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.
By today’s sociological standards midlife ranges between approximately 40 to 60 years of age. Initially, it might announce itself with the question, "Is this it? Is this all there is?" We might feel a vague sense of stagnation, at a loss for how to go forward. By the time we reach the midpoint of our lives, imperceptibly, something may have changed deep within us, as if our personal atmosphere flattened in tone, became somewhat gray and indistinct. Our days and weeks may seem to run together, merging into dull normalcy. In the background of our lives we might feel a vague sense of disenchantment, as we yearn for something more.
The motivation to embark on a spiritual path comes from the uncompromising experience of dissatisfaction. Plodding along day after day we might suddenly realize that we've been on a plateau without having experienced anything new, fresh, eventful, or uplifting for a very long time. There’s no longer a song in our heart, yet we feel compelled to keep the beat going, dutifully walking the tried and true way of many yesterdays, until one day when we can no longer postpone the urgent need to cut the rope and be free.
The spiritual passage begins with questioning some of our cherished assumptions about who we are and whether the life we have chosen for ourselves has been a conscious choice. By considering these questions we retreat from the world into our own depths where great challenges wait for us.
Perhaps our life has stopped growing in meaningful ways. Although we may not be suffering grossly, we’re not looking forward to anything either. We’re getting through our days, eating, sleeping, paying bills, going to work, and dying a little bit every day. This might be analogous to the Buddha’s first noble truth of suffering. It's the first blessing on the path of self discovery because it can provoke a question that burns in our heart.
Many of us have probably had moments when we stepped through a portal which became a passageway to the next chapter of our life—the next relationship, the next job, the next place to live, or perhaps our status abruptly changed as we became a parent, a widow, a retiree, or a disabled person.
There are two fundamentally different but complementary states that we can be in—being or doing. We live in an action-oriented, “doing” culture, where efficiency and achievement are valued. “Being”, on the other hand, is associated with idleness, having nothing to do, simple relaxation, or taking time out for reducing stress. Being is commonly regarded as a valueless interval between doing necessary things, as having no intrinsic meaning, value, or purpose in itself. However, from a meditator's perspective, being is the only time when we’re without our agenda, where our mind and heart are unguarded, where we allow ourselves to experience the moment without manipulating what arises.
Meditation is like sitting by the bank of a great stream. The stream’s relentless currents carry our many memories, our rich tapestry of experiences, both painful and pleasurable, as well as our anticipation of what’s just yet to come. Our job as a meditators is to remain on the bank of the stream without falling into it's turbulent currents.
The fact of aging is not a problem, but our ideas of aging are. Aging reminds us that we’re mortal and that time will run out on us. It’s a wakeup call that we have to ease our grip on whomever or whatever we're holding, so that we travel lightly. This gesture of surrender permits our human journey to evolve, but we have great resistance to letting go because it confronts us with uncertainty.
The irony is that if we’re not able to die, in the sense of letting go, then we’re really not able to live fully. Without an ever present sense of impermanence, life is insipid. Our awareness and benign acceptance of our necessary mortality can heighten our love of life.
In the esoteric schools of spiritual practice, the left-hand path refers to the more radical understanding and methods for discovering enlightenment where we’d least expect to find it. The left-hand path, sometimes known as tantra, includes the teaching of the five wisdom energies which are associated with the basic elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space, that we all possess. These energies have the power to re-spark our sacred or magical connection with life, the life we may remember from childhood.