Category Archives: Disappointment

Been gone, been down, still am

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It has been a while since I last posted on this blog. I have not been active on my Facebook page either. Why? I think because I am having trouble making sense of the world right now. I simply do not understand the hate and violence that are so pervasive at this moment.

I used to think I understood people who express their anger demonstrably, because I used to manage my own anger so poorly. I thought I had some insight, based on my own struggles as a young man, when it was so easy for rage to rise up inside of me and spill forth. Maybe I did, but I don’t feel like I do anymore.

I don’t understand most of the anger I witness on social media and on TV. On my worst days, when anger overwhelmed me completely, when I literally shook from the negative energy boiling up from deep inside, I never displayed such naked aggression, never verbally savaged another being, never even considered doing either. So I try to imagine what torment these angry people must be suffering, I try to put myself in their place, to contemplate their plight, to fathom what could possibly propel them to these states of frothing, thrashing, tearing, unbridled fury. But I fail repeatedly, fully unenlightened.

I am left distraught by my confusion, by my utter inability to grasp what is happening in the world, in this country, in my own backyard. I cannot comprehend the acts of violence that take place every day, many times a day. I am even more confounded by the eagerness of so many people to act on their violent impulses, by their hair-trigger readiness to lash out with deadly force.

I fear that I am despairing, losing sight of humanity’s inherent goodness, losing touch with creation’s core of love. I do not love my fellow beings any less, but I admit I sometimes wonder what good it does. Am I helping at all? Am I contributing, in any way, to stemming the angry tide? Could it possibly be any worse if I weren’t here at all?

The sadness I feel is nearly unbearable. My heart aches for the beloved of the brutally murdered. Compassion continues to swell up even for the perpetrators, even though I don’t understand them, even though I believed that well had run dry, even though their acts are so repugnant and inexplicable that I begin to fear that my own loved ones are no longer safe.

Today and yesterday and the day before, each brought more unwelcome news, more tragedy, more devastation. Unremitting, incessant, unflagging, unstoppable. At least it seems that way. Though I hope, I do, I really hope. And I do what for a Buddhist passes for prayer, and I cling to the possibility that the storm will be a little less fierce at dawn, and I focus on the inevitability of the sun rising, and I remind myself that the powerful, unquenchable power that fuels creation is still there. Love remains and, if we can manage to get out of its way, will prevail.

I believe that, I honestly do, even now, even when it is so terribly difficult to make sense from any of it.

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Nobody’s perfect

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I like men’s ties; buying them is a weakness of mine. I’m particularly fond of Brooks Brothers ties.

I once bought a tie at a Brooks Brothers store but when I got home and put it on, it looked like an entirely different tie. It looked like a really unattractive tie. What was I thinking when I bought it? I began to understand why it had been on sale.

I was going to take it back for a refund, but kept putting it off. It hung in my closet for months before it dawned on me why I didn’t return the tie.

It was a reminder to me that no one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. Even Brooks Brothers can make an unattractive tie. And that’s absolutely okay.

I need to remember sometimes to show myself grace when I mess up. No one is harder on me than I am. I am very quick to beat myself up for the slightest shortcoming.

Meditation offers me perspective on my “errors” and helps me to see that they are usually no big deal, just a part of living and learning. Meditation allows me to be nice to myself, essentially to say to myself, “No biggie, my friend. Don’t think about it a moment longer.”

Making mistakes, taking a wrong turn, flubbing your lines – it’s all natural. We should expect to screw up. It’s truly unavoidable. Keeping that in mind takes a lot of the sting out of the moment of discovery. Rather than reacting, “Oh no! What have I done? I’m such an idiot!” we can respond, “I knew that was going to happen. We all make mistakes.”

Even Brooks Brother can make an unattractive tie. Even I can make the mistake of buying it.

 

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Open to Failure, Open to Happiness

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The Buddha told his followers to use their own eyes and make up their own minds, rather than slavishly adhere to his teachings. So a certain degree of “prove it to me” attitude is warranted. That desire to see for ourselves, though, can easily turn into a form of skepticism that prevents us from trying new things and, thereby, discovering whether they are good for our practice or not.

