The upside of being disappointed in spiritual teachers

 

Confession: I am often a tiny bit disappointed when I hear – or sometimes speak with – spiritual teachers.

There are a few I haven’t been disappointed in, including Adyashanti, Byron Katie, Douglas Harding, and Jes Bertelsen. I should also include Stephan Bodian, Jeff Foster, and Matt Licata here, and probably a few more.

And there are innumerable situations where I secretly have been disappointed in spiritual teachers.

Sometimes, they have clarity but seem a bit one-sided in how they talk about it. (Neo-advaita.)

Sometimes, they may have clarity but it gets obscured by tradition or the culture and time they are from.

Sometimes, they don’t seem to come from a clear noticing of their true nature.

Sometimes, what they say seems to reflect unquestioned and unexamined assumptions.

Sometimes, what they say gets colored by what may be their personal hangups.

SOME REASONS WHY I GET DISAPPOINTED

There may be several reasons why I feel some disappointment.

The most obvious is in me….

I had hopes and stories that reality punctured. More accurately, my stories about reality punctured my own initial hopes and stories.

I have my own hangups, emotional issues, and traumas, and this filter my perception and how I respond. I see that my own disappointment is often connected with a central emotional wound in me. In my case, it’s feeling not seen or understood, and for others, it may be whatever their central issue is.

And then there is the bigger picture…

In the bigger picture, this is not about me. The world is not here to follow my personal preferences. If anything, it’s here to mirror me.

They may speak to someone else. Other people have different preferences, orientations, next steps in their process, and so on.

They may be loyal to their tradition and clothe their language in the tradition more than finding their own more immediate and fresh ways of expressing it.

Also, they may be less clear. They may not have examined something very thoroughly. They may not be so skilled in expressing it. They are messy human beings with their own hangups, emotional issues, and perhaps even traumas.

THE UPSIDE OF BEING DISAPPOINTED IN SPIRITUAL TEACHERS

There are several upsides in this.

It creates a contrast with the spiritual teachers I resonate with and it shows me that they are not many so any guidance from them is precious.

It invites me to examine more closely what’s going on, which will be slightly different in each case. The essence is that I set myself up for disappointment, and the specifics will be specific to each situation.

It reminds me that, in the bigger picture, this is not about me and my preferences. Different things resonate with each of us. Clarity sometimes gets mixed up with our messy humanness. And there is an infinite amount of what’s going on in the bigger picture I don’t know about and likely never will.

It brings me back to myself….

Each of these teachers is a mirror for me. I can find in myself what I see over there, whether it’s clarity or confusion. Whatever story I have about them, I can turn it to myself and find concrete examples of how it’s true.

It helps me recognize that I am my own final authority, even if I try to give it away. I can learn from a variety of people, whether they take on a “spiritual teacher” role or not, and I cannot avoid that I am my own final authority.

SOME EXAMPLES

I’ll include a few examples here to ground it.

First a couple of general ones….

It’s common for people to get disappointed by the personal life of some spiritual teachers. If we set the teacher up as an infallible guru, whether it’s in their insights and life, we set ourselves up for disappointment. When that happens, it’s a reminder that they are human beings too with their own hangups and messiness. It’s a reminder to not put people, or anything really, up on a pedestal, at least not for long. It’s a reminder to find in ourselves what we see in them, even if it looks a little different.

A spiritual teacher may also, for whatever reason, not give us what we want or think we need. They may not tell us we are amazing and their best student ever. They may treat us in a very neutral way and set us to clean the floor. This is the old-fashioned way to help students wear off their neediness, and some still do it although it’s less common these days. Today, it’s more common to see a meeting of two human beings with a shared interest, where one is a bit further along in exploring it and is coaching the other.

And then some from my own life….

Some neo-Advaita teachers talk mostly from the “absolute”. This is probably to compensate for the more typical view which is more from the “relative”, but it does give a one-sided impression of what it’s about. For me, this is an invitation to notice what they speak about, and also add the other side so it becomes more whole.

Christian mystics sometimes cover up their clarity in tradition, and the timeless and universal gets obscured by their time and place. This is an invitation to find the glimmers of the universal. I have also seen this in some mystics from other traditions, and some traditional Buddhist teachers. They come from a different time and tradition, and they spoke to people from the same time and tradition. Most of them probably couldn’t even have imagined that people decades or centuries later would read what they said or wrote.

