The Way One Lives

By Jill Shepherd


At the end of a recent nine-day retreat, one of the participants asked a common question about readjusting to post-retreat life: “How can I transition back to the world of devices, stressful jobs, and ‘no time’ syndrome, and infuse mindfulness and metta into daily life?”

Over the years, I’ve heard dozens of meditation teachers respond to this kind of question by talking about the importance of maintaining a regular meditation practice, as a way to mitigate the challenges of daily life. But this time, something about that standard response felt inadequate.

This particular retreat was held at an off-the-grid retreat centre in the middle of the New Zealand bush.  Perhaps because of the quietness of the setting, by contrast, the relative insanity of ordinary life felt acutely obvious. I started to think that instead of trying to adjust ourselves back to that insanity, a more sane approach would be to question the assumptions and norms that we’re living by. Because if the way we’re leading the rest of our lives is basically hostile to the qualities of kindness, compassion, calm and clarity that we so value on retreat, then a few minutes of metta and a few moments of mindfulness each day is probably not going to have much effect.

In the way that the dharma has come to the West though, so far, more emphasis has been placed on meditation practices than on what we do off the cushion. As a result, most people who come on retreat have a sense that they’re meditating in order to change their lives, but they don’t always understand that they might need to change their lives in order to meditate more effectively.

On one level it’s obvious that meditation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and that what we spend the rest of our lives doing will have an effect on our minds when we do sit down to meditate. The recent mainstreaming of mindfulness seems to have given many people the impression that a meditation practice of 15-20 minutes a day should not only be able to reduce all the stress of being hyper-busy, alienated, and exhausted, it should also bring us into states of deep calm and transformative insight! Then, if the practice doesn’t produce the expected results, they either blame themselves for not being good enough meditators, or blame the practice for not working.

If we look at the Buddha’s teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path though, three of the eight path factors are about how we live in the world: Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood. All of these have a direct impact on our meditation practice, but Right Livelihood in particular has a strong effect. It’s what we spend most of our time and life-energy engaged in, so it conditions us more deeply than things we do only occasionally.  Therefore, if we want to experience the deeper benefits that insight meditation promises, then looking more closely at how we live the rest of our lives is crucial.

Livelihood in this context doesn’t refer just to paid work. According to Gil Fronsdal, the Pali word for Right Livelihood, sammaajiva “means the way one lives,” so it encompasses more than one’s job or occupation. “It includes such lifestyle choices as what we buy, consume, use for housing, and rely on for financial support. It also includes how we parent, care for our family, or live in retirement. When walking the Eightfold Path the question regarding Right Livelihood is whether or not the way we live moves us toward more compassion, peace, and freedom. Is it nourishing? Does it support the development of ease and insight? Does it help us become a better, happier person? Does it help others?” [1]

If it doesn’t, then we might need to make some difficult choices and difficult changes; ones that bring us into closer alignment with our deepest aspirations, and support us to experience the full benefits that this path of practice offers.

[1] Gil’s study guide on the path factor of Right Livelihood includes many other helpful reflection questions, and suggested practices for exploring this aspect of our lives.

Jill Shepherd is a regular teacher at BMIMC and former Centre manager