The reactions I get when I tell people that I did an interdisciplinary Master’s degree in Buddhism and business studies are very telling. Once people have stopped laughing or spluttering incoherently, they usually say that they’d assumed that Buddhism and business were mutually exclusive. But in fact the concept of “right livelihood” is part of the Buddha’s core teaching, the Eightfold Path.
In Buddhist practice we’re encouraged to make every aspect of our lives an opportunity to practice mindfulness, compassion, balance, and insight. Since we all have to earn a living, our work needs to become part of our practice.
Our mission at Wildmind is to benefit the world by promoting mindfulness and compassion through teaching meditation. Almost all the events we run are free of charge. This year (our Year of Going Deeper) we’ve been running eight events, which have had an average of 1,200 participants each. These events are by donation.
We also sell guided meditation CDs, which provide the bulk of the income that allows us to teach. And because we were selling our CDs online, we started selling other meditation supplies, both to support others’ meditation practice and to subsidize our teaching.
We don’t pay ourselves much — enough to live with simple dignity, but not enough (unfortunately) that we don’t have money worries.
But our aim is always the promotion of meditation.
There are other aspects to right livelihood as well. We strive to be honest. The three of us who work here strive to care for each other. We have a very harmonious office! We source fair trade products as much as possible. We support local small businesses (like the woman who makes our meditation cushions and the Buddhist former prison inmate who makes some of our malas).
I’m mentioning all this because I know you have choices about what you can do with your money. You can support large businesses like Amazon that treat their workers badly, dodge taxes, and use their quasi-monopoly power to bully suppliers. Or you can support people like us — not a faceless corporation, but people trying to make the world a truly better place.
Your money is power. You have the power to choose (or least influence) the kind of world you want to live in. Your choices matter.
So when you’re buying gifts, we’d ask that you consider our online store.
We’re participating in a Triratna campaign called #ethicalchristmas, along with other Buddhist businesses. You can read about the how Evolution in the UK benefits the environment by selling recycled glass products, and how they’ve been supporting children orphaned by HIV in Thailand.
This is consumer power at work: the money of people like you being used to make the world a better place.
Karma is one of the most misunderstood Buddhist teachings. Often people think of karma as some kind of external, impersonal force that “rewards” us for our good deeds and punishes us for our bad. Consequently, even some people with an otherwise good understanding of Buddhism reject karma (usually along with rebirth) as being non-rational.
But karma is not external, nor is it about rewards and punishments. Karma simply means “action.” As an ethical term, it refers to the intentions underlying our actions, understood very broadly as anything we might think, say, or do. As the Buddha said, “I declare, intention is karma” (Cetan?ha? kamma? vad?mi).
What this means is three-fold:
First, ethically speaking our intentions can be seen as skillful or unskillful. Skillful intentions embody qualities of mindfulness, contentment, clarity, and care for the wellbeing of oneself and others. Unskillful intentions embody the opposites: they are motivated by impulsive selfishness, craving, confusion, and ill will.
Second, the importance of this distinction is that skillful actions (i.e. those arising from skillful volitions) lead on the whole to a decrease in unhappiness and an increase in ease. Unskillful actions, as you might expect, do the opposite. So in choosing our actions, we also choose (whether we know it or not) the consequences of those actions. We create much of our own suffering and happiness through our actions.
Third, habits are like muscles in the brain. By exercising a habit, it becomes stronger. As the Buddha said (and with apologies for the gender-specific language), “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness,” and “What a man wills, what he plans, what he dwells on forms the basis for the continuation of consciousness.”
We create our consciousness through the actions we take — even our thoughts and words — and so, as Eliot observed, not only do we create our actions, but our actions create us.
Mindfulness (samm? sati), right view (samm? ditthi), and right effort (samma v?y?ma) can free us from this feedback loop, breaking open a circular track and turning it into a path that leads to awakening.
Mindfulness is necessary because without it, we’re submerged in our thoughts and feelings. Unable to stand back, we act unreflectively, strengthening our unskillful habits and creating suffering for ourselves.
Right view is important because it allows us to evaluate our potential actions. We can realize, “If I act in this way (e.g. angrily) then there will be painful consequences. On the other hand, if I act that way (e.g. with patience and kindness) then the consequences will be more beneficial for me and others.
Right effort is needed because it’s not enough just to know what we should do: we have to be able to act. Right effort is our commitment to bring into being and sustain the skillful, and to eradicate and prevent the further arising of the unskillful.
Karma is essentially a feedback mechanism, showing us the extent to which we’re in tune with reality.
Something the Buddha was quite clear about is that not everything we experience is a result of karma, even though some Buddhist traditions seem to have overlooked that fact. If it rains on your wedding day, or if you hit a red light when you’re already late, that’s not the result of your karma (neither is it ironic, as many people have no doubt pointed out to Alanis Morissette). But how you respond emotionally to such events, and how much you suffer as a result, does depend on your karma. If you’ve developed the emotional “muscles” of acceptance, patience, and flexibility, then you’ll be able to meet these events with elegance and with a minimum of suffering, or perhaps none. If your emotional muscles of impatience and anger have been bulked up by a lifetime of exercise, then once again you’ll experience these events as acutely frustrating, painful, and stressful.
