By Brent R. Oliver
I love the Eightfold Path.
Combined with the Four Truths, it provides a detailed and skillful method for recognizing suffering and walking toward liberation. And, like most lists of healthy suggestions, there are parts of it I totally disregard.
Usually it’s laziness, rationalizing, or a predisposition for rebelliousness that compel me to creatively interpret guidelines. Like when the American Heart Association mentions I should be eating more vegetables and I decide mushrooms on pizza counts. Or the fact that I love to curse and throw insults, neither of which really line up with Right Speech (sometimes, a sentence is just funnier with “fuck” in it). Occasionally, I decide I’m edgier than other Buddhist and mindfulness writers and my aggressive attitude is a helpful tool.
Right Livelihood is different.
I engage in a decidedly Wrong Livelihood and, not only do I recognize it fully, but I feel bad about it. As I patiently wait to become a world-famous writer and prestigious mindfulness teacher, my main source of income is bartending. The Buddha was perfectly clear in the Pali Canon about what five businesses his lay followers should never pursue: dealing in weapons, meat, poisons, humans and intoxicants.
Intoxicants. Well, shit. I guess I can only hope those five occupations are on a gradient scale. I’d hate to think that slinging martinis is just as bad as selling 10-year-olds into the sex trade. That seems unfair.
Five nights a week I’m behind the stick, serving up all manner of alcoholic beverages, clouding people’s minds, impairing their judgment, nudging them deeper into delusion. I don’t work at a place that’s open till the wee hours and caters to college kids looking to get blitzed. I’m at a local, chef-driven restaurant that has farm-to-table food complemented by hand-crafted cocktails and a carefully considered wine list. People aren’t getting messy at our establishment. The drinks are meant to enhance the already-excellent food. We’re selling an experience; not drunkenness.
Nonetheless, I deal in intoxicants; there’s no doubt about it. The Buddha didn’t modify his statement with “If a customer is having the red snapper, it’s fine to sell them a bottle of nice Chardonnay.” My guests may not be all sloppy and yelling for Jäger shots at 1:45 a.m., but what I sell them still effects their minds and bodies. It may be subtle but it’s there.
No amount of meditation changes Wrong Livelihood. That’s something that can only be taken care of off the cushion.
I’m far less happy than I could be because of my work and the knowledge that I’m not living skillfully. And I feel what you’re thinking: why the hell don’t I just get a different job that’s in accord with Right Livelihood? The answer is simple: time and money.
I don’t have a college degree and, thus far, I don’t make enough money writing and coaching to make those my full-time jobs. Serving and bartending are two of the best ways to make a decent amount of cash with few responsibilities, flexible hours, and time off when you need it. If I left the biz for an entry level job, I’d be starting out below $10 an hour and be locked into a 40-hour work week. Without a degree, opportunities for advancement are incremental and peter out quickly. The schedule would most likely be a rigid 9 to 5 deal with little wiggle room and no option to trade shifts with a coworker when you suddenly need the morning off.
I currently make well over $10 an hour and put in about 30 hours per week. This frees me up to pursue ever-deeper training as a mindfulness coach. It lets me meet with students around their schedules. It affords me the chance to take off any week of the year to go on retreat. It allows me to sit here on a Monday at 2 p.m. writing this article instead of calling someone in Minnesota and asking if they’re happy with their life insurance because I’ve got an incredible deal for them.
In short, being a bartender allows me to pursue my dream. And all I have to do is continually violate a tenet of the Eightfold Path which contributes to my own suffering and that of others.
I’ve never believed karma is some cosmic force, something that metes out reward and punishment based on the perceived “goodness” or “badness” of our thoughts and deeds. That’s silly. But our choices and actions most certainly have consequences. If I decide to lie about something, I’ll be slightly more prone to lie again. As it gets easier to lie, and I allow myself to keep doing it, I’ll eventually be seen as a liar, and treated accordingly. Every choice, every action, creates pathways in our brains that makes forming a habit easier. We become what we do.
I don’t blame some vague spiritual law of the universe for me being in this position.
I’m not being disciplined for transgressions in a previous life. I’m a 44-year-old bartender because I’ve made shitty decisions in this life. I didn’t take high school seriously, so I didn’t worry about getting into college. Never really knew what I wanted to be or do, anyway. I’m a smart dude so, even without my best effort, I got into a good school.
That didn’t solve the problem of being utterly clueless about a direction for the future. I knew what I didn’t like (everything), and what I did like (alcohol, drugs, causing trouble) didn’t have a great retirement plan. I eventually got kicked out of college for being an asshole, which was exactly what I deserved.
Instead of using what should have been a sobering experience to get my life together and make a second run at things, I relaxed into slackerhood. Despite never having tried any winter sports, I went to Colorado in hopes of working at a resort and learning to snowboard. That didn’t work. I took an Amtrak train across the country to Boston to live with a girlfriend, despite her not really wanting me there. She was in school and I had no job. Weirdly, that didn’t work either.
After moving back in with my proud parents, I figured a brief stint as a server would let me make some dough and give me time to finally decide what I was going to do with myself. What I ended up doing with myself was jumping bodily into the restaurant world of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. We were a dream match. I wasn’t inspired to start making better decisions.
So let’s all agree that I’m to blame here. And let’s also agree that age 42 isn’t a great time to find out what you want to do with your remaining life. Especially when that thing, that dream you’ve been searching for, will pretty much keep you in the exact same tax bracket. But it’s better than if it never happened at all.
Even for a post-traditional, secular Buddhist like me, the Eightfold Path is still important. It’s the spine of this whole endeavor. As all the other folds have started lining up over the years, I see at least a glimmer of hope that this one will follow suit.
Teaching mindfulness for a living isn’t just the way I want to make my living; it’s the way to make my living Right.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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