In the last several months, I encountered a rising incidence of job losses among people I know. Some of them were told that their services were no longer required, while others were offered revised terms that were neither practical nor humanly possible to agree to. Some others chose to step down since it was just not possible to put up with the work environment any more. This phenomenon, along with the upheaval that it causes in the life of the person concerned, is something that I have been trying to understand for the last few years. In this post, I will try and fulfill a promise that I made to my readers over 30 months back, to share my understanding of right livelihood and how I am trying to live by this understanding.
I quit working about three years back, convinced that there was something better I could do with my life beyond helping a corporation make money for its shareholders. In these three years, I have realized that this simple decision of mine held the key to a lot of what bothers all of us. For a person to function at his best, there needs to be integrity, a singleness of purpose, a harmony between what one believes and desires and what one does and says. For a large number of professionals, there is a disconnect between what they believe and what they do for a livelihood. Yes, there is greater good being created at every step, but often at a pace that seems to favor those least in need of that good. Professions like medicine, law, law enforcement and defence are obvious examples, but with a little introspection, it can be found in almost all organized professions. This would also explain the attractiveness of not-for-profits to the youth of today.
The complex times we live in prevents us from seeing things in perspective and we frequently don’t even have the time to stop and question what we do with our lives. There was a time when man lived on the bounties of the earth, without having to worry about paying bills. As we evolved, we developed two things, specialization of tasks and the concept of common welfare. These are the two founding principles of society. Of course, with time, they have evolved into a thousand-headed creature, with the resources of the earth no longer “freely” available to you or me. The specialization of tasks led to the emergence of commerce, and commerce led to the emergence of profit as an economic pursuit. Living in a social system, with much of common welfare being provided by institutions such as governments, we are obliged to function within the norms, getting a college education, finding an optimal and hopefully satisfying job, acquiring material assets, paying taxes, paying for health, and saving for times when we might not be able to earn.
At the bottom of all this activity lies the pursuit of what is loosely termed happiness. If we were content with little, we would still have been living in the forests, picking berries and teaching our kids to hunt and fish instead of accounting and C++. In such a situation, applying ethical principles to one’s livelihood becomes a little complicated. We have already violated several precepts in the course of our evolution, and we accept those in the name of modernity. We have consciously been doing things that make the future untenable for coming generations. We have built nations by crushing indigenous people and cultures and built magnificent sky-scraping cities by exploiting cheap labor. The global, multi-level nature of businesses implies a price mark-up between producer and consumer that is in effect stealing from the producer. And these are not things that have shown up in recent times; they have been part of our social make-up from the very dawn of "commerce."
The question that then arises is - what does one do for a livelihood in the present time that will be in accordance with the principles of dignity and sanctity of human life and the need to preserve and nurture the resources that are keeping us alive? At one level, it would appear that the question itself is foolish. All modern economic activity is aimed at self preservation and creating value for stakeholders. By this definition, nothing that one can do as a “job” or an “occupation” is in compliance with the larger ethics we have drawn into our discussion. This is something I struggled with and surrendered to for many years. It was only after a series of life changing developments that I was able to achieve some clarity.
The principles that I try to live by today are closely mirrored in communist literature and in the Buddhist scriptures. But I am neither a communist nor a Buddhist; if anything, I am a Buddha who is “comme une” (like one) with all that surrounds me, and my only mission is to exhort all whose paths cross mine to realize that truth. Back to the commercials.
The emergence of economic exchange and the concept of individual capital led to the legitimization of greed. From time immemorial, man has been aspiring to possess much more than he needs, from the lowly subjects to the kings of all things (Macedonia, Mysore, Monsanto, Microsoft, etc). Our planet is truly bountiful, yet more than 90% of her population lead lives of want, very basic stuff, food, shelter, water, health, education. The reason for this is that the “resources” have been cornered by the powerful, the able, and the clever. Perhaps rightly so, especially from an evolutionist perspective. The good news is that the laws of karma are universal and absolute, and it is only natural that if any of this were to the detriment of the larger welfare, the consequences will emerge. And the global unrest among common citizens is but an expression of that consequence.
This rather “leftist” line of thinking is actually plain logic. If all of us chose to live based on our needs, it is but obvious that we could feed, clothe, shelter and offer health and education to every person on this planet. In the face of a globally failed socialism, is there evidence that this is workable and valid? The data on personal wealth of rich individuals that is the foundation of the occupy-like movements across the planet is proof enough. Defence budgets (that help nations keep what they believe is theirs) are another. The influence of large corporations on policy-making is another. I am listing these only for the benefit of the skeptical, and I look forward to your views and inputs that will support the validity of this ideology.
It is also true that if we assess our needs, we will find that we are able to get by on much less money than we believe we require. This opens up the possibility of making livelihood choices that are dictated by our humanism, our compassion and true need rather than the illusion of need that is thrust upon us by the advertising and marketing industry. If we assess our needs, we will feel less insecure about making changes in our livelihood activities. If we assess our needs, we will find it more satisfying to re-allocate the wealth we possess in activities that will bring good to a much larger number than we can imagine. If we assess our needs, our wants will reduce, and our fear of insecurity will leave us, and we will lead happier, fuller and more meaningful lives.
It is these thoughts that led me to take the decisions that have changed my life to a fuller, happier, more meaningful one. Yes, it takes some getting used to - to be able to say I will trust the universe to take care of me. Yes, we cannot do many of the things that our neighbors do,but our life is more joyous and stress-free than theirs. We spend our time encouraging others who are exploring similar lifestyles of service and community. We have replaced cynicism in our life with hope for the future. You may say that I am a dreamer, as John Lennon said. But I too hope someday you will join us and the world will live as one.