Following the lead of dharma teacher Phillip Moffitt, I’d like to look at three different components of negative change as well as effective ways of dealing with them. First, there is anticipation; then there is the moment when disappointments arise; finally, there are the after effects.
First, in regards to anticipation, Mark Twain got it right when he said, “Some of my biggest disappointments never happened.” When you start to worry about a possible event, you contract into fear, and this makes what you fear more likely to occur. Years ago, one of our female Sangha members, who suffered from asthma, was afraid to do retreats at our Zen center, because she envisioned herself gasping for air and passing out. But Katagiri Roshi encouraged her to attend, keep her inhaler by her side, and each time she felt constriction in her throat, to focus on the constriction, itself, with no judgment or commentary. By doing this, the woman found that the fear abated and so did the constriction. She freed herself from what William Blake referred to as her “mind-forged manacles.” When we stop fearing a negative outcome, we can let go of the distrust of life that imprisons us and simply embrace whatever happens.
Second, how do we work with major disappointments when the negative event actually occurs? The best way to practice this is by staying present and withstanding the emotional pull of small disappointments in your daily meditation practice. All we need to do is:
Third, after a disappointment occurs, its natural to have anger or sadness linger around for a while. However, its possible to accept this loss as an event rather than transforming it into a consuming story.
When we do the latter, we make two mistakes:
First, we create a false identity, a self that is solid and never changing that is continually reinforced by the story. But if you observe yourself closely, you may see that you are not a single, uniform self but a constantly changing group of personalities. I was trained as a therapist in transactional psychology, which lays out three different components of our “self”, the internal child, the internal parent, and the adult. Over the years I have worked a lot with Zen practitioners to acknowledge, nurture, and take care of the little, vulnerable child inside who often feels fearful and powerless. I also have helped folks become familiar with the internal parent, who we developed as a social necessity, but often turns into a critic, or in many cases a tyrant, with a dominating and even abusive voice.
And finally, there is the internal adult, who serves as a mediator between or in the best circumstances, an integrator, which includes the other two in a healthy complementary relationship. And in Zen we go a step further in referring to the Big Self or Heart/Mind, which embraces, not only these three, but also the multitude of energies and voices, which manifest themselves in our psyche.
The second mistake we make when we are caught by a memory of negative change is to maintain the illusion that our loss is a fresh event when it has passed. Maybe it was a disappointment in your childhood, the loss of a loved one, a failed relationship, a major disease. No matter how disappointing or traumatic it was, you could allow the lingering emotional stickiness to die by simply letting it arise in and burn itself away in your non-judgmental awareness. In this way it may turn into fertilizer that supports your life.
I have written before about the guilt and grief I felt, both when I was unable to help my sister with schizophrenia, and when my younger brother committed suicide in a locked ward. By continuing my daily meditation during this dark time and allowing my confusion, anger, and grief sit with me on my cushion, little by little I both burned off my guilt and burned through my grief and the ashes became fertilizer- fertilizer which gave me strength and energy to spend the next 25 years of my life creating the community-based support which my siblings never had.
It’s kind of surprising and quite wonderful that a simple practice like bare awareness can transform the hell of disappointment is into a celebration of life.
Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher