Nothing in Life is Perfect, Permanent, or Personal

In Buddhism there’s a concept called The Three Characteristics. The Three Characteristics define all experiences in life: Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or suffering), Annica (impermanence), and Anata (not-self).  If you examine the nature of each life experience that you have, the Buddha argued, you’ll find an element of each of the Three Characteristics in it.

No positive experience is completely satisfying; there’s always some lingering unsatisfactoriness. And of course there are plenty of negative experiences, too.

No experience is forever; it ends at some point, including life itself.

And no experience is inextricably tied up with “you”; the experience relates to component parts of an experience that do not amount to a stable “you.”

Buddhism argues that the highest happiness is peace. Put differently, being at peace with the nature of reality — the unbending laws of the universe, which includes the three characteristics — is key to deep happiness.

The principle of Three Characteristics can be valuable in understanding business and life in a non-Buddhist context. Let’s try to map them into lay terms:

Nothing is perfect, permanent, or personal.

Perfect. If you strive for excellence, as I do, you’ll never be fully, totally satisfied. Nothing can ever be perfect. Be at peace with that.

Permanent. This too shall pass. Whatever is going well right now, whatever is going poorly — it’s not permanent. Be at peace with that.

Personal. Whatever is happening to your business, don’t take it personally. It’s bigger than you. More to the point, your company mission is bigger than any one person, including you. You are merely one person in a larger ecosystem of forces that shape the success or failure of your business. Be at peace with that.

Being at peace with these realities is easier said than done. In fact, developing this kind of peace may require nothing less than an ardent spiritual undertaking to fully internalize what these truths mean.

But even at a surface level, I think the 3 Characteristics can be useful reminders to laypeople. To me it’s one of the more helpful applications of Buddhist thinking to real life.

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