It is difficult to expose ourselves to the possibility of failure. Forget failure – we can be afraid just to take a chance that things may not turn out as good as we had hoped, even if the results are really a success by any standard. Our happiness is contingent upon achieving results that may not actually be attainable. No wonder we are so miserable.

What is the solution? I can say from plenty of past experience that there is no easy remedy to a lifetime spent reinforcing such thinking. The remedy is slow, gradual. It involves “opening your eyes” to the reality of your circumstances. In other words, lean on your mindfulness practice to see things as they really are. Question the “reality” we have woven, the one in which we are unhappy failures. Are there really no positives in our present conditions, no sources of happiness and strength?

Identifying just one beneficial aspect of our current circumstances is a start. It exposes the lie we have woven that our lives are miserable and that happiness is unattainable. If there is one thing worth being happy about, then there must be two. And three things. And four things. Eventually, we come to recognize our carefully constructed “reality” as a massive fiction that we have crafted, and then the floodgates open.

When we close ourselves off to avoid experiencing the things we perceive as negative and unpleasant, we also shut out the things we consider positive and pleasant. We cannot experience what is beneficial to our lives unless we are open to the possibility of encountering things that don’t feel so good.

An Epiphany in Casper, Wyoming

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Difficult situations are a barometer of the depth of one’s meditation and mindfulness practice and, conversely, a GPS that tells us how far we still have to go. (Technically, I guess depth would be measured with sonar and not a barometer, so sue me.) Reflection afterwards allows us to consider our behavior in the moment of the difficulty and provides insight into the role that our practice has played.

Most days dish out the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” – or less dramatic and more commonplace indignities and inconveniences . Which means we have ample opportunity to put our practice into…um, practice, and to reflect on the results.

I’m thinking about this right now because I am in the midst of a very difficult travel situation. I travel a lot and, consequently, encounter every form of travel mishap known to humankind. But this trip…oy. I was flying from Milwaukee to Denver, then on to Los Angeles. Bad weather shut down the airport in Denver and we were diverted to Casper, Wyoming. After more than two hours waiting in what passes for a terminal (three beverage vending machines and a nearly empty snack machine), we were loaded back onto the plane, only to discover there was a major mechanical problem. Off the plan again. It being a Saturday and we being in Casper, it would be three hours before someone could get there to make the repairs. By that time, the flight crew would be past its 16 hours and therefore not allowed to fly. We were stuck.

So, I got to see downtown Casper. In the dark of night. Check off another state I’ve visited (using the broadest possible term for visit, obviously); only four states left to go. Maybe next time United will divert me to Honolulu.

Stayed overnight in the Casper Ramada. Back to the airport for a 12:40 flight to Denver, 2 hours and 10 minutes after the flight I was rebooked on from Denver to Los Angeles. There are five more flights to LA after I arrive in Denver (presuming I arrive – I’m taking nothing for granted, considering it’s 12:25 right now and boarding has not begun – heck, I don’t even see a plane outside to board). I’ll be on one of them, right? Think positive!

There was a time, not too long ago it seems, when this rigmarole would have set me off like a nuclear bomb. I would have ranted at everyone who would listen and everyone who tried not to. I would have acted as if the entire mess was a plot against me, as if I were being victimized.

So here’s the amazing thing: I didn’t experience any anger at all. Not once did I think, “Why is this happening to me?” I didn’t fret over whether I’d make my connecting flight or when we’d hear an update from air traffic control. I admit to being a tad annoyed when the person at Enterprise told me, when I called to say I would be picking up the car today instead of yesterday, that my cost went from $191 to $327 – for one less day. I politely – seriously, I was polite – told him to cancel the reservation, and I called another company and got a cheaper rental. Okay, I also admit that, when we got back on the plane, and the pilot told us the bad mechanical news, I muttered under my breath, “Oh stop it.” I’m not sure who I was talking to. Other than that, though, I was a paragon of calm.

That realization made me feel pretty good, I confess. I consider it a major silver lining to an otherwise fogged-in travel day to have recognized this measure of the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Really, despite everything that happened, I am grateful for the epiphany, and thankful for a million other things that make me a very content, happy, and lucky person.

