The Advantages of Not Getting What You Want

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.


Down in the Flood

I noticed a damp patch on the basement floor last night. I’ve seen it before, and it always signalled leaky pipes. I looked around for a less troublesome explanation and remembered that Faith’s punching bag was anchored by a large sealed container of water. "Must be leaking," I thought. I shifted it, so that in the morning I’d see that the damp patch had moved too. I’d just have to find a way to empty the container.

Next morning, as you might expect, the damp patch hadn’t moved with the punching bag. Instead, it had grown damper. In fact, the floor was squelchy.

“So this is what enlightenment feels like,” I thought.

I knew perfectly well where all this was leading. I just didn’t want to go there. I decided that a small pipe in the adjacent wall must have sprung a leak after all. Our handyman William would make a surgical incision in the gyprock and solder the break. He’d done it before just a few months ago, and again a couple of months before that too. I was careful not to join the dots and come to the more realistic conclusion. That would be inconvenient.

By the time William arrived, a large bubble had appeared in the ceiling. A gentle prod, and it quivered. William joked that it was a water balloon ready to burst. I wasn’t amused.

William took to the wall and ceiling with a vengeance, and within minutes the basement steps and floor were a sodden mess. "There it is," he pointed to hot water spouting from a tight joist of structural beams. The pipes were tightly wedged and green with corrosion, the woodwork dark with water.

Having found the leak we could now turn off the main tap that connects the house to the city water supply. It’s on the other side of the basement. As soon as I touched it, however, I felt water. As I turned it trickled over my hand. Then I realized my feet were wet. I was standing in a puddle. If I couldn’t turn off that tap, the house was going to get wetter and wetter.

For several minutes I tried to convince myself that this was the same puddle as the hot-water leak, on the other side of the basement, but neither the water nor my denial could reach that far.

William said, "I can’t fix that. You need a plumber."

"To fix the pipe," I said. "And the tap?"

"To replace your plumbing."

"What, all of it?"

"It’s finished. Forty years is its natural lifespan. How old’s the house?"


This was going to disrupt my week and cost thousands. All my determination that this problem would be trivial evaporated like mist. In that moment the scales fell from my eyes. My denial was defeated. I awoke to the reality of our plumbing system.

"So this is what enlightenment feels like," I thought. I knew it was ineffable. I just never thought it would suck.


How Not To Be An Old Fart

Mindful Reflection Workshop on Coming to Terms with Aging“I’ve shrunk!”

So joked Mum as I walked into her retirement apartment for the first time in over a year. Osteoporosis had led to spinal compression fractures and, sure enough, she’d lost a few inches. In high heels she’d stood almost eye-to-eye with me all my adult life. Now I had to bend to hug her.

Delighted to see me, she busied herself preparing tea. Her energy was familiar but her pace had slowed; she moved cautiously. She’d shrunk in many ways. We all know that we grow old. It happens to everyone. Still, seeing Mum like that brought home to me with jarring force that I too was aging.

After years of joint surgery and finally Alzheimer’s disease, we buried Mum with Dad in their chosen plot in the Cotswold Hills. Afterwards, my siblings and I raised a gin and tonic to mum’s life and my older sister said, “Ah well, our turn next.” We all laughed, because that’s what Mum would have done.

old fartism is not inevitable, but the
sooner we work against it the better

We laughed instead of crying, because we chose to, and because she had shown us that choice by example. She never turned sour. She wasn’t just lucky to have that attitude; she’d spent a lifetime working on it. We talk about “old farts” as if age makes them that way, but old farts start young, and that’s when, if we’re ever going to, we can avoid that fate.

Few people let go of their habitual way of thinking. It’s never convenient. Try writing with the wrong hand and you’ll see for yourself. You can decide to do it and you can trust that you’ll get better at it, but to actually make a new habit of it takes special resolve. It goes against the grain, and the longer you’ve been around, the deeper the grain.

Mum had plenty to complain about, but she didn’t like to. She used laughter to go against the instinctive grain. Little did I suspect when I first signed up as a Tibetan monk that all those esoteric teachings boiled down to changing instinctive habits. I’d already been primed, and perhaps that’s what had drawn me all along to the inner life.

I realized in time that I had to get back to my own roots. When I finally turned, there waiting for me was Mum’s example; it was ingrained. That didn’t make change easy or automatic, but knowing its worth gave me the perseverance I needed.

