The mistranslation of Dukkha

The Buddha’s first Noble Truth is that “life is suffering.”

This concept is recited all over the wisdom traditions, as well as, retrofitted, in many contemporary thinkers like Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson.

When I first heard this, I thought it was unnecessarily gloomy.

Life’s not ALL suffering. I’m generally happy. Everyone says I’m an optimist. Maybe I’m not ecstatic right now, but I’m definitely pretty good. And I was great last month, when I closed that financing. I might suffer sometimes, sure, but life is much more than just that.

I learned much later that the Buddha used the sanskrit word Dukkha, which actually translates to “unsatisfactoriness.” So, in effect, the teaching is that life, by its very nature, is unsatisfactory.

Life is not enough. Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

Life is not enough, and cannot ever be enough, because we always want more. When we’re sad, we want to be happy. When we’re happy, we want to be over the moon. And when we’re over the moon, we quickly become afraid of the inevitable come-down. Closing a financing, hitting revenue numbers or even selling your company, there is no situation in which human beings–never mind founders–can ever get enough, or experience enough, or accomplish enough. We’re not wired for that.

The “be all that you can be” mantra we’re taught in America feeds us right into this misery, amplifying our innate desire to want more, strive more, achieve more. Many of us are good at playing this game and trick ourselves into thinking we can win, amassing lots of things and experiences in the process. But no amount of getting, achieving or having will ever change life’s fundamental not-enough-ness. The game is rigged.

Instead of killing ourselves trying to get enough (things or experiences, money or status), what if we worked on really seeing what’s right in front of us? What if we got past ourselves, and really saw the people suffering around us, and in seeing that, simply endeavored to help?

For that matter, what would a company that did that look like?

Sales teams are more than that

I heard a story once that stuck with me, about the nature of experience.

A small girl walks through a garden for the first time. In the garden are green things of all kinds, which she has never seen before. She is overwhelmed by the scents, the colors, the sheer magnitude of the experience. She spins, feeling the sensations in her outstretched arms as they brush against the various plants. She has not felt more alive than at that moment.

She runs back into the house to tell her mom about her experience. Her mom says “I saw you running about in the flowers. Those are pretty, aren’t they?”

She goes back into the garden the next day, and smiles at the “pretty flowers.”

We label things with concepts and words out of necessity–it’d be impossible to navigate the world if we didn’t know the concept of food or shelter–but the labeling creates a distance between us and the garden, such that we don’t see the garden in its entire complexity and majesty any longer, instead seeing it as simply “garden.” The label strips away the nuance and flattens something that is inherently three-dimensional and five-sensual to a mental concept. It turns the profound experience of Life into an idea that can be filed away along with millions of others. Nothing special.

I see myself doing the same thing in business. With a simple label, a complex group of wonderful and mysterious people, with tremendous, multifaceted value to add to the organization, become simply a “sales team”, or an “engineering team.” And thusly, I limit their contribution to merely that.

It’s not wrong to abstract the world this way. Again, it’s necessary. But every once in a while I’ll find myself in the woods or on top of a cliff and experience that rush of Existence once more, and in those moments I’m reminded that that’s our default state. That wordless, free place is reality, not the endless list of concepts we shuffle and categorize to make sense of things. The words “cliff” and “forest” and “engineering team” are useful, but they’re an inadequate substitute for the real thing.

I am doing my utmost to remember this, both in business and in life.