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Disillusioned With Life
The path forward after life fails you
When born into this world, we quickly realize that life has specific rules. You get rewarded if you follow the rules; if you don’t, you get punished. In western society, wealth, fame, and achievement are prized above all.
We assume that happiness will show up someday if we pursue these, and our life looks like those showcased on the internet, on tv, and in magazines. These cultural values become our North Star, which we eagerly pursue throughout life like everyone else.
Doing What We’re Supposed to Do
We do our homework, brush our teeth, and clean our room. We go to college, get a job, and make money. We furnish our apartment, buy a car, and take vacations. We get married, move in together, and get a dog or a cat.
After every accomplishment, milestone, or boost in income, we’re excited and happy for a time. But when the thrill wears off, we think it’s because we’re not productive, accomplished, or wealthy enough.
So we return to school, get a higher-paying job, and make more money. We buy a house, have kids, and build a backyard garden. We get promoted, take nicer vacations, purchase a second home, and turn it into an Airbnb.
Yet, despite our efforts, we keep running into the same problem. Whatever we do eventually stops working, and we feel dissatisfied and discouraged. Life isn’t adding up, and we don’t know why.
At the same time, it seems like everyone else is happy except us. We see people on social media smiling and doing fun stuff. Our neighbors’ yards are manicured, and their houses are decorated during the holidays. Whenever we ask how others are doing, they say, “Great!” and then recount their children’s accomplishments.
We’ve done everything we were supposed to do, but lasting happiness eludes us. Others’ smiles are whiter than ours, so the problem must be us.
We Try Self Help
We look to the self-help community for solutions to our problems: cold showers, intermittent fasting, and avoiding seed oils.
We begin seeing a therapist who encourages us to practice self-care. We join a local gym, train for a marathon, and cut back on junk food. We start going on date nights, pick up a new hobby, and take a course on better partner communication. We upgrade our wardrobe, buy a sports car, and hike Machu Picchu.
Anything to relieve us of a growing sense of “quiet desperation.”
We feel energized and pursue these new possibilities enthusiastically. Each activity makes us feel alive and encouraged that we’re on a path of rebirth. Then, after months of self-care, the initial enthusiasm wears off, we stop exercising, and we’re back where we started, only more frustrated.
“I don’t get it. I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do. I went to school, got a job, and worked hard. I got married, bought a house, and had kids. I’ve done the self-improvement thing, but nothing seems to work.”
We see others and think, “How can I be the only one who is unhappy.” After all, fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, anti-anxiety and anti-depressant prescriptions are at an all-time high, and half of my co-workers are having affairs.
But knowing intellectually is different from understanding emotionally. Instead of reasoning, we believe our emotions: something must be wrong with us.
Our darkest fears are confirmed when our wife asks for a divorce, and the kids choose to live with her. Exhausted and disillusioned, we wonder where it all went wrong.
You did what you were supposed to but didn’t find lasting satisfaction. The problem is not you. Meaning, purpose, and fulfillment were never to be found in society’s values. It was written in the story that pursuing achievement and material wealth alone would end in sorrow.
Divorce is usually when life starts, says a friend of mine. After my divorce, I inquired deeply into my circumstances.
By then, I had been on the spiritual path for about ten years and felt confident in my insights into myself and the laws that govern life. Despite these understandings, I didn’t know how to relate to an intimate partner here and now. I was still acting out the same patterns of fear and blame. I was emotionally immature, cycling between suppression and reaction.
But I was determined to find answers.
After exploring the behaviors of my ex-wife and in my family of origin, I discovered patterns of narcissism, including in myself. I realized, to my horror, that all my life, I had been living out my parents and society’s values, not mine, despite years of inquiry and believing I was making conscious choices.
I learned that I had unknowingly been expecting someone or something to save me from life's fears, pains, and uncertainties. Looking into my life, I discovered my values and intentions. I started spending more time doing what was fulfilling.
It’s Like This
They say the spiritual journey starts with bad news, and in my experience, it does. For the first time, we see the depth of our sorrows and suffering and how unfulfilled we have been for a long time.
It’s like going into the darkness, the unknown. The spiritual path is scary and disorienting because it’s a radically different way of experiencing, perceiving, and relating. When we let go of the crutches we’ve been so accustomed to like caffeine to pick us up in the morning and alcohol to tranquilize us in the evening, we feel vulnerable.
It’s as if we’ve been standing in a brightly lit room when the power goes off at night. At first, we panic because we can’t see anything. How will I get around my house? But after some time, our eyes adjust to the new reality.
Eventually, familiar objects come into view as our sight adapts to the darkened space. The spiritual journey is similar—you see the same things but perceive them differently.
Endeavoring to live a genuine spiritual life is like jumping out of an airplane. “The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute,” said Chögyam Trungpa, “The good news is, there is no ground.”
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