Dealing with Disappointment

“Get used to disappointment.” – Westley, The Princess Bride

I’ve been dealing with several disappointments lately, some major and some minor. Since I’m an introspective person by nature, I’ve asked myself two important questions. First, what are the causes and conditions that have given rise to disappointment? And second, what’s the skillful way through it?

The “Why” of It

The threshold question we seem to ask in the West is, “Why is this happening to me?” Luckily, I’ve learned to let that one go. When I was going through cancer treatment, well-intentioned people (usually those into the New Age movement) asked me why I thought I had cancer. I told them I hadn’t thought about it, which was true. It didn’t occur to me to ask why I had cancer any more than it had occurred to me to ask why I got to work at my dream job or be married to the perfect man.

Someone asked the Buddha whether the correct question was “Who is this I who is experiencing this disappointment?” The Buddha said that that inquiry didn’t go deep enough. The better question, taking oneself out altogether, is “What are the causes and conditions that have given rise to disappointment?”

Simply by taking the word “I” out of the question, we relax our grip on a sense of a solid, separately existing self. We are reminded of the interrelatedness of all things. Now we’re ready to take a deep dive into causes and conditions.

Let’s use a gardening analogy. There’s a beautiful orange tree in my backyard. Why is it there? Because (for the cause of) a seed was planted there. But that’s not enough. Conditions must also be right. In this case, we need the right soil composition, sunlight, and enough water. When these causes and conditions line up just so, I get to enjoy the orange tree and make fresh OJ!

So, what are the causes and conditions of this current disappointment? The causes are that plans have changed. There was and is absolutely nothing I can do about those plans being changed. That’s outside of my control. What about the conditions?

Ah, this is where it gets interesting. The conditions were that I was looking forward to those plans, I had expectations, I was attached (in the Buddhist sense of being overly attached in an unhealthy way) to those plans!

There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to fun events. It only becomes a problem when we’re so attached to the future – as I was – that we create disappointment and suffering for ourselves when plans don’t go the way we wanted them to.

Looking at my inquiry, I can clearly see that my clinging to my plans was the cause of my disappointment. It’s just like the Buddha said in the Second Noble Truth:

“Suffering, as a noble truth … is the five categories of clinging [to] objects” (Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana-sutta — SN 56.11).

The “How” of It

So now what? The logical answer seems to be letting go of my attachment and clinging to my plans. But when have emotions ever been logical? What is the skillful way through this disappointment and self-created suffering?

Acceptance, taking life as it comes. Fortunately, we Buddhists have a practice for that: equanimity meditation.

The practice goes like this. You choose three people, things, or events from your life. Once should be someone or thing you’re overly attached to. One should be something you’re don’t like. At all. And one should be something neutral, or close to neutral.

Start with the person or thing you like, and imagine them sitting on one side of you. Spend a few minutes tuning in to all the feelings you have for them. Then imagine the person or thing you don’t like on your other side. Once again, tap in to your feelings about them. Finally, place the neutral person or thing in front of you, and allow your feelings to settle. You should feel generally positive about this “neutral” person or thing, but without any emotional intensity.

Then try to feel all three at once! Take some time to see if you can balance your feelings for the two extremes to match what you feel for the central figure. You may want to remind yourself that they all have an equal right to exist, even if you enjoy being with one more than the others.

Once your feelings have leveled off, just breathe for a few minutes before ending your meditation.

In my meditation, I place my cherished plans on the side of too much clinging. I place something I absolutely do NOT want to have happen on my other side. (I don’t “catastrophize” here, picking the worst thing that could ever happen no matter how unlikely.) Then I place some other event, which would be nice but isn’t terribly exciting, in the middle. After a while, I come to realize that there are many likely potential outcomes for my particular situation, and any of them would be okay.

Wrapping It Up

In short, I am the architect of my own suffering – by clinging to my plans – and I can relieve my own suffering – by letting go through meditation practice. May all disappointments be as easily alleviated!

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