Eknath Easwaran, founder of passage meditation, shares wisdom on the purpose of life and right occupation. This excerpt is from the Blue Mountain journal, Summer 2012.
In my university days, graduation was always one of the highlights of spring. In India the ceremony of awarding degrees is called convocation because all the faculty of the university are expected to attend, on display with cap and gown and the other colorful medieval regalia retained through centuries of tradition. It was a deeply satisfying sight to see our students march in solemnly with their bright young faces shining with confidence, full of faith in the future, looking forward to what they were going to do with the rest of their lives: enter a career, perhaps help their parents or pay for a younger sister’s education, or make a contribution to a newly independent India.
In the last convocation I attended at the University of Nagpur, degrees were administered in Sanskrit. It was an appropriate reminder that this is a very ancient rite of passage: entry into the second stage of life in the traditional Indian scheme of things, the “householder” stage, in which one takes up a worthy occupation in the heart of society and is expected to marry and raise a family.
This is the traditional view, and not only in India. Every young man or woman entering this stage of life is expected to find a good job, marry well, and generally contribute to the honor and well-being of family and community. And, of course, a good job means the one that pays well or offers a ladder to increasing prestige or influence.
India’s ancient scriptures, however, put this into a spiritual perspective. In this view, life is said to rest on two unshakable pillars. The first is rita, the universal order that keeps the cosmos in harmonious balance from the farthest galaxy to the lives of individual human beings. Rita is closely connected with dharma, the central law that all of life is one indivisible whole. The word dharma comes from the root dhri, “to support”: dharma is what supports us, what holds us together. This universal law is inscribed on every cell of our being, and the proof of it is that the more we live for others, the healthier our body becomes, the calmer our mind becomes, the clearer our intellect becomes, the deeper our love and wisdom become.
The second pillar is yajna, “offering”: not a ritual offering in this context, but the principle of service, giving of oneself for the welfare of others. In practical terms, yajna means that everything we do should be for the welfare of all those around us. This principle of service is what upholds the order of the world, and when it is ignored, the Bhagavad Gita says – that is, when we ignore the welfare of others in the pursuit of personal motives – the very foundations of a society are shaken.
“At the time of creation,” the Bhagavad Gita says, “the Lord gave humanity the path of selfless service.” In other words, we are not given life for our own enjoyment. Our highest duty is to give back to life. Life is a trust, and each of us is a trustee whose job is to use the assets entrusted to us for the greatest benefit to all. It follows that the real mark of an educated man or woman is not university degrees but how much they contribute to the welfare of others, and the question to ask at graduation is not “What job will bring me the best salary or the most prestige?” but “How can I help to make the world a little better for my having lived?”
In this sense, none of us is ever unemployed. We always have a job to do. We are sent into life for one task: to enrich the lives of others.
The very first criterion for a good job in the Gita’s view, then, is that it not be at the expense of others. The Buddha considered this so important that he made Right Occupation part of his Eightfold Noble Path. It reminds me of the physician’s oath: “First, do no harm.” I think that is a very good oath for all of us to swear by. If we want to improve the quality of our lives, the very first step is to be sure that our livelihood is not gained at the expense of life. Any job that brings injury or suffering to any other creature should be shunned as unworthy of a human being.
“All creatures love life,” the Buddha says. “All creatures fear death. Therefore do not kill, or cause another to kill.” Even if we only lend support to activities that bring harm to other people or other creatures, we are violating the most basic law of life. I am a vegetarian, for example, not merely because of age-old custom, but because I know that the divinity that is present in my heart and yours is present in every living thing.
When the prefix sva is added to dharma, the word becomes svadharma, our own personal dharma. This is our present context, our present assets and liabilities. On the spiritual path, we start from where we stand by fulfilling our present responsibilities: on the campus, at the office, or in the home. This personal dharma is not fixed; as our spiritual awareness deepens and our capacities grow, our responsibilities and opportunities for service will become greater. What is the right occupation now may not be right later on, but as long as it is not at the expense of others, our job or profession can be made a part of our contribution to life.
It is important to understand that all of us begin work with mixed motives. We want to contribute to the welfare of others; but at the same time, we are concerned with ensuring our own private advantage. It takes quite a while for most of us to become fully aware that our welfare is included in the welfare of all and to realize that when we are working for everybody, we are also ensuring our own well-being.
We all begin the spiritual life with action that is partly egoistic, partly egoless, and none of us need be discouraged when we find in the early days that there is some motive of enlightened self-interest driving us on to action. Without this motive in the beginning, action may be difficult. It is good to accept this from the first. I, too, started my teaching work with some private motives. Although I was devoted to my students, there was a measure of personal motivation also. But I went on giving my very best to my meditation and my students, and gradually, through a lot of effort, I found that my personal motives were dissolving in the overwhelming desire to be of service.
