This is an edited transcript of a talk and discussion given at the Eco-Institute on October 24th, 2019. It draws from Cultivating Right Livelihood: Work as a Spiritual Path and Vehicle for Economic System Change, an article co-authored with friend and collaborator Della Duncan for the Spring 2019 edition of Kosmos Journal. The talk was given in the context of a weekend fermentation intensive on Koji — the Japanese fungus used for traditional Japanese fermentation methods and now at the forefront of culinary innovation. Big thanks to the Eco-Institute for hosting this talk and our larger weekend together, please check out their website for more retreats and gatherings!
My journey with right livelihood began after graduating college and realizing that my studies in Spanish and English literature provided very limited opportunities for employment — that in fact much of the work available was completely different from how I had spent the last four years of my life. And at the time, a lot of it did not meet my need for meaning.
Experiencing a minor existential crisis, I came to the conclusion that the only way forward was to find something I was completely obsessed with and passionate about, and something oriented towards building a better world. That journey continues today. I’ve carried a yearning for meaningful work with me over the last six years as an iterative process, and in the last year I turned that curiosity into a deeper reflection with a collaborator named Della Duncan. We did a writing project last winter on right livelihood and spent a couple of months doing a back and forth about what right livelihood means right now, in the context of a global social-ecological crisis, drawing from some Buddhist perspectives on the subject and also pulling in perspectives from the new economy or alternative economics space — and so some of the content from today will be coming from that work.
To start, let me say that I am not a Buddhist, but speak as a layperson who has found much wisdom in that tradition. Right livelihood is a phrase that comes out of the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism. In that context right livelihood has been historically defined as deriving one’s livelihood in a way that does not harm nature or others. And so it has been defined by what it is not: right livelihood is not weapons manufacturing, not butchering animals, money lending, what have you.
Vandana Shiva, Indian activist and environmentalist, defines right livelihood very simply as living in ways that actually contribute to harmony in nature and society. And she defines wrong livelihood as living in ways that rupture nature and society. That’s a very simple way of thinking about this.
For myself, I like to layer on the work of Thomas Berry. Berry was a cultural historian, self proclaimed “Geo-logian,” and a catholic priest. His career was coming into its maturity around the time that Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962. Carson’s book was the canary in the coal mine for the environmental movement and popularized a more public awareness of the ecological crisis that was emerging in a more severe way in the 60s and the 70s.
Thomas Berry’s work has been very important for me, and his basic call for humanity at this moment has been named the Great Work, which Berry perceived as our shared responsibility to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation or human extraction from the Earth, to a period when humans would be present to the Earth in a mutually-beneficial or mutually-enhancing manner.
I share Berry’s perspective here because it provides the underlying foundation for all of the work I do, and I understand that the Eco-Institute has its origin tied into Thomas Berry’s work. And I believe that his idea of living in a way that is mutually beneficial to the Earth, or “mutually enhancing” was the language that he used, is a wonderful frame for the pursuit of right livelihood. Very simply, taking a step back and saying, “Is my work, however I define it, contributing to a mutually enhancing relationship with humans and the earth?” There might be a million and one ways to get there, but I see this as a larger, meta-theme under which we can organize this concept of right livelihood.
And, I chose to bring it into this conversation because fermentation is actually about creating a mutually beneficial relationship between humans and microorganisms. For those of you not familiar with fermentation, it basically refers to the microbial transformation of food or beverage from one state to another through the activity of microorganisms. Specifically, fermentation has played the important role in human culture of adding value to food by preserving it so that we can survive through the winter, or adding health benefits to it so we can access more vitamins, or adding flavour to make it more delicious. In the process, we’re actually cultivating these bacteria for our own benefit, at the same time that they receive habitat and food source as a result of our own activity. Of course, in many cases these organisms die in the process, but sometimes they inhabit our digestive tract for a brief period of time and co-exist with our bodies.
In the Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan talks about agriculture as a co-evolutionary relationship between plants and humans. He asks this question, with the history of agriculture who is cultivating whom? Are humans cultivating potatoes, or are they using us to perpetuate their own existence? It’s an interesting thought exercise: to look at human behavior from the potato’s perspective and seeing the human-potato relationship as mutually-enhancing.
But again, stepping back and looking at the human relationship to the Earth and to each other, how do we live in a way that is creating mutual benefit? How do we live in reciprocity with each other, with the Earth, and in integrity with our own being? This is taking Michael Pollan’s concept of co-evolutionary relationship beyond the species-to-species level and looking at how humanity interacts as a species in relationship to the planetary system as a whole, and how we treat each other as a human family.
The reality of these concepts — orienting our work towards harmony and mutual-benefit in nature and society — is actually extremely difficult at the practical, human level. Right livelihood and Thomas Berry’s call for the Great Work are compelling ideas, but where it gets really complex is the daily lived experience of actually having to pay the bills in the context of a broken economic system which undervalues activities that can have a lot of meaning while overvaluing activities that contribute to the serious problems we have.
We are all entangled in this web, and there are very legitimate challenges to that. I’m not going to sit here and tell you to practice mindfulness meditation and you’ll find right livelihood — although that is helpful, and that’s maybe one tool that I could offer you. But it is important to recognize that this is challenging and complex, and we all have questions that we are navigating together.
To review, we have Right livelihood, Buddhism, Thomas Berry’s work, and fermentation as maybe a useful frame. A lot of us are actually working inside the food system so I will spend a little bit of time talking about that. Food in particular is such a fantastic vehicle for social and ecological change because of how multifunctional and universal it is. Everybody eats, and pick any issue that you are excited about and you can connect it to food: if you care about human health you can talk about nutrition, if you care about planetary well-being and soil health you can talk about agriculture, if you care about social justice you can connect it to labor in the food industry which is one of the biggest employers in the United States and also one of the biggest sectors of economic exploitation.
