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A significant source of emotional chaos in anyone’s life is decision making. No doubt you have been faced with many decisions in your life and know full well how difficult it can be, at times, to choose between alternatives. The reason you may struggle with making up your mind is that you haven’t yet developed skillful means for making decisions. Without a clear path for making decisions, you can easily lose your direction as you try to resolve issues in your life. You can end up totally avoiding a decision that needs to be made; you can freeze out of fear of making the wrong decision; you can become distracted by factors that are irrelevant to your decision; and, of course, you can make poor decisions. Once you lose your way, your mind becomes fuzzy and your willpower weakens, which leads to a lot of second- guessing about your decisions afterward. The consequence of all this emotional chaos is that often you are not very effective in implementing your decisions once you finally make them. The good news is that you can develop a conscious, deliberate approach to making decisions (both large and small), which will give you greater clarity in resolving and implementing your choices.
Do You Really Have a Decision to Make?
I often counsel students seeking help with making various life choices. The most common decisions they present are about whether to take a new job, have a baby, leave a marriage, take an ethical stand against some wrongdoing, undergo a medical procedure, or make a life change in order to dedicate more time to their spiritual journey. The two questions they most often ask may well apply to you: “How do I clarify my thinking when it is muddled by the stress of deciding?” and “How do I stay in touch with my deepest values when I’m feeling anxious?”
Before you can begin to make a wise decision, you first need to be real with yourself about the situation: is there a genuine decision to be made, or are you just postponing the inevitable? For example, one student, Gloria, came to me for advice about her job, saying she was thinking about quitting. As I questioned her, Gloria realized that her choice between staying in the job and leaving was not real. In fact, she was at such odds with her supervisor that there was almost no chance of her staying. Meanwhile her self-confidence was being destroyed. She came to understand that believing she had a decision to make was actually a way of avoiding the anxiety and fear of job hunting. By thinking she had a choice, and getting stuck on it, she was denying herself the chance to proactively seek new employment. Gloria was ultimately able to transform her avoidance into an active decision, and she now has a job in which she is supported and stimulated.
Another student, Alicia, also wanted advice about changing her life, but she was in a very different situation and faced a genuine decision. Alicia’s company had just hired a new president, who valued Alicia’s abilities and wanted her to take on more responsibility. But Alicia felt burned out and wanted more free time in order to explore her spiritual life. The problem was that she wasn’t sure she could afford to quit and knew that if she changed her mind later she might not find such a great opportunity again. “Should I just hang in there a few more years, despite how I feel, or should I take the plunge, even if I regret it later?” she asked me plaintively. After many months of deliberation, Alicia decided to leave her high-profile job and now works for a nonprofit organization with a flexible schedule that allows her to pursue her spiritual interests.
Like Alicia, you too probably experience suffering in the form of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty when facing a genuine decision. However, it is possible to relieve the mental suffering you feel in connection with decision making by applying mindfulness.
Mindful Decision Making
Although I teach a number of skills to employ in decision making, they all rely on becoming ever more mindful of what is happening in your body, mind, and heart when you are making a decision. Mindfulness allows you to know what’s true for you now, keeps you focused in the moment, allows you to stay real with yourself, and helps you overcome the many emotional and psychological issues that may arise when you are dealing with a complex decision. I call this approach mindful decision making.
Mindful decision making enables you to go beneath the surface level of your moment-to-moment life experience, which is clouded with emotions, to see the truth of what is happening. In daily life mindfulness helps you see clearly what needs to be done, what you are capable of doing, and how it relates to the larger truths of life. Applying mindfulness to decision making leads to clearer thinking and to staying connected to your core values, which is crucial to your peace of mind. There are three stages in the mindful-decision-making process that I instruct students to repeat until a clear decision emerges. I consider these three stages to be the basis for all skillful decision making, and they will serve you in any situation, including when you are participating in a group decision. If you learn to be skillful in making your own decisions, you will automatically become more skilled at facilitating group decisions.
Stage One: Come into the Present Moment
When faced with making a decision, first direct your attention to the felt experience of this particular decision. How does it feel in your body right now? Do you feel pressure? Anxiety? Does your stomach hurt, or do your eyes burn? Do you feel as though you’ve left your body? Often you don’t notice what’s really going on and miss the body’s signals telling you what to do. By feeling the decision in your body, you connect with your intuition.
Oftentimes there is a vital piece of knowledge about the decision that your mind has not tuned in to, but your body knows and is trying to tell you. For instance, one woman who came to me for an interview during a meditation retreat told me that she had said yes to a marriage proposal and thought it would be great but also said that she felt a “strange tension” in her body whenever she was with her fiancé. As she stayed with the feeling in her body, she was shocked to discover that she didn’t trust her fiancé at all! After she left the retreat, she called off the wedding.
Next start to name the actual decision you are making, as best you’re able, which will help bring it into focus. At first you may not be able to clearly articulate what the decision is. Other times you will be able to name it right away, but then change that description over time, especially if it’s a big decision. For example, if you are weighing whether or not to stay in your current job, you may initially think, “I don’t want to stay in this job because there’s too much pressure,” then a week later think, “No, I don’t want to stay in the job because I don’t like my boss very much.” Another week goes by, and you realize, “Actually, I don’t like the values that are involved in this type of work.” By staying mindful of the decision over a period of weeks, you discover that your actual decision is whether or not you can work for a company when you are at odds with its values. You are able to see that it was the company’s values that led to the creation of an unlikable boss and unbearable pressure. Therefore, even if the boss left or the pressure eased, your unhappiness would not go away.
Naming may be the single most useful skill you can develop for decision making. By naming the question, you clarify it to yourself. You may be surprised at how hard it is for you to correctly name the decision in highly charged situations—no wonder you are struggling with clarity around it! I urge you to practice naming the decision even when it seems obvious what the decision is and even if you know what you are going to decide.
