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Right Livelihood

 Any discussion of right livelihood has to address the following question: Is the work we are doing good for the Earth and its inhabitants now and for seven generations into the future?

Much of our work today would flunk that test. The despoiling of the Earth's health by laying waste to forests, soil, waters, other species, ozone, diversity of plants — all this spells disaster for our species and most of the others with whom we share this amazing home we call Earth. Likewise, the despoiling of souls that goes on in many of our work places does not bode well for a sustainable future. Furthermore, the gap between the haves and have-nots has never been greater, and unemployment is a species-wide disgrace at a time when so much good work needs doing.

What is our work doing to the world? What is it doing to our souls? How can we make things better?

To make work into right livelihood, we must pay attention to just who we are as a species — our strengths and our weaknesses — for it all displays itself in our work. Consider, for example, that today's science is teaching us that each human has been given three brains: a reptilian brain, a mammalian brain, and an intellectual/creative brain.

The reptilian brain, what I call our crocodile brain, is by far the oldest. Crocodiles are win/lose creatures. The crocodile brain gives us our action/response quickness and operates our sexuality and our respiratory system as well. The worst expression of crocodile brain on the planet today has to be the global corporate consciousness that is willing to swallow whole the future of planet and citizens alike in a win/lose scenario of corporate profit taking. This happens because our ancient crocodile brain is so closely linked to our most recent and most powerful intellectual/creative brain. This brain, so new on the planet, distinguishes us from other creatures. It is the reason our mothers suffered so in bringing us into the world: our brain is too big for the birth canal. This brain can choose to serve the heart or it can choose to serve greed and rapaciousness. With this brain we can create symphonies or we can create gas ovens to make our evil impulses more efficient.

What to do? It is time to tame the crocodile brain. Curiously, in the West, we have myths of killing the crocodile, such as St. George or St. Martin de Tours slaying the dragon. In the East there is a tradition of honoring the dragon, dancing with it, and giving it its due. Dancing with the dragon means befriending the reptilian brain, learning to pet it. This is done by ritual and also by meditation practices. Meditation teaches us to be at home with solitude, and solitude is a reptilian thing — reptiles like being alone, they do not bond. Every human has to learn to be at home with solitude, and this is learned by meditation practices.

The gift of compassion
Our second task is to couple the intellectual/creative brain more with the mammal brain than the reptile brain. Why the mammal brain? This brain is our brain for bonding. Mammals bond; reptiles do not. Mammals have breasts and uteruses; interestingly, the Hebrew word for compassion comes from the word for womb. Mammals introduced compassion to the planet. But of a limited kind. Dian Fossey, who lived among gorillas, never observed gorillas showing compassion to any non-gorilla. The same holds for Jane Goodall, who lived among chimpanzees. She found that chimpanzee compassion was limited to the chimpanzee nation alone.

We humans, who are part chimpanzee and mammal, are here to broaden the practice of compassion on this planet. Does this not explain why so many of our spiritual leaders — from Isaiah to Jesus, from Buddha to Lao Tzu, from Gandhi to Black Elk, from Chief Seattle to Martin Luther King, from Dorothy Day to Mother Theresa — were instructing us in one thing: How to be compassionate?

To be compassionate is to live out the truth of our interdependence. Compassion is not about feeling sorry for another. It is about so identifying with others that their joy is my joy and their pain is my pain, and consequently we do something about both. Compassion therefore leads to celebration on the one hand and to relieving pain and suffering on the other. “Compassion means justice,” Meister Eckhart said six centuries ago, and he was right.

There will be no compassion if we cannot tame the reptilian brain. There will only be more win/lose energy, more greed and violence. Gandhi and King are examples of people who, in their nonviolent strategy, committed themselves to recycling the hatred of reptilian brain into love and awareness.

(The political monkey business that went on recently in Florida was less monkey than it was crocodile energy. The high voltage of win/lose energy being released there in the shadow of the Everglades with its morphic resonance of reptilian energy, seemed a very logical place for a political crocodile game to play itself out. And crocodiles they were, all over CNN and network TV.)

How do humans tame their crocodile brains? Meditation is probably the most effective way. Two stories have come my way recently, both having to do with the workplace.

Prison is the place where we generally dump the “losers” in the high-stakes game of win/lose capitalism; the prison-industrial complex is growing like no other industry these days. Two years ago, I learned about something remarkable happening at the biggest youth prison in America, one located outside of Los Angeles. The place had been a hell hole for years, with 600 prisoners in their late teens driven by gang violence within the prison and without. In desperation, I am told, the warden invited three Buddhist monks to teach the prisoners to meditate. At the time, 99 percent of the prisoners were Baptist or Roman Catholic (meaning probably Black or Hispanic) and they didn't know what a Buddhist monk was or what meditation meant. Gradually, however, they settled down to the experience and the energy of the entire place changed from being violent, us-versus-them, and win/lose to being a place of human respect. What did this change in a workplace cost? Probably three bowls of rice daily for the Buddhist monks teaching meditation.

