reposted from DharmaWisdom

When you are not real with yourself, it is impossible to be authentic with others. When you are in denial of the existence of your expectations, you limit the possibility of actively participating in the truth of your life in every moment and preclude accessing the power of the love of those close to you. It can sound so hip or advanced to lay claim to being beyond expectations, but if you look closely, you will see that what you are really doing is denying yourself access to possibilities. ~ Phillip Moffit


by Phillip Moffitt


Without realizing it, your expectations may be undermining your happiness.

Sarah (not her real name) began by relating her good news: “Well, I landed that new job I applied for, and my husband and I got through the crisis I told you about.” Her voice, however, was surprisingly rueful, as if she were reporting that life was worse than before. I felt a wave of happiness for her, but before I could say so, she went on to complain about the new job and her relationship. Sarah is a participant in a weekly vipassana meditation class I conduct. We spend a lot of time in the class trying to understand how we create much of our own suffering by getting caught in an endless cycle of desire and attachment. Sarah was certainly exhibiting how suffering arises. What had recently seemed to be the key to her happiness – if only she could get the job and stop quarreling with her spouse, then life would be great – was now a source of dissatisfaction. Our discussion revealed that she repeatedly experienced being disappointed whenever she actually got what she sought. In response, she would create new expectations, and the cycle would repeat itself.

Without noticing it, you too may be suffering from the myriad ways in which expectations can undermine your life. I call it the tyranny of expectations. They plague your daily life, causing you to be irritable, disappointed, and disillusioned. Many times they lead you to say unkind words, act unskillfully, or make poor decisions. Expectations are so insidious that you can persist in maintaining them even after you have clear evidence that they are unfounded.

What is most amazing is that despite the suffering caused by your expectations, you hardly notice them most of the time. Sure, there may be a few big ones you are somewhat aware of, but even so, you only sort of notice them; you do not act to free yourself from their tyranny. Plus, there are countless smaller ones you never notice at all. It is only when you feel acute disappointment that you have any awareness of having been possessed by expectations. But for each of these moments of acute disappointment, you’ve experienced many hours of dissatisfaction, impatience, and tension that you never realized arose from your expectations.

Expectations turn up in many forms – from what we expect of ourselves to what others expect of us and we of them. You may have high, low, or even negative expectations. You also have large expectations and thousands of small expectations that arise in your life every day. Your large expectations have their own unique expression but are the result of the common strivings every human undergoes. As you learn to free yourself from these larger expectations, you can start to notice the smaller ones and not allow them to define your daily experience. You may expect that certain efforts will yield desired results, or believe you can be in control of your life, or be totally convinced that the so-called good life must have particular components. You may be enslaved by your expectations of what defines a good marriage, a good person, or success. More than likely, you expect to behave in a manner you know is right, and you expect to be treated similarly. Left unnoticed, these expectations become all-powerful. Just think of the amount of suffering – yours and the suffering of others – that comes from these unrecognized expectations; it is a call for mindfulness and for choosing not to be defined by expectations.

Free Yourself from Expectations

As I travel throughout the United States teaching meditation retreats, the yogis perk up whenever I bring up the possibility of finding freedom from expectations, for something unacknowledged is being brought into their consciousness. When I ask if there is anyone who has not suffered from the tyranny of expectations, their response is always laughter. So you can let go of any shame or inferiority you might feel because you have a lot of failed expectations.

The good news is that you do not have to continue to suffer from the tyranny of expectations. It is one of the most troublesome areas of life, yet it is also changeable. Even a little effort makes a huge difference. But first you must penetrate the nature of expectations, observe how they manifest themselves in your life, and be able to access another way of approaching the future.

Expectations are almost always the result of what in Buddhism is called “wanting mind.” This wanting mind is driven by desire, aversion, and anxiety; it creates an illusion of solidity and control in a world that is constantly changing and unfolds independently of how we believe it should. Knowing this, how do you proceed? How can you free yourself from expectations? In mindfulness meditation, the method I teach, you always start with what is true in the present moment. You use discernment to know what is true, but you do not fall into judgment, which is yet another form of expectation and one of the most tyrannical.

Look for Possibilities

One distinction is critical for you to understand if you are to work with expectations: the difference between expectations and possibilities. Expectations assume a certain result and are future- based. They actually narrow your options, retard your imagination, and blind you to possibilities. They create pressure in your life and hold your present sense of wellbeing hostage to a future that may or may not happen. Expectations create rigidity in your life and cause you to react impulsively to any perceived threat to that future you believe you deserve.

When you are controlled by your expectations, you are living a contingent life; you cannot be free in the present moment. You cannot be happy with a beautiful sunset or with a moment of warmth between you and another; instead, every experience is interpreted in the context of an expected future. Can you feel how enslaving this is to you? It would be one thing if in fact you could control the future, but is that the case? I suspect not. To deny the truth of life is a fool’s errand and is costly to your well-being.

In contrast to expectations, possibilities are based in the present moment, where you’re alive to the mystery of life. You live as fully as you can in the present moment based on your values, which reflect your preferences for the future, but you do not assume that the future will come to pass, because you realize that the future is unknown. Being open to possibilities acknowledges that what you may think you want changes with time, or that there is another future that will bring you equal or more happiness, or that the future may turn bleak, or that you may die before any future can unfold. Real joy, then, is that which is available to you right now.

Living a life that is open to possibilities is more like a request, a prayer, or an act of witnessing your faith in life. Your well-being is not contingent on the future. Your mind is open and inspired in this moment. You therefore have more access to imagination and intuition. Your mind is clear and less reactive, and you make better decisions. You respond rather than react to life as it unfolds.This ability to respond to change rather than react to it is the primary distinction I have observed between those who feel free and those who are caught in the suffering of life. You may often find yourself reacting to the behavior of others or to changes in your circumstances and never realize it is because you were expecting others or your life to be a certain way. When you react this way, you are opting not for the mind of possibility but for the mind of expectation, and you are left disappointed, hurt, lost, angry, or defeated.

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About Phillip Moffitt

At the peak of his career, former CEO and Editor-in-chief of Esquire magazine, Phillip Moffitt, traded in his worldly aspirations to explore the inner life. He subsequently founded the Life Balance Institute and now teaches vipassana meditation with an emphasis on living the dharma in daily life. Phillip is a co-guiding teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center and the author of Emotional Chaos to Clarity and Dancing with Life.