn’t Just About Your Day Job
Photo by Eutah Mizushima | https://tricy.cl/2vtDa9t

 

In our messy and entangled world, it is impossible to separate what we do for a living from the larger system that makes living possible.

By Krishnan Venkatesh

If we are embarking on a spiritual path, we need to live our lives ethically, and this means ensuring that we do as little harm as possible to anyone or anything while we’re earning our daily bread. If we don’t, our practice will be undermined by our daily actions, not only because of the practical consequences of harmful acts but also through the internal agitation of remorse and denial.

The Buddha’s statements about right livelihood are mostly what we would expect him to say. Avoid business in weapons, human beings, meat, intoxicants, and poison, according to the Anguttara Nikaya. Monks and contemplatives should steer clear of fortune telling, blood sacrifices, and other “base” or “lowly” arts, the Digha Nikaya reads. The careers of a soldier and actor are also full of dangers to the soul, warns the Samyutta Nikaya, and any activity requiring dishonesty and injury will annul spiritual progress.

All of these guidelines seem clear enough, and yet the path to right livelihood itself isn’t that simple. For example, is a soldier’s career necessarily incompatible with a spiritual life if he aspires to keep the peace and protect sentient beings? If plays and films have the potential to bring an audience closer to the truth about the human condition and to awaken compassion, why can’t there be Buddhist actors?

Even professions that seem admirable and praiseworthy can be tangled up in negative consequences. A physician today is implicated in a dubious industry that often benefits corporations and shareholders more than patients. My own career as a professor at a private college is mottled with questions about the consequences of the debt these young people take on in order to study. Is it truly worth it for them, or will it hurt them in the future in ways they cannot yet imagine? And, if so, does this negate the beneficial aspects of my work?

Almost every profession carries a burden of nagging doubt. Life was simpler 2,600 years ago. A butcher’s job related to the farmer who sold him the cow, the cow he butchered in his yard, and the customers who bought the meat.

Today, any means of livelihood is knotted into a vast system that impacts lives and landscapes thousands of miles away. A modern butcher’s livelihood is inextricable from the powerful farming and slaughtering industry that has the power to wipe out small farms and entire communities.

It has become much harder to evaluate the consequences of our jobs: we can do the research, or we can shut our eyes. In either case, the result is that deep inside, we find ourselves unsettled.

Since stepping out of the great economic net is also not possible for most of us, how can we find right livelihood?

We might resign ourselves to the fact that any profession we choose will be a messy mixture of good and bad consequences. We can make a daily effort to maximize the good and minimize the bad; indeed, nearly every job gives daily opportunities to help people and improve the world in some way. The effort to understand the antecedents and consequences of our work is also a mindfulness practice in a system that would prefer us to function on autopilot. To a thoughtful person, this effort also creates a constant tension with our work; we cannot hurl ourselves into our jobs with unquestioning ardor.

Many of us crave careers about which we can be wholeheartedly enthusiastic, but it can be a good thing to be in two minds about our jobs and to not identify with them too strongly. In Pali, the prefix samma means “complete, perfected,” rather than simply “right,” with its connotations of orthodox correctness. Thus, samma-ajiva may mean something more like “livelihood fully understood and rightly conducted, with all its tensions.” This would involve a saner relation to our work lives, in which we strive to be the best we can, and yet do not expect our jobs to give us the impossible, namely complete happiness and fulfillment…

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https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/right-livelihood-isnt-just-day-job/

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No, You Can’t Feel Sorry for Everyone

Waytz_BR_Duke-NCUS AND THEM: Sometimes, punishment of an out-group is taken to colorful extremes. Here, fans of the Duke Blue Devils try to distract Justin Jackson of the North Carolina Tar Heels during a 2016 game. This time, it didn’t work—UNC defeated Duke 76-72.Lance King/Getty Images

The idea of empathy for all ignores the limits of human psychology.

The world seems to be getting more empathetic. Americans donate to charity at record rates. People feel the pain of suffering in geographically distant countries brought to our attention by advances in communications and transportation. Violence, seen on historical timescales, is decreasing.

The great modern humanitarian project of expanding the scope of our empathy to include the entire human race seems to be working. Our in-group (those we choose to include in our inner circle and to spend our energies on) is growing, and our out-group (everybody else) shrinking. But there’s a wrinkle in this perfect picture: Our instinctive tendency to categorize the world into “us” and “them” is difficult to overcome. It is in our nature to favor helping in-group members like friends, family, or fellow citizens, and to neglect or even punish out-group members. Even as some moral circles expand, others remain stubbornly fixed, or even contract: Just think of Democrats and Republicans, Sunnis and Shiites, Duke and North Carolina basketball fans.

