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The Buddha at Work - "Disappointment"

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My company regularly has meetings in which we discuss what is and isn't working, and during which we generate new ideas. Sometimes, the topics that come up are as simple as the way our calendars sync, or how our database functions.  Other times, we take a hard look at our systems and procedures and see where we're stuck, and where we're thriving. And we frequently use these meetings to discuss how we're impacting the world around us, and how we can more fully live into our mission of empowering others through our work.       

In our most recent conversation, I asked everyone to share something that they wished they could change, with the flick of a switch--however unreasonable or impossible it might seem. Asking for trouble, sure, but I wanted something more than what was on the surface. 

And so one person shared how she wished that some of the people she did business with would follow through on their work more carefully. Another person expressed disappointment and frustration with the amount of work that was on his plate. And another wished that the work he'd been doing would come to fruition.

I myself said I wished that money wasn't a part of our work, that we could simply do what we felt was the best thing to do without money as a consideration. While I often dismiss money as a decision factor, I'd be lying if I said it didn't come to mind from time to time.

After our meeting, it occurred to me that all of complaints had something in common. We wished for things to be other than the way they are. Granted, that's what the question called for, but the question revealed what we all had been hiding. That we all hoped, however willing we were to dismiss our hopes, that something would change in our work that would make it finally turn out the way we wanted it to.

Ahhh.... hope! Here's what Thich Nhat Hanh had to say about hope, in Peace is Every Step:

Hope as an Obstacle

"Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. But that is the most that hope can do for us--to make some hardship lighter. When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic. Since we cling to our hope in the future, we do not focus our energies and capabilities on the present moment. We use hope to believe something better will happen in the future, that we will arrive at peace, or the Kingdom of God. Hope becomes some kind of obstacle. If you can refrain from hoping, you can bring yourself entirely into the present moment and discover the joy that is already here. "

So we resist the present moment, miss the joy that is already here, and lose our ability to do what's really needed because we're hoping for conditions to be more favorable at some future point. I wish others would behave the way I want them to. Maybe I can do this or that differently, and then they'll do it right, and then I'll finally be happy.  Or, One day, when I'm not as busy, I'll be able to enjoy my work.

Or my bright idea: One day, money won't matter. Implicit in that statement is, ...and until then, I will suffer.

It's not that we shouldn't work to change the things that need changing. It's that while we're resisting the present moment, we lose our ability to make choices in any way other than in opposition to what is so. From time to time I've heard the advice to "give up that something's wrong." Because while we're acting from "something's wrong," we are resisting what "is." Often, when we're in a place of resistance, we lose sight of our natural compassion and intelligence and make choices that we think will protect us--but will likely cause us further suffering.

To make it concrete: We can all imagine someone facing tax trouble wishing that one day they would have the money to solve their woes. We can imagine their fear being so great that they refuse to even talk to an accountant to find out what they owe. We might even imagine them carrying this worry and burden of getting caught for many years, each day thinking of the penalties that might arise, and clinging to the desperate hope for a financial windfall, unwilling to simply be with "what is," and take the necessary steps to handle the situation. Their actions during that time might be less than compassionate, to themselves and others, coming from a feeling of deprivation and scarcity. Perhaps they are unable to enjoy their family and friends because of their worry; they might find themselves obsessing over every dime, and over every business opportunity. They might even find themselves paralyzed in their work, afraid to make the wrong move, or any move that might not lead to a windfall. The cost could be tremendous, not just financially but in terms of peace of mind.

There's bound to be some disappointment here; we have to give up hope! Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck calls that the "magic moment" in her book Everyday Zen.

