The Advantages of Not Getting What You Want

When life is disappointing, don’t blame life. The problem is probably your expectations .

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 relate.

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So what do we expect? We’re all getting older. Obvious, isn’t it?

Somehow it doesn’t feel obvious My teachers urged me to contemplate my death every day. I found this very hard—not because it was frightening; because it just didn’t seem real.

And that’s what’s weird. I knew I was going to die but in my heart I didn’t really believe it. We seemed programmed to resist reality, and that explains why aging is a shock to the system, no matter how long we’ve had to get used to it. It’s a sort of denial.

Daily meditation on death breaks through the cycle of expectation and disappointment. It doesn’t stop denial in its tracks, but it does enable us to work with it.

We expect to be happy in life. We don’t readly admit when we’re not. That’s why it’s hard to question our choice of career or whether we’re really happily married. At the same time, we know that qestioning is the honest thing to do. We resist self-questioning because of what we might find out, but sometimes all that needs to change is our perspective, not our whole life. By refusing to face our disappointments and the questions they raise we remain oblivious to necessary course corrections, and end up on the rocks.

This all boils down to working on ourselves. Buddha called this bhāvanā. It’s natural yet cultivated, more than just a technique, more than just following rules. It’s the art of life. It has to be you.

Finding out what that entails means being in the right place at the right time. There’s an element of luck, but also of dignity. In one sense, meditation is waiting on the moment. We need to contemplate life without dogma or expectation, with an open mind and a light touch. We need to persist without necessarily doing anything.

The art of life is subtle and hidden, but it’s not that far below the surface. It just takes a little digging.