It would be easy to assume, given the ways Buddhist practice has been presented to its target market, that it revolves entirely around meditation: Health and well-being books, magazines and websites are lousy with images of smiling young women sitting blissfully on cushions, the sun dappling through their long blond hair, basking in blissful states of ease.
The message is all too uniform and clear: Beyond being white and able-bodied, all we need to do to cultivate lasting ease and peace of mind, beyond eating healthy diets and practicing yoga, is maintain a meditation regime in which we develop present time, non-judgmental awareness towards our internal experience; a little poise and equanimity on the cushion and voila, you're cured.
Now, before I pop the balloon, let me affirm that meditation does, to a degree, live up to some of its billing; in 2011 a team of Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital documented that a daily meditation practice produced substantial changes in the brain, including increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, which is essential for learning and memory function, and in dorsolateral structures associated with self-awareness and compassion. (Note her fascinating study.)
Yet while meditation has been increasingly marketed as foundational to well-being, it's worth noting that we can fill all our free time with dieting, yoga and meditation, only to find limited results if we've chosen unsuitable livelihoods to pay the rent, leaving us feeling so stressed, purposeless and miserable that no amount of deep breathing will undo. Americans now work 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers, while the resultant stress and psychological toll falls on deaf ears.
Beyond work-life ratio, let's reflect on the findings of a recent study that focused on feelings of fulfillment in life; the research (quoted in the NYTimes, here), surveyed 12,000 employees across a range of companies and industries, and found fully half, 50 percent, lacked any sense of meaning and significance in their work.
This, to me at least, is disastrous. Positive psychologists, such as Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her 2008 book "The how of Happiness" notes repeatedly that well-being involves a sense that one's labors serve a greater good; one's vocation is not a means to an end, a way to simply pay the bills; it's actually quite essential to sense one's labors benefit the greater good.
Alas, presenting Buddhist tools in institutional and corporate environments, it seems that some in the Buddhist world has found it expedient to separate the emphasis on meditation from other, less capitalist-friendly views (i.e. right livelihood). In my experience Right Livelihood is the least frequently discussed factor of the eightfold path, which is the absolute foundation of the dharma.
For example, check out any of the well-known online databases of dharma talks and search for "right livelihood" and note how many talks appear (I just did). Take dharmaseed: Five talks--out of 17,000 in total--focus specifically on the topic of one's vocation, while a few other talks drop the subject into into other larger themes. On the other hand, search for mindfulness practice and you'll have 1,500 talks to choose from; search for "metta" practice and 900 different recordings appear for you perusal. While I'm certainly not arguing that mindfulness and metta aren't important--they are--but are they worth 300 times more attention? Hmmm.
Let's hear from the Buddha:
"One develops right view when one discerns what wrong livelihood is: Scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling, & pursuing gain for its sake. Furthermore, to find a good vocation is how right effort is established. To remain in a good vocation requires right mindfulness. So these three qualities --right view, right effort, & right mindfulness --run & circle around right livelihood." Maha-cattarisaka Sutta
Its certainly easy to grasp why Right Livelihood is not a particularly popular topic in the realm of corporate friendly spiritual centers: Its easy for a meditation teacher to find a receptive audience while admonishing against killing and stealing, but asking practitioners to think twice before accepting work that doesn't involve false marketing is a tougher ask in post-industrial america; harder still is promoting vocations that don't eviscerate appropriate work-life ratios: the bulk of capitalism's 'dream jobs,' such as advertising, public relations, banking, social media start-ups, etc., routinely expect workers to put in 60 hour work weeks for long stretches of their career.
Right livelihood is a factor many mindfulness teachers have been willing to drop in order to find a few gigs offering meditation instruction in the tech industry (perhaps hired by human services managers who hope a weekly 30 minute meditation will appease stressed and run down programmers pushing their way through impossible workloads).
Finally, what did the Buddha teach in regards to finding a vocation appropriately suited to a peaceful, meaningful life? In thematic consistency with the dharma, he first spoke in terms of what to avoid: "These five trades should not be taken up: trading in weapons, living beings, meat, intoxicants, poisons." But his teaching on right livelihood doesn't stop there:
"Vyagghapajja, a householder who considers his income against his expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly. One makes enough to cover one's expenses, rather than spending excessively, placing more demands on his income. (Dighajanu sutta.)
In a long list in the "Fruits of the contemplative life" (DN 2) the Buddha lists vocations that have little virtue: reading omens and signs; astronomy, participating in animal sacrifices, betting on political affairs, selling charms as "protective," working for cutthroat people, promoting false cures for ailments, consecrating ground for construction or promoting construction (!)."
In short, the Buddha was asking that people choose meaning over a bigger paycheck, high-mindedness over cynicism. And writing as a Buddhist teacher who left a decently remunerated job in advertising for my current, hand-to-mouth existence supported entirely by donation, I'm well aware this is not an easy choice... But spiritual practice isn't supposed to be entirely easy or comfortable; if it is, its just a little more grease for the brutal capitalist wheel.