The act of naming alone can help release some of the tension around making a decision. One Life Balance client was offered a major job with the federal government and had spent many hours agonizing over whether to accept it but was unable to decide. As we explored his dilemma, it turned out that he did not have a question about the job—he definitely wanted it—but taking the job meant that he had to give up his current lifestyle, which he was very attached to. He had been asking himself the wrong question. His decision was not whether to take this job, but whether he was willing to take any job that would require him to change his way of life. Naming the correct decision led him into a deep exploration of what he wanted the remaining years of his life to be about. Many valuable insights arose from this process for him. He recently told me that he now helps other leaders name the decisions that they are facing in their organizations.
Another important step in being mindful of a decision is to notice if you’re obsessing over the decision instead of engaging in making it. If you are replaying the same thoughts over and over in your head, this is often a sign that you’re avoiding making the decision. Your obsessive thinking means you are focusing on your fear of not getting it right rather than focusing on the decision. When you become mindful that you’re just recycling your same old anxious thoughts about the decision, redirect your mind elsewhere. Often just noticing obsessive thinking and naming it will help you to stop obsessing.
Stage Two: Clarify through Investigation
After becoming present to your decision, the next step is to clarify the decision through investigation. First consider the scale of the consequences of the decision. There may be times when the long-term effect of a decision is minimal and you’re getting distraught over something that’s really not all that important. Or maybe it’s not a genuinely hard decision; you just don’t want to face it, and that’s creating stress. Also, be realistic about the deadline for when the decision needs to be made. Are you becoming stressed about a decision that doesn’t have to be made for a long time?
One Life Balance client kept bringing up a purchase decision in session after session, so I finally asked her how much money was involved in making this decision. I was surprised when she said fifteen hundred dollars. I pointed out that she made that much money in two days of work, therefore her anxiety about the decision could not possibly be related to money. As soon as I said this, her anxiety immediately disappeared. She then made the decision with ease. So, what was her real issue? My guess is that she was concerned what other people would think if she made the wrong decision, and more important, she couldn’t admit to herself that she lacked the confidence to make the decision. She had such a strong need to do everything right that it was a self-limiting attitude and caused her to exaggerate the import of her decision—it was just an opportunity for her to practice mindful decision making.
You learn how to make a right decision by making wrong decisions, and what matters most is that you stay mindful during and after the decision-making process so that you learn from the decision. If you are mindful in this manner, you will always receive a meaningful return from making a wrong decision, and sometimes it may be even more valuable than if you had made a better decision.
The next step in clarifying your decision is to ask, “What kind of decision is this?” (See “Five Kinds of Decisions”.) More than likely, you don’t realize the nature of the decision you’re making—you just experience it as pressure. Identifying what kind of decision it is can in many instances immediately ease your mental suffering or make the best choice obvious. For example, let’s say you’re trying to choose between two options that you’re neutral about, such as moving to a new home, which your spouse would like to do, or staying where you are. You may well be getting tied up in knots because you think you’re supposed to care a lot about the decision and be passionate about one of the choices. In fact, it’s not that big a deal to you, so you relax and just let the decision go either way. But beware of telling yourself that you don’t care when in fact you are avoiding the pressure and hard work of having to make a decision. Likewise, avoid saying to yourself, “Since my partner cares so much, I will just ignore what I care about and will just go along with whatever he wants.” Both of these situations represent quitting on yourself and do not work out well in the long run. It’s okay to allow someone else’s preference to count more, but it is not wise to deny the truth of your own feelings.
You will also benefit by clarifying how others who are involved in the decision feel. Oftentimes, when you’re making a decision that affects other people whom you really care about, you can become enmeshed in their feelings without realizing it. Or you may project what you think they want, which clouds your thinking. Simply restating the decision without a view to pleasing anyone else can help you discover what’s true for you. One student took a job she wasn’t all that thrilled about because every single person close to her kept telling her that she could not refuse such a great opportunity. Did she ever regret it!
It may seem obvious, but an important step in clarifying a decision is to determine whether or not you have all the information you need to make the choice. It’s surprising how often people don’t make the effort to gather all the information they need or don’t organize the information in a way that facilitates making a decision. If you’re prone to either tactic, it could mean that you’re avoiding making the decision (or you may have developed lazy habits regarding decision making). Sometimes you discover that you are postponing a decision by claiming you need more information when in fact you don’t, or you find that it isn’t possible to obtain more information; therefore you just need to go ahead and decide.
As you continue your investigation, ask yourself, “Why is this decision so sticky for me?” Your struggle with the decision may have to do with factors other than the question at hand. For instance, maybe you can’t decide which house to buy because your real decision is whether or not you’re going to stay in your relationship, but you haven’t been willing to admit that to yourself. The decision about the house is an opportunity to face your true question, but will you? So often people don’t; they simply go along rather than face up to the decision that truly needs to be made.
If you’re facing a really difficult life decision and you can’t embrace any of the options, you may be stuck because there’s some inner change that needs to happen before you can make the decision. When I suggest to someone that they simply aren’t sufficiently resolved within themselves to make a particularly difficult outer decision, I am often met with hostility, as though I were saying they weren’t good enough. You too may feel that admitting to such a situation in your life is a sign of inadequacy, but it’s not true. It simply means that you are being called to resolve a conflict between competing priorities or to clarify some ambiguity or ambivalence you have about the direction of your life.
The final step in clarifying your decision is to restate the decision and write it down on a piece of paper, along with what you perceive the inner and outer consequences of your choices to be. Cross-check your options with your core values and ask yourself whether they are aligned. You will be much more likely to feel at ease with your decision, no matter what the outcome, if you have made a choice based on your values.
Stage Three: Surrender to the Decision
Observe whether you’re clinging to the idea of making the right decision. When you insist on a perfect outcome, you’re only deluding yourself and procrastinating. Applying mindfulness, you’ll recognize that there is no perfect outcome and that it’s impossible to know what all the consequences of your decision will be, no matter what you choose. Consciously let go of your attachment to the decision being right. You’re never going to know if you really got it right. It may be that it is the right decision for a while, but then it turns out to be wrong later; or maybe you made the wrong decision now, but it leads to making a much better one in the future.
