Blog Introduction

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Friday, September 2, 2011

Expectations - have you set your dial for angst or equanimity?

One of the most wonderful experiences of my life was a weekend away with half a dozen of my dearest friends for my 40th birthday. As part of this I had asked them to bring along their 'wisdoms' - I figured with a good few decades under our belts we should have gathered a few - and we shared them. One of mine was: 'disappointment is always preceded by expectation'. Have a look at your own experience of disappointment - is it true? The implication of this 'wisdom' is to check your expectations to make sure the dial is set on 'reality'.

This is easier said than done.

An expectation I've been discussing recently with some friends is that of 'life should be fair'. A member of my meditation group observed this week how the systems we are a part of in developed countries tend to set us up for that expectation: school, university, some families. In Australia we have a great deal of social mobility and almost no social class system, so it's easy to grow up thinking that if you work hard you will be offered the relevant rewards. Indeed we have legal systems that attempt to bring fairness to our society. Then you enter the big wide world and realise that our own behaviour is but one small factor in the soup of forces at play in any given situation.

I had my dial firmly planted on this one in my early years and it caused me all sorts of angst. As I entered the work force I found out pretty quickly that there is not a direct correlation between contribution and reward. There are all sorts of forces at play in determining who receives promotions, pay rises and opportunities in an organisation. My own effort and skill was just one factor. I persisted with many 'shoulds' in my world view for a good decade or so until I realised just how academic they were - how little impact they had on reality other than making me appear rigid and probably a bit negative at times.

I suspect the 'life should be fair' expectation is less pervasive in developing countries. I think about India and the caste system. I remember a story my husband told me from his travels there about a man who ran a business burning bodies in the Ganges. He was a very wealthy man from this trade but he was of the lowest caste in India so most businesses would not accept him as a customer. The good schools would not accept his children despite the fact that he could afford their fees. (He ended up sending his kids to school in America.) I would imagine if he had an expectation that life is fair, he'd be one bitter and twisted individual. The same could be said for many people in developing countries (and possibly even the 1 in 7 people in the U.S. currently living on food stamps).

The Buddha's teachings highlight three key beliefs that lead to particularly problematic expectations that cause us lots of unhappiness. I've also heard them called the 'three tragic mis-understandings'. They are:
  1. The belief that things are permanent, reliable and stable (causing us to expect that things will last and can be relied upon)
  2. The belief that material stuff and relationships can bring us complete and constant happiness causing us to expect that this, and only this, is what we'll get (e.g. if only I had this car or job or boyfriend or holiday or award or wealth or notoriety etc. etc., THEN I'd be SO happy).
  3. The belief that there is a singular, stable, enduring, independent 'me' that exists somewhere. This one causes us to expect that we will only feel and behave in certain ways no matter what and that people will always see us the way we want them to and respond to us accordingly. For more detail on this one, see the post 'Bloody Not-Self'.
Believing things are Permanent/Reliable/Stable (in Pali, 'annicha')
Intellectually most of us would probably say that we don't believe things are permanent, reliable and stable. We know living things die, relationships and people change and the best singer doesn't always win Australian Idol. However all we need to do is observe the shock experienced when someone we know dies, or the sense of grief and loss at a relationship or circle of friends changing over time, or the righteous indignation of someone else getting a promotion that we felt we had earned and we feel directly the gap between what we were expecting (this person to live - at least to a ripe old age, relationships to always be a certain way, rewards to be allocated reliably according to contribution) and what actually happened. This can even be felt on a small scale with small things, for example when loved toys break or when someone who we look to for support is not there for us when we want them to be.

I read a quote from some Buddhist monk which said 'anything can happen any time' which is probably an expectation much closer to the 'reality' end of the dial. Sure, it's often reasonable to expect a bit of a pattern based on the past (e.g. a reliable employee continuing to be so) but do we expect 'a bit of a pattern that shows up a fair bit of the time given certain conditions' or do we expect reliability? When we feel really disappointed I suspect we've been expecting reliability. We say we feel 'let down'....from what? From our expectations. I think most of us expect that the way we've arranged our lives will be the same tomorrow as it was today. We don't turn the knowledge of impermanence/ unreliability/instability into expectations of what might our at any time. This causes us great shock and angst when the truth of impermanence/unreliability/instability shows up in our lives.

Accepting that things aren't reliable or stable doesn't mean we don't try and build better legal systems that protect justice or better organisations that more transparently reward valuable contributions. It means that our starting point is an acceptance that what is, the moment.... and working from there. As opposed to resisting the truth of the situation you're in and wasting a whole bunch of energy reacting and being outraged that things aren't fair, stable, reliable or lasting. If we integrate these truths into our expectations of life, it's a whole lot easier to 'accept and respond' rather than 'resist and react'.

