A matter of perception

The gradual vs. sudden debate.

Is it about effort or effortlessness?

Can delusion and wisdom coexist?

Do I have to be aware, as in pay attention, or is it a matter of remembering…I’m already aware?


The dangers of expectation

From what I can tell, expectation is one of the more wily of mind states. Dangerously close to the Christian concept of the devil, in fact. What I mean by that is, expectation – and its cousins (it’s greed and aversion all wrapped up into one), are single-handedly the greatest single source of suffering I can point to in my experience. For much of my late twenties and early thirties, I would have said that expectation in terms of the love relationship was the number one, number two arrow and it was, but now I see it’s trickier than that.

It’s entirely unintentional that there’s been no activity here for the past month. But if I think about it, there are clear causes and conditions, and the neglect here is just one of those effects. You know, there’s a cause for every effect. Or probably a few. In this case, while there was some denial and pushing away of what was being experienced as it was being experienced, in retrospect it’s a pretty simple formula.

Expectation > disappointment > loneliness > depression

The thing is, in this case, the expectation was subtle and apparent in virtually all relationships I was in the process of developing.

I live with my parents. I’m 34. There’s a ton of shit that comes up for me as a result. But I do choose this and it’s whatever I need to be doing right now. When my rather carnivorous father makes us vegetarian chili and tells me in a moment of reflection that he’s thinking about and grateful for how much insight I’ve brought to his life over the past few months, well, that’s love for you. And it makes all the difficulties of being in relationship and facing one’s deepest conditioning reflected back day in and day out by ones parents worth it.  Although the relationship with each of them is constantly evolving, there is a basis of unconditional love – a security – that loosens up the expectation. At least for me. I do see that each of them has expectations of the other, and I see how that in turn leads to my mom believing the story line that no one ever does anything for her, or my dad that he’s “going broke”, for example. And maybe I’m just being naïve when I say I don’t have expectations of them, but generally, there’s a sense of ease in those relationships for me that doesn’t exist with most people, even the friends I am so blessed to have had for 30+ years.

However, there are relationships I’ve developed through my Dhamma practice, both in person and virtually. I am corresponding with a prisoner. As these friendships develop, and there is an increasing vulnerability and therefore intimacy (not romantic, per se, but just more intimate), expectation rears its ugly head. I catch it at times. I feel it in the chest, the hollow feeling when I wonder why that letter or email reply hasn’t arrived–mind you, I’m horrendous about email replies. I see the story line, ever so quietly try to build steam. But these are the moments when I’m being vigilant, and when I’m not, it is building up and then all the sudden it’s full blown depression (this is a relative statement of course, but for me at least).

“Even the qualities of clarity, non-dwelling, and bliss are obstacles if you cling to them.”

I spent months meditating every day in Burma to learn this lesson, that expectation leads only to depression. That letting go of any attachment to a particular result is essential in the practice. And since practice is life, it follows that this lesson is transferable to most other things, particularly relationships.

In Burma I also learned directly of the sting of desire. After three days of pining after a particular yogi, someone with whom I had shared a meaningful conversation and with whom I just couldn’t wait to repeat it, I woke up to pain and clear seeing of the direct cause-effect relationship of desire and jealousy. In a moment, my heart softened, and with laughter and love, I smiled as two friends found joy in each other’s company. I have literally not felt sexual desire since then. Not once. It’s been rather liberating. But I do believe it’s possible to love romantically without that clinging, without that desire that comes with expectation, that stems from a sense of want (or lack).

The recent bout of loneliness and disappointment is an indication that I’m still working on this particular emotion. I suspect that expectation could be something I’m working on for a long time, if you think of it as attachment to an idea of some future happening. If that’s the case, I’m pretty confident we’re in this for the long haul.

So, now, learning to work skillfully with this subtle and pervasive mind state as I get to know others as friends, co-workers, teachers, Dhamma brothers and sisters, and potential lovers and partners–whatever they might be, for however long they might stick around.

A few resources on expectation, etc.

