The last of the three factors in the “ethical living” portion of the Eightfold Path is Right Livelihood. This is a down-to-earth, practical consideration. For many of us work is our primary interaction with other people and so may have significant karmic consequences. How we support ourselves and/or our families will influence our mental states every day.
Stated positively, our work or means of support should be:
- Without coercion
- Not deceptive
Being out of alignment with even one of these principles could be quite detrimental. In the Pali canon there are lists of wrong livelihoods, including trading in human beings, slaughtering living creatures, dealing in poisons, etc. For most of us these are not present dangers, but if we feel something is out of balance in our work, it may be that one of these goals is not being met.
Evaluating Right Livelihood is an individual reflection. A construction worker probably doesn’t have a peaceful workplace and might have to find ways to keep a relatively peaceful (if watchful) mind. Working in sales of any kind, which describes a rising percentage of jobs, requires monitoring truthfulness (non-deception) and possibly even the coercion question. Legality and non-harming (including not harming ourselves) are clear boundary markers, but we must be paying attention to notice them.
If we work in isolation, electronically from home or otherwise, we don’t have the benefit of other people’s eyes to reinforce our wholesome intentions, which means we need to be extra careful about our interactions. Perceptions can more easily become distorted when we are not face-to-face with each other.
Because most of us have to work to support ourselves and others at some time in our lives, this factor of the path is an essential guard rail against veering into unethical behavior because “it’s my job”.
The wisdom group in the Eightfold Path leads logically and directly to speaking and acting in alignment with what we know is beneficial to ourselves and others. The last grouping, the Concentration division, is focused on sitting and walking meditation as well as other practices designed to settle the mind. A settled mind sees everything more clearly.