Right Livelihood and Compassion


“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’”

Martin Luther King Jr.


Right Livelihood is a part of the Eightfold Path that gets less attention than Mindfulness, but it’s been on my mind. Right Livelihood refers to making a living in a way that benefits all—or at the very least does no harm.

An acknowledgement: I write from a place of privilege. I have a job with a comfortable salary and health benefits. I am working in the field for which I trained. I am doing what I’ve wanted to do since I was in my early twenties. I am very fortunate.

I’ve been blessed with being able to engage in Right Livelihood clearly and overtly. I get to teach literature and writing.

Reading literature has proven health benefits. Brain research demonstrates that reading good fiction with attention improves brain health. Plus, it’s fun!

Writing is a powerful tool. What could be more important than being able to express yourself? Writing is necessary in many jobs and can lead to better opportunities at Right Livelihood. Writing also is necessary in a democracy. We need to be able to write to our representatives, to craft petitions, and to express ourselves in public forums to address social issues and enact change. Most importantly, writing is meaning creating and gives us access to our own selves. I’ve been keeping a daily journal for almost a decade.

My values, my ideals, and my goals all align with my work.

However, I teach. I and a lot of my higher education colleagues and my dear friends teaching K-12 are looking at going back into classrooms during a global pandemic. How will we attend to our values, ideals, goals, and safety—not only our safety but that of our students?

Many parents learned to value teachers like never before during school shut downs in the spring when we found ourselves essentially homeschooling.

That appreciation extended to essential workers but maybe less so now.

I read an article recently in The Washington Post where grocery store employees around the country discussed how they felt valued as never before during the spring. Customers thanked them for their work. Now, however, workers are experiencing terrible burnout from facing crowds of customers who refuse to wear masks (or wear them properly). Employees in minimum-wage jobs suddenly find themselves having to confront angry shoppers, some of whom have threatened or even committed acts of violence when asked to wear masks.

Key to Buddhism are empathy and compassion. Empathy means being able to enter into the feelings of others, and, from there, we can feel compassion, genuinely wishing people happiness.

No matter what our jobs, we have the opportunity to practice empathy and compassion. Recently, an elderly friend of mine went to the grocery store after running another errand. She has several health problems, and it proved too much activity. When she was checking out, the cashier came around to her, took her by the arm, and led her to a chair, telling her that her color was off and she needed to sit while the cashier took care of things. She and a bagger made sure to get my friend to the car and loaded her groceries for her. Not only did they help my friend in the moment, but she felt cared for and looked after in ways that benefited her emotionally for a long period after.

The pandemic seems to be bringing out our worst and our best selves. We can approach Right Livelihood with empathy and compassion. We can value workers who are struggling with a hostile public, with anxiety about the safety of working conditions, and with the stress of working at home while trying to raise a family.

The path to ending suffering is not a solo one. Enlightenment doesn’t come from from getting the perfect job that makes the individual happy. Right Livelihood is of benefit to all.


Photo Courtesy of Anshu A from Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Right Livelihood and Compassion

  1. I suppose there is a corollary of Right Livelihood that ideally all people would have work in which they can fully apply their talents. It’s what they were built for. Kathryn is doing that.

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