I don’t dip my toes into Buddhist waters very often, let alone go for a swim, but the concept of Right Livelihood is something which has stuck with me. I believe I can trace it to the compelling essay “On the Path, Off the Trail” by Gary Snyder in his collection The Practice of the Wild. In a nutshell Right Livelihood is a part of the Noble Eightfold Path. It states that in work a person should not compromise the five moral precepts of not killing, stealing, misusing sex, lying or abusing intoxicants. These morals transfer readily to other wisdom traditions and can be thought of as basic instructions before leaving earth. Add other morals and ethics and reduce as necessary to form your own moral code as it applies to Right Livelihood. The point is, these form a core bedrock of standards of behavior, that if you don’t follow, you’ll have trouble achieving anything else in life. If you telescope in on these types of moral & ethical codes many of the jobs in industrial society would be precluded.
From what I understand Right Livelihood is something applied to lay people, or those outside of the priesthood. Yet this idea of earning an ethical living should also be applied to the various spiritual and magical teachers a seeker may encounter on her or his path. It should certainly be applied to oneself. There are desperate and trying situations where any type of work may need to be done for a period of time in order to keep yourself and loved ones from even worse situations, i.e, to keep them fed, clothed, and sheltered. Outside of these situations it becomes another story.
What is a proper way to earn a living if you are called into work as a teacher, artist, magician, priest/ess or cultural worker of some other kind? And how does the mindset of unconditional service further affect the choices available to us in a society afflicted with the multiple ongoing crisis of imperial collapse, energy shortages, and climate change?
Many of the newer modes of operation for individuals involved in these sectors of work will no longer be sustainable on the economic front as the institutions supporting these activities fall into disrepair, itself a result of the money behind them being allocated to other resources critical to day to day survival. The grants, scholarships, and tenure may still be there for another decade or so, but in my reckoning it’s only a matter of time before no one will pay for such things. The same goes for the mage or esoteric teacher who makes a living catering to middle class folks by hosting workshops, online courses and the like. As society continues to collapse other forms and models will take hold, and I hope these will be a mixture of tradition and innovation.
In thinking a lot about magical teachers lately, I came to realize that though I myself had paid for instruction in esoteric arts on a number of occasions, most of the real significant moments came to me in my everyday life, or a teacher appeared for a time as part of my journey. And they asked for nothing in return.
YOGI BHAJAN ROCKS THE MIC
After I graduated high school I went down to Tennessee to visit some friends who’d moved there, and a girl I’d been writing letters to -who became my girlfriend over the summer. My cousin who was my best friend at the time came with me. My then-girfriend had been taking yoga classes in Knoxville from a guy named Dharam Singh. He was an old white hippie who’d reformed from his psychedelic-drug taking ways. He made his living by doing a paper route. So he was a fifty-something paper boy (that was in ’98). His yoga lineage came from Yogi Bhajan and the Sikhs based out of New Mexico. They called it Kundalini Yoga (he founded the Kundalini Research Institute), but I later heard other people call it Kriya Yoga. They had more emphasis on mudras and mantras than I’ve seen elsewhere in yoag the west (not that I’ve ever been to the east!). Every summer solstice the Sikhs had a camp in the mountains near Espanola. The story was that the Hopi’s donated the land to Yogi Bhajan because he’d fulfilled some prophecy of theirs (I have no idea if this is true, but its what I learned from my paper boy yoga teacher). For three days at the camp we did “white tantric yoga” in polarity with a female partner. It was about 6-8 hours each day, with a break for lunch. Those experiences were really powerful, for an 18 year old without much discipline. My discipline is only mariginally better now. They had Sikh liturgy at various times too, but a lot of the people there weren’t Sikh’s and they never seemed to pushy about the religion. If you were just there for the yoga that was fine.
After the yoga camp we went to the National Rainbow Gathering which was in Arizona that year. Dharam Singh set up his tipi and out of taught Kundalini yoga two or three times a day to anyone who showed up. Back in Knoxville he taught out of his apartment, if my memory serves. He may have passed a hat around for a donation, but that was the extent of it. In this manner he was able to fulfill his duty as a teacher and be of service to seekers without it becoming some kind of illuminati franchise.
I didn’t stick with Kundalini Yoga as a discipline in the long run. However, I learned a lot that summer, and one of the things I took away from my friendship with Dharam Singh, who continued to stay in touch through the mail for a few years after that trip, was a connection to the Peace Pilgrim, whose work Dharam turned me onto. She gave up all her worldly possessions and took to the roads in pilgrimage and prayer, sleeping where she could, and eating only when food was offered to her. That’s not a way of life for hearth holders, but she still has a lot to teach.
The most I hope for out of my work would is to become independently poor. To work in my day job long enough that I can pay off my house and then quit or go to part time so as to focus on other things, such as the household economy. The phrase “independently poor” I gleaned from notorious pederast Hakim Bey. He had inherited enough money from his family to be able to live without job, and work on his writings, anarchist and publishing activities without recourse to a 9 to 5. At the same time, for an anarchist with the means to be independently poor, I wonder how much the struggles of daily life ground away at him to shape his character. It’s easy to be a lifestyle anarchist when you are independently poor. It’s whole other story when the first thing on your mind are the struggles of day to day existence. That’s the fire where character is forged.
So if you are an artist, magician, or other independent spirit, my advice is to find a day job that is in alignment with the character of your work or your ethics, or something you simply enjoy to do. Get in the business of making something of value instead of offering spiritual services to the highest bidder. The work that needs to be done in service will come to you of its own accord, as will the means for fulfilling your creative potential. The joys and sorrows of your life, will fill your cauldron of inspiration.