Life can be disappointing, but don’t blame life. It’s our expectations that disappoint.
I was chatting the other day with a friend who’s coming up to 60. He said when he looks in the mirror he still sees his familiar youthful face, but when he sees snapshots of himself, he doesn’t recognize the aging man in the picture. It freaks him out.
I can totally relate.
What do we expect? Good question. As part of monastic life I was taught to every day reflect on two things: first, that I would die; second, that I didn’t know when. I found this very hard, not because it was difficult or frightening but because it just didn’t seem real.
We’re programmed to resist this visceral insight. It explains why aging is a shock to the system even when we’ve had decades to prepare for it. Resisting is part of the survival instinct: it enables us to get on with life no matter what. However it’s also a sort of denial; it comes at a cost.
Daily meditation on mortality has the benefit of breaking through the cycle of expectation and disappointment. It doesn’t inoculate you from denial, but it does enable you to work with it.
We expect to be happy in life. It’s hard to admit when we’re not. Questioning your choice of career or spouse is frightening, but it’s often the healthy thing to do. We resist from fear of change, but sometimes all that needs to change is our perspective. Turning away from those difficult questions—from our disappointments—prevents us from making necessary course corrections. Instead of helping resolve our doubts, they add to our baggage.
All this of course is just theory. The ability to process disappointment and grow wise from it doesn’t happen by itself any more than do happiness or contentment. We have to work at it. In Buddhism this is called mental cultivation. It’s something deliberate and methodical. It’s not a technique or a science. You don’t cultivate it simply by following a set of rules. What it amounts to is the art of life itself. It has to be natural. It has to be you.
Finding out what that entails means putting yourself in the right environment. We need to meet people of like mind, to reflect on our spiritual needs without dogma or expectation, with an open mind and a light touch, and we need to persist.
The art of life is subtle and hidden, but it’s not that far below the surface. It just takes a little digging.