Ep. 41: Money and Right Livelihood

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Every now and then I get comments about charging for what I teach. Like how dare I teach certain tools and charge for them. How can I charge to help people to stop overdrinking? Or have less anxiety? Or how to manage their mind? Or how to feel free?

They say it is very “unspiritual” of me, very “un-Buddhist” of me, to earn a living helping people this way.

So I wanted to discuss the concept of “right-livelihood” more in-depth, because I think there are some big misunderstandings of what right livelihood is – and a misunderstanding of the teachings and how they were created for monastics and the way it is different in teachings for lay people.

These misunderstandings lead to a lot of people with good hearts and amazing skills not making a living doing what they love because they have some old stories about what is a noble way to earn a living.

“Right Livelihood” is a traditional Buddhist teaching and is considered one of the factors of the eight-fold path to enlightenment. The idea is you follow these 8 guidelines and they help create the conditions that make attaining enlightenment easier.

I find it helpful to not interpret these as commandments per se, which a lot of people are used to. Many of us grew up being told hey if you do this spiritual thing you’re good and will go to the happy place, and if not then you go to the really bad place.

So when most of us hear about things we “should” or should not do, we run for the hills, right? Or we run straight towards what we’re not supposed to do

I know I do! And I know many of you rebels do too.

The way I was taught was to see them like they are like a recipe, a proven recipe from a really good chef.

Sure, we could come up with our own recipe, but if we want to make life easier on the path that we choose, we might want to follow some advice from those that have gone before us and see if it works for us. So we check for ourself if practicing right speech, right actions, right livelihood etc helps us grow spiritually.

If it does, great! If not, then we can choose to leave it.

Right livelihood is part of a series of recommendations that makes attaining enlightenment easier.

Jack Kornfield said, “Right Livelihood is considered a part of the way to enlightenment most simply because it’s very hard to meditate after a day of killing and stealing! We can use our work as a practice and a form of meditation.”

I totally relate to that. Essentially, right livelihood is refraining from types of work that cause harm to other living beings

It’s about avoiding trades that directly or indirectly harm others, and the examples traditionally given are like selling slaves, weapons, animals for slaughter, intoxicants, or poison.

But ultimately, the teaching of right livelihood is about ethical livelihood. And that, I think, helps the term right livelihood be more clear.

But there is a lot of muddled energy around money and its role in right livelihood

Like sexuality and desire, money is a form of energy – and it’s quite neutral.

It can be used in beneficial ways, and it can be used in destructive ways.

And in most people, it comes with a serving of shame – either feeling ashamed to have been born with it, or ashamed to not have enough of it.

We add to that the spiritual teachings we hear about renunciation that reinforce a negative judgment of it, and shame. Monastics are taught not to touch it, and that they can only beg for food and can’t buy it.

And then our money stories get mixed with greed, and desire, and all of those things together with it and whew…it becomes a lot.

What’s our role in a culture with wide disparities between the rich and poor? And are we participating in the injustice of it? Are we contributing to the solution?

Should we have money or give it all away? And in a society where money is power, how does that influence things?

It’s not black and white – it is complex, and it is something that we have to contemplate and really pay attention.

You might ask if you should take a certain job and make a bunch of money and wonder if it is ethical or not.

Or what to do when the family is fighting over an inheritance.

Or how to spend some money you came across.

Or what you’re willing to do to get out of poverty.

But ultimately, we want to understand that money is energy and that money is an expression of the energy of the world.

And if we take that energy and combine it with a vision of a world that is more caring and more just, and with integrity, then it can do amazing things

There are a lot of teachings for us that who are not monks and nuns that are really important, and I share some of them in this episode. They’re not emphasized much because most of what was written down in the Buddhist tradition was written for monastics, but they are there.

Ultimately, you want to get comfortable with money and look at your own relationship to it.  And then you’re going to have to get clear on your relationship to it in how you choose to earn a living.

When I asked Jack Kornfield about how to handle it when someone gets upset that people charge for classes, he told me that we aren’t going to be able to please everyone. Someone will also be upset with what we choose. And we need to really introspect and reflect so that we like are reasons for doing what we’re doing and feel OK about it.

So I want to invite that to you as well.

And I know some of you out there think that the easy way out is to not charge – then no one will be upset with you.

But I want to share a story with you: People will ask me to charge less for my courses, so every now and then I have a donation-only sale for my most popular course. LOTS of people sign up for it and donate $1, or $100…but who finishes it? NONE of them.

Who finishes the courses? The people in Freedom School – and especially the people who sign up for a full year in advance! There’s a sense of commitment there.

So this isn’t to say that’s the right way to do it.

But what it is saying is that we live in a culture where money is a part of how people show value of their intention and their investment in something.

And you need to really reflect and find what is a healthy way for you.

You might be in a community where charging is the wrong thing.

And there might be communities where the best thing you can do is to offer your time without charging.

But those are things that you want to get comfortable exploring, and then find your own way.

And then use it to create benefit.

You’ve heard me say in many episodes that I hope you use what you learn to benefit the world.

So first is to not cause harm with the money that you make.

Then, do things that have value to yourself and others. Create a benefit,

That’s right livelihood, in its essence.

Remember: you also don’t actually own the money. It’s energy. When we leave this body, we don’t get to keep it.

But what you can do is be the steward of it. In Hawai’i they have a word malama, meaning “to take care of, tend, attend, care for, preserve, protect.” That’s how we want to relate to our money.

And we take care to not let attachment and fear and greed drive us.

So this is another important area where mindfulness can help us, because the only way to do that is to try to become conscious of it, to make it a conscious process.

Topics in this episode:

// What it means to earn money in an ethical way
// Is it ethical to an earn money helping and healing people?
// What “right livelihood” means – for those of us who aren’t monks and nuns
// Why money isn’t evil – and why it’s amazing
// Why the best answer isn’t to give everything away for free


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