 

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Change – get used to it

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“Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence.” ~ The Buddha

Natural occurrences of order are fascinating, like the way Fibonacci sequences appear in sunflowers and nautilus shells. Not only are such occurrences beautiful to look at, they are oddly comforting—evidence that life isn’t totally random and unpredictable. I think they grab our attention in part because so much of life is, in fact, disordered—if not chaotic.

But let’s not confuse these oases of orderliness with the swirling maelstrom of everyday life. If predictability in life becomes our aim, our expectation, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, frustration, and ultimately suffering. For life is motion—it is dynamic, it is constant change. Moments of calm and order can be enjoyed and appreciated for the respites they are. But, like the eye of the hurricane, they are ever-so-brief interludes in the midst of the storm.

Our expectation, if we must have one, should be change, surprises, the unexpected. Because much of our disappointment and suffering derives from just the fact that things have changed, and not even what the new circumstances are. Even changes for the better can be sources of suffering because of our intolerance for and aversion to change. Grasping for a particular time, a specific set of circumstances that no longer exists, is full of pain. Accepting impermanence, the inevitability of change, is the balm for that pain.

What a Difference a Year Makes

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A little less than a year ago I wrote here about how I learned a life lesson about disappointment. I had traveled across the country to see the Dalai Lama for the first time and to participate in an initiation he was conducting. His physicians asked him to rest an extra day before traveling from Tokyo to California and as a result he missed the event. I spent one night angry, sad, and disappointed, and then spent the next day begin taught about humility, compassion, and real suffering and disappointment.

I knew right away what an important event that was, and one year later I can confirm that it was life-changing. For one thing, my practice shifted in tone and pace. I stopped being in a hurry to reach enlightenment. I began to focus on the present moment and where I was on the path at that time, rather than craning my neck to see what was coming up around the bend. I learned to appreciate what I was doing and experiencing at any given moment, instead of counting up the things I’d done or the things I wanted to do. I stopped trying to accumulate experiences and knowledge (though, to be honest, I haven’t stopped collecting books—my love of reading and learning continue to overpower my will and overtax my shelves).

I also started to get over myself. As deeply spiritual as my life has been at many times, both as a Christian and a Buddhist, I think I sometimes have been a tad too impressed with myself. Despite feeling somewhat lost exploring my path as a Buddhist, I still managed to inflate my spiritual self-importance. I was a bit too proud of the new spirituality I was developing, of the experiences and knowledge I was collecting like baseball cards and comic books (I should write sometime about The Green Lama).

A few months later, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC, to attend the Dalai Lama’s conducting of the Kalachakra. I had difficulty trying to decide whether to go, so soon after the humbling I received in California. Was I succumbing again to the temptation to hit a spiritual home run? I seriously doubted my motivations at the time. In the end, I went, and it was a phenomenal decision.

When I received word late last year that His Holiness would be returning to Long Beach to “make up” the initiation he missed, and was invited by the event host to return free of charge, I wasn’t sure if I should go. The experience of the Kalachakra  would be very hard to top. And although Gaden Shartse Thubten Dargye Ling would be comping me the event tickets, I’d still have to pay for the flight, hotel, meals, rental car, and so on. I was ready to pass. Then my boss asked me to attend a conference that he and I alternate going to; this was supposed to be his year. The conference was in Las Vegas, practically all the way to California, it was the same week as the Dalai Lama’s return to Long Beach, and my employer would be paying for the flight out to Vegas. I realized I was being led back to California; who was I to kick against the goads.

I got chills when I drove into downtown Long Beach Thursday evening, past the convention center where the Dalai Lama was supposed to appear last year, by the Westin where the humble Khen Rinpoche shamed me for my “disappointment” and the wise Robert Thurman put my feelings into perspective. When I checked in at the Courtyard, the desk clerk said he was switching my room to move me away from a large group of noisy young boys. My new room number was 619, which looks an awful lot like a yin-and-yang to me. I took it to be auspicious.

Two days later, as I type this, I am still processing the experience of see His Holiness again and participating in the initiation. I’ll write about it soon. In the  meantime, here are a few fuzzy photos I took with my phone. Hopefully, there are some better ones on my camera.

