I want to give credit for many of these ideas to Phillip Moffitt, a Yoga Swami for many years before becoming a Theravadan Buddhist Dharma Teacher. I sat in retreat with him at Spirit Rock, SF area, in 2005.
Expectation indicates the juncture between where you are and where you want to be. Where you want to be is your desire, and where you are is your set-point or habit of thought. And somewhere in there is what we would call expectation. Expectation, whether it is wanted or unwanted, is a powerful point of attraction. Your expectation is always what you believe. But the word expectation does imply more what you are wanting than what you are not wanting.
The Buddha likened it to “wanting mind”, the first of the five hindrances which is desire. The others are ill-will or anger, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and skeptical doubt. To explore desire, the first hindrance, is to explore the question, “What is it I really want and need in order to be happy?” What keeps us from that happiness is often a thought, expectation or fantasy. As Jon Kabat Zinn says “If I can’t find the truth right where I am, where else do I think I’ll find it?”
We all have had expectations over time that turned out to be a delusion. One of mine, being a yoga teacher, was that I would be flexible beyond my years with devoted practice. Not true. Though I am flexible for 67 years, it certainly not as great as I had envisioned. Arthritis, a few cancer tumors in my pelvis now and then, a little weight gain, reduced physical all have contributed to the reality of less flexibility. Of course, I have had the gift of practicing aging with the awareness of the present so gradually my delusion about this has faded even though the disappointment still comes and goes.
Expectations can imprison us—toward ourselves and others, over results and the control over our lives….big and little. How do expectations play out? Usually, we don’t know how attached we are to expectations until we feel disappointment…the knot in our stomach, tight shoulders, or a sad heart.
I think of past expectations around how I wanted holidays to be, often experiencing delusion. Images of loving connections with family, unstrained even though in ordinary life, they are. The pictures in my mind included generous acts of giving and receiving, a spirit of celebration and joy, sitting down to an abundant Christmas meal, everyone appreciating all the effort it took. This ideal or any other is sentimental and nostalgic and puts incredible pressure on everyone I know in the form of expectations. Depression can set in over a scenario of things not being what we want.
When we get caught up with rigid expectations, we close off the opening to possibilities. Here’s a story to illustrate this: “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl Kingley.
“I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability—to try to help people who have not shared this unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this:
When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip…to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. Michelangelo’s “David”. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The flight attendant comes and says, “Welcome to Holland.”
“Holland?” you say. “What do you mean, Holland?” I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy. But there’s been a change in the flight plans. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.
The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place full of pestilence, famine, and disease. It’s just a different place. So you must go out and buy new guidebooks. You must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.
It’s just a different place. It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills; Holland has tulips; Holland even has Rembrandts.
But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy, and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say, “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I planned.”
And the pain of that will never, ever, ever go away because the loss of that dream is a very significant loss. But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.”
It’s not so easy to be mindful and trust our present experiences as the Buddha so often taught if we are imprisoned by our expectations. They blind us to possibilities because we’ve nailed ourselves down to something floating in the past or future. The possibilities are grounded in the NOW, opening the mind and heart to whatever is. So more occasions come up for intuition and flexibility and imagination. When we’re in the space of the possible, we can open up to whatever occurs in our meditation and in everyday life. Our practice can be a wonder of possibility. Suzuki Roshi said “In the mind of experts, there are few possibilities; in the minds of beginners, there are many.”
So how do we see through these more rigid expectations when we are in delusion? Larry Rosenburg in his book Breath by Breath talks about delusion as ignorance but also feels that it is often just CONFUSION. “When we get to delusion, it’s more as if we don’t know what’s what; life is not in focus. We don’t know what’s good or bad, whether to go forward or back, whether to go meditate or sit down and read. Because we don’t see clearly, we spend a great deal of time running after things that don’t make us happy, striking out at whatever is unpleasant, running away from things that can’t really harm us.”