Meditation calms the reptilian brain, turning the crocodile into a kind of pet within us. Don't underestimate the power of meditation.

I know a professor of engineering at a major US university who was despairing of academia's pathologies until he entered our university and got in touch with his own “right brain” through exposure to spiritual traditions and practices. Now he is organizing a conference for engineers in which they can rediscover their connection to mysticism, awe, and aesthetics. He has also chosen to go to tribes in the Amazon to help them construct wells powered by solar energy.

So we can change even our most violent work places, called prisons, into humane places of existence through a practice called meditation. This practice calms the killer instincts in us and allows our more compassionate, communitarian, and bonding selves to emerge.

What if this kind of change in the work world were to spread to businesses, academia, politics, economic institutions, utilities, religions — in short to wherever humans work?

Such training ought to begin in grade schools. Education ought to acknowledge that we have three brains, not just an intellectual one. It ought to make room for creativity, and the essence of education ought to be the proper disciplining and releasing of our creative brains. Compassion begins in the heart with bonding (the mammal brain), but compassion extends to all beings with the help of the uniquely human intellectual/creative brain.

Instead, in all the political posturing I have listened to about education, there seems to be one criteria: Who can promise the most exams for our kids. Exams do not train the mind for creativity. Education will not be renewed by more exams but by more focus on that which is uniquely human — our capacity for creativity. The crocodile brain, among other factors, is holding us back from our creativity. We must tame it to get to both compassion and creativity.

Education for life
We have to speak about education when we speak about right livelihood because educated people are destroying the Earth. Thomas Berry says most of the destruction of the planet is being accomplished by people with PhDs. Mahatma Gandhi, when his dream of freedom for his country was achieved, responded to the question, “What do you fear most?” with this answer: “The cold hearts of the educated citizens.”

Has contemporary, post-modern academia made any strides in educating the cold heart and warming and melting it since Gandhi spoke these words over 50 years ago? I am afraid not. The crocodile brain is alive and well in most of academia — uncriticized and unchecked. The education industry seems incapable of critiquing itself. It needs alternative models.

This is why we started a new university in downtown Oakland five years ago, one that is committed to bringing “universe” back to university (i.e., cosmology as the center of the university) and bringing creativity alive in the students. Our doctor of ministry program focuses on bringing spirituality to the workplace. The 370 students who have joined the program in less than three years all feel a common lack in their previous training. Whether they are engineers, business people, scientists, mental health workers, therapists, clergy, or artists, all are seeking spiritual practice and training. The most radical and indispensable way to achieve right livelihood is to change the way we train people for work. In our culture we call that education.

It is not enough to find peace. One must also make peace, and this cannot be done without justice. Spiritual practice and ethics must go together. The purpose of meditation is not to make the slavemaster more efficient, but to set in motion strategies and alliances of equality.

Right livelihood came home to me in Salina, Kansas, this past year, where I was visiting the Land Institute directed by farmer Wes Jackson. What I love so much about Wes Jackson is that behind that Methodist farmer's smile and sweet drawl there lies a wily, radical, and committed prophet of a farmer. He believes that we have been doing farming wrong for 10,000 years. Instead of turning the soil over every year and thereby inviting erosion and loss of soil, he is demonstrating that we could be farming by imitating the prairie, which creates soil rather than destroying it.

Wes' critique of his own livelihood gives me — and I hope the rest of us — permission to critique ours in an equally radical manner. I ask: Have we been doing education wrong for 10,000 years? Have we been doing religion wrong for 10,000 years? Have we been doing business wrong for 10,000 years? How about journalism and the media? In short, have we been doing work wrong for a long, long time?

Isn't it time to wake up? Time is running out. Our species will not survive if we do not commit to sustainability in its many forms — not only solar-driven energy sources but also solar-driven (as distinct from reptilian-driven) consciousness. We need to learn to breathe in and out the gift of healthy sunlight (which is literally the air we breathe) and not take it for granted. We need to ground ourselves, connecting to the Earth from which we come and to which we shall all return.

The despoiling of the Earth is not only ecocide; it is also suicide. The distractions we are fed daily by advertisers do not substitute for laying out an agenda of needed work as distinct from work that feeds greed and unsustainable consumerism. As Gandhi warned us, “there is enough for everyone's need, not for everyone's greed.” Right livelihood begins with need. It ends with celebration.


Matthew Fox is founder and president of the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, California, co-chair of the Naropa University master's program in creation spirituality, and author of several books, including The Reinvention of Work.

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