let go of expectations

Updated On — 9th Dec, 2022

 

As we let go of expectations in our mindfulness practice, it generalizes in our life-we are more present and responsive, and less reactive.

 

Some folks come to meditation seeking answers. When I redirect them to just watch what happens in their meditation practice without expectation or judgment, it seems to add to their anxiety. They don’t get it and stop meditating.

Buddhist practice is not so much about answering the so-called big questions of life and death, but rather about dissolving the angst around the questions themselves.

mindfulness is about appreciating the present moment

Sure, when you try out something new, you have some expectations of what it will do for you. But meditation is really about seeing what’s happening in the present moment. When we look through the lens of expectation, it limits our ability to see what is actually happening.

let go of expectations like a boat at rest-painting by Arthur Wesley Dow
let go of expectations like a boat at rest

All kinds of wonderful things may actually happen in your meditation practice, but we don’t see them because we’re so focused on our small band of expectation, of what’s supposed to happen, or what we want to happen, or what we believe should happen.

recognize expectations in real time

One critical part of this practice is to see expectations in real time: to recognize them and gauge how “sticky” they are when we meditate.

As we let go of expectations in our practice, it generalizes in our life-we are more present and responsive, and less reactive. We can’t live without expectations, but maybe we can re-frame this to expect the unexpected.

I love William Stafford’s poem, where he says:

Yes It could happen any time,

tornado, earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.

Or sunshine, love, salvation. It could, you know. That’s why we wake

and look out — no guarantees

in this life. But some bonuses, like morning,

like right now, like noon,

like evening.

If you let go of expectations, more ease comes into your mind.

It’s a kind of openness and relaxation, a willingness to receive into your own awareness what is actually happening. Then we can decide what to do about it or how to respond to it.

There is a Zen story I love that teaches us something about this:

Once upon a time, a Zen teacher was returning to his temple in the mountains after a long walk. His assistant asked,
“What have you been up to?”
“I’ve been strolling about in the hills, strolling about in the spring grasses,”replied the teacher.
“How was it?” asked the assistant.
“I went out following the scented grass, and came back chasing falling flowers.”

 

Ah, simplicity!

This is not a meditation you can do wrong. You can’t stroll the wrong way in the hills.

trust the process

We just trust the process. We show up and be mindful of what is, and simply be with what is happening as it’s happening, rather than expecting anything in particular.

Let your heart make up its own mind about experience, about life.

let go of expectations and remain spacious and free-windswept sands by William Merritt Chase
let go of expectations and remain spacious and free-Wind Swept Sands by William Merritt Chase

loosening the grip

In letting go of our expectations we loosen our grip. And loosening our grip, as the Buddha never tired of saying, is the way to happiness.

I went out, following the scented grass, and came back chasing falling flowers.

I have another favorite Zen thing. This is from the third Zen ancestor of China. He says,

The great way is exceedingly simple for those who cease to cherish opinions.

Now, he’s not saying, “Don’t have opinions,” because opinions come with the territory of being human. We can’t help but have opinions. But we don’t have to cherish them, and we don’t have to believe that our opinions are the truth. Sometimes they are far off the mark.

soften the hold of opinions

Letting go of expectations and softening our hold on our precious opinions allows a spaciousness in our very being. A spaciousness where everything belongs. A spaciousness where curiosity and openness are the coins of the realm.

A spaciousness, by the way, at the heart of coincidentia oppositorum, the neo-platonic term Mircea Eliade called “the mystical pattern”–a revelation of the sameness of things previously believed to be different.

In psychological terms, I love Carl Jung’s phrasing:

Emotional maturity is not about resolving the paradoxes and the conflicts, but growing large enough to contain it all.

I can’t think of a better description of our simple mindfulness practice.

 


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About Tom Davidson-Marx

Former Buddhist monk, now father of two and full time registered nurse, my passion is sharing what I have learned from a life-long love, study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings. Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “let go of expectations”

  1. Thank you for this Uncle Tom! I love your weekly mindfulness reminders and thought. It makes my day to read 🙂
    The letting go of expectation came up earlier in conversation this week twice already, looks like the universe is sending me some messages.

    Reply
    • Thanks Natalia. Sorry I missed this comment when it first came in. I think this is a “thing” with the universe. You are probably doing right by listening! Be well.

      Reply

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