The Trouble with Expectations
“My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”
[The Science of Second-Guessing (New York Times Magazine Interview, December 12, 2004)]
~ Stephen Hawking ~
Once upon a time… and they lived happily ever after. Is that familiar to you? Many of us believe that we are conditioned, from early childhood, to expect that everything in life works out in the end, almost always for the better. Good triumphs over evil; reason and logic prevail over chaos and ignorance; lies and deceit yields to truth; hard work produces success and fortune. But here’s the problem: in reality, these beliefs or assumptions fall short of what is real, despite how hard we try.
When we’re really honest with ourselves, we realize (and admit) that, in many, many instances, our personal expectations have been tossed to the dustbin of disappointment or result in heartache and bitter frustration. Life can seem so unfair, so cruel at times, regardless of our efforts. Watching others succeed, seemingly with little effort or through deceit, frustrates us even more. And what about luck? Let’s not even go there!
It’s easy to become a ‘victim’ of life’s circumstances. Sometimes we might even get a perverse sense of satisfaction from seeing ourselves as martyrs of unrealized best intensions. And, when we are mindful of our expectations, we may even notice that, sometimes, we are our own worst enemies; we concoct our own expectations to suit personal goals, relationships, or career aspirations. We tend to do this with the smaller things in life too: expectations of the weather for our planned summer outdoor event; hoping to avoid urgent and time-consuming projects that are awaiting our arrival at work. I call these “self-contrived” expectations; having expectations with specific conditions for successful outcomes.
But, sometimes, life surprises us when expectations emerge out of nowhere. Hidden desires and fantasies are suddenly met with happenstance. We are offered a once-in-a-lifetime ‘opportunity’ and, suddenly, we find ourselves reeling with adrenalin and anticipation. And then, we are met with disappointment because what is ‘promised’ is rarely delivered: that great deal on a used car turned out to be a poor investment in a lemon; that blind date turned out to be awkward, even nightmarish.
So, how do we mindfully live with the impulse(s) of expectations, large and small; contrived or unexpected?
IT’S ABOUT PERSPECTIVE
One of the amazing things we discover when we practice mindfulness and meditation is that we become more aware of where, and how, we focus our attention in our life’s day-to-day moments. We quickly begin to see that this is where we spend our energy. Tony Robbins once said, “Where focus goes, energy flows”. Our focused perspective can be on the outcomes or, fixed on process. We can either be preoccupied with what we hope will be, or present in the now.
But wait…. isn’t it a combination of desire, passion and effort that produces change and yields results? In my view, absolutely! And there is nothing wrong with this combination as motivation to create circumstances which support and embolden a life of health and wellness. Without purpose, intention or effort, we might simply dissolve into nothingness; we might ‘waste away’ or ‘starve’ to death.
But, because we are neurologically wired to protect and preserve our own safety and to enjoy our sense of physical and psychological stability, predictability and comfort, we tend to project our thinking onto conditions we believe are required to meet our needs. And, once we’ve determined for ourselves what those conditions are, we set our expectations conditionally to assess and decide for ourselves if those needs are met. If not, we return to the cycle of assessing why not, and we tend to realign our intentions and actions to meet the original expectation. This becomes an endless loop (or, in mathematical terms, a circular reference error) that never ends! Finally, when we realize that we might never meet our expectations, we might be left with an inner sense of defeat, disappointment, or disillusionment. When this happens time and time again, we become bitter, hard-hearted and disconnected with life. Eventually, we give up and ‘surrender’ as victims of circumstance and life, unaware that there might be a better approach that is both healing and life-affirming. In Buddhism, this is called ‘suffering’: our compulsive clinging onto, or resisting the realities that are right in front of us. We ruminate, regretting our unmet expectations from the past or fearing and becoming filled with angst for what might or might not happen in the future. We certainly aren’t living in the present moment, attentive to ‘what is’ right now.
One trap of having false or unrealistic expectations might be that we misplace our focus on what is important and beneficial in our lives. As a result, we often expend great amounts of precious energy on the ‘wrong’ things. We become focused on outcomes instead of how moment-to-moment processes unfold. When this happens, we are not living mindfully in the present; we’re distracted by the future; we’re trapped by placing our attention on the ‘hoped for’ end-point. Our focus is no longer on the tasks at-hand, but on their outcomes. We are no longer focused on the present, but on a future which we envision, a fantasy (perhaps) of what we think our life ‘should’ be. And, if the realities of life can teach us anything, it’s that what we think can or should happen rarely does, at least not in how we think it will.
Mindful living teaches us to be present with ‘what is’. In this sense, we become more attuned to what is happening in the present moment and less attached to the (potential) results. We realize that everything in life is impermanent, ever-changing, and often spontaneous and surprisingly different than what we expected. When we are living mindfully in the present moment, consciously aware of each unfolding moment, we are more likely to balance what we desire with what is actually happening. We are more likely to balance our intentions and our hopes for what could be, with, simply, what is. Hope is placing our bets on something unseen and in the future. When we develop faith, we trust that the process is what’s important; the outcomes will be what will be – often beyond our ultimate control. And the outcomes, when trusted, can be far greater than we ever expected, hoped or wished for.
Suddenly, by being present with life as it unfolds, what used to be disappointment with unrealized expectations becomes a joy with what is! Our disillusionment with life’s unfulfilled expectations can be transformed into curious excitement for the infinite possibilities that life can afford us. Our minds and hearts open, and our compassion becomes all-encompassing. Creativity and flow happen naturally. We are enthralled with life as it unfolds moment-to-moment, without expectations; without wishing that things were or could be different.
Being present, we now are able to able to find wonders and miracles in the smallest of things. It becomes easy for us to see the interconnectedness of all of life. Our sense of contentment and peace is now the well-spring for our joy and happiness.
Breathing in, I embrace life’s impermanence.
Breathing out, I am content to live life in the present moment.
Breathing in, I welcome all that comes my way.
Breathing out, I rest in the peace that is always, already present in each unfolding moment.
Paul Kenney, B.Sc., CMMI
Edited by Jeff Potts,
Author Bio -A devoted meditator, Paul believes in the integration of mind, body and spirit as necessary for healing and bringing about physical, mental and spiritual health and wellness. Through meditation, he believes anyone can develop the ability to be heart-centred and live in gratitude, joy and peace, despite past or current trauma and life struggles.