There’s a lot of good in aging: clarity, wisdom and an amazing appreciation for love, but we’ve also got to accept things we don’t want to. That puts us in danger of what Wiktionary calls old fartism. It’s not inevitable, but the sooner we work against it the better. When your joints ache and your bones crumble you’ll be sorely tempted to moan and complain, and once you start you may not stop.

Mindful Reflection™ is a strategic response to our habitual tendencies, among other things a way to not age complacently and complainingly. It won’t stop you getting older but it will counteract old fartism. My hope is that when one day my own vertebrae collapse and I start to shrink, I’ll muster a laugh, set an example to my daughters and keep up my zest for life.

Coming to Terms with Aging

“…inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.”  — Terry Pratchett

Aging is hard.

But who likes blunt talk? The word is, we’re living longer and healthier lives. People in their seventies, eighties and nineties can be seen around Hudson these warm days, walking, playing golf, going to the gym. They’re working at their health, mindful of their bodies, especially of their minds.

Some are less fortunate: struck down by accident, prematurely aged by their own genes, stricken with chronic illness. We’re told that health is everything; how do you think that makes sick people feel? We’re also told that the key to aging well is being “young at heart.” That might mean not being grumpy, but it also implies that we should hang on to being young. It evades the blunt truth: no matter how great your genes, your eating habits or your luck, you will sooner or later decline, and you won’t like it.

It’s easy to forget what we’ve earned, what we’ve
learned and the power of what we might pass on

To age gracefully is to accept age without regret. Easy to say. We know we should count ourselves fortunate to be alive now, no matter our eventual fate, but accepting the loss of vitality isn’t that easy. We lose our illusions too. It takes time to develop a good attitude. It’s an acquired skill; it doesn’t happen by itself.

The first signs of aging feel calamitous, like sand pouring through your fingers. “What’s happening to my youth, my vigor, my independence?” It’s easy to get fixated on that, to forget what we’ve earned, what we’ve learned and the power of what we might pass on.

After living with MS for twenty-two years my wife describes herself as fifty-three with the capacity of an eighty-year old. “My mother’s eighty-four,” she says. “She has COPD and is stronger than me.” There are things Caroline can’t do, but she focuses on what she can do: as a life coach, a wife and mother. She overflows with life.

Speaking of which, aging isn’t just about body and mind. It’s about heart. What hurts most is the thought of decline, and when we put our hearts into that we suffer. We actually have a remarkable capacity to work with disability and pain, but most of us handle anxiety badly. We fixate on it, give into it and allow it to undermine our courage, even though it’s we who make ourselves anxious.

Aging and wisdom don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand;
you’ve got to put your heart into it

We take it personally before we’re even old. As children we already witness decline in our parents. We fear aging, and not without reason. How will you age? How will you cope? How will your family treat you? Will you have enough money? Losing independence is huge.

Justified or not, getting wrapped up in those fears is not the way to go. We may be less able to contribute with our bodies, but that doesn’t shut down the heart. Encouraging others, listening well and daring to expose the illusions of youth are the great gifts of the wise. We can choose to cultivate them and pass them on. It gives meaning not just to our old age but to our world.

The question is, are you wise? Aging and wisdom don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. You’ve got to put your heart into it.

Mindful Reflection confronts you with your full potential; it reminds you that you never fully know yourself, that you’re a work in progress. That realization alone is the root of wisdom. Mindfulness reboots self-esteem, and self-esteem is the finest avenue of reflection. Share your experience. Explore the happiness and the pain. Be clear. Nobody can transmit wisdom, but you can lay the ground for it to grow, and seed it with your hard-earned tales.



Expose Your Heart

My wife Caroline and I were brainstorming for my upcoming mindful reflection workshop, looking at ways to explore the topic of love.

Caroline: As a life coach, I see every day how people interpret their own lives. One thing always stands out: how the sense of self-love, or lack of it, impacts every relationship. No matter what transition or challenge they want to deal with, love always lies at the heart of their ability to move forward. Connecting with others depends on how they connect to themselves. And it’s not just relationships. Love permeates all our experiences and how we choose to react in all sorts of situations — out of resentment perhaps, or a fear of rejection, or from a sense of inadequacy. We reset that focus to help them become grounded and flexible.