I met with a spiritual teacher in Oslo (Vigdis G.) once, and instead of engaging in a real dialogue (as I had expected), she lectured, jumped to conclusions, and said obvious things as if it was special. Here, I clearly had different expectations and reality disappointed. I had hoped to find a like-minded person in Norway and have a real conversation between two human beings. What happened helped me see this wish in me and that I had invested some energy into it. It also reminded me of my time in Oslo many years earlier when the initial awakening happened in my mid-teens. I couldn’t find anyone who understood and felt alone at a human level for that reason. After the conversation, I saw that if I had more presence of mind, I could have pointed this out in the conversation and it may have gone a bit differently (or not).

I was involved with a local spiritual group in Oregon. When I initially met with the main teacher, I mentioned the initial awakening (that had happened many years earlier), he asked if I currently experienced some of the typical side-effects of awakening, and I said no. He took this to mean there was no awakening. Again, if I had more presence of mind, I would have shared with him that they happened years ago but not anymore. My typical pattern is to not volunteer much information about this, perhaps because for so many years I was used to nobody in my life understanding, so I set myself up for it. The outcome was that I felt disappointed in the conversation.

When I look at specific cases, I see that I set myself up for the disappointment. In what way depends on the situation. And it’s often very sobering to see.

In my case, the disappointment often revolves around a very human wound of not feeling seen and understood since that’s a central issue in my life. For others, their disappointment may be connected with whatever central emotional issues they have.

I should also mention that when I lived at the Zen center in Salt Lake City, the main teacher didn’t disappoint me so much. I got to see him as a human being with his own insecurities and hangups, so the human and relatively universal human flaws I saw in him were not really disappointing. It was more a reminder that we are all in this together. (I did get upset about what I perceived as injustice and nepotism, but it wasn’t so much from disappointment in him.)

And, of course, I have had interactions with spiritual teachers that were deeply rewarding and helpful in a more immediate and conventional sense. Perhaps especially with Adyashanti.

Note: If I wrote this again, I would probably focus more on the types of disappointments most people experience. I realize mine are a bit niche. But I wanted to make this article a bit more personal, and it’s difficult to write it again with my current brain fog, so I’ll leave it as is. My periods with stronger brain fog help me come to terms with imperfection and find where it’s “good enough”.

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Shams Tabrizi: A Sufi is thankful not only for what he has been given

 

A Sufi is thankful not only for what he has been given but also for all that he has been denied.

– Shams Tabrizi

How is it possible to be thankful for what we have been denied?

I am far from always and immediately grateful for what I have been denied, especially if I have – understandably and unwisely – invested an idea of future happiness in it and assumed it would happen.

When I look at it for myself, I find three angles into exploring this:

Aligning with reality, finding trust, and making it my own.

ALIGNING WITH REALITY

Do I know that what I want is what I need or what is good for me?

Not really. I cannot know anything for certain. I cannot know how my life would have been different.

I have several examples of where I got something I wanted, and it came with a big shadow side. And I also have several examples where I didn’t get what I wanted, and something else came in that perhaps was better.

This is what the story of the Chinese farmer points to. And it’s undeniably true, even if some parts of us don’t like to admit it.

Who decides what’s better or worse?

On the same topic, we see that our ideas of what’s better and worse are our ideas. It’s not something we can find outside of our ideas. It’s not inherent in reality.

Our ideas come from our conditioning – as a human being, as a child in a family, as a member of a culture, and so on. This conditioning is not the final word, and although it may reflect conventional wisdom, it does not reflect deeper wisdom.

Focus on what we have and not what we don’t have

If we are denied something we didn’t already have, it just means we are where we were. In reality, not much has happened.

In general, a part of good mental hygiene is to focus on what we have and not what we don’t have, and see that what we have – life, food, shelter, family, friends etc. – is a blessing and not a given.

What’s the upside of the loss?

This is partly dependent of the situation. In most or any situation, and with a more open mind and heart, we can find genuine examples of the upsides of what happened.

There is also something universal here. When we don’t get what we (thought we) wanted, we get to see what’s unhealed and unexamined in us. We get to see what emotional issues are triggered, what beliefs and identifications the loss rubs up against, and so on.

If we take it as an opportunity to befriend these parts of us, it’s an obvious blessing. We can listen to these parts of us. Be a good friend to them and ourselves. Examine the stressful stories behind them. Find love for them.

Finding what we are

When we find what we are, we see that all our experiences happen within and as what we are. Although we have our very human preferences, it all also has one taste. The more we recognize this, the more we’ll meet situations with some equanimity. And the more our center of gravity is in what we are, and not only who we are, we’ll easier find not only peace with what is but appreciation.

FINDING TRUST

Another side to this is trusting the divine or life.

How do we find this trust?

