Like many articles that tread the waters of spirituality and business, I have to include a general disclaimer.
For this particular article, I’ll say this: Buddha sought out to teach folks a way towards genuine happiness and fulfillment. This goes beyond the mundane “doing a good job at work” that I’ll be addressing here. Despite this, I choose to intertwine fun spiritual stories with business concepts anyway for a few reasons.
First – sure, realizing oneness with the universe is a beautiful thing, and any form of enlightenment experience is incredible and life-altering. But rent is still due at the end of the month, you still have those sales goals you need to meet, your boss is a jerk and you’re desperately behind on laundry. It just keeps piling up in your closet. So, in short, life happens. Work and stress are a reality and it’s helpful to address the everyday issues we face, through a spiritual lense.
And secondly, business and spirituality have gone together for thousands of years. In the case of Buddhism, Zen monasteries had “CFOs” and “COOs” of sorts that handled budgets, supplies and ensured community relations and partnerships were in place to properly function. The Buddha himself even alluded that the path of the “householder” is more arduous than one of the monk, as the householder has responsibilities that differ, than the monk whose whole day is dedicated to self-realization.
Lastly, look at some of the great spiritual teachers (to stay on topic, I’ll use Buddhist examples): you’ll find the great Zen figure Layman Pang who was a successful merchant. Or the more modern Zen master SeungSanh who (seriously) was a Washer/Dyer repairman, my teacher’s teacher Nishijima Roshi was an accountant, and the list goes on. Spirituality and business do compliment one another – in the right light.
To showcase how some Buddhist practices can benefit your business outlook, let’s go back to the original source, Siddartha Gautama – aka the ‘historical’ Buddha. His path to enlightenment and it’s numerous variations have everything from fable and shock to logic and wisdom. I recently sat back down with his story and was delighted to find the many parallels between his journey – and the journey of the entrepreneur.
And to reiterate: The Buddha’s journey is deeper than business goals. It and goes beyond societal constructs of career – but let’s see what we can gather, because if there are ways to be less attached and more light in our work-world, then I think ole’ Buddha would be quite proud.
1.Safe and Sheltered Ruins Growth
Buddha began his life as Siddhartha Gautama, a young prince living in an enclosed palace, drawn away from society. It’s said that his father purposefully sheltered Siddhartha from the ills of the world, and would rarely let him leave the palace walls.
However, one day – Siddhartha ventured out with his friend and charioteer Channa and for the first time, Siddhartha saw people suffering. He saw the poor, the elderly and the sick walking the streets. He even passed a funeral procession. It was here that he understood – these things happen, but we act like they don’t. After a few other experiences of a similar vibe, Siddhartha decided to leave the palace and go on a journey to find the root of human suffering and how to end it. This eventually lead to his enlightenment or his “Buddhahood”.
The parallels here in terms to your business or life goals is obvious – playing it safe rarely leads to growth. After college, I took the first job in my field that I could find. I worked in client relations for a large agency. Now, don’t get me wrong – that role led me to work with the social media team, creative team, PR team and more – so I learned a lot. However, I was basically a more hands-on version of a customer service rep. I didn’t get a chance to write, to strategize, to pitch media and do the things I love doing today.
But you couldn’t tell me that back then. I “loved” being in client services (I told myself). I bought books, wrote articles for publications – I’d watch Mad Men and see if I could find a Pete or someone to look up to.
But at the end of the day – I didn’t really like it. I actually hated it.
Sure, I got to learn a lot from other teams, but the majority of my job was dealing with client complaints and I never got to flex my creative or strategic muscles, ever. However, it was safe. It was a nice office job, in a pretty low impact corner of the company. And if I didn’t leave, I would have still have been lying to myself nearly 10 years later.
Instead, I was able to revamp my vision and find a career that I can grow and evolve.
This is a very specific example, but I’m sure you can insert in your stories, too. It could be that new project you want to start, that new job, that new campaign. It’s also possible you don’t realize you’re stagnant. Maybe you’ve been doing that same marketing campaign now all year, or using that same email template. Or like me, you want to switch careers but you’re living firmly in your own illusion.
Sure, you might feel safe – but safety rarely leads to growth. You can stay in your palace all day, but how can you become royal when you never leave your throne?
2. Your Own Illusions are Holding You Back
This is a big one. If you have to take one thing away from this article it should be this one. I’ll start with a very simplified Buddhist angle, but it’s a very universal concept.
The Buddha’s big epiphany that lead to his enlightenment was the following: life is full of suffering (or the Pali word could also mean stress) and the cause of that suffering is clinging, or attachment. The way out of the suffering is to not cling.
Now, excuse my two sentence summary of a thousand-plus year old religion and let’s apply it to our business and goal-oriented lives. I firmly believe the following: Our attachment to what success should look like, can ruin our progress.
Oftentimes, we think success should feel and look a certain way, so we move a certain way and overlook other avenues of profit and accomplishment. It almost creates an unhealthy tunnel vision of sorts. I’ll give a few examples.
