"Be ecstatic that you are alive and know that every minute of your life and week and month and year are very valuable and precious and of great importance."
- Robert Thurman
From October 13th through the 16th, The New York Open Center will be hosting the 6th Annual Art of Dying Conference. The scheduled attendees of the conference encompass a wide variety of experts, ranging from medical professionals, hospice advocates, scholars, religious and spiritual leaders, as well as entrepreneurs and business men and women interested in learning how an understanding of death and dying can help them live lives of greater purpose and meaning.
One of the keynote speakers is Robert Thurman, the foremost American scholar, author and activist on Tibetan Buddhist studies in the U.S., and a close personal friend of the Dalai Lama's. Thurman is also one of the co-founders of the conference. I had a chance to speak with Thurman this week about the responsibilities we, as business leaders, have to our communities. He talked about how our understanding of the art of dying affects decisions we make in the business community, especially with more and more executives feeling disconnected and dispassionate about what they are doing.
I asked him specifically to share with us his perspective on the importance of business leaders finding their purpose in what they do. Thurman focused on three key areas:
1) Remember that we are all going to die and we should never live in denial of that fact
Understanding our mortality creates the ultimate perspective for all of us. If we fully lean into the realization that death comes to each of us, we can use this perspective to create a life of purpose.
2) Become ecstatic about simply being alive
Use the feeling of being ecstatic about our lives to drive us to have fun and want others to have fun and feel the joy of life. From this place, recognize our ability to create a legacy that is of value to the entire world.
3) Men and women in business have a unique opportunity to spread joy and happiness through their work
We are the modern day merchants, feeding travelers with both information and sustenance. Understand the value this responsibility has in the world when carried out for good.
"If you do something that they really like and value, and if you pay attention to making your customer happy, then they are there for you the following year."
A core value of Buddhist philosophy is compassion. Through compassion, we can offer happiness to others and create happiness for ourselves. If we apply compassion to to the work we do, we are able to see the true needs of our customers.
Thurman says that as people in business, "we should take heart because, although a lot of people who consider themselves progressive and spiritual feel like business is something very lowly, that it's about just making money, the vocation of business can be extraordinarily honorable and has the ability to make a long-lasting positive impact on our society and world at large."
The Buddha really appreciated business merchants in his time, he explained, and they were a driving force in spreading the Buddha's message. He never needed a military crusade to spread the perspective of the Buddha, although he was of the military and royal class. "The shift that began 2,500 years ago was a shift from the military dominating power and wealth distribution to the rise in power of merchants and tradespeople. The difference between the two is that the way of the ethical merchant can increase the wealth and well-being of people so that they can have a better life and take time for a spiritual purpose and an aesthetic life."
Abandon the military approach
He went on to explain that the military approach to power and wealth is very short-term oriented "because it literally kills your customer." The military approach involves conquest, seizure of property and assets, and combat. Not all modern merchants have fully disentangled themselves from the military approach. Of course there are businesses today that do not put the customer first, that are unaware or don't care about their negative impact on the environment and community.
Businesses who take this approach over the long term are less likely to be successful because they are metaphorically, if not literally, killing their customers. Understanding how to maximize the bottom line is appropriate, but to do so while also attending to the true needs of customers and communities rises to the level of nobility.
While Thurman did not point to any corporate examples, one company that readily comes to mind for me is Patagonia, long known for its extraordinary social and environmental consciousness. In January 2017, Patagonia, became one of the first companies to file as a California Benefit Corporation. According to the website Treehugger, a Benefit Corporation is required to do the following:
"1) create a material positive impact on society and the environment, 2) expand fiduciary duty to require consideration of non-financial interests when making decisions, and 3) report on its overall social and environmental performance using recognized third party standards."
Patagonia is a sterling example of a company looking at its community and customers as national (and international) resources to be honored and attended to. While this may be the high bar that Thurman is suggesting, as corporate leaders, we each have the opportunity to take a serious and deep look at our values and responsibilities and make lasting contributions to society. Recognizing that opportunity is the first step.