Here the Bhagavad Gita gives us a precious secret: how we work is as important as what we do. Your job may be nothing more glamorous than a janitor in a hospital, but if you are following right occupation and doing your best to put the welfare of those around you first, you will be contributing to other people’s lives, even though you may not see it happening. These are spiritual laws.
We don’t have to envy others because the jobs they do seem to be more prestigious or creative or because other people seem to have more skill. We are where we are, doing what we are doing, because we have something to learn from that particular context. What and who we are – all that we have thought, done, and desired, our upbringing and our education – has brought us to that job and to those co-workers, and that makes it just the situation we need to grow. With growth will come a new context to work in, new people, new challenges, greater opportunities for service.
Is there any job that is 100 percent perfect? Is there any position where you do only what you think you should, where your employer gives you meditation breaks and allows you to tell her how to conduct her business according to your interpretation of the eternal verities? Every job has its requirements that are not our own. Very few jobs are pure. No occupation is free from conflict; no task guarantees to protect us from stressful situations or from people with different views. And no job is free from drudgery; every line of work has a certain amount of routine. So the Gita says, Don’t ask if you like the work, if it is creative, if it always offers something new. Ask if you are part of work that benefits people. If you are, give it your best. In that spirit, every beneficial job can become a spiritual offering.
Our lives have become so physically oriented that we expect the spiritual person to have some kind of insignia, some special aura. The only aura that the spiritual person emits is kindness. One Western mystic sums up the spiritual life in one short phrase: “Be kind, be kind, be kind” – kind to those who are kind to you, kind to those who are not kind to you. It is one of the surest tests of wisdom. A ship is not tested in the harbor, where the water is quiet; it is tested on the open seas. The greatest scientist, the bravest soldier, the most brilliant artist can go to pieces in times of personal trial – the loss of something they valued, a sudden reversal of fortune, a tragedy in the family. The mystics ask, What use is a ship that is seaworthy only in good weather? And for most of us, the best test is not the big storms but the innumerable little squalls of daily living.
If you want to apply this to yourself, it’s very simple: look at your home when everything is at sixes and sevens. The children have to go to school and Jackie has just got up; her hair hasn’t been combed yet, breakfast is cold, and Ira has hidden her homework. Then the car won’t start, and when you go back into the house to call the garage, there is the gasman at the front door wanting to settle last month’s bill. Everything is hemming you in; what do you do? There are people who freeze over when something like this happens; they go around under a little storm cloud for the rest of the day, chilling everybody they meet. But look at the mystics: the harder things get, the kinder they become. It’s not that they like to suffer; they just aren’t thinking about themselves: they don’t want to pass the storm on to us. They attend to each little problem with complete attention: staying calm, skillful, unhurried but efficient, without getting rattled or losing their tenderness or respect.
When you go to work, it should be the same. Wisdom is not simply for the home; if it is genuine, it will show everywhere. It’s easy to smile when Ebenezer remembers your birthday with a card, but that is no test; your ship is still in harbor. What do you do when he takes an early vacation and leaves all his old files in your box of things to do? How do you respond when Rosie asks you to watch her desk for fifteen minutes and comes back an hour later with a big shopping bag on her arm? What do you do when your boss calls you in at five minutes to five and wants to rake you over the coals? The person who is established in wisdom won’t become defensive; he or she will slowly try to calm the storm. He knows he gives his best to his work, so he is secure; he can remain courteous and listen objectively while his boss rants and raves. Afterwards, instead of the coals, such people often get the red carpet. They are an asset everywhere: because they cannot be agitated, they help everybody around them to stay calm too.
In the long view, the Buddha would say, each of us has only one essential obligation: to realize the unity of life. Until we do this, whatever else we may accomplish, we haven’t done what we came here to do.
This is what attaining wisdom means, and rightly understood, it can free us from all kinds of worries. The Buddha is telling us that whatever our day job is – and whatever our boss might think! – it consists essentially not in making things or providing services, but in training the mind and reducing self-will: the purification of consciousness.
Once, when I said this to a small group of students, one of them objected, “Well, how are we to do this?”
“I know of only one way,” I said: “the practice of meditation.”
She laughed. “Why did I think you were going to say that?”
I had to agree: there, I am highly predictable. I know of no other way to transform consciousness than the sustained, systematic practice of meditation and its ancillary disciplines. Until we make this commitment, the Gita says, the decisions of life “are many-branched and endless”; but once we do make this commitment, everything begins to fall into place. When we practice meditation regularly and follow the allied disciplines to the very best of our ability, we have only to do our best; the opportunities we need for spiritual growth cannot help but come when the time is right.
Whatever our occupation, we can make our whole life a work of art, so that everybody who comes in contact with us benefits from our patience, our understanding, our love and wisdom. In this way, everyone who is practicing meditation is making a lasting contribution to the rest of life.