Have you ever had a day that went exactly as you wanted it to go? Everything that could go well, did, everyone was kind and polite to you, and nothing out of the ordinary happened?
Well, if you are like most of us, you may have had a day like that, once. Or twice. But most days, things don’t go as we plan. Even where I am now, at a Zen meditation center, our meditation leader didn’t show up for meditation, leaving first time guests unsure as to how to sit and no one to invite the bell. As a regular guest, it didn’t bother me, but I could tell the organizers were thrown off.
Why do we expect normal?
My sister and I both have four kids. We often commiserate about the ups and downs and the challenges of families. One day, my sister told me a particularly grueling story about her teenager and then said, “I’m not sure why we expect it to be any different. Why don’t we just expect things to be weird, instead of expecting them to be normal?” And while she doesn’t practice meditation, my sister’s words could easily have come from a Zen Master. Letting go of expectations can reduce a lot of our self-inflicted suffering.
Even after years of being disappointed and angry when our days don’t go as planned, many of us still expect that today will be the day. We still get surprised when the meditation leader doesn’t show up, the dog snaps at an old friend, or our teenager comes home stoned. Instead of expecting the unexpected, we continue to expect the expected.
“When you realize you are creating expectations or are caught in them, you see them for the suffering they represent and you just start over in that very moment, as best as you are able.” — Phillip Moffitt, The Tyranny of Expectations
What if, instead of expecting normal days, we expect weird ones?
We still make plans. But we wake up knowing that today will be a weird day. Something will happen that will throw a wrench — small or large — into our plans. Living without expectations sets us up for gratitude rather than frustration. When things do work out as planned, we celebrate our rare good fortune! When they don’t, we may feel sad or hurt by what transpired, but we aren’t shocked or angry. As I learned in Al-Anon, “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.”
In my conversation with my sister, we marveled at how silly we are to continue to expect things to turn out as we had imagined them. And yet, how difficult it is to break this habit. It’s not easy to allow ourselves to roll with the moment as it arises, which is why yoga and mindfulness are valuable practices to help us break the expectation habit and learn to live with what is.
“Rather than littering each changing moment with the things that have happened or are going to happen or may happen, we deal with what is.” — Bernie Glassman, Infinite Circle
Transforming the expectation habit
In order to transform our expectation habit, we practice being with whatever is arising in each moment. We can do this on a meditation cushion or while walking the dogs, by simply noticing that even when things don’t go the way we wanted them to, we are still OK. Over time, we learn that we can handle even the weirdest of days. The actor Christopher Reeve, who I’m sure was not expecting to be thrown off his horse and sustain paralyzing injuries, says, “Anything can happen to anyone…you can find a new lease on life- more meaning than you though possible in simple things…Let go. Live in the moment. Go forward.”
If everything in our lives happened according to our plan, life would be pretty boring. Since it rarely does, we can choose to live with rigid expectations, setting ourselves up for disappointment and suffering, or we can open up and become curious about what might happen in the very next moment. Only one thing is certain: whatever happens is guaranteed to be weird.