The endpoint of the liberal humanitarian project, which is universal empathy, would mean no boundary between in-group and out-group. In aiming for this goal, we must fight our instincts. That is possible, to a degree. Research confirms that people can strengthen their moral muscles and blur the divide between in-group and out-group. Practicing meditation, for example, can increase empathy, improving people’s ability to decode emotions from people’s facial expressions1 and making them more likely to offer a chair2 to someone with crutches. Simply increasing people’s beliefs in the malleability of empathy increases the empathy they express toward ideologically and racially dissimilar others.3 And when all else fails, people respond to financial gain. My co-authors and I have shown that introducing monetary incentives for accurate perspective-taking increased Democrats’ and Republicans’ ability to understand each other and to believe that political resolutions were possible.4

But these exercises can take us only so far. In fact, there is a terrible irony in the assumption that we can ever transcend our parochial tendencies entirely. Social scientists have found that in-group love and out-group hate originate from the same neurobiological basis, are mutually reinforcing, and co-evolved—because loyalty to the in-group provided a survival advantage by helping our ancestors to combat a threatening out-group. That means that, in principle, if we eliminate out-group hate completely, we may also undermine in-group love. Empathy is a zero-sum game.

Just as even the most determined athlete cannot overcome the limits of the human body, we cannot escape the limits of our moral capabilities.

Absolute universalism, in which we feel compassion for every individual on Earth, is psychologically impossible. Ignoring this fact carries a heavy cost: We become paralyzed by the unachievable demands we place on ourselves. We can see this in our public discourse today. Discussions of empathy fluctuate between worrying that people don’t empathize enough and fretting that they empathize too much with the wrong people. These criticisms both come from the sense that we have an infinite capacity to empathize, and that it is our fault if we fail to use it.

In 2006, then-Senator Barack Obama spoke at Northwestern University’s commencement bemoaning the country’s “empathy deficit” and urging people “to see the world through those who are different from us.” Several studies supported Obama’s concern: People in the 21st century exhibit less empathy5 and more narcissism6 than in decades past. A torrent of think-pieces have lamented and diagnosed this empathy decline.

And then the pendulum swung back. People do care, newspaper editorialists and social-media commenters granted. But they care inconsistently: grieving for victims of Brussels’ recent attacks and ignoring Yemen’s recent bombing victims; expressing outrage over ISIS rather than the much deadlier Boko Haram; mourning the death of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe while overlooking countless human murder victims. There are far worthier tragedies, they wrote, than the ones that attract the most public empathy.

Almost any attempt to draw attention to some terrible event in the world elicits these complaints, as though misallocated empathy was more consequential than the terrible event itself. If we recognized that we have a limited quantity of empathy to begin with, it would help to cure some of the acrimony and self-flagellation of these discussions. The truth is that, just as even the most determined athlete cannot overcome the limits of the human body, so too we cannot escape the limits of our moral capabilities. We must begin with a realistic assessment of what those limits are, and then construct a scientific way of choosing which values matter most to us…

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http://nautil.us/issue/51/limits/no-you-cant-feel-sorry-for-everyone-rp

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The Terror Within and the Evil Without: James Baldwin on Our Capacity for Transformation as Individuals and Nations

James Baldwin (Photograph: Sedat Pakay)

“It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within.”

“The self,” the poet Robert Penn Warren observed in his immensely insightful meditation on the trouble with “finding yourself,” “is a style of being, continually expanding in a vital process of definition, affirmation, revision, and growth, a process that is the image, we may say, of the life process of a healthy society itself.” Indeed, if the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm was correct, as I believe he was, in asserting that self-love is the foundation of a sane society, our responsibility to ourselves — and to our selves — is really a responsibility to one another: to know our interiority intimately and hold our darkest sides up to the light of awareness. But part of our human folly is that we do this far less readily than we shine the scorching beam of blameful attention on the darknesses of others.

That is what James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) explores in a magnificent 1964 piece titled “Nothing Personal,” found in The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction (public library) — the indispensable volume that gave us Baldwin on the creative process and his definition of love.

A year after he contemplated “the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are,” Baldwin writes:

It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet, the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels: the labels change, the terror is constant. And this terror has something to do with that irreducible gap between the self one invents — the self one takes oneself as being, which is, however, and by definition, a provisional self — and the undiscoverable self which always has the power to blow the provisional self to bits.

Echoing Bruce Lee’s assertion that “to become different from what we are, we must have some awareness of what we are,” Baldwin turns his critical yet uncynical intellect toward our capacity for self-transformation — the most difficult and rewarding of our inner resources comprising our collective potentiality:

It is perfectly possible — indeed, it is far from uncommon — to go to bed one night, or wake up one morning, or simply walk through a door one has known all one’s life, and discover, between inhaling and exhaling, that the self one has sewn together with such effort is all dirty rags, is unusable, is gone: and out of what raw material will one build a self again? The lives of men — and, therefore, of nations — to an extent literally unimaginable, depend on how vividly this question lives in the mind. It is a question which can paralyze the mind, of course; but if the question does not live in the mind, then one is simply condemned to eternal youth, which is a synonym for corruption…

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https://www.brainpickings.org/

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