Expect the Unexpected

Rob Nairn uses the term ‘hidden reefs’ when discussing some of the obstacles that we can stumble upon while meditating. In particular, he speaks about the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) thought pattern of expectation.

In my late teens, I can remember my mother getting upset with me, time and time again, when I did not meet her expectations: my room was a mess; I went out, rather than stayed in; I called my grandmother the day AFTER her birthday. Whenever my mother would get mad or frustrated, I would tell her to stop placing expectations on me or she will always be disappointed. I used to revel in this response and my almost righteous smugness.

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Funnily enough (or quite typically), I somehow didn’t embody this lesson myself. I was and still am placing expectation without discretion and often without any awareness of it. And you know what? It leads to suffering. However, as Rob explains, it almost cannot be helped. Expectation is tricky as it mostly plays out in a semi-conscious level of mind (part unconscious and part subliminal) and it can go undetected.

In our practice, we can often meet expectation in the form of anger or frustration. Perhaps, our mind has been quite busy and our whole sit has been one distracted moment after another. Or perhaps, we find ourselves reactive as we go about our day, and struggling in the messiness of disappointment. We might ask ourselves ‘Why am I practicing meditation if I am still meeting this fight?’

However, this is exactly where our mindfulness practice can help transform our experiences. If we set the intention to start to notice expectation in our practice, as well as in our daily life, we will begin to know what we are dealing with and we can move towards working more skilfully with the emotional responses to expectation. If we can start to move toward living with a beginner’s mind with a more open and alert approach, we will be more free to really experience life without judgment.

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So, this week’s challenge is to see if we can set the intention to let go of expectation. We might start with our sitting practice. Perhaps we could begin each practice with a quiet statement of ‘It doesn’t matter how this sit goes, whatever arises is OK’ and really see if we can allow our experience to just be. Or, maybe we might try to check in with ourselves to see if there are any large or subtle expectations present before we go into a meeting, or take ourselves to a movie, or when reading a book. And then seeing if we can leave these expectations at the door. How does this affect our experience?

As Rob says “[u]ntil we understand the existence, the nature, and the effect of [expectation], we will always stop there. We will run up against it but we won’t know what stopped us. We’ll just know we’ve hit something” (1999, p.42).

However, through training our mind to pick up on expectation, we can move towards reducing the levels of suffering in our lives and living with a more free and open mind. And for me, this is a great motivation to come back to, time and time again.

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