The extent to which we’re able to meet life’s difficulties with grace is the measure of our wisdom.
One thing we have to be aware of is the tendency to say “My intentions were pure, therefore I’m not responsible for the fact that you got hurt by my actions.” Our own intentions are never entirely clear to us, and the Buddha pointed out that we have to look at the consequences of our actions in order to divine them. If we’ve caused pain to ourselves or others, then there was likely some kind of unskillful motivation mixed in with the skillful.
Karma, then, isn’t anything mystical. It’s simple a description of the psychology or happiness. It’s not an external force, but a feedback mechanism. And it’s not a judgement, but the natural result of how we act.
I recently wrote a post about how we can use listening as a way to quiet the mind, and how the arising of thoughts can become a “mindfulness bell,” calling us back to mindful attentiveness of the sounds around us. (The post was specifically about persistent thoughts that take the form of music, but the same approach works for all thoughts.)
A commenter on that post directed me to a video featuring the Canadian composer, writer, music educator and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer. In the video, Schafer very cleverly leads us into a form of listening meditation, in which he guides us from being mindful of recorded sounds to the “real” sounds in our personal environment. There’s a clever fake-out toward the end of the video that I didn’t see coming!
Recently I offered a mantra that can accompany the out-breathing: Relax, Rest, Reveal. These words encourage us, respectively, to let go of unnecessary tensions in the body, to let go of unnecessary mental effort, and to be open and receptive to whatever is arising in our experience.
I’d like now to offer a corresponding mantra for the in-breathing: Energize, Inspire, Enjoy. As with the previous mantra, each of the words has a specific function.
“Energize” connects us with the natural energy of the in-breath. Inhalation is dominated by the sympathetic nervous system, which isn’t always about “fight or flight” but is involved in any physical or emotional arousal. It’s no coincidence that we take a sudden in-breath when we’re startled, and the sympathetic nervous system is activated.
In our normal (non-startled!) breathing pattern, the sympathetic nervous system is active. Each time we inhale there is a subtle but noticeable sense of energy. The body becomes oxygenated and the heart beats a little faster. The body becomes more open and upright, and is more ready to act.
Saying the word “energize” as we inhale is a way of encouraging us to notice the gentle but arousing physical effects of the in-breath.
Saying “Inspire,” connects us with the same physiological processes, but it directs our attention more to the qualities of the mind and how they change as we breathe in. Just as the body becomes more alert and energetic on the in-breath, so does the mind. There’s a subtle but perceptible increase in our alertness, and the mind becomes brighter.
The word “Enjoy,” as you might expect, reminds us to appreciate any pleasure and happiness that are arising in our experience. This brings together everything: the out-breathing and the inbreathing; the body and the mind. Relaxing on the out-breath can be very enjoyable; so can feeling the energy of the in-breath. Resting the mind can be delightful; so can feeling the mind becoming brighter. Saying “Enjoy” as we breathe in encourages us to appreciate what’s positive in our experience. It encourages us to let happiness arise in response to the simple act of noticing the rhythm of our breathing.
Don’t try to do anything as you say these words. Don’t try to make anything happen. Just say the words, and let them have an effect.
Paying attention only to the out-breathing is calming, but in the long-term it tends to make us dull and sleepy. Paying attention only to the in-breathing is energizing, but we can easily become over-excited and distracted.
So if you’re going to use these two sets of mantras, use them skillfully. You may want to start a meditation with the mantras of the out-breath—especially if you need to calm the mind—and then move on to the mantras of the in-breath. But since this latter practice can lead to excitability, there will come a point when we need to drop the mantras and focus just on the breathing, and when we need to focus on the continuity of the breathing process—sensing it as an unbroken stream of sensations—without particular emphasis on either the breathing-out or the breathing-in.
There’s an unusual connection between Ebola and Buddhism.
Ashoka Mukpo, one of a handful of Americans who have contracted Ebola, was identified soon after his birth as a reincarnated lama, or Tulku.
Mukpo is the son of Diana Mukpo, who married Tibetan lama Chogyam Tungpa in Scotland. Ashoka is not Trungpa’s biological son, but was raised as his child after his mother became pregnant while romantically involved with another of Trungpa’s followers, Dr. Mitchell Levy.
As a child, Ashoka was identified as the reincarnation of Khamyon Rinpoche, and he was enthroned as a tulku in Tibet.
Although Mukpo regards himself as a practicing Buddhist, he decided not to pursue a monastic life, and he works in the U.S. division of Human Rights Watch. He has also worked as a freelance cameraman for Vice News, NBC News and other media outlets. He spent two years working in Liberia, doing research for the Sustainable Development Institute, a nonprofit that highlights the concerns of workers in mining camps outside the west African country’s capital, Monrovia.
It was in Liberia that he was diagnosed with Ebola. Soon after he was moved to Nebraska Medical Center for treatment, where he is recovering.
NBC News reports that his parents say he “would likely rather the attention be paid to the West African countries that have been ravaged by the disease.”
Although many people in the west are anxious about Ebola, we should remember that the vast bulk of the suffering that’s taking place is in Africa, where thousands have been infected, and where its possible that a million people could contract the disease.
This article on Forbes suggests ways that individuals can contribute to fighting Ebola in Africa.