Expectations come in many guises. Perhaps the simplest and least problematic expectation is anticipating the outcome of a physical action. I raise the lever of a faucet and expect that water will come out. I take a step and expect that I won't fall down. Almost always I'm right about this.
On the other extreme, I may buy a single lottery ticket and expect that I'll win a hundred million dollars. Or I take up meditation and expect that I'll learn all the secrets of the cosmos. Those expectations are so grandiose, I don't really believe they will come to pass (though I'd be ecstatic if they did).
It's the middling sort of expectations that cause us the most trouble. We expect more from life than we're getting, so that makes us dissatisfied. Whether or not our expectation is justified -- often or usually it isn't -- that gap between what is and what we feel should be sets us up for disappointment.
This morning I read another chapter in Domyo Sater Burk's book, Idiot's Guide to Mindfulness. It's called "Accessing More Joy." A key to enhanced joyfulness is managing our expectations.
And this isn't really about lowering our expectations, something I did recently when the long-awaited Starlink satellite internet device arrived via FedEx and I could test out how it worked. As I wrote about in a HinesSight blog post yesterday, I didn't expect much because I hadn't yet gotten the equipment needed to mount the dish on our roof.
So when I got a fast download speed from a spot on our upstairs deck, but the connection kept dropping because of trees obstructing the signal from space, I wasn't disappointed because my expectation for the first Starlink test was so minimal.
As you can read below, Burk has a more radical view of expectations. We should be cautious about having them. Instead, experiencing things as they are is a better way to go. This can be difficult, since we're so used to expecting that life will give us this or that.
I enjoyed what Burk says about expectations. She is skilled at taking Zen teachings (she's an ordained Zen monk) and communicating the essence of them in an easy to understand fashion without resorting to Buddhist language.
There is a lesson we can take from the natural mindfulness of someone facing death: living with no expectations lets you see being alive as very precious. When I suggest you live with no expectations, you may think I'm telling you to take a pessimistic approach, but that isn't the case.
When someone says they have no expectations about something , it often means they have strong expectations -- they're just low. Living with no expectations at all is very different.
It means you're watching and waiting for things to unfold and then engaging them directly.
You aren't focusing your attention based on expectations of what's going to happen, and you're not comparing results to ideas about what should have happened.
There are an infinite number of ideas you can hold about life and how it should go, and each can interfere with your mindfulness. Simply identifying your expectations and ideas is the first step in getting free of them. Here's the kind of thoughts to look out for:
- If I work hard, things should go well for me.
- If I take care of my body, I won't get sick.
- If I'm nice to people, they will like me.
- As long as I do my best, my efforts will be appreciated.
- The world should be free of injustice, violence, and greed.
- My life should be pleasant or fun.
- I shouldn't have to deal with this.
- That person is always _______.
Identifying your preconceived notions doesn't mean they disappear. You simply recognize them for what they are: thoughts. Thoughts are generated by your body-mind in response to a given situation, and they're just part of the whole picture.
"Oh," you might observe when a new policy is announced at work. "I'm having a thought that this isn't fair." Your judgement is most likely based on preconceived ideas you have about fairness, or about your workplace.
To practice mindfulness, you take note of your thoughts about things, but then try to stay receptive to all aspects of the situation instead of completely believing your ideas about it.
Holding on to expectations about how things are, or how they should go, not only interferes with mindfulness, it can also make you miserable.
When you experience something, you immediately compare it to your expectation about it. Viewed objectively something may be unpleasant, disappointing, or even painful, but it seems even worse if you dwell on how it shouldn't be happening to you.
Alternatively, it may be unfortunate that something you want is eluding you, but your expectation that you should have gotten it by now makes the situation even more frustrating.
As mentioned earlier, sometimes the prospect of letting go of expectations sounds like adopting low expectations instead -- as if you're sighing in resignation and inviting the world to walk all over you.
On the contrary, letting go of all expectations leaves you even more able to engage life effectively and take care of your responsibilities.
When you live your life directly instead of constantly comparing it to your ideas, you're more receptive and open-minded. You can adapt quickly when things surprise you, and are less likely to bias outcomes ahead of time. You'll deal with challenges as needed without getting caught up in resentment.
All of your skills and intelligence will be available for your use -- the only difference will be that you're paying more attention to the way things actually are than to your own ideas.
...Life experienced without any expectations lets you access joy much more easily. It helps you feel sincere gratitude for the good things you already have or experience. Imagine if you replaced the preconceived notions above with these observations:
- I try to work hard, and it's great when things go well.
- I take care of my body, and it feels good to be healthy.
- I try to be nice to people, and it's great when they like me.
- I do my best, and appreciation is sweet.
- It's inspiring that there are so many people who voluntarily work for justice and refrain from violence and greed.
- I love it when my life is pleasant or fun.
- I don't really like this, but it's what I get to deal with right now.
- That person is sometimes _______; I wonder what they'll do now.
...If you were to die right now, would your heart be filled with gratitude for all you have, or would there be lingering regrets about the past? Is some of your current happiness contingent on the fulfillment of hopes for the future?
Few of us can honestly say we are perfectly satisfied with all aspects of our lives, all the time, but if you're able to live mindfully and free of expectations, it's possible to experience a deep sense of peace about the state of your life.