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)
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.”