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 freefall.
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.
These personal "failures" show up in many different ways. As spiritual practitioners we’re encouraged to bring them onto our path, so that we get to witness how we might be protecting ourselves from the raw, rugged, and unpredictable aspects of life. The Buddhist practice is to develop a complete openness to all that life brings us, so that we experience all situations and the feelings they evoke, totally without reservations. This is a daring gesture, but our spiritual process is an initiation that can transform our disillusionments into a refreshing sense of openness and intimacy with life.