Spiritual practice involves integrating the teachings into daily life. One of the seven points in Chekawa’s Lojong or Mind Training practice (within the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism) encapsulates this idea: Turn adversity into advantage; use it as the path (to enlightenment). Difficulty and stress will inevitably arise. How can we use spiritual principles to help us cope with the presenting challenge?
Recently, I found myself dwelling in the den of disappointment. I know this feeling intimately, and as I lay in bed awake when I ordinarily would be sleeping, I responded in a spiritually informed way. Rather than severing myself from the emotion and being swept away by harmful thought patterns that lead to anger, self-righteousness, a sense of hurt pride, rejection, and to potentially unnecessary plans on how to protect myself in the future, I allowed the energy of the disappointment to course throughout my being and stayed with the arising physical sensations. I let myself cry when the energy moved in that direction. All the while I remained with my breath. I used the rising and falling of my abdomen as an anchor to steady me amongst the waves of emotion, sensation, and thoughts. (It is important to note that the harmful thoughts did arise, but I tried not to allow myself to get caught in their web. I remained aware of the types of thoughts that were arising and tried not to identify with them.)
Once the energy of the disappointment settled, I arose out of bed, picked up my latest translation and commentary of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and read. A couple of pages into my reading, I auspiciously came across a passage on disappointment. The teaching was that we cannot feel disappointed if we do not first create expectations. “When there is no appointment made, there can be no disappointment.” (Carrera, 2006, p. 25) What a wake-up call! All these years, I have been assuming other people are the problem. I have solidified self-protective thoughts making them part of my storyline; “People can’t be trusted, they will inevitably let me down”, “People don’t understand me or my needs”, “It is unsafe to open myself to others because they are going to hurt me”. While there have been people in my life that have not understood my needs, that have lied to me, and that have hurt me, it is also true that I have allowed my mind free reign to fantasize about how a certain person will respond to me and how relationships and other situations will turn out. As dreamers and worriers know, on some level you start to believe things will occur in reality the way they occur in your mind. Expectations are created, leading to disappointment when the situation does not turn out as hoped. A subjective reality that exists only in our mind and is based solely on inner dialogue and not on objective reality is known as vikalpa (in Sanskrit), and it is one of the five vrittis, or mental modifications (most simply: the process of how the mind tries to make sense of its experience). The vrittis can be painful or painless, and yoga is defined as the cessation of these mental modifications. To summarize, our imagination can lead to suffering when we create new realities in our mind, believe those realities will come into being (make an appointment), and then feel disappointed by failed expectations and frustrated desires.
Another of the vrittis is right knowledge, or pramana, which can be ascertained by three sources, one of which is inference, or anumana. An inference is a conclusion based on presenting evidence. As a way to attain right knowledge, inference is only reliable when our analysis is logical and involves accurate recall and assessment of the situation. That means that inferences are not trustworthy when made before having all the information, or when polluted by fears and biases based on the past. This is most likely to happen when we are feeling: “The impatience to experience something we think will bring us pleasure” (Carrera, 2006, p. 26), or “The anxiety to avoid that which we think will bring us pain” (Carrera, 2006, p. 26). Both of these feelings were present for me in the early morning that I was feeling disappointed. I desired to spend more time with a person that had previously brought me pleasure. I craved more pleasure, and thus wanted to spend more time with this person, who I was falsely accrediting as the source of my previous happiness. I was also fearful that he might eventually cause me pain, which I ended up bringing upon myself through my emotional reactions.
In addition to these feelings, I was also influenced by the past. It is important to discern what reactions are arising because of past conditions; our memory is a helpful but potentially dangerous tool. A current day situation may remind us of a painful situation from the past. Our self-protective mode gets triggered, and we may feel like the original situation is happening again, thereby having even more intense emotional reactions than we might otherwise have had to the current situation. The implications of this could be toxic; we might get into arguments with people, blame others unjustly, cut off relationships that don’t really warrant that response. While it is important to learn from past experiences and not to make the same mistakes, it is also important to distinguish what is actually happening now versus what happened then. When we are able to do this, it empowers us to respond sensibly to the current situation.
In this case, I had been fantasizing for weeks about how things would go with this person with whom I had previously enjoyed spending time. When things didn’t turn out the way I hoped, I felt disappointed because my expectations weren’t met, and I began to come up with faulty inferences about him and the situation. The statements I was telling myself were formulated without having all necessary information and were tainted by past conditions and current fears. At some point, I was able to interrupt the habitual reaction and instead use my spiritual practice to ground me and broaden my perspective. As a result, I did not dig further into the groove that holds the belief that people are essentially untrustworthy and disappointing, which is a samskara or mental impression that leads to a sense of disconnection and isolation, which leads to further suffering. I realized that I need to be careful about what I create in my mind and honest with myself about whether or not I am basing my reactions on right knowledge. We have the power to prevent future suffering, but we must gain control of our unruly minds. I also realized that in the case of interpersonal interactions, it can be useful to ask for honesty. The other person may or may not give us their truth – if they do, it can make things simpler because we won’t feel the need to figure them out in our own mind (usually with faulty analysis), and if they don’t, we can use that as information in our reasoning process.
Carrera, J. (2006). Inside the yoga sutras: A comprehensive sourcebook for the study and practice of Patanjali’s yoga sutras. Virginia: Integral Yoga Publications.
Chekawa, Y.D. (2009). Transforming the mind in seven points: New Kadam root text. (J. Loizzo, Trans.) New York, NY: Nalanda Institute For Contemplative Science.