"That's the magic moment--when we realize that searching outside of ourselves is not the way. At first it dawns on us just a little bit. And it gets clearer over time, as we continue to suffer. See, anything that we search for is going to disappoint us. Because there are no perfect beings, perfect jobs, perfect places to live. So the search ends exactly in one place, which is... disappointment. A good place. If we have any brains at all, it finally dawns on us: 'I've done this before.' and we begin to see that it isn't the searching that's at fault, but something about where we look. And we return more and more to the disappointment, which is always at the center. What's underneath all that search is what? Fear. Unease. Distress. Feeling miserable. We're in pain and we use the search to alleviate the pain. We begin to see that the pain comes because we are pinching ourselves. And just this knowledge is relief, even peace. The very peace we've been searching for so hard lies in recognizing this fact: I'm pinching myself. No one's doing it to me. So the whole search begins to be abandoned and instead of searching, we begin to to see that practice isn't a search. Practice is to be with that which motivates the search, which is unease, distress. And this is the turning around. It never happens all at once. Our drive to go after things is so powerful it overwhelms us. No matter what I say, after we all leave here, in five minutes we'll all be looking around for something to save us. As the vow says, 'Desires are inexhaustible.' But you won't exhaust desires by searching; you will exhaust them by experiencing that which underlies them."

So we have to practice being with the unease of, say, our fears related to our taxes. Or the fact that we can't control others. Or the discomfort that comes with knowing, deep in our hearts, that our rigid point of view might not be right. But since we are, as Thây calls us, "part-time Buddhas," we must cultivate the skill. Beck explains, in her book Nothing Special:

"It's one thing to hear a dharma talk on these truths, however, and another to live by them. The minute something upsets us, we fly into our heads and try to figure it out. We try to regain our safety by thinking. We ask how we can change ourselves or something outside ourselves--and we're lost. To reestablish our lives on a secure foundation, we have to return to these six legs of reality, over and over and over again. That's all the practice we need. If I have the faintest thought of irritability about anybody, the first thing I do is not to begin figuring out in my mind how to fix the situation, but to simply ask myself, 'Can I really hear the cars in the alley?' when we fully establish one sense, such as hearing, we establish them all, since all are functioning in the present moment. Once we reestablish awareness, we see what to do about the situation. Action that arises out of awakened experience is nearly always satisfactory. It works."

And so, then, Beck teaches us:

"Practice has to be a process of endless disappointment. We have to see that everything we demand (and even get) eventually disappoints us. This discovery is our teacher.... In a sense, the best help we can give to anybody is to hasten their disappointment. Though that sounds harsh, it is not in fact unkind. We help others and ourselves when we begin to see that all of our usual demands are misguided. Eventually we get smart enough to anticipate our next disappointment, to know that our next effort to quench our thirst will also fail. The promise is never kept."

Wow, that's.... disappointing. But that which we're demanding is not only destined to disappoint us, but by focusing on our demand we're simply not here in the present moment. While we're looking for something to save us, for the right set of causes and conditions so that we can finally be happy, we're missing out on what's here right now and so we're in a place of reaction to not having what we want. 

So where does that leave us? I'd like to think that with some attention and practice, we might be able to bring skillful means to our workplace. When I'm resisting the conversation around money, for example, I might notice my discomfort and sit with it. I don't know that it really requires any analysis; to simply be with "what is" is the starting point. If I'm to believe Thây, Joko Beck, and many others, being with the present moment, experiencing the disappointment of knowing that no external cause will save us, being willing to stop relying on hope, gives us access to our own natural intelligence to take appropriate action. And while we're doing so, we have joy and peace available to us--not someday, when everything works out--but right now.

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The Buddha at Work - "Disappointment"

Yes, working this way with hope helps me tremendously.

Chogyam Trungpa talks about letting go of hope and fear, flying between those two, and trying to work with that was my first real glimpse of what it is like to practice that way, esp in daily life at work.

I didn't know Joko Beck wrote about that as well - I really like her. Thanks for this!


I love what Trungpa Rinpoche has to say about hope and fear - and also about disappointment - i didn't have CTSM with me when I wrote this but I wanted to quote him on disappointment. He talks about "marching directly into disappointment." Anyway thank you!

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