Samsara has been defined as wanting what you can't get and getting what you don't want. Disappointment sobers us up from wishful thinking and levels the playing field, inspiring us to seriously question our beliefs about ourselves and our life. Disappointment can provoke a spiritual quest.
Imagine that on a bright sunny day you visit a neighborhood park. Families are sitting on blankets, sharing food and drinks and enjoying their company. Young couples are playfully tossing a frisbee while their dog chases in mad pursuit, and brightly colored balloons strung to a family's picnic table are bobbing in the air amidst the joyous laughter and raucous shouts of children. All is well here. Feeling relaxed and at peace, you lie down on your blanket and fall asleep. You sleep soundly, but upon awakening, you discover that the park is deserted but for one or two adults picking up trash. The temperature has dropped and ominous clouds are rolling in. You wonder if you dreamt that idyllic scene of children laughing, frisbees spinning, and balloons dancing in the air. Unfamiliar feelings of vulnerability and disorientation now take hold of you.
Change can insinuate itself in our lives ever so slightly until one day it feels as if the entire atmosphere has changed, causing us to question how this happened. We didn't notice the subtle shifts taking place beneath the distracting business of everyday life. These somewhat disorienting moments are also precious because, like a cosmic slap in the face, they wake us up and force us to recognize that we might have been hiding from ourselves. When life has reshuffled our cards without having consulted us, we have to make our way through feeings of "being at a loss”. But getting what we weren't expecting can initiate a process of inquisitiveness, so that we get to see who and what we’ve been holding onto to conceal life’s unpredictable shadowy side.
After years of one kind of meditation or another, and even after years of psychotherapy, we’re not immune from feeling distressed by life's seemingly whimsical turns. A spouse becomes seriously ill and needs hospitalization; one of our children becomes addicted to drugs and refuses our intervention; a teenage daughter has become emotionally inaccessible, and we’re at a loss for how to bridge the gap. We don't know how or when it happened, but like the fog creeping in, little by little, she gradually became remote and unrecognizable to us. Such events provoke us to question how we might have contributed to such painful outcomes.
Disappointment is not a very sexy topic. Yet, it’s unavoidable both in ordinary life and on a spiritual path. It could mean not achieving your goals or objectives, not being able to either magnetize or maintain a loving relationship, feeling defeated for not living up to your standards or ethical principles, or feeling helpless to protect your loved ones from danger. In a more general sense, it's the failure to get what you want, or to avoid getting what you don't want. We can’t always insulate ourselves from life’s uncertain twists and turns, and from time to time, even the best of us find ourselves in free fall.
Few people begin or persist on a genuine spiritual path without experiencing a period of disappointment that doesn't admit of a remedy. If we're going to engage the spiritual process then we mustn't deny or rationalize such painful experiences. Our life may have brought us to the edge of our known world to invite to step into uncharted territory. That ambiguous territory could also reveal that we’re afraid to surrender to love or to discover what we’re truly passionate about because then we would have to put ourselves on the line and risk failing. As a result of not fully participating, we’re left with a formless malaise.
There are many ways in which the feeling of disappointment creeps into our lives. Sometimes the bottom falls out abruptly and we're in the midst of a crisis. We might wake up one morning to realize that there's very little meaning either in our life or in our work. We could begin to feel that the life that we’ve been living is not the one we chose, and day by day we lose heart. “What did I do wrong?” we might muse to ourselves. We could find ourselves dealing with the pain of unexpected loneliness, finding ourselves without close friendships, and feeling confused how it came to this. We could be dealing with illness that saps our energy and compromises the quality of our life, limiting the things we can do. Or we suddenly recognize that we’re in an older body, having diminished energy, suffering aches and pains that we never had before. It seems like just a short time ago we were enjoying downhill skiing and hiking, and now we need walking poles to walk a flat trail. It can all feel surrealistic and haunting.
Such disappointments drop us into places that we wouldn’t go to voluntarily. Yet there's something valuable about being delivered to our depths, beyond ego’s controlled and rational world. As spiritual practitioners we’re encouraged to bring disappointments onto our path, so that we witness how we try to protect ourselves from the raw, rugged, and unpredictable aspects of life. The Buddhist practice is to develop complete openness to whatever life brings us, so that we experience all situations and the feelings they evoke, without reservations. This is a daring gesture, but the spiritual process is an initiation--one that can transform our disillusionments into a refreshing sense of openness and intimacy with life.
Many years ago I decided to live in a small cabin in rural Vermont in order to meditate and write. After several years I ran out of money and needed to resume working again, but I didn't know what to do. I was a veteran teacher with a Ph.D., but I wanted to work with human suffering in a deeper way than teaching permitted. So, I continued meditating and writing, dropping deeper into my condition, as emptiness stretched out and filled the margins of my life. In truth, I was at a loss and felt groundless.
One winter evening a friend telephoned me, sounding very shaky. He explained that his wife had just left him and that he had started drinking and smoking again, and was feeling really scared. I invited him to come over, knowing that the northern Vermont roads in the evening were mostly empty, and cautioned him to drive very safely. Forty minutes later, Benjamin arrived with his two dogs, a case of beer and a carton of cigarettes. He sat down and began talking from a place of deep hurt. I was just there with him listening deeply to his feelings of loss and hurt. We stayed up all night talking about the pain of betrayal and abandonment, life and love, men and women, meaninglessness and the purpose-driven life. By about 5:00 a.m. I began preparing breakfast and made a pot of strong coffee.
After a silent breakfast, we sat quietly as the morning light filled the kitchen. At some point I looked at Benjamin and asked, "You okay?" to which he replied, "Yeah, I am actually." An hour or two later, after many cups of coffee, he stated that he felt safe to drive. He thanked me for being there for him, summoned his two dogs and started moving towards the door. With his body halfway out the door, he abruptly turned to me and said, "You should do this for a living!” At that moment, everything that was vague and uncertain in my life, crystallized on the spot into a direction. Within a month I applied to graduate school again, but this time to get a clinical degree so that I could become a psychotherapist—one who could integrate psychotherapy with spirituality. This event awakened in me a calling, a sincere wish to be there for others during their “dark night.”
Prior to Benjamin's visit I was lost and confused about what to do with my life. My commitment to my spiritual path was to not deny my true condition, and so I remained in that unsettled feeling of having lost my way. I could not find the reassuring cord that connected one chapter of my life with the others, giving it a sense of coherence and continuity. The encounter with Benjamin was an initiation. Because my mind and heart had been ripened through so much disappointment, as the seed of possibility fell, it blossomed immediately. All of me was there in that vivid moment with Benjamin.
Although it seems counterintuitive, when we keep company with disappointment, especially during a dark night of the soul, something positively unexpected might come of it. At the same time, we mustn't forget to extend compassion and loving-kindness to ourselves, and not judge ourselves harshly when we're feeling bereft, confused, and lonely. It's important that we shine kindness, gentleness, and tenderness on ourselves so that we can remain intimately connected with our mind and body, heart and soul during such periods.