2019: Joyful Livelihood

Focus for the year. PC: Bitmoji.

It always struck me that word has meaning and tangible effect in the world. That someone telling you “I love you” or “You are a terrible person” can physically affect our body. That a stream of words in our memory can bring a slush of sensation to our flesh. It’s both amazing and crazy.

The mind-matter connection seems to be a thing, a very real thing indeed. Word turns out to be one of the most profound technology mankind has ever invented. One word can send a nation to war and bring another to peace. Not bad for some vibration that comes from one’s throat or finger pressing on a keyboard.

Which is why picking a few words as a theme for your year can be a worthwhile practice.

2019: Joyful Livelihood

2018 has been a transition year of moving from US to Vietnam, changing city and focusing on a relationship. It took a lot of energy, which meant little was left on this “practical” question of livelihood.

This phrase, Joyous Livelihood, came to me a while ago when I was thinking about having to make money and what to focus on this year. No, it’s not as simple as “making more.” Let me explain.

Graduated from a great college, I’m probably the top 0.01% of the luckiest people who don’t have to worry too much about money money money and familial obligations. so are free to explore. Thanks, God, for all the good karma.

While some savings have saved me from financial burden, I still think of money sometimes. It’s crazy that even though I technically don’t have to think about it for at least a year, these thoughts still appear. Hello, uncontrollable monkey mind.

There is something gripping, obsessive and even anxiety-inducing about seeing your bank account draining gradually. The good thing is that now I feel a lot more compassion with people dealing with money stuff. Mad, blissful or meh, we are in this money world together.

As a mentor once told me, money, sex and power are the three topics that most people carry plenty of shame and other unconscious obstacles around. They all need to be worked through, and this year is the time for money work.

Diving deeper into livelihood will mean I’ll encounter some unconscious beliefs and even childhood wounds about money, which maybe painful. Greed, stinginess, fear and jealousy, all these yucky emotions are bound to come up and hopefully transform into generosity, courage and love.

Business as relationships

The common association with money is business, or a thing that maximizes profit. This is too simplistic and uninspiring, let alone dangerous when taken as a sole purpose. Another definition that I like more by the late Peter Drucker is “The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer”. This one captures what a business does, but it doesn’t say much about our life and its meanings, something that matters to me and a lot of people.

Here is a definition from my teacher Mark Silver that helped “Business is the relationships you have around your livelihood”.

“Business is the relationships you have around your livelihood”. Credit: Heart of Business

That includes all the ways you make a living, which means you’ve got to deal with money, unless you are a monk who has no possession. Even in a self-sufficient community where you grow your own food, someone must pay for the electricity and Internet right?

This definition of business highlights an often neglected component: the quality of relationship matters. How much is this based on trust, mutual support and good will? Does it enrich, ennoble or even enlighten everyone it touches? It’s not just the relationship with suppliers and contractors, colleagues and bosses, shareholders and board members as you seen in the graphic above. It’s our relationship with business and the sustainability of life itself.

So how can we grapple with “relationship”, this fuzzy terms that once in a while will drive all of us nuts? Here’s one framework by the Buddhist teacher Ken Mcleod that can help. Is it about mutual benefit, shared aim, emotional connection, or a combination of all? Business as relationships have to be at least about mutual benefits. That’s for another post though.

Plenty of fascinating areas for exploration, yes?

Crawling well before walking

As a young adult, I’m quite a romantic when it comes to this dreaded question of “what do you do?” It’s not romantic in the sense of being a painter or musician, but rather knowing and trusting that each of us has a unique gift to be given freely to the world.

The question of livelihood is part of a much larger question of Work that we will need to continuously ask ourselves. What is the Work? What’s its Form to put into the world?

In reflection, I have been focusing almost exclusively on this romantic Big Fancy Calling notion and looking down at the practical challenge of finding a roof over my head and putting food on the table. While I still survive, it turns out that I need to crawl pretty well before I can learn to walk, let alone run.

