Feeling Engaged or Disengaged at Work: Meditating On Right Livelihood

A few weeks back I began to notice, while at work, a sense of disengagement from my work. The noticing didn’t happen all at once, but was gradual and repeated. Nor was the sense of disengagement from my work momentary; it persisted discontinuously. And so, after gradually accumulating awareness of it, the sense of disengagement naturally became a significant persisting object.

The ensuing attention brought to mind something I hadn’t thought much about for quite some time: right livelihood. In the past I had been pretty aware that my current occupation fulfilled right livelihood fairly well. This awareness had been a source of comfort, assurance, and encouragement to me. It also was a factor in creating a sense of engagement with my work.

I hadn’t exactly forgotten this, that the work was a right livelihood, but I hadn’t thought much explicitly about it for some time. Perhaps there had not been much need to. Perhaps now the matter simply again required attention, evaluation, and appreciation.

You might think it sounds like recalling this went some way toward restoring a felt sense of engagement with work. It has been only a couple weeks since I began, again, to remember and give some significant attention to the matter, which is to sat it is still a bit “early in the game” to say with certainty. However, I have not noticed much of this “disengaged” feeling since I began reflecting on right livelihood as a counter to the feeling of disengagement.

I think there is a little “disengagement” feeling left which is an effect of wishing for a little more time outside of work. But returning awareness to right livelihood and appreciating its importance has gone a long way. I think it creates a fuller sense of meaningfulness, or to put it another way, it makes clear the meaning which was already there but unseen and unfelt.

Some might be wondering: What is right livelihood? Well, part of what I did, in order to easily and effectively put my mind onto the matter of right livelihood, was to re-read a chapter on it by one of the more reliable authors I’ve found. The chapter in question is by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana in the book Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness. (This tactic, by the way, worked like a charm.)

Gunaratana offers both a couple general principles and a nuanced three-tiered evaluating method. Here I’ll just mention the general principles: one is that the job not harm others; the other is that the job not harm you yourself, including the harm of obstructing your own spiritual-philosophical progress, such as if a job causes you excessive agitation. So that is a right livelihood: work that harms neither others nor yourself, where harm includes obstructing your spiritual progress.

Of course, if you have never heard of “right livelihood” at all, you might still be wondering something along the lines of “But what is this Right Livelihood thing part of” It sounds like it’s part of some system or framework or philosophy.” And you might also, in that case, wonder how it grants such significant meaning on qualifying work.

Considered as part of a larger pattern, Right Livelihood is one of eight interweaving “folds,” parts, steps, or “factors,” comprising the the Eightfold Path. The eightfold path might be characterized, in its conceptual aspect, as a key rubric of Buddhist philosophy. If one cultivates all eight “path factors,” then one cultivates a way of freedom and happiness. So, you can see how finding a right livelihood could have very great big-picture, existential meaning.

Do you feel engaged at your work? Disengaged? Have you considered the matter in relation to right livelihood?

Follow-up post: “Right Livelihood: Is It More Than Not Harming?

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5 thoughts on “Feeling Engaged or Disengaged at Work: Meditating On Right Livelihood

  1. I’m currently self-employed. If I am disengaged in my work, I do not work – and I do not receive compensation. So in a very real sense, I cannot afford to be disengaged.

    This idea of right livelihood is new to me, but your explanation makes sense. I find it somewhat lacking to think that whether something is “right” is essentially measured by whether or not it is, in a sense, “wrong”. I think of the phrase “two wrongs do not make a right”. In this case, two “not wrongs” do not entirely make a right, either.

    My desire, or maybe preference, would be for right livelihood to include being helpful to myself in some way(s), not merely “not harmful”. And likewise, I hope that my work is productive for the greater good and therefore at least moderately helpful to others, not just “not harmful to others”.

    I’m a big fan of mindfulness, by the way. It is beneficial in helping us take the time/bandwidth to consider such ideas as right livelihood.

    Thanks for sharing this idea with us. It is worth further consideration!

    1. Thanks David. I have had similar thoughts in connection with Right Livelihood seeming to be defined in a merely negative way. My current understanding is that the “right-if-it’s-not-wrong” is intended only as a sort of foundational baseline, which is to say a place to start from, to build a definition or practice from, a sort of minimum requirement. Or at least, that’s the one-sentence version of my current understanding of it. Does that make sense?

  2. This whole matter of meditation on Right Livelihood and (dis)engagement with work also bears on one of the environmental causes of depression, and one of the corresponding “non-pharmaceutical anti-depressants,” that I mentioned in a previous post about Johann Hari’s book Lost Connections: https://wiseandshinezine.com/2022/12/27/non-pharmaceutical-anti-depressants-and-environmental-causes-of-depression-johann-haris-lost-connections/

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