Today I am sitting in a chair getting treatment for leukemia. The prognosis is very good, but the path is more complicated than I had expected. This leads me to think about the human experience of expectations. Let’s face it, sometimes your map for life just doesn’t match life itself. It seems to me that much of the emotional pain in our lives is a result of attachment to our expectations about how things are supposed to be.
We want people to behave a certain way (or not behave in a certain way). We want things to be a certain way (or not be a certain way). It is completely normal to have expectations. Holding on too tightly to expectations can create tunnel vision that keeps us from seeing the miraculous flow of life and the endless array of possibilities contained in every moment.
My medical situation has put me in contact with an amazing number of kind, talented, and thoughtful people. It has reminded me of how complex, unpredictable, and outside my control the universe really is. And it has served as a reminder of what is most important – love, family, and being supportive of fellow human beings as we all work through the challenges of life.
One of my favorite teachers once told a group of us that “things are always exactly as they are supposed to be.” This is a bold statement. When she was asked how she could possibly know that, she responded, “because if things were supposed to be another way, that’s how they would be.” The acknowledgment that life simply is how life is in this moment creates firm ground for working with it.
Expectations are a phenomenon of having a human brain – the result of gossip between neurons. Expectations are part of the experience of life, not the truth of how things are supposed to be. We cannot live a life absent of expectations, but we can be aware that these expectations are internally created. We can choose to let go of them a bit sooner when that is most helpful. We can even bring humor to expectations as they arise within us and compassion to our upset when they don’t match with life as it is.
Whether we are getting chemotherapy or we are stuck in traffic, the practice is the same. We begin by intentionally bringing awareness and acceptance (mindfulness) to the experience of having expectations. We also bring awareness and acceptance to what is actually happening. We can step back and observe the tightening in our bodies and the racing in our minds that occur when life and our expectations appear to be in conflict.
If we have a daily practice of mindfulness — maybe five minutes at the beginning and/or end of each day, then we are more prepared to practice when our expectations are unmet. As Bruce Lee states “Under duress, we do not rise to our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
When we are being mindful, then we have a choice – shall we insist that life should be the way we want it to be – or will we take a deep breath and work with life as it is? Fortunately, there are unlimited opportunities to practice this choice everyday.