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Question: Disappointment

Q&A #5


A Reader recently wrote:


I’m not sure if this is the correct email address to ask a question but here goes…

How does someone who is trying to practice Buddhism handle disappointment? I understand the 4 Noble Truths regarding suffering but it seems like I can’t get past constant disappointment in my life. Are we supposed to quit having a desire for anything more in our lives to successfully attain Enlightment?

Thanks for your insight.


My Response


Yup, this is the right address for questions, comments, or anything else:

Anyway, as we discussed way back in the beginning, the Four Noble Truths tell us that all suffering comes from ‚Äúdesire.‚Äù This is a little confusing, since if we didn’t have desires, nothing would ever happen; no one would have goals. That’s obviously not the way things are.

‚ÄúDesire,‚Äù from the Buddhist point of view, is more correctly translated as ‚Äúgrasping,‚Äù or an overly strong form of attachment and desire. Holding on to things that we know cannot last or being disappointed when things change are examples of this. Nothing is permanent and everything changes, there is just no way to avoid it, and hoping against hope that things won’t change is always doomed to failure.

You weren’t very specific in your description of your disappointment, so I will address the question as if you are disappointed in life in general. You are disappointed that your life/relationships/job/income/health/whatever isn’t what you want. Why? The world is what it is. In many cases, we assume that our lives will meet our expectations. Sometimes it happens, but quite often it doesn’t. But the ‚Äúgrasping‚Äù that causes suffering are not limited to just material goods. Sometimes clinging to internal expectations causes suffering in the form of disappointment.

This is one reason we say that Buddhists can ‚Äúshape reality.‚Äù You cannot change the world, but you can control your own outlook on the world. By realizing that you are too bound up in expectations (realistic or otherwise) you can start to live life in the real world, here and now, and not in some perfect world of your imagination. Your life may really suck, I don’t know; but it is your life to make of it what you want. Take control of your own outlook.

Look around you and realize that you are a part of the world. Things are the way they are and that is good. We can try to ease suffering of others and ourselves, but there are some things that we cannot change. It sounds somewhat stoic, but Buddhists are realists; they take the world as it is and work within it.

5 comments to Question: Disappointment

  • Austin Pejovich

    I understand that we can change our outlook on life and not let dissapointment bother us. But something I don’t understand is how this applies to others, just because some dissapointment doesn’t bother me should I still take responsibility for the attachment to those things of others? I am about to move from where I now live, I have moved from place to place my whole life so it doesn’t bother me much anymore anyway, but a friend of mine is saddened by my leaving, at moments like this what am I supposed to do? take responsibility for it and do something to stop it, or be fine with my friends suffering and move on anyway?

  • Wow, I’m in a very similar situation myself, and I know of no easy answer.

    You aren’t personally suffering, but your leaving is causing suffering for others; a perfect Buddhist dilemma! I guess if it really comes down to it, we each make our own “suffering.” You are in control of your own suffering, and your friend is in control of his. You should do what you can to ease his/her suffering, but also keep in mind that everything changes; people will come into and out of your life. Don’t change your plans, do what you have to do, but also try to explain/teach/convince your friend that this is for the best and help them through their time of pain.

    Yeah, I know that’s a pretty lame answer, but that’s all I’ve got. As I said, I am in the same position right now.

    Anyone else have a better answer?

  • [admin posts for Michael, who sent this in as an email]

    I think that one can only really take responsibility for their own attachments. We care about our friends, and it would be counterintuitive to just tell you to forget about it because it is his/her attachments that are at the heart of his/her problem. Clearly, part of the issue is your feelings about their feelings. Assuming that you have thought through a decision and came to the best decision for you, your friend really has the obligation to accept you. Love is more present in letting go of it. What your friend feels is possessive. You can only do your best to be honest about your decisions. Then, you have to accept your friends natural response. You can’t fix your friend. Just be honest. And then let it be.

    I once had a similar situation. Only, I basically left in the middle of the night in anticipation of not facing a hard goodbye. I just left my portion of the remaining lease payment on the table and drove away. This is something that I regret having done. It was not until months later that we honestly talked and came to terms. Your friend needs to accept you for who you are and what you do. There is suffering in life, and that includes tearful goodbyes. Embrace what you both feel and let it be. Although Taoist, Lau Tsu once said something like, “If you want to shirk something, you must first allow it to expand.” This, to me, means that the solution to any difficulty is first in letting it truly manifest. Only in its true magnitude can it be settled. Hiding, burying, running, or even capitulating to avoid this thing you seek to shrink can only entrench it if you ask me.

    I don’t think it is at all a matter of things not bothering us. I’ve never thought a Buddhist approach to be aimed at nihilistic vacuums inside a ethereal existence. Buddhism, as I try to discover it, aims at ontology, ignores metaphysics if it can help it, and helps in ways unique to each person. Do you think the Dali Lama is not bothered by the recent riots in Tibet? Of course he is. I can only imagine how hard it is for him to remember to work peacefully for peace.

    I don’t have answer one for you. I only encourage you to be honest and open to how you feel and seek some measure of communication. I don’t think this path is about burying you heart.

    A coworker asked me something that I would like to push forward in this thread. How is a Buddhist supposed to feel about what is happening in Darfur? How does one find equanimity in that? I’ve been stumped on that one. I still don’t know how to reply.


  • Dharma Atma Kaur

    Ya know the responsiblity for the person getting murdered. Could that be their karma? Did they ask for this?

  • Some people think so, but obviously, there is no way to really know.

    Just a couple of weeks ago, the singer Madonna commented that the earthquakes in China were karmic retribution for China’s pst misdeeds. That statement didn’t go over well in the press, but no one can really say she was wrong, either.

    Others would say that when someone is murdered, it’s just another random action that happens and karma doesn’t cause things like that. The choice to commit murder will certainly affect the murder’s rebirth, but the effect on the victim? Who knows!