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What Right Livelihood Means To Me

By: Julie Richardson
Right Livelihood Programme Director
Schumacher College

I was reflecting on what Right Livelihood means to me.  Although it has taken me some time to hone in on the term ‘right livelihood’, in hindsight it is something that I have been aspiring towards for most of my adult life.

The term originally comes from the Buddhist eight-fold path:

"To practice Right Livelihood (samyag ajiva), you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others. " ... Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living." (The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching [Parallax Press, 1998], p. 104)

The Right Livelihood Programme at Schumacher College in collaboration with the Gross National Happiness Programme in Bhutan embraces a more secular approach.  In many ways, the following definition of happiness captures what the programme is about:

“We have now clearly distinguished the ‘happiness’ in Gross National Happiness from the fleeting, pleasurable ‘feel good’ moods so often associated with that term.  We know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, living in harmony with nature, and realising our innate wisdom and the true and brilliant nature of our own mind” - Lyonchhen  Jigme Thinley, ex-Prime Minister of Bhutan

In other words, how can we align our lives and livelihoods towards expressing our deepest values, utilising our gifts and experience, towards a right livelihood path not just in pursuit of our own well-being, but in greater service of social and ecological well-being.

This is the quest that lies at the heart of the Right Livelihood Programme.  It is a quest that participants explore with other like-minded peers in the form of a one year learning and experiential journey.  The journey starts at Schumacher College in the UK, where participants form an intimate learning community and share their deepest hopes and desires for how their lives might unfold. 

Each personal journey towards Right Livelihood, takes place within the larger context of the systemic challenges of our current social and economic system. We are all familiar with the multiple crises that that the twenty first brings, but how are these macro challenges reflected in the micro challenges in our own lives?

Making the connection between our outer worlds and our inner worlds is a golden thread that runs throughout the programme.  In the second module, participants have the unique opportunity to take a pilgrimage (an inner journey through an outer journey) to the distant Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan.  The land of majestic mountains and ancient temples where the rivers and forests are still alive with spirit.  This is birth place of Gross National Happiness (GNH) where we meet with politicians and policy makers, Buddhist lamas, local farmers and artisans to experience what GNH means in daily life.  In this place of peace and beauty, we take the time to deeply reflect and listen to our soul’s deepest calling.  What do we need to let go of for the new seeds in our life to emerge?

These new seeds are nourished and developed in the final module when participants return to Schumacher College.  Here they develop and share their Right Livelihood experiments, their prototypes, their new directions with the learning community of peers, teachers and mentors. People are sometimes surprised and delighted about new directions and new projects.  For others, it is about bringing vitality and new insights to their current direction.  Sometimes, the calling is for growth and expansion, and sometimes it is about letting go, retreat and restoration. In some mysterious way, the seasons in our own life seem to come into greater alignment with the seasons in nature.

So, returning to my original question.  What does Right Livelihood mean for me?  The answer to this question is perhaps best captured by the evocative poem by John O’Donohue.  It was offered by one of the participants on the programme this year.

For a New Beginning

In out of the way places of the heart
Where your thoughts never think to wander
This beginning has been quietly forming
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire
Feeling the emptiness grow inside you
Noticing how you willed yourself on
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the grey promises that sameness whispered
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent
Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream
A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

 - John O’Donohue


You can find out more about the Right Livelihood Programme here

The next 12 month programme starts on 14 November 2016.