We can inquire generally into some of the topics mentioned here. Can I know anything for certain? Do I really know what’s best for me? Do I know that getting what I wanted would have been best for me?

We can inquire into our most fearful beliefs and identities, see what’s already more true for us, and support these in softening and healing.

We can befriend and find love for our fears and hangups.

We can reorient to life in general through heart-centered practices, and find love for life as it is and ourselves as we are.

We can find trust of the divine through devotional practices.

We can find a sense of centeredness, grounding, and trust through body-centered practices – tai chi, chigong, yoga, TRE, Breema, and so on.

It helps a lot to heal central emotional issues and traumas in our system. The fear that’s stored in our system makes it more difficult to trust life.

We can see perfection in all as it is through discovering and becoming more familiar with what we are.

Over time, we may also find trust in that life and the divine always gives us exactly what we need – to heal, grown, and continue exploring the divine.

MAKING IT MY OWN

It’s not enough to read about this or understand it in a conventional sense. And what I have written about here is very incomplete and from my own bias and limited experience.

We have to investigate it for ourselves. We have to test it out. See what we find. See what approaches work for us. See what’s honest for us, and have the courage to follow truth rather than our conditioning and unloved fears.

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I will disappoint you

 

If we idealize, we’ll sooner or later be disappointed. It’s built into the process.

We may idealize a person, a situation, the past, the future, ourselves in the past or future, God, or something or someone else. It’s often an attempt to find safety somewhere, often outside of ourselves, and to fill a perceived hole in ourselves.

Reality doesn’t live up to our idealizations. And that’s a good thing since disappointment – used wisely – brings us back to ourselves. It helps us notice and take in that we are our own final authority. There is wisdom built into the disappointment, and it’s up to us to notice and make use of it.

Idealization-related disappointment and disillusionment is an invitation for us to notice several things. It’s an invitation to notice that we idealize. When we idealize. That the idealization comes from us and is not inherent in reality. That reality is more messy than the ideas we have about it. That we idealize for a reason, perhaps to find a sense of safety in relying on something outside of ourselves. And that we already are our own final authority, no matter how much we would like to tell ourselves otherwise.

Conversely, if others idealize us, we’ll likely eventually disappoint them. In some situations, it may be good to point that out, especially if this other person is a student or client. We can mention this dynamic before the disappointment happens, and bring attention to how it can be used in a constructive way.

Disappointment

 

Sometimes I look forward to something and it doesn’t happen.

I feel disappointed. Sometimes, I even feel heartbroken.

I know and sense it’s old and not really about the current situation, and it feels a bit childish to get so disappointed. That may be a reason I haven’t thoroughly looked at this yet. The embarrassment and the thought “it’s childish” serve as gatekeepers for entering and exploring the wound behind it.

I recently had this disappointment triggered again.

The situation triggering disappointment, what does it say about me? What do I tell myself about me in that situation? 

I am missing out.

I am unloved. I am uncared for.

I am alone.

These thoughts are familiar to me and came easily. I want to see what more is here.

Others have more fun than me. They are enjoying life more than me. They are getting something I am missing out of.

My life is not worth living. It’s hopeless. It will be like this forever. I am unloved by God. I am unloved by life.

This second set of thoughts are also familiar to me, but I hadn’t seen that they were behind this disappointment and the emotions and states that came with it.

What’s my earliest memory of feeling so disappointed? 

I am 6-8 years old and in London on vacation with my parents. I am exhausted from a long day walking around in parks and galleries, and I want and am looking forward to my favorite thing which is coca cola in a can. (We didn’t have coke cans in Norway.) The street vendor doesn’t have it, and I am grief-stricken and angry. My parents buy me a souvenir knife (a small folding knife with ivory on it and a picture of a beef eater). I throw it hard at the ground.

If I bring myself back to that situation, what does it say about me?

Life is over. My life has no meaning. I am unloved. I am uncared for. Life is against me.

Seeing these thoughts, I also see that it makes sense I felt the way I did. The sadness, grief, hopelessness, frustration, and anger didn’t make sense in the context of the current triggering situation, but they do in the context of this early situation where I was worn out and had looked forward to one thing that I didn’t get.

These thoughts spun around in my mind, and although I was not consciously aware of them I certainly experienced their effects in terms of emotions, moods, and states. As I identified these thoughts and wrote them down, I got to see what created these feelings and states, and I got to see that it all makes sense and that it has to do with early experiences in my life. I got to see the innocence of it all. And there is some relaxing of these dynamics just from identifying the thoughts and seeing the innocence of it.

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