The Tyranny of Expectations, Philip Moffitt, Yoga Journal

The Threefold Purity, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, May 1998 (expectation in meditation, also from where the Mahamudra quote above is referenced)

The Place of the Erotic, Christopher Titmuss, Buddhist Geeks Episode 176, 14 Jun 2010 (on desire)

Additional thoughts

In a review of David Loy’s Money, Sex, War, Karma, in the chapter ” What’s Wrong with Sex?”:

“Loy argues that our present cultural situation poses somewhat different challenges in relation to sexual desire. In particular, he believes ‘there is something delusive about the myths of romantic love and sexual fulfilment.’ (p.75) Genuine happiness, he argues, has little to do with sex. To paraphrase Loy, we use sex and romantic attachments to try to fill up our lack, but this strategy never fully succeeds because nothing can fill this gap. Our over-expectations of sex and intimate relationships result in suffering, as they ultimately fail to deliver what we hope for.”

Charlotte Joko Beck in “Aspiration and Expectation” in Everyday Zen (p. 133-134) says:

“One sure clue as to whether we’re being motivated by aspiration or expectation is that aspiration is always satisfying; it may not be pleasant, but it is always satisfying. Expectation, on the other hand, is always unsatisfying, because it comes from our little minds, our egos. Starting way back in childhood, we live our lives looking for satisfaction outside ourselves. We look for some way to conceal the basic fear that something is missing from our lives. We go from one thing to another trying to fill up the hole we think is there…

It’s important that we continually examine ourselves and see where it is that we’re looking and what it is that we’re looking for. What are you looking for outside of yourself? What is it that you think is going to do it? Position? Relationships? Passing koans? Over and over again the Zen masters say to place no head above your own, and add nothing extra to your life.

Each moment, as it is, is complete and full in itself. Seeing this, no matter what arises in each moment, we can let it be…Our practice, our aspiration, is to be that moment and let it be what it is. If you are afraid, just be fear, and right there you are fearless.”

Anxious to live life meaningfully, mindfully

Anxiety comes in many forms. According to the National Institute of Mental Health as many as 40 million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder (source, and more info here). When there is a real surge of anxiety, the afflicted person can end up virtually non-functional. The mental activity tends to go in a dangerous spiraling motion (thoughts of dread, regret, meaninglessness, etc.), the body may respond violently (trembling, vomiting), and a panic attack can set off totally paranoid behaviors (e.g., unable to leave the house). This is mind and this is serious stuff.

Although I luckily have not experienced quite this intense form of anxiety except in extreme situations of crowds (perhaps some ochlophobia), I can sympathize to a certain degree due to a pervasive undercurrent of the emotion that is deeply conditioned at this point, and thus hard to pinpoint. One of the side effects is waking up in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning with an overwhelming sense of neglect and forgetfulness, as if I’ve forgotten the most important person (or dog – my baby) in my life completely. It’s possible this is PASS, but considering it’s been 16 years since exercising that not-so-much-of-a-choice, I’d be surprised.

A lot of people take prescription drugs (while others self-medicate), some use psychotherapy, and still others engage in a meditative practice to manage anxiety. One friend who does suffer from anxiety, and takes medication for it, has also begun to consider mindfulness-based approaches. There is some evidence that this may indeed be an effective form of treatment, though the study results generally have only moderate success rates.

I can attest to the benefits of of mindfulness practice in my own life — as this background noise of anxiety definitely disappeared during retreat — but, I can also see how the results could be difficult to maintain without diligence and sustained practice. In other words, the anxiety has slowly but surely emerged again in the conventional world as mindfulness weakens and old habits of mind reappear. Despite an extremely simple life: no house, no car, no phone, no job, no bills, the anxiety just starts to bubble up in sleep and waking life, undoubtedly because of more discursive thought.

Toni Packer in The Work of this Moment talks about how we can inquire into the nature of our difficult emotions and, in particular, question the validity of the thoughts that tend to bolster them. She says:

…Real questioning has no methods, no  knowing–just wondering freely, vulnerably, what it is that is actually happening inside and out. Not the word, not the idea of it, not the reaction to it, but the simple fact…Anxiety arises…will one immediately act by “knowing” it from previous times and bracing against it? “Oh, not that again–I hate it–it’s going to get worse, how can I get rid of it.” and so forth. [Or] simply meeting it as for the first time, attending quietly, feeling it, letting it move on its own, revealing itself for what it is without interference by the brain.

