I am a certified yoga instructor and a licensed massage therapist, I’ve been meditating for 25 years, and I have countless new-agey weekend degrees. Still, somehow, five years ago, I found myself working not in a spa or ashram, not teaching yoga or giving massages, but writing vocabulary workbooks for the SAT test.
These were not your garden-variety SAT-prep manuals. These workbooks taught vocabulary words from Stephanie Meyer’s wildly popular Twilight vampire series. So I had to pretend to be a fan. I had to pretend to have a position on the Team Edward/Team Jacob issue. I had to comment on Taylor Lautner’s hotness.
Would the Buddha consider this right livelihood? Twilight-haters certainly didn’t. They reviewed my workbook on Amazon with comments like, “No… Just no,” “Seriously?” and, more directly, “Garbage.”
Teaching kids vocabulary through the books that they’re already reading is not inherently evil. On the contrary, it seems like a fantastic idea. Kids are reading Twilight. It contains high-level SAT vocabulary words. It’s a no-brainer. Use Twilight to help them build their vocabulary. That’s what I told myself, anyway.
But right livelihood requires us to be honest and ethical in business. No lying, cheating, or stealing. No trafficking weapons, humans, meat, drugs, or poison. So far, so good—my vocabulary workbooks didn’t violate any of the big no-nos.
But right livelihood also requires that we look at how our work affects our mind and heart. We must ask, “Is my work a support or hindrance to my spiritual practice? Is it a place where I can deepen my awareness and compassion?”
For me, unfortunately, the answer was a very shrill “No!”
I realized this one day while meditating: I did not care about Twilight. My work was not meaningful to me. My right path was elsewhere.
At first I ignored this moment of clarity. I told myself that the books could help teens, that they’d be fun, that I’d make a pile of money. But, as I continued to turn away from this inner wisdom, my discomfort grew until it became panic. I practiced breathing exercises, drank beer, ate cookies, watched movies—anything to quiet the rebellious thoughts. I overrode my insight. I shamed and mocked it. I called it weakness and fear.
And, eventually, the insight crawled away, defeated. So I became depressed. That’s what happens when I ignore my inner wisdom. At first it gets louder and shouts. Then it lashes out and panics. And, finally, it falls silent.
I wrote four Twilight vocabulary workbooks, one for each novel in the series. And every single one of these books … tanked.
Which I consider proof that the benevolent hand of spirit is looking out for me. Because otherwise I might have found myself writing vocabulary workbooks for the Hunger Games, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Gossip Girl series. I might have had to watch all three Transformers movies.
My books did not earn the payoff I’d imagined. My family went into debt. And since I hadn’t earned any intangible soul-level fulfillment either, I was devastated. Empty, broke, and depressed, I finally had to accept what my heart had been telling me all along—that this work was not for me. It was not my calling. I was out of dharma.
I asked my heart to speak up, and I promised that I’d listen. I did all the things that I knew would get me back on track: I walked in the woods, did a cleanse, meditated, started doing more yoga.
Each day, during meditation, as my mind cleared and quieted, a funny story bubbled up. Like steam inside a teakettle, the story wanted out. So I got up off my cushion and wrote it down.
Eventually, I had a book. And this time, before every decision regarding the book, I checked in with my heart. I asked, “Is this a support or hindrance to my spiritual practice? Will this help me deepen my awareness and compassion? Which choice supports my spiritual practice, is in line with my values, and feels right?” Which is all I need to know.
I practice this every day, and every day that I practice, it gets easier. It gets easier to hear the voice of my heart, easier to mindfully ignore the call of ego, and easier to stay in right livelihood.
Brian Leaf is a Kripalu Yoga teacher and the author of Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi: My Humble Quest to Heal My Colitis, Calm My ADD, and Find the Key to Happiness.