Namaste. Peace be yours.

Dharma Digest, Vol. 1, No. 1

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A collection of recent posts on the Dharma Beginner page at www.facebook.com/dharmabegin

Laissez-Faire v. Micromanagement

“Life is a thing that mutates without warning, not always in enviable ways. All part of the improbable adventure of being alive, of being a brainy biped with giant dreams on a crazy blue planet.” – Diane Ackerman

Achieving a balance between laissez-faire and micromanagement is tricky. We accept that change is a fact of life, inevitable, and remind ourselves that the more detailed the plan we construct, the more likely it is to go awry. A life that follows strictly along a meticulously laid out plan is illusory.

Some degree of planning and preparation is necessary, though, isn’t it? Eating healthy requires real planning, I find. Being a vegetarian adds to the challenge. So where do we draw the line between obsessive attempts to control life and flitting about on the wind without any direction?

Perhaps it is at the point, still hard to discern, when “planning” one’s life becomes “attempting to control” it. (I say attempting, because I don’t believe we ever reach a point at which we are truly in control of life.) The practice I try to embrace is “flexible” planning—don’t make your plans rigid, but leave room for the unexpected (which, if past is prologue, really should be expected) and be ready to adjust. Expect things not to turn out as planned. Or, minimize your expectations, and thereby minimize disappointment. Not always easy for me to accomplish, but I’m working on it.

The Common Thread

“There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it.” – George Bernard Shaw

I have long held an ecumenical view of religion, and never believed that my religion was any better than anyone else’s. My belief was that god, the higher power, whatever you call it, manifested itself differently to different people, in ways that were meaningful and understandable to them. But underlying all of the surface differences, they were constructed on the same basic foundation.

True, in their attempts to live out their religions, some people go astray and lose sight of the sameness of everyone, the inextricable connectedness of all beings. That does not, however, diminish the fundamental similarities of the various religions as they were originally conceived. One may try to establish that their way is the right way, their view is the correct view, but the things they do to distinguish themselves, to make themselves appear unique, in my opinion lead them away from the universal shared values of love and compassion.

Flexibility of Mind, Body and Spirit

“I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.” – Everett McKinley Dirksen

A yoga teacher was making a point about achieving balance by keeping flexibility and ease in poses, and avoiding rigidity. While the students were in tree pose (standing on one leg, other leg bent at the knee with the sole of the foot against the upper thigh of the standing leg, arms raised straight above the head), the teacher wandered the room, lightly poking the students on the shoulder. The students that were rigid, with locked knees and clenched jaws and gritted teeth, would teeter and drop out of the pose. The students that maintained ease in their pose, who were not overly rigid, teetered…but then regained their balance.

Have you ever been in a tall building and felt it sway? If buldings were not designed with flexibility that allows them to move in the wind, they would risk collapse. It’s not much different with us. If we go through life inflexible, unable to deal with anything less than our imagined ideal, we are destined for pain, suffering, and eventually collapse. The ability to adapt to the vicissitudes of life, to “roll with the punches,” to “bend in the breeze,” is essential to the presence of mind needed to progress toward enlightenment.

Human-ness and Saintliness

I read a quotation from the Dalai Lama’s brother about the Dalai Lama’s fascination with technology and invention as a child. His brother said the Dalai Lama’s favorite invention was super glue, second only to the invention of the stuff that removes super glue.
Reading that, I was reminded of the thing I love most about His Holiness: his human-ness. He is, without a doubt, an incredibly special person. And he is just a person, like you and me. He often refers to himself as just a simple monk, which he really and truly is. And yet, he also is so much more.

Two of my great spiritual inspirations have been Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. Obviously, they were two amazing people. But what first attracted me to them was how they were both very human, with all the frailties that come with being human. I read each of their autobiographies (The Seven Storey Mountain and The Long Loneliness, respectively; I highly recommend them) as a young man and was amazed by how flawed Thomas and Dorothy were, how matter-of-factly ordinary, how much like everybody else. Their extraordinary accomplishments and the example they set for me were all the more remarkable in light of their human-ness. I couldn’t believe that these amazing, saintly people were little different from me. That never fails to encourage me