Let’s talk a little bit about having goals and ambitions without expectations.
We must start with the realization that just because we have a goal, doesn’t mean we can actually make that happen. We don’t actually control the outcome of life, even if it seems we do. The goal only provides an illusion of control.
For example, I might have a goal to run a marathon — which seems under my control, because I decide whether I should go out for a training run. But lots of factors can get in the way of this desired outcome: I might get injured, lose passion for the goal, get sick, have a death in the family, have a loved one who needs my care get sick, get fired from my job, not wake up for training runs, not find the discipline to get up for early runs, have opposition from my spouse, have a blizzard that interferes with my training, have my house crushed by a hurricane, and so forth.
In these cases, the outcome wasn’t controlled by me, and in fact most of our goals are not completely in our control.
So we don’t really control the outcome of our goals … but we can control our intention. That means I can go out for a run with the intention of making my body healthy, being mindful during the run, enjoying the movement and the outdoors, and being compassionate with myself. These intentions can help us go for a daily run, but if the outcome isn’t what we want (run every day, run faster, run a marathon), we can recognize that we don’t control that completely.
All we can do is show up with the right intentions. So the key to achieving is showing up every day with the right intention — the outcome won’t be what we expected, but I believe it’ll be something great.
Curiosity About What Will Happen, Not Attachment to a Specific Outcome
This takes a lot of practice, but you get better at it as you practice. Noticing the expectations is the most important first step, then loosening the attachment to these expectations and admitting that we can’t actually make these expectations come true are the next steps. Once we admit this to ourselves, we can say, “Well, if I don’t actually know what will happen, is that bad? What if I go into this activity with a ‘let’s see what happens’ attitude?”
This turns out to be freeing, because you don’t have to make it happen a certain way. You can let go of the responsibility of a certain outcome, and just put in the best effort. Enjoy the process. Be mindful as you make the effort. The outcome will be good no matter what, but it might not be what you expected. And that’s a good thing.
If you’re not good at this at first, don’t worry — no one is. We’ve had years and years of training our mind to believe we can make certain outcomes happen, so retraining our mind takes lots and lots of practice. Don’t worry about whether you get there this month — that’s an outcome. Instead, just go into the practice with the right intention.
Where Expectations Come From
Where do expectations come from? If we see, notice, and throw them in the ocean — how do we stop making more? Or should we rely on being able to handle them when they occur and tossing them in to the sea?
Expectations are just a mental habit from years of practice. The habit is a defensive mechanism, to help us try to control the chaotic life (and our chaotic selves) even if they are actually uncontrollable. That’s scary, to think that we don’t really have control.
The only way out of this cycle (form expectation – let it go – form it again) is to learn to trust that you don’t need this defensive mechanism. That means practice letting go, and see what happens. See that you’ll be OK even if you don’t control outcomes. This takes lots of practice, because trust doesn’t happen immediately. Don’t worry, you’ll be OK.
Tossing Out Expectations When You’re Aware of Them
Well, you’re aware of their presence — that’s great progress! Letting go isn’t easy, because we so desperately think we need these expectations. We don’t want to let go of them — we think they are important! As if the imaginary fantasies we’ve built up are crucial to doing anything.
Recognize this expectation you’ve noticed is a complete illusion. You want yourself to be disciplined? That’s not true at all — it’s a fantasy. You want your kids to behave perfectly? Keep dreaming! You want your body to be the perfect cover model’s body? Delusions are so nice, aren’t they?
Instead, let go of these imaginary castles we’ve built. Let them float away, because they came from nowhere and we don’t need them. Try to see things as they are, without the fantasies.
See your self as not “disciplined” but good-hearted. You want to be happy. You are imperfect. Those are all beautiful things, exactly as you are.
See your kids (or other loved ones) as they are — good-hearted. They want to be happy, as you do. They are imperfect. Beautiful, exactly as they are, without the need of your fantasies.
If you can see things as they are, now try to take action, in the moment, seeing things as they are for as long as they can. See if you can do this for a minute or two. See if you’re OK even acting without fantasies.
This is the practice. You’ll fail a lot. That’s perfectly OK too.
The Worry of Lowering Your Standards
Often as we work with expectations, we can feel like not having expectations is unrealistic and lowers our standards, and we can find it difficult to resolve the tension between letting go of expectations and passivity.
Expectations are unrealistic. They are not reality — they are imaginary. Standards, which you might believe are high, are another name for these imaginary expectations. Where do standards come from? Our imaginations, not reality. Standards are our way of trying to get reality to match up with our fantasies of what we want reality to be. Our way of trying to control reality.
It would be nice if we could get life, ourselves, and everyone else around us to meet our standards, it really would. This has never, ever happened in the history of humanity. Even God (if you believe in the Western God, which I don’t) had standards for humans and they didn’t meet his standards. You can be omnipotent and still not get people to meet your standards!
So. Standards and expectations will never, ever be met as you’d like. This is a formula for unhappiness and frustration. In fact, it’s the root cause of all of our unhappiness, irritation, anger, frustration, suffering. All of it.
I’m offering you a choice — keep your high standards and expectations and be unhappy and angry. Or let go of them and find peace. When you realize this is the choice, you realize it’s important to do this practice we’ve been working on.