As a further act of surrender, write down what your mind is telling you to do, then what your heart seems to want, and finally what your intuition seems to be saying. People are often surprised to discover that these three centers of knowing are in conflict and that the conflict is paralyzing them. My usual advice is to go with your heart and intuition, if they agree, but to do so utilizing the practical planning capability of the mind. One Life Balance client was trying to find someone to be the president of her company while she remained the chief executive, because she wanted to be able to spend more time away from the business that she had built. When she came to see me, she was on her second president, and he was frustrating her and making her paranoid; the first one had been a failure as well. When I asked her how she chose people for the job, she described a process that was very rational and primarily based on the candidate’s previous experience. She had not allowed her gut to tell her whom to hire or let her heart say who would be fun to work with. It was no wonder her selections failed her. She resolved that she was going to let the current president go and choose a replacement that “felt” right to her.
Before implementing your final decision, you can try it on for a few days without acting on it, to test how it feels. Oftentimes valuable insight will arise from an imagined trial run. I describe this process of living with a decision as acting as though it were true. For this active-imagination process to work effectively, you must completely step into the reality that this choice is your final decision and there is no turning back. You hold to this pretense and maybe tell a few trusted people what you’ve decided, or perhaps write something to yourself about what comes next for you, or maybe interact with someone involved in the decision as if you have made your decision but don’t tell them. After a few days of acting out your decision, the body may send you signals, or you may suddenly have a new perspective on the situation that hadn’t occurred to you before. You may also discover heaviness in your heart if the situation isn’t sitting well with you, or peacefulness if it’s feeling good. I have used this process in making a number of major decisions, and it has helped me avoid making decisions I would have regretted later.
You’re now as ready to make your decision as you possibly can be. The one thing you may not have done is to make the decision knowing that you have done so as best you are able and to surrender to living with the ramifications of the decision, whatever they may be. You will ultimately discover that it is not the decision but rather how you live it out that truly matters.
Even if the outcome of your decision is disappointing, there’s still meaning in it because you were developing throughout the process of making it. You were being genuine and acting from your core values; therefore you’ve grown. You have more confidence in your decision-making ability, and others will feel this maturity in you. The result is that you will be wiser when making future decisions and more relaxed about the whole process.
Obstacles to Implementing Your Decision
When it comes time to implement a decision, some people freeze. They can’t pull the trigger, say the words, sign the paper, or walk out the door. This may happen to you if you have trauma in your back- ground, or have lost all confidence in yourself, or the stakes of the decision exceed the limits of your nervous system. At this point you may appeal to others to make the decision for you, which is seldom a good idea, and one that undermines your ability to make decisions in the future. Or you may frantically go around asking one person after another their opinion about what you should do and waffle after hearing what each person says. I’ve only ever seen poor results from doing this.
If you happen to freeze, don’t feel ashamed or guilty; your paralysis is coming from impersonal causes and conditions. Eventually these conditions will change, and you will find the agency to act once again. In the meantime, you will have to bear the feelings of helplessness or inadequacy, so please do so with a compassionate and forgiving attitude toward that part of you that is immobilized. You are suffering enough from being in a freeze; there is no need to punish yourself further.
You can freeze up over decisions that have either small or large consequences, and it can happen when making decisions about work, relationships, or your inner life. What matters during this period of feeling immobilized is that you stay connected to your intentions and that you not abandon your goal to make a decision. If you’re really paralyzed, I recommend talking about what’s going on with someone you trust or a therapist; otherwise keep your mind state to yourself. I once worked with a young man who froze on the day of his wedding. It created quite a drama. But once I helped him feel that he could say no, he was able to unfreeze and say yes.
One last piece of advice: Making difficult decisions is hard work and there is tremendous uncertainty in it. It can be physically as well as mentally exhausting and can overload your nervous system. Therefore, when you are dealing with a decision, it is critical that you cultivate a nonjudgmental, forgiving, and kind attitude toward yourself throughout the process. Not only does such an attitude provide the calm space necessary for making the decision, it ripens these qualities, which are crucial for a meaningful and joyful life, within you.
You may be interested in reading “Five Kinds of Decisions” which you can find here.
Starting a Mindfulness Meditation Practice
Mindfulness meditation builds your capacity to be mindful in daily life. As you practice mindfulness meditation, you develop the habit of being present in all moments of your life. Mindfulness meditation practice also creates a safe place for you to get to know your mind.
Start by finding a comfortable place to sit in a chair or on a cushion. Set a kitchen timer or alarm clock to go off in twenty minutes. Over time, you may want to increase the length of your meditation.
Feel your body sitting on the chair or the cushion and remember that your intention is to stay present in your body and mind.
Next notice any places where there is tension in your body. Then relax the muscles in your shoulders and face, and take a few deep breaths.
Now turn your full attention to your breath. It will be your anchor for staying mindful from moment to moment.
You may feel the breath in your abdomen, chest, or nostrils or as a wavelike motion passing through your whole body. Of these sensations, choose the one that is easiest for you to notice, and continue to focus your attention on it.
You will quickly discover that your mind wants to wander to other bodily sensations and to many different kinds of thoughts. Each time you discover that your mind has strayed, pause for a moment and just notice where it went. Then gently but firmly place your attention back on your breath. If it helps you to stay present, you can count your breaths, starting with the inhale as ten, the exhale as nine, and so on down to one. If you get lost while you’re counting, just start over. Do not judge yourself.
As you’re following your breath notice as many of its characteristics as you can. Is this particular breath long or short, fast or slow, heavy or light, shallow or deep? Don’t attempt to control your breath, and don’t get upset with yourself if you do!
If you discover that your mind is obsessing about planning your day, or recalling a difficult conversation, etc., then repeatedly say to yourself, “planning, planning” or “remembering, remembering.” Eventually your mind will be willing to come back to the breath. If a strong emotion comes up, don’t be alarmed. Be patient and kind to yourself as you feel the effect the emotion has on your body and your mind.
In a home meditation practice, you “take what you get,” so don’t expect it to be necessarily calming or restful. Most of the time the mind will not be very concentrated but know that you are learning to stay present in your experience, no matter what it is.