Even though attachment and aversion can be intense habitual states, Rosenburg thinks confusion is the most difficult. “There is a great value placed on decisiveness in our world, being strong, bold, knowing what to do. So when we are confused, we want to choose something or another and get away from the discomfort. The challenge in both Buddhist practice and life is to stay with it, see what the energy of confusion is really like. Clear and deep seeing into confusion is the most reliable road to genuine clarity and decisiveness.”
So Rosenburg advises “When you’re feeling confused, don’t see it as interfering with your practice. It IS your practice; it is your life at that moment. Stay with it and thoroughly examine it. Allow confusion or delusion to take you to clarity. He relates a story from Lawrence Shainberg’s book, Ambivalent Zen, where Kyudo Roshi is advising his student in a moment of doubt: “Can’t decide? Ah, great decision! If you confused, do confused. Do not be confused by confusion. Understand? Be totally confused, then I guarantee, no problem at all.”
B. Alan Wallace, assistant to the Dhali Llama and author of Boundless Heart: The Four Immeasurables, says “the most fundamental of our afflictions is delusion”.
“If the root problem is delusion, then the root antidote must be something that meets that delusion head on, and it’s probably not loving-kinding. Loving-kindness can serve as an antidote for hatred, indifference, or self-centeredness and promote connection. The best antidote for delusion is the wisdom of insight, seeing into the nature of the three marks of conditioned existence: Dukkha or the inherent struggle of like, Anicca or impermanence, and Anatta or no separate permanent Self.
Where do Goals come in? Are goals expectations? Goals are future-oriented, give direction, help us allocate our time and how to spend our precious resources. But even here, we need to be careful. Expectations are a kind of hardening of goals. Goals provide the spice of life but we sometimes swap a goal for an expectation.
What about Anticipation? This can be a hidden expectation, eg., when we anticipate our long awaited vacation and we think the weather will be perfect and we’ll get so much rest and then it rains or we get caught up in all the “doing” that feels just like our ordinary life. This may throw us off. Or we could say “Oh, this is different. What will happen now?” In many ways, we are opening up to a sense of spaciousness.
Carl Sagen, a well-known scientist, once said “ Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” which leads us to HOPE.
What about Hope? Expectations are often disguised as Hope. Healthy hope is grounded again in possibility, open to mystery and in a “don’t know” mind. Without this, life would be flat and dull. I think of times in world history…catastrophes and wars… and in my own life when things seemed hopeless. When healthy hope arose, it allowed me to stay open to the possibility of less struggle and more joy and acceptance in some cases. When we narrow to a certain expectation, it isn’t healthy. Hope deteriorates into expectation when we are caught into hope ONLY looking a certain way, eg., having “a meaningful connection” with a relative or friend or expecting those you care about to be grateful and generous, as during the holidays, even though the moment isn’t offering this.
Our intention in our meditation practice is limited by an expectation of “what it is supposed to be”. Now don’t get me wrong. We need guidelines and some structure, effort balanced with relaxation and certainly, concentration. It is our relationship to that that will determine if it is healthy,and we can hold the experience with ease.
So, is it possible NOT to have expectations? Quite rare. Delusion is not being able to see how we get caught up in the attachment of something being a certain way and not allowing change, the comings and goings. Getting out of our own way invites this new relationship toward expectations.
Is it possible to NOT get seduced by expectations? Yes, and one way is laughing at our judgments: “Ah, this sit isn’t as good as the last time. My metta meditation was lousy today. This retreat wasn’t too good. I don’t like the teacher.”
There’s a wonderful story about the Dhali Llama when he was at Spirit Rock, CA, for a retreat and a man who had practiced conscientiously for years raised his hand and said, “You know, I’m so disappointed in my practice. I’ve tried and tried and it’s just not what I want it to be.”
The Dhali Llama sat quietly a few minutes and finally said, “You know, I have felt that way too. But as I look back….5 yrs., 10 yrs., 20 yrs., I also see how my practice has matured.”
So if we can approach our practice and our lives knowing there will be those disappointments, those moments when we get lost, are confused and not meeting our expectations BUT also not identifying with those moments, then we will have matured. And we bow to this as well.