A lot of artists I’ve worked with are solely focused on getting a record deal. Which is fine and it’s great – but in doing so, they overlook the hundreds or thousands of fans that they can monetize today. But since they’re attached to the idea that success is signing that contract, they overlook some of the low hanging fruit that can move the needle – and honestly maybe even attract labels down the road.
Or, a lot of tech companies I work with get caught on certain metrics – maybe social media followers, or page views. And while these numbers matter when it comes to investors or partners, only measuring success from a single metric can be problematic. It can also lead to overlooking genuine issues that may rest elsewhere in your marketing or operational channels.
This piece of advice can be used on a level as small as a marketing campaign, to as large as life and career goals. Now – I’m not saying don’t have objectives, dreams or KPIs. Those are very very important. However, what I am saying is simply… don’t be hardheaded. See where you’re failing and revise, see where you’re winning and revise that, too. Don’t be so narrow-minded that you miss out on other possibilities.
While we’re on the topic of illusions – this can also fit into #1. Maybe you are living an illusion right now, and telling yourself that a certain situation is fine – you may even firmly believe it. However, pick it apart – question it. Maybe that illusion is leading to suffering. Speaking of questioning…
3. Question Everything, Even From Buddha.
Buddha said the following:
O bhikshus and wise men, just as a goldsmith would test his gold by burning, cutting, and rubbing it, so you must examine my words and accept them, but not merely out of reverence for me.
– ghanavyuha sutra (Sutra of Dense Array)
In short, Buddha preached analysis – especially his own words! How refreshing is this?! In a world where everyone and their mom is a thought leader, it’s so great to hear someone say – before you believe me, try it!
My Buddhist background is of the Zen school. It centers around Zazen meditation – sure, we study sutras and talk about Buddhist thought but the vast majority of the practice is just sitting down on your meditation cushion. However, there are thousands upon thousands of books, podcasts, videos, lectures and more on Zen buddhism. Which is necessary – don’t get me wrong! But eventually, you need to put the book down and sit your butt on the cushion and see for it yourself.
This is akin to reading a cookbook without ever cooking. I feel that this happens often in the business world. We read books, or retweet half-baked marketing advice, but we sometimes lack to do it ourselves. Or – even worse, and what Buddha was warning about – we do it, without thinking.
I find that a lot of our current business moves are done with an unintentional – Monkey See, Monkey Do, mindset. One trend occurs and we all blindly follow it. This means not only creative, but also the tactics all begin to look alike. We do things without analyzing it – does this work? Is it good for our message? Audience? Is this philosophy or management style working? Do I really believe in this?
All very important.
4. The Middle Path
There’s this beautiful but simple story that comes from the Buddha himself. It’s really defined how I approach my management and marketing projects.
A sitar player, after struggling with his meditation practice, asked the Buddha for advice. Buddha answered with a question,
“What happens if you tune your sitar too tightly?” the Buddha asked.
“The strings will snap,” the musician replied.
“And too loose?” the Buddha followed up.
“Then no sound will be made at all,” the musician answered. “The string that produces a tuneful sound is not too tight but also not too loose.”
“That,” said the Buddha, “is how to practice: not too tight but not too loose.”
Apply this to spirituality – but also to business, relationships, personal goals.
Too tight, you break. Too loose, you fall apart.
I would say that a good 70% of poor marketing – comes from impatience. This is especially true in the artistic markets – where “image” and “persona” are incredibly important. We want the blog coverage, we want the opening slot, we want the follower count. This impatience leads us to pay for performances, invest in “blog placements” (not PR), and throw cash at other things so we can “look the part”.
While branding is very important – being too focused on the “look” rather than your ROI (return on investment) will lead you down a bad path. Because for every bit you invest in your career, there needs to be a way you can see a return on that expense. You need a proper mix of doing things for brand awareness alongside doing tasks for a financial or realistic goal.
This can also be said for how much work you take on. We might overload ourselves with too much and spread ourselves too thin, conversely we may be not taking on enough.
5. Enlightenment Solved The Buddha’s Problems – Now Go Solve Yours.
There’s a phrase that floats around some Buddhist circles and it’s this: Enlightenment solved the Buddha’s Problems – now go solve yours.
Buddha went out to solve the twinge he felt when he saw there was so much suffering in the world. That was his goal – and his vision, and he solved it … for himself. Sure, he taught his way to others and sought to help all beings to see his truth – but even he preached that this journey is very personal. He spoke of analyzing everything, even his words. He also said that Buddhist thought is a raft, but once you reach the shore, leave the raft behind.
He made it clear that while there is a universal issue (stress or suffering) we all have our own unique journeys. We all have our own unique paths and roads to cross. Our issues won’t look the same, so neither will the solutions. There isn’t a one-size-fits all approach to knocking out that work or personal issue, nor is there a universal way to achieve your own unique goals.
Find both your problem – and your enlightenment.