Ten Values Associated with Well-Being
Just as we have outer priorities in our lives that guide us in our decision-making and setting goals, we have inner priorities, too. The values that we live by can be considered our inner priorities and they guide us in how we implement our outer priorities, the areas of our lives to which we choose to devote time. In my experience, people who pay attention to the inner, can be more effective in the outer realm.
In our daily practice of refraining from thoughts, words, and actions that cause suffering, we can find support in adopting a commitment to core values that nurture and deepen our sense of internal and physical well-being. Here are ten values I find particularly beneficial to developing an enduring sense of well-being.
Be truthful in what you say (wise speech) and speak with wise compassion.
This does not mean that you are always “nice” but that when you have something difficult to say to someone, you express it with as much kindness as possible.
Be genuine and authentic. We so often protect the “false pride” of the ego or else “package ourselves” for acceptance, approval, or popularity and this is not a winning strategy for well-being. Of course, we use common sense in our words and actions in regard to safety and being effective, and we maintain boundaries and dignity, but we do not employ pretend words and actions to make our way in the world. When you feel authentic to yourself, you are most empowered to genuinely affect people and situations that you can affect, and to accept those situations when you simply cannot affect what happens.
Be kind in all that you do and say. Kindness is not contingent on outer circumstances, thus even if you have to be firm with someone or disappoint them, you can still act with the greatest kindness possible. Do not confuse kindness with “niceness” a social interaction artifact, which has positive attributes and can be sincere or not, but is often not genuinely kind.
Be compassionate to those who are in pain and/or experiencing difficulty. Compassion is contingent on what’s happening.
Act and make choices in terms of relatedness. Know that you are part of something larger. For example, when you are driving in heavy traffic, know that you are part of the traffic and not separate from it. Or, in the workplace, maintain an awareness that you are dependent on others and others are dependent on you. Having a sense of your connection to others breaks the aloneness that’s part of our existential quandary as human beings.
Honor your own creativity. Pay attention to what you care about and align your outer priorities accordingly. Honoring yourself can look like not doing work that you hate, not staying in a situation where you do not share the values of the people around you, or deciding against doing something because it’s in conflict with your inner values.
7. Life Balance
Maintain a personalized life balance such that you primarily spend time on areas you care about. This requires that you know what matters to you and that you be absolutely honest as to how you are spending your time and life energy. Your time and your life energy are two separate items. Time is easily understood; life energy is your inner engine and is independent of time such that even a small amount of time doing something that is somehow at odds with your heart can greatly drain your life energy, whereas spending a lot of time doing something that you sincerely care about may drain very little life energy.
8. Personal Growth
Continue to learn and grow (personally and/or professionally) at every stage of life. People who are growing tend to thrive. This is one key to sustainable leadership for those who are already successful and is an essential aspect of becoming successful. Success does not just mean worldly success. Being a lifelong learner applies equally to your relationship, to being a parent, to being a good friend, to being effective in maintaining your own well-being.
Be present in your life moment to moment. I do not mean this only in the sense of practicing mindfulness in daily life which is, of course, very important. But I also mean be present in the sense of showing up wholeheartedly for your life, whether it be pleasant or unpleasant; this is your life at this moment. This means not being on autopilot for if you are on autopilot, then you don’t get to live your values and you don’t have choice. Being on autopilot puts you in reactive mode.
10. Self Care
Take responsibility for your body and make choices that support your body’s health and well-being. This includes choices in the areas of diet, exercise, sleep, relaxation, play, and health maintenance.
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Making Major Life Changes
Sitting at my desk on a late afternoon in September, I watch the sunlight as it bounces off the leaves of the trees in front of my window, cascades down the serpentine steps leading to my office, and merges with the shade on the roof of the house next door against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. This is the first day I can feel the coming fall through the differences in how the light manifests on familiar surroundings, and I am in awe of the beauty of the light’s shadings and endless patterns and keenly aware of its fleeting nature. Between now and the end of the year, I will go through a similar experience each day as though the light were somehow part of me, yet outside me, the way a breeze feels on the face or the way water feels against the skin when sinking into a warm bath. The changing pattern of the light reflects the cycle of the seasons and reminds us of the preciousness of our own time. You may, as many do, feel a personal response to the fading light, experiencing it as a call for endings and the need for new beginnings. Do you find yourself resolving to make major changes in your work, your home life, or in yourself as the winter solstice approaches? Most people do, although they may not be conscious of doing so. Sometimes these reassessments are merely daydreams or just banal musings, but other times, they are your inner voice speaking and attention should be paid.
If you watch closely, you may discover that your own life is part of this seasonal pattern of endings and beginnings. In early fall, you externally focus on finishing up tasks with a burst of energy, followed by delving into your internal experience as the days get shorter and the darkness lasts longer. This pattern mirrors that of other living creatures on Earth as they prepare for winter and then hibernate until the warmth returns, reflecting the cycle of the Earth itself around the sun. In our cultural preoccupation with New Year’s resolutions, we make a cliché out of this profound biorhythmic activity. It is our weak attempt to acknowledge this seasonal pattern and to consciously participate in its natural rhythm. So how can you honor and work with this arising desire to make changes in your life that occurs this time of year? To do so you must acknowledge that the call for changes may be larger than your ego identity and therefore may be arising from impulses you don’t fully understand. Yet you must find a way to consciously and skillfully participate in allowing the new to emerge. Bookstores are full of books whose authors want to tell you how to do this, from the most sacred aspects of your life to the mundane. These books promise to help you find a spiritual direction, shape up your body, get a new job, and overcome your shortcomings as a lover, parent, and friend.
Some of these books are really quite useful. But there is another, more fundamental perspective based on the teachings of the Buddha that can help you directly explore the feelings that arise within you and understand why you want to alter some aspect of your life. Think of it as the dharma of life changes—the practice of bringing mindfulness to the longings and impulses that lead you to make major life changes. Mindfulness provides a method for consciously and skillfully working with the complexity of moving in new directions in your life.
