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.”

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  1. anonymous

     /  October 28, 2010

    Glad your back ,expressing your “self”/mind and heart. I probably have a few years on you being in my late 50’s, but can relate very closely to what you say here. You are in the prime of your life. Everything is magnified to some degree. Emotions run high, and the inner dialect is active much of the time. Normal. True. Real. That is what you want to be. Not some wanna be “example” Buddhist who has conquered the obvious shortcomings that all of us face daily. Just don’t look back too much. Examine the wake you are leaving as you speed down lives course, but don’t stop too long to “self-reflect”. Hindsight is illusion not 20-20 vision. :)
    Anyway, like i said, glad your writing to the world again, because you are a co-creator of our now.

    • Thank you for the support re authenticity. One can only be where they are, indeed, and we just work for more and more clear seeing.

  2. Dear Katherine. This is a great post. It is sincere and certainly reflects my own experience. It is so difficult when I am caught up in expectations to remember that this is not all that I am. There are so many forces moving in and around us. What is most important, I think, is the seeing of how I am in this moment. Clearly, you have seen and tasted these manifestations, because you describe them so well. If you were completely asleep, you wouldn’t have noticed anything. I need to put my trust in the seeing. I feel strongly that there are two worlds: one consisting of my habits, conditioning and so on, and the other is of another level that can see the whole of myself and all of its parts. I need both. The question is how to be a bridge between them. Thanks for the provocative post, and as always, like our mutual friend Lynette says: “Thanks for practicing.”

    • Thank you for your kind words Luke. Certainly “we” are not the expectation, expectation like everything moves through us and yes, again, it’s the seeing, the awaring that’s important. At times we will have expectation, but we don’t have to let it carry us away into storyline and all the rest. For matters of convenience, we have to see distinctly the mind that knows from the mind that is conditioned. But is it that we need both or that they are one?

  3. Expectations are bets we place with non-existent money. It hurts to lose a bet, yet we never seem to run out of money to keep betting with.

    Then again, if we never run out of money, perhaps losing these bets isn’t actually so bad after all. After all, even if we were to win the bet, all we would get is more of that money we don’t seem to be able to finish spending anyway. What’s the point in that? :)

    Glad to see you writing again Katherine, it’s definitely an inspiration for me to get back in the saddle myself!

    • Elsewhere you write: “Expectation’s not the enemy, clinging to the expected result rather than facing the reality and moving on from there is.” I was certainly conflating expectation and clinging in this post. In your experience how are they different?

      • I like to think of expectations as ghosts, things that only partially exist, kind of see through. For me, expectations are mental objects that pop up in response to changing circumstances: “hmm, maybe things will go this way”.

        But there’s two extremes where things like this can cause us problems. One, if we rely on our expectation as fact before it’s actually fact. Treating something that exists only partially as if it were real. This is what I mean by clinging, and it can lead to disappointment. There’s always information in the present that we’re missing, things we’re not aware of that are out of our control. Treating expectation as fact ignores this and gets us in trouble because we’re reacting to ghosts.

        On the other hand, if we think we need to do away with expectation altogether, then we’re either crippling ourselves (if we manage to avoid thinking about the future at all), or we’re lying to ourselves (because we’re still forming expectations about the future and just ignoring the fact that we’re doing so). To condition the mind to exist in a state of unknowing (rather than not knowing) is just as harmful. In this case, we’re reacting to reality as if it were a ghost. It’s like closing your eyes because you can’t look away from something. In either case, we’re still blind to whatever else is going on.

        Instead, the way I see goal as of now is that we want to hold expectations with an open hand. We need to be able to have a plan for things, to prepare for what we think the future is going to bring. I feel like to do otherwise would be to lose part of what makes us human. We just need to also do our best to prepare for other things, things we don’t want to happen, or unknown things we haven’t thought of.

        In truth, all these possibilities do exist, everything is in a constant state of flux. If we can hold expectations loosely, we achieve a state closer to the way things are actually happening in the world. I would like to my mind to reflect the world as clearly as possible, including all it’s possibilities and unknowns.

        Anyway, that’s my experience at the moment, we’ll see how long I stick to those guns! :)

  4. s*

     /  October 28, 2010

    Ah, yes. I forgot you are at your parents’ house. We just moved into my parents house with them. Me and Tim and E. It’s a cozy 2200 sq ft, and definitely brings up the entrenched patterns to which you refer. Being mindful of it and working through it are my daily yoga right now. It feels good to be doing, even when the process is pinchy and unpleasant.

    I enjoy reading your posts whenever they happen. Here’s to you!

    • S, thanks for adding the “whenever they happen” … I didn’t mention how expectation starts to shape the whole writing experience as well. Glad you’re able to make relationship practice too!

  5. Thanks for both the authenticity and clarity of this post. And welcome back to the blogosphere!

  1. Solitude and the mirror of relationship « on the precipice

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