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September 1996

On the Path to Right Livelihood

by Bobbye Middendorf

Right Livelihood: It’s one of the steps along the Buddhist eight-fold path. It has also become a code in contemporary circles for earning one’s daily bread out of doing work that is “right.” How does one achieve it? Where does one find it?

Numerous books purportedly guide people along this path. Resources recommended during my talks with eleven career experts are Bolles’ What Color Is Your Parachute?, Marsha Sinetar’s Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and all of the books by Barbara Sher (including her latest, Live the Life You Love), Tom Jackson and William Bridges. Recently Paul and Sarah Edwards, “the work-at-home gurus” have come up with an entrepreneurially focused career book, Finding Your Perfect Work. According to the Edwards, “In the future, most of us must create our own livelihoods based on our personal choices about the kind of life we want to live.”

Life and work are inextricably linked. More and more people are choosing work that reflects the whole of their person; and are disenchanted sooner than ever with work that misses this connection. It is truly the crisis/opportunity of our times.

Defining the Territory-What is Right Livelihood?
The most extensive definition was outlined by Marti Beddoe, founder of Right Livelyhoods. She detailed how each step of the eightfold Buddhist path, “the middle way,” could actually be related to the working life. “Right Livelihood means to avoid any life that brings shame. It embodies the other seven steps along the eightfold path to enlightenment: Right Thought involves love and devotion through work. Right Mindfulness means consciously choosing your path and your work. Right Understanding evolves from consciously choosing work that is the best of ourselves and having knowledge of our values. Right Speech implies compassion relating to others through our work. Right Concentration means doing work with care and intense awareness and love. Right Action implies doing your work and having no attachment to the results. Right Effort is about choosing work you can do a whole life, keeping yourself in a state of constant learning and beginner’s mind. The bottom line is this: work that embodies love, devotion, and service is as much an attitude as the actions we take.”

Robin Sheerer, founder of Career Enterprises Incorporated ("Where work and heart meet") characterizes right livelihood as “a sense of ease in work and life, where one isn’t caught in an internal conflict... Because when people are at peace about it, it frees energies to be more concentrated, more productive, more focused, and happiest.” Part of right livelihood, according to Sheerer, “is in designing your work and life so that you’re growing throughout your lifetime.”

Peter LeBrun holds right livelihood as an ideal, “living in a totally authentic way, with no separation between work life and personal life, going after what you’re most passionate about. It is also embedded in the idea of vocational wholeness. To move toward the ideal is the work of a lifetime.”

Diane Wilson, principal in the firm Grimard Wilson Consulting, has trained with Richard Bolles. She considers the work she does life career planning. “I help people look at the broadest picture of their lives. We’ve been square pegs in round holes. I create a safe arena for people to look at what they’ve tucked help people find work that fits their purpose, skills and life mission; to narrow the gap between what they dream versus what they do. Or at least to help them see the steps — see gifts and help bring them forward.”

Jean Davis, an Evanston-based psychotherapist who specializes in adult career transitions, noted that the most productive work represents an extension of what she termed “the authentic self: all the original material is there...but laid over with someone else’s nightmare.... We’ve gotten distracted from the authentic self.” Davis aims to “help people engage in the process of discovery to reclaim the authentic self.”

Arlene Hirsch, a local career consultant and author of Love Your Work and Success Will Follow, suggests being practical about the things you love. Her favorite definition of the territory comes from Aristotle: “You would find your vocation where your talents meet opportunity.” Hirsch emphasizes the importance of integrating financial needs along with what matters most. “Choose something you love, then develop practical skills about how to make money.”

Idene Goldman of VisionWorks has a program specifically titled “Life and Livelihood,” designed to “synchronize what you do in life with who you are inside. Documenting and applying values, strengths, mission, vision.” Goldman, calling it “aligned livelihood,” emphasizes the congruence and harmoniousness “when you feel aligned. We are answered by life when we put out clear messages of who we are and we get back what we need.” Alignment for Goldman “is where what we do is an expression of who we are inside out.”

Advice and Insights from the Experts
“My job,” says Goldman, “is to get people to fall in love with themselves. I call it‘inner education.’ First, people need to take the time to be quiet and discriminate between shoulds versus urges. Second, care about yourself enough to listen to yourself. Third, embrace your present job. It’s the backdrop and stage setting for your growth as an individual. Choose to get all you can out of a situation. And if you need help listening to yourself, get help. We need a mirror to see ourselves inside too.”

Former Chicagoan Elke Siller Macartney, a counselor now based in LaConner, Washington, has been helping people in their search for true work for nearly two decades. Her book, Be YourSelf Boldly, offers 23 succinct lessons that encompass the elements necessary to achieving right livelihood, including such concepts as integrity, abundance, and purpose.

“First and most important is developing clarity of vision, a vision of what makes your heart sing. Second, synchronicity plays a big part. If the vision is clear, synchronicity can take over. Third, you must have a high sense of integrity, and always tell yourself the truth. Fourth, allow yourself flexibility.”

LeBrun advises that you “stay true to your own internal sense about what you can be excited about. Success is having a clear idea of where you want to go and moving toward it as quickly or as slowly as you need. The hardest thing to do is keep up the momentum.” To that end, LeBrun offers the following ideas: “Have an ongoing support group for career change. Stay in touch with your coach. Write in a journal. Work with a mentor. Make a commitment with a close friend to make the changes you’ve decided on. Maintain balance in your life.” He adds, “What it boils down to is the little steps you take each day. Be willing to stick in there, even when the going gets rough.”