The mindfulness approach to change assumes that your most important work is to move towards freedom from your inner afflictions. You use it to avoid grasping after goals or alternatives that simply substitute one unhealthy situation for another. Bringing mindfulness to the inner calling for life change enables you to stay true to your underlying values in what is almost always a time of chaos and uncertainty. Diligently applying mindfulness allows you to answer three basic questions: What are your real motives? What are the possible effects of any change? Is the manner in which you plan to go about change skillful?
Opening to the possibility of change is healthy, for like plants the old parts of yourself have to fall away, lie fallow, or die so that what wishes to emerge can do so. When an impulse to make a change arises, the first question to ask yourself is always: What is your motive? Is it wholesome? The Buddha taught that many of the impulses you feel to make dramatic or even small changes in your life come from aversion, greed, and particularly delusion. A simple example is weight loss, something a lot of people think about this time of year, yet seldom handle skillfully. For many, losing weight is a worthy goal because it promotes good health and ease of movement. But these health reasons are seldom the motivations behind dieting, which instead tend to be vanity or the desire for social acceptance. Therefore, the effort put into losing weight is actually reinforcing the very longings that are throwing you off balance in the first place. Organizing around unwholesome motives in this manner will not help you move into a healthier relationship with yourself and seldom unifies your efforts to change, so you fail to sustain your intention and never achieve your goal.
The same perspective applies to major life changes, such as leaving your career or ending a marriage. If you do not like how you are behaving in your work or your marriage, finding a new situation will seldom help if your desire to escape is coming from aversion to your own inner work. On the other hand, if you are in an unhealthy environment or are being subjected to demeaning behavior, feeling an impulse to leave, even if it will mean much disruption, is healthy motivation. So the same desired change or goal can be wholesome or unwholesome, depending on the motive; therefore, spending time honestly exploring your motives is critical before taking action.
After assessing your motivation for change, the next question to ask is: What will be the results if you succeed in achieving the change? How will it affect your life and the lives of those around you? Will it really serve you and, at least, cause no harm to others? Is it a proper priority in your life? It seems so obvious, but applying this simple ethical screen makes a difference in how wholeheartedly one can move to make changes. The third question relates to your plan of action: What means should you use to end the old and acquire the new? If the means of making change are harmful, then you are working at cross-purposes from the beginning, even if the motive and change are benign. So often people panic around change and act in a manner that is not skillful, hurting themselves and others as a result.
One must approach major life changes with care and respect, for their consequences are far-reaching, and many times they create unforeseen further changes in your life. It is painful if you disrupt your life and the lives of those close to you only to discover that you are in pursuit of the illusionary. The goals may be unattainable for you or simply not hold the desired result you are imagining. Even if you can realistically create a good change, it might not be what should be a priority in your life at this time. It is not that you are supposed to be perfect in working with life changes, be without mixed motives, or never make poor decisions or be inconsistent in your behavior. Whom do you know who is so perfect? Of course you are going to do all these things. The practice is rather to be mindful of your intentions and actual behavior in order to make adjustments when you realize that you are off track. Change that does not lead to liberation from fear, greed, and delusion is not wholesome. Furthermore, any change that does not yield more compassion and loving-kindness for yourself and others is a waste of precious life energy.
Tools for Change
The Buddha taught that there are five qualities, or spiritual faculties, that bring balance to your life and can be of great aid in making changes that will bring about inner freedom. The first of these is faith, called saddha in Pali, and it involves trust, clarity, and confidence. Faith is essential in making change. If you do not believe in the possibility of a positive outcome, you never begin because doubt overwhelms you.
The second quality is effort, or viriya, sometimes described as energy. There are three kinds of effort. It is said that the first effort comes from faith. If you have no faith, you are never able to make the initial movement toward change. There is also effort in the form of perseverance during the hard times that inevitably come with difficult change. Finally, there is effort that arises from the momentum of the effort itself as you engage with something you believe in. It may help to recognize effort in each of these forms and to cultivate them consciously. Often when you are trying to change, nothing appears to be working, and the only positive thing you find to focus on is that you are sincerely making the effort.
You only know that you have sufficient faith and are making the right effort if you are being mindful, which is the third spiritual faculty, called sati. So it’s critical to be awake. The practice of mindfulness is a specific form of meditation known as vipassana or insight meditation, but you can cultivate it in your daily life by keeping your mind focused on your experience in the moment before you add your reactions and various associations.
The fourth spiritual faculty, concentration, called samadhi in Pali (which has a different meaning than in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra), and it strengthens the intensity of effort. It provides the continuous connection to your intention that is necessary for perseverance. The metaphor often used to describe concentration is that of rubbing two sticks together to create fire. If you start and stop, you never create fire. Concentration provides the momentum that can carry you through the difficult periods of change.
You can see how these qualities build on one another. Faith allows you to initiate change in your life, the actual moving towards change requires effort, and you need to concentrate on that effort to keep persevering. Then to know if all of that is happening, you need mindfulness. The fifth of the spiritual faculties is wisdom, or panna. It’s wisdom that allows you to redirect your movement toward change when you realize that your goal was incorrect or that the way you are going about it is not skillful.
The five faculties come together to allow you to change in wholesome ways. When you are trying to make a difficult life change, cultivating each of these qualities is a wise and proper thing to do. These five qualities are truly spiritual characteristics, so they are not to be treated lightly, but rather evoked in the pursuit of finding your own Buddha nature when coping with change.
Owning Your Intentions
Before committing to a major life change, you may want to ask yourself if it is truly needed. Is your desire for the new a way to avoid some inner work in the unfolding of your own maturity as a human being? Are you trying to avoid a necessary ego surrender of your wanting mind? Is what you think you need to be happy just an old idea that you’ve outgrown or was it simply unreal all along? Instead of trying to get more of something—money or attention, for instance—would you better serve yourself by practicing letting loose of your attachment to having life be a certain way? Each person has to go through this agonizing, self-doubting process as part of a major change.
These hard questions are most alive when asked in the context of the spirit and allow a deeper sense of meaning to emerge. For sure, trying to get life arranged just as you want it never works. Looking back on my own life, it sometimes seems that it mattered less whether or not I made a certain change than that I grounded myself in this process of self-examination. Somehow it was coming into my full range of feelings that was the most important step toward continuing vitality in my life. Needless to say, the times I have failed to do this grounding in authenticity I paid the consequences.
