“Ultimately, it may be best to replace our expectations with a neutral state of alert anticipation and openness to whatever life may bring, accepting life as it unfolds.”
– Dan Millman
Part of the Buddha’s enlightenment was his realization that all personal suffering was a result of becoming attached to selfish desires and having expectations of how things should be. Therefore the remedy to personal suffering was to learn to become detached from selfish desires and to learn to not have expectations of how things should be, but rather to learn to love and be grateful for what is while it is with no expectation of it staying that way.
Notice the key word “selfish” desires. In other words, desires of the personality. The personality desires to find outside itself what can only truly be found within the Soul. That’s why the hopes and expectations of the personality will always lead to disappointment and suffering. This is what Buddha realized and taught.
The Soul has no need for expectations because the Soul is coming from a state of completeness and knowing, not from a state of incompleteness and expecting like the personality. Expectations are therefore, by definition, created by the personality, not the Soul. They are projections of the personality based on the way the personality thinks things “should be.”
But let’s look at how reliable the personality’s picture of the way things “should be” really is. The personality creates pictures of desired outcomes based on very limited and almost always flawed knowledge of how things actually are. Because the personality is always coming from a place of insecurity, it’s expectations are it’s hopes of creating security from that which cannot possibly provide true security– a different set of outer circumstances. The more our personality expects something to be a certain way or turn out a certain way, the less grateful it becomes for it and the more disappointed it becomes when things don’t happen according to expectations.
Another downside to expectations of the personality is that we begin taking things for granted. Taking something for granted is the definition of an expectation. Once we take something for granted (expect it to be there) we set ourselves up for even more disappointment. It is often not until we are threatened with losing something we take for granted or actually do lose it that we become truly grateful for it. Some examples are fairly obvious:
- Our health
- Our spouse’s love
- Our job/source of income
- Our life itself
Quite simply, the more the personality expects, the more it takes for granted, the more suffering it creates for itself.
This is not to say we can’t be grateful for people and things while we have them- because we can be, but only to the extent that we learn to not expect them (take them for granted).
Aren’t there such things as “Good Expectations?” What about expecting your spouse to be faithful, or your kids to be respectful, or your employee to be honest, or even yourself to be loving?
My controversial answer to this important question is NO- there are no good expectations, and by “good” I mean productive. Why? Because as I’ve defined it, to have an expectation is to take something for granted. Should you take your spouse for granted? Should you take the respect of your kids for granted? Should you take the honesty of your employee for granted? Not if you want to be happy you shouldn’t.
Does this mean we shouldn’t have goals, hopes and desires for ourselves and our children?
Not at all! A lack of expectations has nothing to do with aspiring to improve oneself, setting goals or being optimistic. These all have a productive role to play. The difference is that by not having expectations, we don’t take anything for granted. We set goals, but we don’t take it for granted that we will meet them. We have hopes for ourselves and our children, but we don’t take it for granted that they will come to pass.
As much as we might like to believe otherwise, life unfolds according to its own will, and it is all for our highest learning if we’ve learned how to learn from life. So have positive aspirations, set goals, be ambitious about what you want to achieve and take actions you feel inspired to take. But if you want to minimize your suffering and maximize your happiness, don’t take anything for granted. That way when you do meet your goal or achieve your aspiration you can feel truly grateful for it instead of only getting what you expected. And if life unfolds differently than you planned (which is often), you won’t suffer personally, because you didn’t take for granted that it should unfold the way you wanted it to and you can look for the positive aspects of how things have unfolded.
Questions to Ponder
-What things have I started to take for granted- or developed expectations about?
-How can I stop taking the for granted and thus feel more grateful for them?
-Instead of feeling like I have to fix everything I don’t like, how can I become more open to the blessings in how life unfolds?