Living well is living without expectancy.
This means living without psychological waiting, without thinking about (imagining, hoping for) a better future. In other words, living well is sometimes characterized as living without depending upon thought (“no-thought”).
We often miss life because we are distracted by thoughts. In a state of expectation, for example, we are thinking about a future prospect that is better than the reality of the present.
For example, if I am ill I may become obsessed with thoughts about how much better my life will be when I regain health. Of course, it’s very good to be healthy, but it’s also possible to live well with illness. Expectancy obstructs living well.
For example, if I am financially poor I may drive myself to work hard imagining how much better the future will be if my hard work pays off with financial gain. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with working hard, but there is something wrong with work obstructed by delusions, with living in expectancy.
This is an ancient idea. For example, Sri Krishna says in The Bhagavad Gita that “true renunciation” is not about having no energy or not doing anything but being one of “those who work without expectation of reward” [Easwaran, tr.].
Why, someone may object, work at all without expectation of future reward?
There is no future reward!
The future is a thought or set of thoughts. It’s a figment of our ability to imagine. The future is not only unreal, but, by definition, it is always absent and, so, it can never be real. The future never arrives; it always remains future.
Why, then, do we tend to be obsessed thinking about the future? Good question!
Sri Krishna’s answer is that we fail to meditate in order to still our thoughts. It’s just a fact that, unless we still thoughts, they obstruct living well. Genuine understanding occurs “[i]n the still mind, in the depths of meditation . . .” He says, “It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control. But it can be conquered, Arjuna, through regular practice and detachment,” through meditation that requires self-control and “striving earnestly through the right means.”
Sometimes, physical waiting is normal and necessary. We sometimes have to wait in line to renew a license, purchase merchandise, meet with a physician, or catch a train. Unless the mind is so restless and out of control that such waiting becomes a problem, it’s not a problem at all.
Psychological waiting, on the other hand, is frequently a serious problem. We are impatient to heal from illness, to eat to alleviate hunger, to purchase that product to ease our wanting, or to receive the reward for our toil. Psychological waiting is a serious problem because, whenever it occurs, it’s based on the delusion that some future moment is more valuable than the present moment.
No, no future moment is more valuable than the present moment. The future is never more important than the present.
Someone may object: “That’s ridiculous! Of course my life will be better once I cash my paycheck and am able to buy what I want.”
The cashing and buying won’t occur in the future at all. When it arrives, if it arrives, the future will appear as the present. Actually, then, it’s not different at all. If it’s not different at all, it cannot be more valuable.
If so, whenever you find yourself physically waiting, enjoy the moment. On the other hand, whenever you find yourself psychologically waiting, realize that you are being controlled by thought rather than controlling thought. Admit that the mind is out of control and begin paying attention to the present moment.
Without paying attention to the present moment, how can life be lived well?
Unless living well comes about accidentally, which it doesn’t, that’s impossible.
Living well occurs in the present moment, right here right now. When else could it occur? Yesterday? Tomorrow? In dreamland?
In other words, avoid expectancy! Whenever you notice that you are in a state of expectation, admit that you are living delusively, living in expectancy, and bring the mind back to the present moment.
Meditate. Focus. Pay attention.
It’s that simple. It’s that difficult!
One of my favorite plays as an undergraduate was Waiting for Godot. As it happened, many years later I found myself myself multiple times teaching that play in a Humanities course. I noticed then that not all students liked the play. It didn’t seem to leave them neutral about it: they tended either to hate it or to love it.
It’s a play about life that is filled with uncertainty and hope, with expectancy. The characters in the play are waiting for Godot. Are they living well? Of course not! They live dominated by thoughts about the future. Their lives are characterized by psychological waiting.
I suspect that the students who disliked the play found it uncomfortable because they identified with the characters in the play. Weren’t they waiting? Weren’t they waiting to pass the course, to graduate, to become happily married, to reproduce and raise children, to have a successful career, and to grow old gracefully? Isn’t the logical conclusion of that sequence waiting to die?
Life is always uncomfortable and unsatisfying when thoughts dominate. The purpose of our lives is not to serve thoughts; the purpose of thoughts is to serve our lives.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with thoughts. Sometimes they are very valuable. There’s a lot wrong, however, with a life dominated by thoughts. It’s out of balance, off center, skewed. It can be nothing except unsatisfactory.
The good news is that nobody is condemned to living such a life of expectancy. A restless, out-of-control mind is curable through regularly practicing detachment, through regular meditation of an appropriate kind.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.
Recommended post: The Suffering Mind.
Recommended resource: Eckhart Tolle’s “Through the Open Door to the Vastness of Your True Being” (2 CD set), CD 1.