Just as you judge others by what they do rather than what
they say, you understand yourself not from your
thoughts but from your emotional motivators

Stephen: I come from a different angle, but end up in the same place. People think that they lead with beliefs and ideas, but that’s not at all where everyday decisions come from. Just as you judge others by what they do rather than what they say, you understand yourself not from your thoughts but from your emotional motivators. If you act out of love it’s because you feel loving, not because you think it’s a good idea. The challenge is to work with your feelings. Logic alone is powerless.

Caroline: The first time I ask clients about their feelings, they often can’t say. They feel, obviously, but the feelings are covered up by rationalizations. When they let go of the shoulds and shouldn’ts, new possibilities appear. Even then, they try to think their way out of their thoughts. I help them see that they need to act, to take risks. It means exposing yourself. You learn to trust that being vulnerable won’t kill you, and that expressing your heart feels good — and right.

Stephen: I know that confusion all too well. I was a monk for eight years and retreated into a dry, intellectual life. I thought I was being clever but I was just hiding out, scared of my emotions. It wasn’t the answer. I started to move forward when I left. Putting it off only dragged out the pain. As soon as I accepted myself again as a feeling animal, I began to feel better. To become strong we have to accept all our feelings, even the bad ones. We learn from our pain.

Caroline: If we face it.

Once you honestly love yourself, you’re ready to explore your love for
your partner, for your family and friends, and finally for life itself

Stephen: Yes, the instinct is to turn away. As a short term survival instinct, denial helps us escape further harm, but as a long-term strategy it shuts down your feelings.

Caroline: This is where coaching diverges from psychotherapy. It’s not so much about analyzing as experimenting. Your workshops are less specific, more general, but that’s where your work and my work overlap. The point is to engage with life through mindful reflection, to take responsibility by recognizing your escape strategies and letting them go. What seems like a solution is sometimes the very cause of the problem. When you’re coming from your rationalizations and not your heart, denial looks easier, but it’s a never-ending stress. Facing your pain hurts, but only temporarily. The payoff is long-term clarity, and that’s the path to self-respect, to self-love and to emotional freedom. Once you honestly love yourself, you’re ready to explore your love for your partner, for your family and friends, and finally for life itself.

Stephen: We’ve both experienced marriage gone wrong. We’ve each written out our lives in books and made it a habit to continually clear out our emotional closets. We have ups and downs like everyone else, but we don’t get stuck in them the way we used to. What we share with each other, you with your clients and I with my students, is emotional freedom to enjoy more passion, intimacy and peace.

And that’s what we’re talking about in my upcoming Mindful Reflection workshop starting next week, on Thursday April 3: Love: Getting to the Heart of Life

Love & Death

Love is not just a cure for loneliness; it’s the antidote to death. Let me explain.

When the word is spoken we go straight to romance, but it’s so much more. It begins with love for life, and of ourselves. That’s when it turns treacherous.

Love is scary. To contrive it is to kill it. You can’t make it up, but when it seems out of reach that’s exactly what we do. It requires a leap from the precipice of good sense. It’s a risk. Lose hope and we become bitter, sometimes cynical. Then, love is reduced to sex — or even worse, control.

We all want love but squirm when
we say so, as if it weakens us

We don’t just want it, we need it. On the surface it consoles. What’s less obvious is how it defines us. We’re loved, we’re not loved; we’re lovable, we’re not lovable. We slide along the spectrum of self-esteem, from low to high, from failed pretense to clear confidence.

We all want love but squirm when we say so, as if it weakens us. Trying to go without leaves us hollow, brittle. We sit around waiting for it to happen, thinking it’s something you feel. It’s not. It’s something you do. It’s like money. Invest it and it grows — if you’re lucky.

The element of luck is never absent. Life itself is the risk. Crave security too much and we lock ourselves in, shut ourselves off. Then we have a living death. That’s when love is the antidote. Love is reaching out, spreading your wings. It dares.

I love my plastic human brain. There’s
always another attitude.

I love being alive. I love my friends and family. I love the day and the night, the spring and the fall. I love food and wine, talking and exploring — but most of all I love my plastic human brain. There’s always another attitude. No matter how blind the alley, you can break through to a new day — right up to the last one. There will be a last one so don’t wait.

Change the way you see, change everything. Be mindful of your life, reflect on your experience and you’ll know with electric clarity: love is never a certainty; it’s always a possibility. Nothing’s forever. There’s no time to lose.