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Professional Development

The Buddhist Eightfold Path of Mindful Sales Part 2: Right Understanding

Imagine the following scenario:

You’re walking down a long country road on a cold winter night with nothing to light your path but the moon, tucked behind a few scattered clouds.  As the road begins to get more narrow, you notice a long, slender shape coiled on the path ahead.  

You freeze in panic.

Naturally, you’re cautious and fearful, immediately thinking that it’s a snake ready to attack.  As you inch closer, you realize that it’s merely a rope that someone left behind.  With this realization, your fear immediately transforms into relief and even humor. Saying to yourself, “How silly of me to get scared over a rope.”

This traditional Buddhist analogy illustrates the power that our perceptions have over our thoughts and actions and how essential it is to understand reality clearly.

At its core, Right Understanding helps us better frame our perceptions and the habitual reactions that arise from those perceptions of ourselves and the world around us.

In our digital world, where content and opinions are consumed at a dizzying rate, it’s essential now more than ever to cultivate a space between the thoughts and emotions that surface and how we respond.

To better appreciate the concept of Right Understanding (also known as Right View), we must also discuss the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism:

1. The Truth of Suffering (Dukkha)

Don’t let the word “suffering” scare you. As is the case with many Eastern ideas and philosophies, much is lost in the translation from the Pali/Sanskrit word “dukkha” to the English word “suffering.”

When describing the idea of suffering related to Buddhism, Harvard University’s Glenn Wallis asks us to envision a spectrum.  On one end of the spectrum is suffering as we typically define it in Western culture, pain, distress, hardship, etc.  On the other end, Wallis suggested adding qualities such as annoyance, slight irritation, and tension. Then, suffering can be understood on one end of the spectrum as a subtle, perhaps barely discernible quality of being, and, on the other, as severe mental or physical anguish.

When we frame suffering in this way, we can see that all of us suffer in some form at some point in our lives.

2. The Truth of the Cause of Suffering (Samudaya)

Another important concept to remember when thinking about suffering and how it relates to Buddhism is impermanence. The Buddha taught that the source of suffering is our attachment to things of this world and the inherent craving and desire for those things under the mistaken view that everything lasts forever.  These things could be material objects like a favorite pair of shoes, a phone, or a piece of furniture.  It could be people we love, like our spouses, children, or friends. It could even be emotions like happiness, sadness, or anger.

Our attachment to these things inherently causes us suffering because, in the immortal words of Echo and the Bunnymen, nothing lasts forever. Our favorite pair of shoes become worn and tattered.  Our children grow up into adults.  Our emotions change by the situation.

Impermanence asserts that all phenomena and things in existence are transient, evanescent, and inconstant.  The human bodies we inhabit,  houses we live in, buildings we work in, and vehicles we drive will decay into rubble in due time.  The same is true for mental formations, thoughts, and emotions.

It may seem that the anguish you feel after a rude prospect hangs up on you will last forever, but it won’t.  Sales is a rollercoaster of emotions, as is the human experience. The highs of helping a customer succeed, hitting personal goals, or coaching new hires are palpable and part of what drives the most successful professionals.  

The lows are just as impactful, if not more, at times.

I’ve tossed and turned many nights consumed by all of the ways I could have navigated a conversation with a prospect or customer differently, and I’m not alone in feeling that sense of regret.  Studies have shown that a staggering 90% of people say they have a major regret, 12.8% of which involves their career.

I wouldn’t say that losing a deal to a competitor or missing the mark with a customer’s needs is a major regret, but the point is that we all suffer at the hands of impermanence and our misguided understanding that things last.

3. The Truth of the End of Suffering (Nirhodha)

The third Noble Truth of Buddhism is where Right Understanding begins to take shape. It states that it is possible to end our suffering by removing attachments and the subsequent craving associated with them to transform our suffering into joy and liberation, otherwise known as enlightenment or nirvana.  

As we begin to understand impermanence and how it relates to our perceptions, we can reframe them to align with the reality of truth.  Our perceptions carry with them all of the errors of subjectivity. Ask ten people what image they see in a cloud, and you’ll likely get ten different answers based on a variety of influences like memories, emotions, and individual experiences.

Once we can identify the source of our perceptions through Right Understanding, we have the power to transform them into insights that lead us to realization, otherwise known as clear vision: the way things truly are.

Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh describes this concept eloquently when he writes, “If we love our mother deeply, but feel tense every time we think of our father, it is natural that when we interact with a woman who reminds us of our mother, we will appreciate her. And when we see a man who evokes the memory of our father, we will feel uncomfortable.”  

Erroneous perceptions rooted in previous experiences can also shape our conversations with prospects and customers. We may begin to feel uncomfortable speaking to a prospect for the first time for seemingly no reason at all.  Subconsciously, they may remind us of a prospect or customer that we’ve had a previous bad experience with, which could subconsciously lead us to act from a state of defensiveness.

4. The Truth of the Path That Frees Us From Suffering (Magga)

In Buddhism, the Eightfold Path is the set of practices that will eventually lead us away from attachment and suffering and towards freedom and joy when followed and cultivated daily.  These practices lead to refraining from doing the things that cause us to suffer, both consciously and subconsciously.

If the Eightfold Path is the road that leads to our enlightenment, Right Understanding is the vehicle we use to travel down the road.  It’s the common thread that connects all of the practices and the insight that fills a person with understanding, love, and peace.

How You Can Start Cultivating Right Understanding Immediately

One of my favorite questions to ask myself on a daily basis is “Am I sure?”

For example, let’s say you’re an SDR on the phone with a prospect and they’re being extremely rude, they may even hang up on you.  Your initial reaction may be one of anger, frustration, or even sadness.  You begin to create an identity around the prospect fueled by this emotion.  In reality, the prospect probably isn’t any of the identities you create in your head.  

There are countless things that could be going on in their lives that led to their reaction, most of which probably have nothing to do with you as a person.  

Simply taking a moment to breathe and ask ourselves, “Am I sure?” can be an extremely powerful tool in helping us cultivate space between our initial thoughts and our reaction, either internally or externally.

Many people have found journaling as an effective way to better understand perceptions and the role they play in our habitual reactions to thoughts and emotions. Not only does writing down your thoughts help to manage anxiety and reduce stress but it can also help to prioritize problems, fears, and concerns as well as track any symptoms day-to-day so that you can recognize triggers and learn ways to better control them.

Carve out 10 minutes at the end of every workday to write down your thoughts.  What accomplishments are you most proud of in the day? What was your biggest roadblock? What made you upset?  How did you cope?

Meditation is another way that we can widen the gap between our initial thoughts and habitual reactions.  But like any exercise, it is one that must be practiced regularly in order to receive the full benefit.  

If you’re new to meditation, try setting aside five minutes at the start of your workday to simply count your breath.  Count one for every in-breath and two for every out-breath.  When your mind begins to wander, refocus your attention on the breath.  Add an additional minute every week and work your way up to fifteen minutes.

As we practice cultivating mindfulness, the space between the thoughts and emotions that arise and our reaction widens.  That space offers us a chance to ensure our perceptions are guided by clarity which in turn helps us choose the most skillful way to react.

Next, in this eight-part series: Right Intent.