Believing happiness is intrinsic to stuff and relationships
We don't have to look too hard to see the truth of this one. Think about your life right now: is there anything you are really wanting? If so, what is the vision of how happy life will be when you get it? Try an experiment: write down a vivid description of how happy you think you'll be when you get this thing you want so much. Then when you get it (which of course you may or may not do apropos the previous point) once you've experienced it for a while, go back and assess the truth of that claim. You'll probably find it's somewhere between partly true and false.

Sometimes it's the case that things we want do make us a bit happier in some way. For example, earning enough money to not be worried about paying the bills will probably remove certain stresses in life and probably lead to a bit more happiness. However in thinking about what it will be like when we get that better paying job, do we think: 'I'll not have the stress of scarcity which will be nice but it will also mean there'll be more room for my other stressors to get a look-in', or 'my brother will start asking me for money'? No, we tend to think 'it'll be SO good when I'm earning more' and build up a picture of happiness and joy that will envelop our life when this thing happens. Accordingly, we can get very stressey and intense about getting this 'thing'.

So it's not that the things we want don't bring us joy or happiness. It's that they bring us joy and happiness........ sometimes........and they also bring us lots of other things, other challenges, frustrations and difficulties. The problem is that our mental movie (that sets our expectations), only includes the good bits. So we spend the whole time thinking about the good bits of the promotion we are desperate for: the nicer office, the ability to do things the way we think they should be done, the pay packet, the respect that will come when you hand out your business card or meet people at a social outing and they ask what you do for a living and how you'll feel at the school reunion. What sits on the editing suite floor is the bit where you have little time for your family and friends, you are having to spend much more time playing politics and dealing with 'people-issues', and the bits of the weekend where you don't have to work you spend sleeping and recuperating in time for Monday. Seeing this more accurately would lead to less disappointment when we do or don't get that promotion, and less desperation and angst in the lead up to it.

I remember a chap I used to work with. He was a pretty senior guy in the company and had earned a lot of money through being a great salesman. One day he bought himself a 5 series BMW (these cost a little short of $100,000). Knowing him I think his mental movie had the BMW bringing him respect and admiration from the people around him. In reality, he was so desperate for these things that not a day went by where he neglected to drop in to conversation something about his new 5 series BMW. It didn't take too long before it became a running joke among his staff who were scoffing at him behind his back. That wasn't part of the movie, nor was his own desperation to be seen as a success - that too was left on the editing suite floor. Clearly happiness is not intrinsic to 5 series BMWs.

This is also very true with relationships. We might think that if we get ourselves some good friends that we'll be happy. The movie might have us always doing things together, laughing, supporting each other when we are going through difficulties and generally feeling warm and connected. The reality of relationships of any depth is that there are usually these things.....and usually some tensions too. Wherever there is intimacy there is also usually at least some tension. Close friends aren't always there for you when you want their support - they have their own lives and their own stuff to deal with. Really good friends will often challenge you and give you feedback that isn't always flattering - that's not often part of the movie. They might occasionally react badly to things you say and do, even when you didn't intend anything bad - that's doesn't often make it to the 'good friends will make me happy' movie. We know from research in social psychology that social connectedness does improve happiness overall. But it also brings us all sorts of challenges - they just don't ask that question in happiness surveys.

Setting the dial to reality
So what if we were to start seeing things more accurately and setting our expectations dial accordingly? What if we were to see friends as a source of enjoyment, intimacy, learning and difficulty? What if were to see marriage as a great classroom for learning about ourselves and developing as a person rather than as the 'happily ever after' that we often start with? How about we see expensive cars as sources of pleasure as well as sources of division from others (as all status symbols are) and burdens that require protecting and expensive maintenance? How about we see next week, next month, next year as probably including my family in tact but maybe not? How about we think of our future with our employer as maybe including that promotion and maybe not. And can we see that promotion as making us happier in some ways and also bringing us difficulty? Can we stop leaving the unpleasant bits on the editing suite floor and make our movies, which set our expectations, a closer match to reality?

So is long lasting, deep happiness possible?
While it's only a small portion of the population who seem to achieve this, they show that the answer is yes. The Buddha essentially said that this happiness arises naturally when we get acquainted with the way experience really works, we become very present to it, and we stop desperately trying to craft our life to bring us happiness through craving for things to be a certain way (due to the three tragic misunderstandings).  I'm certainly no Buddha but one thing I've noticed is that when I'm not striving, needing, wanting, and when I'm really present in my current experience, there is an inexplicable joy that arises for no good reason. It's not dependent on stuff out there in the world - only on my inner world - and this is what the Buddha's teachings are all about.

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