Lansky’s advice is that focus is extremely important. People come to her when they don’t know what they want to do, when they need to define direction. And after defining that focus, effective marketing is critical — resumes, letters, selling yourself in an interview. “Don’t expect people to figure out what your transferable skills are.” She adds, “Tell the truth for where you are now.... Tell the truth about who you are, what you want to do, the time you want to give. Realize it’s not forever.”

Rosita Rodriguez, a human resources professional and founder of Arche International, a meditation center in Oak Park, observes, “If people are faced with a choice that they know upfront won’t be satisfactory, then they shouldn’t do it.” Building from the Buddhist definition, she elaborates, “Only look for those things that bring peace. Do not be out of harmony with who you are. When faced with a situation, always ask,‘Will this help or hinder my spiritual growth?’”

Sheerer says, “Slow down enough to figure it out. Become an astute observer of yourself.” If self reflective exercises and time alone don’t work for you, Sheerer recommends seeking out someone who is trained to listen. Sheerer, like many of her colleagues, recommends creating a support group.

According to Wilson, “people need to be anchored in who they are, so someone else can’t come in and tell them what to do. I help people in a very holistic and individualized way, especially helping them find their intuition and honor it. This sense of higher purpose is crucial. This makes everything else work.”

When Davis works with clients, she offers highly individualized suggestions, often specific books, literature, films, or art exhibits. Davis has pioneered such work using aesthetic resources as “nutrients and stimulants” for clients. With a Ph.D. in English, Davis draws on a vast resource of literary understanding, recommending the kinds of books and stories that help clients get at what’s hidden or suppressed. She has come to see clusters of universal themes that adults address. Davis often recommends Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream. “Almost everyone who comes in says,‘I don’t have a clue.’ In doing the work, the clues appear, because they’re always there.”

Beddoe affirms the importance of introspection, reading, and creating a support network. She also recommends talking to at least 20 people in a given field of interest. She adds, “If you hire a coach, make sure they walk their talk. Get rid of the either/or thinking that leads to the old excuse,‘You can either do right livelihood or earn a living.’ Look for both/and.“ Beddoe also recommends getting a financial advisor, someone who understands the right livelihood process and is supportive to help you figure out your finances.

Success Stories
From ad space salespeople who become healers; from corporate executives who start educational storytelling practices or become teachers or start a cleaning business: Collectively, there are hundreds of stories of successful transitions, some dramatic and some less so. As Wilson commented, “It’s fascinating, exciting and fun [to help people] take inventory and make an examined choice about careers.”

LeBrun, who works with people with serious health problems, including HIV, AIDS, cancer, and MS, acknowledged the tremendous success stories of these individuals willing to address living their lives, even as they encounter health struggles. He also noted that everyone succeeds and progresses at their own pace. Stories of dramatic change can sometimes be discouraging to people who are taking a more evolutionary path.

Sheerer shared her tale of the client with a passion for British tea service, about which Sheerer herself admitted feeling, “Well, what are we going to do with this?” For a year, the client systematically searched for opportunities that would tap into her passion. Finally realizing she wanted to work for herself, she is on her way — building a business around cooking, catering, and of course, tea.

Lansky feels most proud of the new small businesses and entrepreneurial ventures she’s spawned. Several of these experts offer marketing coaching and other entrepreneurial resources and feedback for clients who make the move to create their own companies.

What Trends Are You Seeing?
Davis acknowledges a “fluid marketplace,” while Goldman indicates that, “The economy is making people look at downsizing, and allows them to choose self-discovery.” Nearly everyone noted that they see people who are tired, who will no longer compromise. Many individuals are seeking deeper meaning in their work and congruence between their work life and the rest of their lives. Many noted the migration to smaller businesses, the growth of entrepreneurial ventures and the trend toward people taking responsibility for running their careers just as though they were small businesses.

Sheerer sees more people taking time out via sabbaticals. Many who do so ultimately do not return to the same job. They become aware that they are seeking, “satisfying work and a whole life; People are willing to have fewer material goods. They want more time.”

Others observe that people can also succeed in “growing where they’re planted.” Macartney suggests, “People are rediscovering service to the world, and they are discovering they can enact that service in whatever context they find themselves in. People are discovering ways of being a healer while being a computer programmer, within their own particular situation.”

Also, for those still in a company, one of the most interesting trends observed by Rodriguez is the number of corporations that now offer some kind of meditative activity to their employees. Rodriguez is currently writing up several studies that show statistically significant decreases in employee absenteeism, improved concentration, lowered insurance rates, and quantifiable bottom line results for those companies offering such programs.

Lansky, who recently relocated to the West coast, reports that there are significantly different issues that come up in Portland versus the kind of work and clients she saw in Chicago. “People in Portland are really operating on a deeper spiritual level that I wasn’t seeing in Chicago. On the other hand, there’s less out here about the nuts and bolts of how you find a job.”

The process to identify and build a life that truly reflects your right livelihood is available. Those who make their livelihood by helping others achieve theirs are truly an extraordinary group. As Beddoe points out, “If you’re in the spirit of right livelihood, you know this moment is the right moment.”

Bobbye Middendorf is a writer and artist living in Chicago.

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