Without this deeper sense of meaning, life is dull at best and most often filled with suffering. Usually, it is not life’s difficulties that cause the most suffering, but rather the lack of being connected to self, to others, and to life as a whole. Separation from your natural enthusiasm dampens or kills your spirit. Therefore, the question in contemplating change is always: Are you moving more fully into your essence, your most authentic self?
Once you commit to making a major life change, be prepared to embrace darkness as part of that change. Just as the Earth uses the short winter light for renewal, so in moving through change your own psyche may well need to go into an inner darkness. In the darkness that which has been ignored or denied—be it unsettling feelings, difficult events from the past and present, or ambivalence about yourself—will be given time to decay and be renewed. This little death of the psyche mirrors your ultimate physical death.
Experiencing this kind of psychic death is a vital part of aliveness. It is scary business surrendering to death before rebirth, which is why tribal cultures have rituals to help them cope with the anxiety of seeing the days become shorter and trusting that another spring will come. This concern was so great in some cultures they performed rituals for the setting sun each day to ensure its return the next morning.
Do not imagine that you are that much different in modern life. Provide yourself with ritual around your change. Make it a sacred act. Create reminders of what you are doing and symbols that are visible to you. Use literature for inspiration. Have friends and professionals as both witnesses and support group. Avoid judging yourself by whether or not you succeed in making a change, and never put yourself in the position of giving others the power to judge you on such a basis. Let the act of changing be the reward, and do not count on the outcome, for it may well be far different than you ever imagined. All these steps represent an honoring of yourself, a surrendering of your ego that thinks it is supposed to be in charge. They also honor the mystery of life, for no one ever knows the full consequences of an action.
One of the beautiful things about the early twilight at this time of year, as it fades into the dark of the long nights, is that you can just surrender yourself to it. Allow the twilight to remind you that it is a time of consideration and renewal. Know full well that in this world the darkness and the light are one. There is no new dawn without the night; their seeming separateness disguises a unity that reflects the unity of life, an unfathomable dance of opposites. This paradox is the very essence of what it is to be alive—joy and pain, sickness and health, light and dark, wonder and fear.
As you reflect and make decisions about your future, never forget that the you who embarks on any life change will not be the person to reap its benefits or woes when the process is complete. Neither are you the person who made decisions in the past.
You are only connected to each by memory, by the consequences of cause and effect, and by the degree to which you embrace your life by owning your intentions. You are only here now, in this moment as the light fades, the night settles. Be alive to this moment. It is all you have, the only time when thought and action can occur for the benefit of yourself and those you love.
May your inner and outer life be of balance and harmony. May the darkness be your light. May your life be peaceful, but not to the point of lethargy. May the season’s ending be a new beginning.
How Suffering Got a Bad Name
In my role as a Buddhist meditation teacher, I’ve observed a phenomenon that I call the “stigma of suffering syndrome” among many beginning students. They are uneasy with the fact that their lives contain suffering; therefore, they are ineffective in coping with whatever difficulties and disappointments arise. For such individuals to admit to suffering would mean defeat, humiliation, or shame because they did not measure up to our culture’s view that winners don’t suffer. Their ineffectiveness manifests as passivity, helplessness, guilt, or self-hatred. I’ve repeatedly witnessed people respond unskillfully to stressful situations at work, in their home life, and even in the political arena all because of a fundamental misperception of what suffering really means, which is understandable.
Our culture’s debasement of suffering represents a major loss to us. It denies the validity of many of the significant emotional events in our lives. It narrows life such that we are constantly reacting to a set of questions: How do I get and keep what’s pleasant and avoid or get rid of that which is unpleasant? Am I winning or losing? Am I being praised or blamed?
It wasn’t always like this in Western culture. The Greek philosophers and playwrights understood that suffering is ennobling. In fact, they placed it in high esteem, giving it context in their art and mythology. Just think of Homer’s Odyssey and Odysseus’s epic struggle to return home, in which his suffering is portrayed as noble, even glorious. For hundreds of years, the Western mind took comfort in this noble view of suffering, which gave it meaning and did not equate it with failure.
Since all of us experience suffering, how has it become stigmatized? First of all, our culture evolved into one that is pleasure-based and ego-identified, and that emphasizes immediate gratification. It also began to define success as your ability to control outcomes. Today, we teach our children that if you are an effective person, you can control your life. You can get and do what you want. If you do, you win in life. This modern image portrays “winners” as people who have it all together. You are not supposed to have internal conflicts, stress, or anxiety—that means you are incompetent. You’re a loser.
Furthermore, our culture teaches you to constantly judge yourself based on superficial measures: How much money you make, the car you drive, the clothes you wear, the level of recognition and reward you attain at school and at work, how beautiful you are. But this perspective flattens life. It denies the possibility of finding a deeper meaning to your experience. If you measure your self-worth and effectiveness according to these superficial cultural standards, then each time you suffer you are forced to interpret suffering as humiliation. Why would you choose to acknowledge suffering if it only stands for failure?
Suffering is derived from the Latin word ferre, which means “to bear” or “to carry.” Helen Luke, the late Jungian analyst and classics scholar, likens the true meaning of conscious human suffering to a wagon bearing a load. She contrasts this definition of suffering with grief, from the Latin word gravare, which refers to “the sense of being pressed down,” and affliction, from the Latin word fligere, which means, “to be struck down, as by a blow.” When you deny or resist the experience of your own suffering, you are unwilling to consciously bear it. It is this resistance to accepting your life just as it is that makes suffering ignoble, despicable, and shameful.
The Buddha understood the ennobling power of being able to bear your suffering over 2,500 years ago. In his very first (and most well-known) instruction—the Four Noble Truths—the Buddha taught that it is not your suffering but rather your reaction to it that is crippling. But if you can learn to separate your resistance to suffering from the actual pain and loss in your life, an incredible transformation takes place. You are able to meet your suffering as though you were a wagon receiving the load being placed on it. Paradoxically, the effect is that your load is lightened. You are no longer expending energy denying your suffering, therefore you have the willpower to respond skillfully to your life’s circumstances. Moreover, in surrendering to the ups and downs of your life, you discover the truth of your inner dignity.
