By Jeff Eisenberg
When people say that they are “working for the weekend” it’s usually in the context of having disdain for how they make a living.
Many people are just suffering through it for the money, so they can afford to do what they like when they’re not working. (I often joke how I work to support my jiu jitsu habit) And while there are definitely certain occupations that a Buddhist shouldn’t do, there seems to be this very narrow vision on just what they can do.
The Buddhist teachings talk about having a right livelihood, and other than directing that our livelihood should not cause harm, there is really very little else said on the subject. So in response to this, many Buddhists have defined right livelihood by what they do to fit into a Buddhist occupational mold that seems to have the consensus of the majority of practitioners, though I guess I missed the vote on that issue.
I never understood why, when I joined the Buddhist club, everyone seemed to be a therapist, counselor, social worker, or divinity grad student.
And worse, why these occupations and pursuits were only considered “true” right livelihood if one performed them for a barely livable wage, as compensation. Buddha forbid if you were a shrink on Park Avenue making big bank by working with the wrong people.Even Buddhist centers and teachers were not immune to this phenomena, as many of them were chastised for having the audacity to charge for their time and services. The nerve of those greedy Buddhist bastards. Yet the same people being critical of retreat fees, were the same people complaining about every one of their needs not being met while on retreat.
Rather than worrying so much about what we do, our focus should be on why we do it. At first glance, especially in a Buddhist context, this “why” will have be interpreted as having the intention of helping others, no matter what the job. But, I’m actually addressing and advocating this issue as having the intention to help one’s self. If we are not happy with ourselves, we won’t be any good to anyone else.
So rather than worrying about what a Buddhist should or should not do, or choosing to do what we’ve been led to think that a Buddhist should do, we should shift our focus to identifying what we’re passionate about and figure out how to make pursuing it work in our lives.
To follow one’s passion, results in self-satisfaction which in turn, results in serving the greater good, often much more than a Buddhist approved “good deed” done at the practitioner’s dismay and detriment. Following our passions and enjoying the contentment that it brings, organically serves it forward with little to no effort at all and serves us in a much more wholesome way, much more so than trudging through a job merely for Buddha’s sake, or better put, the sake of being a Buddhist.
The old saying of “love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life” rings true in this context. All the service work in the world just doesn’t serve any purpose at all if it makes us stressed out and depressed, or harms us or our families by demanding so much of our time that it causes responsibilities to be neglected, or pays so little that it inflicts financial stress. Of course, this is not to deter people from serving others. The middle way applies here as well. We must balance service work into lives that are also serve our personal, family, and financial well-being. Doing this will put us in a better position to be of even greater service.
My experience has been that many people struggle, and ultimately fail, because they do not look to find a balance between work and service, but rather attempt to make their work completely their service. There is nothing inherently wrong with this aspiration, but it is virtually impossible to do so without compromising self-satisfaction.
Generally, this self-sacrifice and compromise has to do with renunciation. Are we willing to give up unnecessary luxuries, expenses and self-indulgent extracurricular activities and hobbies? Downsize our living situations? Move from a preferred area? Are we ready to change the level of our means and live within it? Do without retreats? Spend less time at our local center? Often it isn’t that what we aspire to do doesn’t work for us, it’s simply that we might not be willing to do what it takes to make it work.
Renunciation and self-sacrifice does not have to denote struggle and suffering in the name of supporting the “good” of the cause, nor does it mean that we have to accept and endure unhappiness in the “spirit” of our convictions. It means that we can make informed, mature decisions and choices in redefining and executing the changes we wish to make in our lives and find comfort in them. Sometimes, it means we must quickly adapt to what life provides us.
In part two of this article, I’ll use my own experience as an example of how when life hit me with a cold, sucker punch, rather than knocking me out, it woke me up to engage in the most transformative experience of my life.
Jeff Eisenberg is a Grand Master level martial arts and meditation teacher with over 40 years of training and 25 years of teaching experience. Trained in a variety of disciplines, he has run his own Dojo for nearly 15 years and has trained thousands of children and adults in martial arts and meditation. He is the author of Fighting Buddha: Martial Arts, Buddhism Kicking Ass and Saving It and Buddha’s Bodyguard: How to protect Your Inner VIP. Check out his website here.
Editor: Peter Schaller