Living Ethically

I just finished reading a book about Enron. I have a friend who worked there, but before reading this book I never understood how California’s energy crisis, shell companies, and deals with banking institutions fit together to cause the failure of this large energy company. It came down to greed by a few people at the top eager to enrich themselves with little thought for their employees, their stockholders, or those, like the people in California, who were indirectly affected by the Enron executives’ single-minded focus on the next profitable, if unethical, deal.

The Vedas, ancient philosophical texts, divide human lives into four stages: student, householder, forest dweller, and renunciate. In the first two stages, one lives in the world, first learning from a teacher and then managing a household which includes having and supporting a family. Once the second stage is complete, the next two stages focus on withdrawal from the world. First one separates from the attachments of family and society, and then one withdraws completely to focus on spiritual practices.

The householder stage is important because it supports the other three stages. In this phase of life, one has a career, provides for a family, and meets social responsibilities. Wealth is not viewed negatively; in fact, money and material possessions are necessary to support and sustain a family. However, it is essential that wealth is ethically obtained and used.

The Yoga Sutras, another philosophical text, describes how to live an ethical life in relation to others with practices called Yamas. Though entire books have been written on the subject, in short, the Yamas are:

  • Nonviolence or non-harming towards others and ourselves.
  • Truthfulness in word, thought, and deed.
  • Non-stealing of physical objects and intangibles such as taking credit for the ideas of others.
  • Moderation of the senses. Not allowing the senses to control one’s actions either by overindulgence or over-restraint. This includes one’s relationship to food, what one chooses to listen to, watch, and read, and remaining faithful to a partner in a monogamous relationship.
  • Non-possessiveness. Not being too attached to possessions or acquiring more than is needed. Also, not being overly controlling in relationships with others.

The Enron executives and those involved in the more recent banking scandals clearly did not live by the Yamas. They harmed others, lied to and stole from investors and stockholders, used the resulting income to live lavishly, and some used their money and standing in the business community to influence politicians and regulators. Though these top executives lived the high life for years, many ended up disgraced, powerless, and incarcerated.

If we choose to practice the Yamas, not only will we make the people around us happier, but in the long run, we will live happier lives ourselves. Each situation presents its own difficulties and it is challenging to apply all five Yamas in all situations. Nevertheless, remembering the Yamas and setting an intention to attempt to follow them when dealing with others is a good first step. Are you willing to try?