The Difference Between Pressure and Stress
When your responsibilities are bearing down on you, understanding the difference between pressure and stress can create a greater sense of ease and well-being in your life.
Three Kinds of Happiness
To practice being mindful of happiness and courageously work with it, you need to develop clarity about the various kinds of happiness that you feel. In my experience, there are three kinds of happiness: the happiness that arises when conditions in your life are what you desire them to be; the well-being that comes when your mind is joyful and at ease, regardless of the conditions of your life in that moment; and the unbounded joy you feel when your mind has reached final liberation or cessation of all clinging.
It is easy to recognize the first kind of happiness; you know full well how much you like it when conditions in your life are just as you wish them to be. What you may not do so well, however, is know how to use your happiness based on conditions to find genuine freedom. The second kind of happiness is experienced on those occasions when you are temporarily in such a good mood, or so centered, or so quiet, or so appreciative that when you encounter an unpleasant person at work or a frustrating situation at home, you aren’t overwhelmed. Life isn’t the way you would prefer it to be, but you feel just fine right now and you are not being defined by unpleasant conditions. You have had many such moments in your life, although you may not have noticed them and therefore never had the chance to cultivate them. I characterize this second kind of happiness as being centered in a state of mind that is happy in order to distinguish it from happiness that is dependent on conditions being just as you want them to be. It is obvious that your mind is clearer, your heart is more open, and you have more freedom in the second kind of happiness than in the first kind, which is condition based. Yet, even the second kind is nowhere near the level of attainment of the third kind of happiness, the well-being of full realization.
Notice that when you are happy because the conditions of your life are pleasant (the first kind of happiness), your well-being is dependent on conditions, and therefore ultimately is not reliable or lasting. As the Buddha taught, you cannot control conditions or prevent happiness from being replaced by suffering. Still, who isn’t happy to be healthy, or safe, or loved, and so forth? By contrast, when you are temporarily centered in well-being that is not dependent on conditions being right (the second kind of happiness), your happiness is dependent on your state of mind. But this second kind of happiness is also unreliable, just as the Buddha said. Yet it too can be received and enjoyed and teach you the dharma. The well-being that arises when you begin going through the various stages of nibbana (the third kind of happiness) is not subject to conditions or to the state of your mind. You can be having a lousy time and your mind not be in an exalted state, yet the mind is unruffled. This is a mind that is liberated. There is nothing temporary about it. This third kind of well-being is independent of any external or internal factors.
Do you see the difference between the first two kinds of happiness, which are temporary and dependent, and the third kind, which is lasting and non-dependent? By cultivating awareness of the limitations of condition-dependent happiness, you can break your attachment to getting conditions just right, and mind-state-dependent happiness will start to arise spontaneously.
I have seen many students make a significant shift in their sense of well-being in just a year or two of practicing awareness of the kinds of happiness; you can too. You may have heard of behavioral studies that show people are born with a certain predisposition to happiness and that they tend to consistently report experiencing their innate level of happiness regardless of their circumstances. Mindfulness and compassion practice allow you to affect this kind of core programming and, in my experience, this is particularly true in working with happiness.
Arriving in the Room Guided Meditation
A five-minute guided meditation to help you come into the present moment.
You can find instructions for starting a mindfulness meditation practice here.
Self-Soothing Reflection for Difficult Times
Go someplace quiet, where you won’t be interrupted, and sit comfortably.
Begin by acknowledging what’s true. Notice the unpleasant sensations and feelings that are present in your body and mind.
State to yourself, out loud if you can, “This difficulty feels like this.” For instance, “Having a broken heart feels like this.” Or, “Disappointment feels like this.”
Recognize that in this moment you are suffering and, as best as you are able, have compassion for your suffering.
Notice if you are adding to your suffering by criticizing or judging yourself or making up a story about what’s happening.
To calm yourself, take a few moments to focus your attention on your breath or one of your senses, such as hearing or seeing, or a part of your body that feels comfortable.
Observe that you are not just this difficulty and that you have other thoughts and bodily sensations. If it helps to calm you, name these thoughts and bodily sensations.
Now notice that these thoughts and bodily sensations are always changing. Seeing that this is true, this feeling of difficulty must also be subject to change and not permanent.
Ask yourself, “Is there something I need to do and can do right now about this difficulty?” If there is, focus on your breath for a few moments and then get up and do it. If there’s nothing to be done or you don’t know what to do, then just sit there being kind to yourself.
Remind yourself that you can’t control all the conditions of your life, but you can choose how you respond to those conditions. Ask yourself, “How do I want to respond to this difficult situation?” Sometimes this question is best asked while taking a meditative walk.
You’ve now moved from your reactive, chaotic mind to being present and clear.
When Change Chooses You
Sometimes we choose change. Other times life pushes us into change by way of a job loss, a death, an unexpected relationship change, inheriting money, losing our home, or perhaps a chance encounter with someone that changes the trajectory of our life. These are some examples of what I mean by change choosing you. Instead of us voluntarily taking the step into change, or into what a Change & Transition Strategist would name the ”liminal,” we are kicked there by a life event.
The liminal is an in between state. We may not know where we are going but we definitely aren’t where we’ve been. When we land in the liminal, the most dramatic change is our sense of whom we’ve believed ourselves to be. We may be focused on the significant change in our circumstances, but it’s really our self-identity that is undergoing a big shift. We are being asked to learn to hold ourselves in the world in a new way. When change hasn’t been our choice, that learning can be quite painful. Yet, in order for us to find, or regain, a sense of well-being, that internal shift is necessary. When we cross into the liminal, especially by being pushed, it is necessary to accept that we are on a journey.
