One City

What would Sid do?

Before Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment at age 35 he was a
confused twenty and thirty-something looking to learn how to live a
spiritual life. He had an overbearing dad, expectations for what he was
supposed to do
with his life, drinks were flowing, lutes were playing, and the
women were all about him. Some called him L.L. Cool S. I imagine
close friends just referred to him as Sid.

Many people look to Siddhartha as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. But here we look at a younger Sid
as a confused guy struggling with his daily life. What would he do as a
young person trying to find love, cheap drinks, and fun in a city like
New York? How would he combine Buddhism and dating? We all make mistakes on our spiritual journey; here is where
they’re discussed.

Each week I’ll take on a new question and
give some advice based on what I think Sid, a confused guy working on
his spiritual life in a world of major distraction, would do. Because
let’s face it, you and I are Sid.

Have a question for this weekly column? E-mail it here and I’ll probably get to it!

Q: I just graduated from college and I’ve been job hunting for a few weeks
now. I finally got some offers, but now I’m super conflicted. I was an
Econ major in college, and I always planned to use my major to do some
good in the World. I’ve got one offer on the table now with ********,
in which I would be doing some work with infrastructure in South
Africa’s Millennium Villages, but they would pay me next to nothing
(though I would get to travel). The other offer is as an analyst with
**********, where I’d get paid really well, but benefit no one, and
possible indirectly harm some people. What should I do??? – RAB*

*names of companies removed by author

RAB, I understand the desire to take a secure job where you have a good salary. I can’t imagine anyone outright faulting you for that desire. Furthermore, I think it’s not evil but brave for people interested in bringing mindfulness and compassion to their daily life to work in major corporate settings. In those settings we are constantly being tested in our ability to keep an open heart when confronted with ruthless office politics, gossip, and manipulation.

Now I am not someone who frequents the gymnasium so commenters, please feel free to correct me here, but my understanding is that when one works out you go a little bit above and beyond your comfort zone and that is when the muscle begins to grow.

The same can be said for our heart. If we can remain open-hearted above and beyond our usual comfort level we are stretching our compassion muscle and growing as a person. In other words, I think it’s incorrect to say that working as an analyst at a major corporation would benefit no one. You could engage your workplace as a meditation hall and learn to work
with the range of emotions you encounter on the spot. That could be an
excellent practice for you.

Also, not to get too Gandhi on you but being open-hearted in the workplace (any workplace) is being a little bit of that change many of us would like to see take place in major corporations.

Now a shift. As was discussed in this column a few weeks ago the bottom line of Right Livelihood is that we do not harm ourselves or others. You may feel that the analyst job does harm others. I’m not sure which brand of poison the company you are considering working for sells but if you don’t agree with the mission statement of the company you will probably not feel comfortable working there. In fact, doing something you do not feel good about will drain your own energy (lungta), regardless of how much money you are putting in the bank. As Shantideva said,

“Some evil and lustful people
Wear themselves out by working all day
And when they return home (in the evening)
Their exhausted bodies lie prostrate like corpses.”
    – Bodhisattvacharyavatara, Chapter 8 Paragraph 73

Funny how a text written 1300 years ago can still found familiar today. Granted, the language is a bit strong (I’d never call you evil or lustful RAB!) but still. How many of us come home after a long day of work, flop down on our couch and flick on the television, spending the rest of the evening prostrate like a corpse?

The thing is I’ve only seen people act like that when they did not feel good about their daily work. As such I think Sid, if placed in your position, would take the job helping others. You stated in your question that your primary motivation for some time has been to do some good in this world. It seems from the way you phrased things that you believe the Millennium Village job would allow you to do that.

When faced with major life decisions it might be helpful to recall that our old friend Death is never too far away. We don’t know when he will come visit only that he will come. We could live a good 95 years (RIP Nana, or should I say swift rebirth) or get hit by a bus. Trust me, I’ve been hit by a bus before. However, I offer this tangent not as a downer but as a reminder that we ought to make the most of this life and appreciate the time we have.

When you are lying on your deathbed will you cry out, “I wished I watched more TV!” or “If only I had nicer clothes!”? I doubt it. I’d like to think that when confront with death we all reflect on the good we did during our time on this earth. The people we’ve helped along the way. The significant accomplishments that made a difference in the lives of others. I’m sure Sid did that. He had a whole lot to look back on because, like you, he was motivated to spend his life doing some good in this world. I fully encourage you to follow your shared motivation. And send me a postcard from South Africa.

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