Are expectations undermining your enjoyment of life?
They not only have a much more profound impact than most people realize, that impact is much different than is usually assumed.
To prove that to yourself, think of something positive and important that you anticipate or hope for.
It could be some interpersonal achievement such as getting married or seeing an old friend once again. It might be a financial windfall such as inheriting a large sum of money or winning the lottery. It could be a physical improvement such as recovering from an illness or losing 20 unwanted pounds of fat. Just select one of your important expectations that is something that you fervently hope will happen.
Please do it: actually single one out.
Now: think about how often you think about it. How many times a day do you fantasize about that happening?
Of course, it’s only one of many expectations you have. Notice how many of your thoughts are expectations. Notice that, in general, that’s a lot of thinking weighing you down, a lot of thoughts about what you hope will be your future.
Next: imagine that that one from your whole set of expectations comes true. In other words, suppose that it is realized.
Here’s the question: when is it to be realized?
In the future?
You think: Of course!
Actually, no, because nothing happens in the future. Nothing can happen six months from now or six years from now because there is no six months from now or six years from now! All future times are nothing at present except imaginary thoughts.
The only time it could be realized is right now.
That’s because everything that happens happens in the present moment. If something happens that you anticipated, it will happen right now.
Since the past no longer exists, nothing ever happens in the past. Since the future does not yet exist, nothing ever happens in the future. The future only ever appears as the present moment.
Therefore, if one of your anticipated hopes is realized, it will be realized in the present moment, which is why it is not really one of your future expectations at all.
What, then, happens to all of them? They vanish!
There’s no trick here. Expectations are nothing except thoughts. If you let them all go, all that would happen would be that you would experience life as being much lighter than before. In effect, you’d be radically reducing the content of your self-concept.
Thoughts are not just mostly mental noise; when we attach to them, they weigh us down.
My father’s best friend was The Reverend Robert Hansen, Ph.D. I, too, became friends with him. He and his wife had five children. I remember his telling me once when I was a teenager that “A woman is a weight, but a child is an anchor.”
Never having had a child, I still don’t know if that’s correct. Presumably he meant that the obligations that come with being a parent are extremely heavy, which, from what I’ve observed, is true. Most parents carry their parental obligations to the grave.
Is that a common fear? Perhaps, but possibly the enjoyments of being a parent outweigh the obligations. (I’ll never know.)
I recently attended my niece’s graduation from medical school. I sat next to a young attorney whose husband was also, like my niece, graduating with a master’s degree in business as well as a doctor of medicine degree. They were the only two in the graduating class receiving those two degrees; since I was my niece’s hooder and she was her husband’s hooder, we were seated next to each other.
I learned from my niece a couple of days ago that earlier this week their car had been struck by another car that had swerved into their lane. The driver of the other car and her husband were killed; she is still in an intensive care unit. (A newspaper account stated that all three were wearing seat belts.)
Think what has happened to her expectations! Wanting regular home hours and a normal family, he had planned to work in an emergency room. Their home was to be between the hospital where he was to work and the law offices where she works.
It’s terrible even just to contemplate her vanished expectations.
There’s nothing good about such a horrific loss. Her pain and suffering must be immense.
There is, though, a consequence of inestimable value, namely, such losses are always also great openings to Being.
Notice, though, assuming she is conscious or regains consciousness, how her self-concept must be radically altered. A self-concept is wholly composed of thoughts, mostly memories and expectations.
If stripped of thoughts about past and future, who are you?
In order to awaken to Being, should you practice letting go of them?
Some, aware of expectations theory in psychology, would reply, “no.” They are useful for setting long-term goals, for aligning brain (subconscious) functioning with our values. It’s certainly true that expectations are valuable for achievements.
However, are our achievements all that valuable? Does living well require achievements (gainings, doings)?
It depends upon the meaning of “achievements.” If it refers to getting a positive desired result from a sequence of behaviors, then, no, living well does not require achieving anything. How could it require something outside the present moment?
This is what the third Zen ancestor meant when he wrote in the oldest extant Zen document: “The wise do not strive after goals; / the foolish put themselves in bonds.” [Rochester Zen Center translation]
All that is necessary for living well is making “mind one with the Way” and that involves letting go of the self-concept, which is the source of separation. It’s the realization (not just thought) that “One thing is all, all things are one.”
Living well is living beyond duality, beyond preferences, beyond “all useless thoughts and words.”
Expectations are thoughts, which entails that they are dualistic conceptualizations. Yes, they can be practically useful, but they are unnecessary for living well.
Is your life one of waiting for them to come true? Why?
From The Gospel of Thomas : “His disciples said to him: / “When will the dead be at rest?” / “When will the new world come?” / He [Jesus] answered them: / What you are waiting for has already come, / but you do not see it” [Jean-Yves LeLoup, tr.].
Similarly, from The Gospel of John : the time “is already here” for eternal life [5: 25; New English, tr.].
Eternal life is available in the present moment. When else could it be available?
Wordsworth’s words from “Personal Talk” always resonate with me in such contexts: “To sit without emotion, hope, or aim, / In the loved presence of my cottage-fire.”
This post is dedicated to: Sarah Antczak.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please forward it.
Recommended resources: The books and DVD/CD trainings of Eckhart Tolle, my The Three Things the Rest of Us Should Know About Zen Training and The Gospel of Thomas [Jean-Yves LeLoup’s introduction, translation, and commentary].