Bill Plotkin, a depth psychologist that I admire, writes about this topic as the survival dance and the sacred dance here. (emphasis mine)

Harley Swift Deer, a Native American teacher, says that each of us has a survival dance and a sacred dance, but the survival dance must come first. Our survival dance, a foundational component of self-reliance, is what we do for a living — our way of supporting ourselves physically and economically. For most people, this means a paid job.
Your sacred dance sparks your greatest fulfillment and extends your truest service to others. You know you’ve found it when there’s little else you’d rather be doing. Getting paid for it is superfluous. You would gladly pay others, if necessary, for the opportunity.
Swift Deer says that once you discover your sacred dance and learn effective ways of embodying it, the world will support you in doing just that.
What your soul wants is what the world also wants (and needs). Your human community will say yes to your soul work and will, in effect, pay you to do it. Gradually, your sacred dance becomes what you do and your former survival dance is no longer need. Now you have only one dance as the world supports you to do what is most fulfilling for you.
How do you get there? The first step is creating a foundation of self-reliance: a survival dance of integrity that allows you to be in the world in a good way — a way that is psychologically sustaining, economically adequate, socially responsible, and environmentally sound. Cultivating right livelihood, as the Buddhist call it, essential training and foundation for your soul work; it’s not a step that can be skipped.

2019 is then more about a solid survival dance, or as I’ve written before, combining the three ways of thinking about Work.

For work-as-job, the questions are: Does this pay the bill? Can I ensure in general that income is slightly more than expense? 
For work-as-career, does this open up new opportunities for even more interesting pursuits and growth?
For work-as-calling, does this satisfy the deepest longing in my heart? Does every action bring me closer to the Divine?

While each of us maybe drawn to one thing more than the other, ultimately we’ve got to seek for an integration. That’s an aspirational Livelihood. High aim, I know, but may as well aim high for something that is so important :-)


Initially in this process of discerning a theme, I thought of the Buddhist term “Right Livelihood”, which is about a life with wholesome action that does good, not harm and receives fair compensation. It sounds too austere though.

Even though I need neither ever-smiley customer service nor workplace with pingpong tables (sorry, tech companies), joy is important.

As Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “our joy and pain are one”, Joyful Livelihood is about carrying the truth of our interconnectedness in our work.

The reason to aspire towards Joy is precisely because in this process of crafting a livelihood, I’ll encounter those pain and suffering of others and within myself. With an eye on joy, I hope to be able to touch those sore spots with kindness and compassion, so that they can heal and reveal their own beauty.

The Finite & Infinite Game of Livelihood

One concept that has profoundly shaped my thinking comes from the enigmatic book, Finite & Infinite Games, including my theme last year. As a continuation, here’s how I’m applying it to this year’s theme.

For the finite game, the play-to-win kind, I hope to make some big fat checks this year! 🤑 Joking aside, the achievable goal is to craft a system that continuously brings in money and other resources as sufficiently needed while delivering superior RoJ — Return on Joy — to myself and all the conceivable stakeholders. Practically, that will start with my work with MindKind Institute, which I’m thrilled about.

For the infinite game, the play-to-keep-playing kind, much of my inspiration has come from Charles Eisenstein’s beautiful course, Living in the Gift.

A few key questions to hold in mind are: How might the business of life be a joyous manifestation of our innermost gift? How might it further invite us into a deeper gratitude and generosity? Along this process, what forms of control am I ready and willing to let go of? What am I not?

I wish those inquiries to spark more joy this year for myself, and I’ll share them in later writings. For now, here’s a gift from the beloved Mary Oliver who recently just left our world.

by Mary Oliver
My work is loving the world.
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy […]

Thanks for reading. If you want to hear more reflections like this, join my weekly digest here at Enzyme for Thoughts. If you are interested in working with me, please reach out at Guiding Practice.