Taking Some of the Work out of Work: Skillful Livelihood


“Taking Some of the Work out of Work: Skillful Livelihood” is part 5 of our series on the traditional Eightfold Path for the cessation of suffering offered by the Buddha 2500 years ago. Missed the other posts in the series? Read them all here.

A man visiting a rock quarry approached one of the stone masons, and said, “Tell me about the work you are doing.”

The stone worker replied, “I’m cutting this rock into blocks. It’s a hard job.

The visitor wandered around a bit, and then approached a different stone worker, doing the same work. “Tell me about the work you are doing,” he said.

The man replied, “I’m cutting these stones, and I’m grateful for the work. It’s how I support my family.

The visitor thanked him, then wandered a bit more. Finally, he approached a third man doing the same work, and said, “Tell me about the work you are doing?”

The stone worker beamed at him and said, “I’m building a cathedral!

Three different people doing the same job. The only difference was the way they related to and felt about their work. But what a difference it makes.

So here’s the thing about work: It’s work. That’s why they call it “work.”

In the USA we get a little bit obsessed about following our passion and finding our dream job. As if we expect we should be able to find jobs that are not boring or too hard, and that are always interesting and exciting. Wouldn’t that be nice.

The truth is that most jobs are not all fun and games.
The truth is that most jobs are not all fun and games. Fortunately, they don’t need to be for you to find meaning and even pleasure in them.

The Buddha’s Skillful Livelihood

The Buddha included Skillful Livelihood as one of the 8 steps towards the end of suffering. He must have understood that since we spend so much of our waking lives working, that we have to find meaning in our work if we want to be happy.

According to Buddha, Skillful Livelihood has only two criteria:

  1. The work does not cause obvious harm to other beings.
  2. The work is done with a spirit of giving and care and reverence for life.

That seems pretty straightforward. You don’t have to be a social worker or a doctor. You just have to avoid hiring yourself out as a hitman.

And you have to do your work with attention to detail, seeing the good in it, and treating kindly all whom you serve.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was on the same page as the Buddha about this. He said:

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’


No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.

That is a perfect description of Skillful Livelihood. Non-judgmental, present-moment awareness (aka mindfulness) is what allows you to relate to your work this way.

Homer could learn a little bit about Skillful LivelihoodHave you ever been at work, just counting the minutes until you can leave, and irritated at everyone who speaks to you?

What if in those moments, you chose to relate to your time at work differently? What if you brought curiosity and interest to your work instead of focusing on your desire to be elsewhere?

When at work, what if you really noticed the sounds and sights and activity all around you? What if you made an effort to be patient, maybe even kind, to your colleagues and customers? Do you think you could find moments of comfort or beauty or pleasure in your day if you approached your work this way?

Why not try? If you can do it even sometimes you’ll be a bit further along the path to happiness.

We want to know how it goes, share your moments of mindfulness at work below. .

Photo by armct on Flickr (cc)

Get our latest articles in your inbox.

The Mindful Twenty Something by Holly Rogers
“Wise, but not obscure. Practical, but lighthearted and inspiring.”

— MIRABAI BUSH, co-founder and Senior Fellow of The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

Learn more about the book