Food, Fermentation, and Right Livelihood: it’s kind of quirky, but it’s also a legitimate point of departure for right livelihood and a great place to start if you are looking for a path. Food is central to the human experience, it’s what connects us to cultural tradition, ancestry, and ecosystems, and it can serve as a vehicle for the mutually-beneficial relationship that Thomas Berry invited us to organize our lives around.
Moving forward, I want to introduce a few specific practices and principles for right livelihood. The first one is something I was exposed to originally through the work of an organization called YES!, and I would highly recommend checking them out if you are interested in developing your relationship between personal work and social and environmental change.
YES introduced me to a framework for social change that I have found very useful. It invites us to imagine our lives and the work we do at three levels: the personal, interpersonal or cultural, and systemic or planetary. I have personally found this helpful for thinking about the work that I do in a more holistic and comprehensive way. There can be a lot of different dimensions to it, but what this provides is a framework for identifying at a personal level our unique contribution to the world, and then interpersonally and culturally thinking about how we want to relate to other people through the work that we do in the world. How do you like to show up for others in the world, and culturally, what are the values that you’re seeking to change with your work?
Understanding the personal and interpersonal layers of our work can then be a foundation for exploring how our work contributes to the transformation of an entire system. That can get pretty complex to think about, but connecting our efforts to larger movements for social and environmental change can be a great way to bring fulfillment and energy into our work on a personal level. And so, if I help equip you with one takeaway for today it would be to explore how your professional work at the personal level intersects with a larger issue that you are also really excited about. It doesn’t have to be climate change or racism (though certainly those issues can inform your work, and should) but the important thing is thinking at this higher level and asking: what are the problems out there that I can be living in service to through my work?
In addition to this framework, which can help us understand our work in a more holistic way, I want to inoculate the idea that self-care, although unpaid, has a critical role to play in our lives. While many would recognize that sleep, or going to the gym, are important for living a healthy life, it is also common to experience guilt towards activities for which we are unpaid. Decoupling our sense of self-worth from what we can be paid for is an important component of economic liberation, and is a key practice of making peace with an economic system and larger cultural zeitgeist that puts work and money at the center of human existence.
So this is a practice that includes valuing both self-care routines that are vital for our well-being, as well as the work that is unpaid by the economic system but essential for human life: domestic care, mothering and fathering children, spending time in community and nature. Developing our individual and cultural capacity for valuing activities that have nothing to do with making money, but everything to do with inhabiting the Earth in a mutually-beneficial manner, is really important personal work for right livelihood.
Finally, I want to expand our capacity for understanding how the work that we’re currently doing in our lives is important and all a part of a larger journey, though we may not be aware of it or think about it in such a way — this is why I love Rich Shih’s work with #kojibuildscommunity: using koji as a vehicle for connecting people and building relationships. As someone who comes out of the local, slow food movement, my theory of change is premised on building healthy human relationships around ecological values and healthy lifestyles, and food is such a valuable way to do that. One challenge I’ve experienced is a sort of perpetual imposter syndrome that undermines the existing value of the work I currently do. I often fall into the trap of over-critiquing my livelihood, questioning the validity of its contribution to the larger need for system change.
Putting up a mirror to one’s own life and making visible the ways in which our work does contribute to change is an important piece of personal work for right livelihood. It can help us make peace with the almost insurmountable nature of the problems that are in the world, and find ways to be more comfortable in the chasm between the tiny-ness of personal contribution and the vastness of what is happening in the world right now.
Many of us grew up with a cultural narrative around climbing the corporate ladder — each job being a stepping stone towards the next best thing, ultimately culminating in a ‘dream job’, a fixed state of professional employment that climaxes with retirement and a permanent state of leisure. The American Dream!
This is where Right Livelihood has a lot to offer in terms of reframing the professional development story that a lot of us have been exposed to growing up in Western American culture. Speaking for myself, that story (which I recognize not everyone shares) has created incredible angst for me. I have continually experienced dissatisfaction in every job because I have an idea of an ideal that doesn’t exist. This is almost analogous to the romantic ideal of the soul-mate: imagining that there is a life partner out there who is magically perfect and once we get married we’re going to have a great time for the rest of our lives and we just have to find that person. Rather than something that takes work and commitment on a daily or a weekly basis.
And so one reframe that I want to offer everybody — and this is potentially a lifetime of work that invites in a major shift in consciousness — right livelihood is actually just a journey, it is not a fixed state that we can achieve! Thich Nhat Hanh says that there is no way to happiness, happiness is the way. What he means by that, I think, is that happiness is not a place we will someday end up at if we check off all of the items on our bucket list. Happiness is a practice that we must consistently apply ourselves to — it’s a moving target that involves making peace with moments of dissatisfaction and frustration.
Similarly, we could say that there is no way to right livelihood, right livelihood is the way. And so instead of imagining that some day we will find the perfect job, right livelihood invites us to start where we are right now by seeing the value in what we are currently doing as a part of a longer path. At the same time, we can strive for development in our journey: I’m not saying that we settle for where we are today, but that we make peace with where we are at right now while having a healthy relationship with goals and personal development. That’s the key: finding a healthy balance between what we can control personally in our work and what we can’t control, which is dictated by larger challenges with the economic system and this wacky world that we somehow ended up with after living here on Earth for several million years.