When the emotion is just a background hum, it can be difficult to really identify the thought content that’s feeding it. That’s why moment-to-moment mindfulness is key – because you never know when with clear awareness that cause and effect process is going to make itself known. And when the mind is peaceful, during more formal meditation practice, that’s a good time to actually intentionally call up the emotion and investigate it. This is something I need to do more often, but it requires equanimity. Anything that’s deeply conditioned is difficult to penetrate. We have to recognize when is the right opportunity to really confront a strong emotion and also know when we really aren’t ready to deal with it. If we aren’t, it’s okay to redirect our attention to the breath or to the observing mind, which may be feeling aversion to the emotion, because the emotion will undoubtedly come up again when we can meet it with more wisdom. I believe though that even if we have gained some insight into the source of a particular emotion, without persistent application of mindfulness, we can’t be confident that it won’t arise again.

Quite certainly, in my case, the anxiety is related to a seemingly urgent sense of needing to live life meaningfully, and while that was stilled for a while on retreat, it has come up to the surface again in the cloud of uncertainty that hangs over my day to day and in the semi-isolation I have imposed on myself without the structure and discipline of before (as I alluded to in my last post). And again, if not aware, engaging in social media can exacerbate this.

While I do very much believe in the application of mindfulness meditation for the treatment of stress, difficult emotions, and the conditions associated with them, I also question an entirely secular approach as a stand-alone treatment. Knowing that even after 7 months of intensive meditation practice and with a tremendous amount of saddha, I still struggle with a lesser-grade anxiety condition, I suspect that it would be very challenging for someone that lacks that faith in the benefits of meditation and the Dhamma, and who may suffer from a more serious condition, to persistently apply mindfulness in such a way that it could have significant results.

But read up on it, I’m just one meditator so don’t take my word for it.

In the interview “What Is True Happiness?” (PDF), Tricycle, Fall 2005, B. Alan Wallace, director of the Santa Barbara Center for Consciousness Studies, talks about the importance of faith and, even more so, practice in order to live a meaningful life and understand the cause of stress. He refers to that niggling dukkha, and discusses it in the context of the Four Noble Truths and of modern psychotherapy. To paraphrase, he says that that depressive quality, that ever present hum of discomfort, is our golden opportunity. But far too often, on the advice of conventional society and mental health professionals, we treat only the symptom. Truly what we need to do is look at the cause of the suffering, understand it and learn from it. As my teacher has said, vipassana means, “face it, learn it, get it”.

So let’s get to the root of it and let’s do it through practice. But let’s also be wise and know what are skillful means and when to employ one over the other. There is no quick solution to dealing with stress, anxiety, fear, dukkha, but there is no doubt that by walking the path the Buddha laid out and practicing right mindfulness (samma sati), we can go a long way toward understanding it.

Studies on Mindfulness-Based Therapies and Meditation to Treat Anxiety, Etc.

Hofmann, Stefan G.; Sawyer, Alice T.; Witt, Ashley A.; Oh, Diana. “The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review”, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, April, 2010  Volume 78, Issue 2, Pages 169-183

Kabat-Zinn, J., Massion, A. O., Kristeller, J., Peterson, L.G., Fletcher, K., Pbert, L., Linderking, W., Santorelli, S. F., “Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders”, Am. J. Psychiatry (1992) 149:936-943.

Miller, J., Fletcher, K. and Kabat-Zin, J., “Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders”, Gen. Hosp. Psychiatry (1995) 17:192-200.

Evans, S., Ferrando, S., Findler, M., Stowell, C., Smart, C., Haglin, D. “Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for generalized anxiety disorder”, J Anxiety Disord. 2008 May;22(4):716-21. Epub 2007 Jul 22.

Zylowka, et al. (2008). “Mindfulness meditation training in adults and adolescents with ADHD.”. Journal of Attention Disorders, 11, 737-746 (somewhat related)

And Some Blog Posts…

Finding Relief from Depression Through Mindfulness

A Buddhist Perspective on Coping with Anxiety

Online Mindfulness-Based Anxiety Therapy

A Video from Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

Using Panic Attacks for Meditation

And Some Books to Consider (caveat: I haven’t read ‘em)…

The Mindfulness Code: Keys for Overcoming Stress, Anxiety, Fear, and Unhappiness, by Donald Altman (you can also listen to an interview with the author, where he talks about overuse of technology and social media as part of our unhappiness, here)

The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Mindful Path Through Shyness: How Mindfulness & Compassion Can Help Free You from Social Anxiety, Fear, & Avoidance by Steve Flowers and Jeffrey, M.D. Brantley

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