This journey contains the potential to transform us. However, sometimes we can get stuck in the liminal by not surrendering to its transformative nature and not recognizing the challenge of doing so. To my mind, some words that describe the liminal are dark, unsure, difficult, and fear. Yet the liminal is also fertile, moist, rich, and deepening. How we navigate the liminal matters. There is often grief and tears as we let go of what was and move into acceptance. But beware of lamentation as it can limit our ability to imagine a future. This is a place where we learn to accept and work with our fear and uncertainty rather than have it paralyze us and keep us stuck. We must honor our loss and also learn to not be defined by it.
In the liminal, we can begin to develop new inner strengths or tap into ones that we hadn’t allowed ourselves to own before. This can be tremendously empowering. When we’re in this dark, rich place, new capacities can be mined and planted. It is also a time for reflection on our values. Often as we gain clarity about our values, new possibilities can come into focus. In this way, if we have experienced a loss, we can gain a higher, healthier meaning.
I had an aunt who was never truly able to make the journey through the liminal. The department store she had worked for much of her young to middle adult life went out of business. She was severely myopic and believed she couldn’t drive. After she lost her job she got trapped in a lot of internal stories: she couldn’t find a new job because she couldn’t drive, she’d claim the bus routes were limiting, she was caught in blame of her company, she didn’t want to try to get a drivers license. Her predominant belief system about both herself and the world kept her stuck. She became bitter, isolated, resentful, and miserly. What was worse was that no one in the family had challenged her belief system. In fact they avoided it. She was prickly and you know that old saying about porcupines.
What my aunt really needed was some help and support. She needed someone to help her navigate her loss through the natural stage of mourning and then to acceptance; someone to help her tack through the sea of doubt and fear; someone to encourage her and to help her begin to challenge her notions of herself and imagine a different, empowered version of herself. She needed someone to help her find new meaning in her loss and a new vision for her life.
If we allow ourselves to recognize the need for support, we can meet new people who become allies that challenge our unskillful thinking, help us gain clarity about our priorities and values, shine a light on our ambivalence and ambiguity, help us live intentionally, champion our growth, and who may walk the path with us for a while or for the distance.
These people can come in the form of a support group, a meditation group, or mentors. And now there is a new source of guidance — a highly trained Certified Change & Transition Strategist who is willing to get into the trenches with you and work as your advocate to help you claim a sense of well-being even after loss.
The Tyranny of Expectations
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.
Expect to Stumble
In freeing yourself from expectations, you are likely to encounter a number of challenges. You may be one of those people who say they have no expectations, in either their daily life or their spiritual life.
I find in those who make such claims a strong presence of denial, which is usually rooted in past disappointments and fear of failing to have expectations met. Huge expectations are often hidden inside, accompanied by an inflated sense of “If I can’t have what I want, I don’t want anything.” You are just giving up on yourself when you feel this way.
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.
Many people struggle to overcome negative expectations in their life. Beth (not her real name), who attends the weekly meditation session I lead, complained for a couple of years about how inadequate her meditation practice was and how she never made any progress. She bemoaned her inability to concentrate and criticized herself for repeatedly getting lost. Her self- appraisal was very sincere, and her face reflected tremendous pain. She was disheartened but felt she was being honest with herself.
I, on the other hand, thought her practice was going great. I repeatedly told Beth this and pointed out to her that she was suffering from having expectations about what a good practice should look and feel like.
She was never relieved by my words, but she kept up her practice, coming almost every Sunday to sangha. Then, just as she was making a major transition in her life, retiring from her job to pursue her spiritual interests full-time, one of her daughters became ill with a life-threatening disease. This required Beth to completely abandon her own plans and move to another city to care for her daughter full- time. I did not see her for several months, then one day she returned to meditation class, her face aglow. “My practice saved me!” she exclaimed. “I was calm, mindful. I did not fall into resentment or anger.” She paused and then continued, “I was just there for my daughter. I was compassionate toward myself and her. I want you to let everyone in the class know.” The very difficulties of her life had revealed the true strength of her practice, in contrast to her expectations about what a strong practice felt like.
When Beth’s plans were derailed and an expectation of a happy, exciting time transformed itself into the reality of a time of concern and stress, she was able to respond with equanimity. Her practice served her, and she was able to do exactly what life called for in the moment. She was able to let go of her goal of enjoying a happy adventure wandering in spiritual study. She thought life was going one way, but it went another. That was all there was to it. Do you see how this can apply to your own life? It is not that you must avoid making plans or moving toward goals; it is that you don’t become defined by those expectations or attached to the outcome.
Can you feel the freedom that exists in being able to respond rather than react when life goes other than how you had planned? It doesn’t mean that you won’t unconsciously create expectations over and over again – no one is expecting you to be perfect (which in itself is just another expectation!). Until you are enlightened, you will repeatedly fall into expectations. But the reason to practice being mindful of expectations and compassionate with yourself when you feel yourself caught in them is so that you acquire the skill to let go of them. You may have expectations, but you are not tyrannized by them. This is freedom from expectations. It is what vipassana teacher Sharon Salzberg describes as “just starting over.” When you realize you are creating expectations or are caught in them, you see them for the suffering they represent and you just start over in that very moment, as best as you are able.
Beware of Spiritual Expectations
On meditation retreats, I often work with yogis and their expectations. They will come to me for an interview and announce that they have had a “good sitting” or a “bad sitting,” when they really are referring to the level of serenity or mindfulness they experienced. Likewise, yogis will come to a retreat or a meditation class with the expectation that it will pick up where the last one ended or that it will be better than the previous one. This is the delusion of expectations based on false notions of progress. Such expectations assume that you know what it is you are seeking, that pleasantness and lack of struggle characterize “getting there,” when in reality, just the opposite is true at certain points. It is often not serenity that is needed by a student but the ability to stay present when the mind is caught in a storm. It is not hard to be clear when things are calm, but if you work diligently with mindfulness and compassion when things are difficult, you are in the vital training for your tumultuous daily life.
Part of doing mindfulness practice is letting go of expectations in your practice, which can be found in self-judgments, concepts, and impatience. Recently, a yogi described to me in detail a mind-altering experience he underwent at a long-term meditation retreat. To his amazement, he entered into this experience during a sitting time, which he had already labeled as bad. Ironically, it was just as he was saying this to himself that the experience began and then lasted for many days. Why did it happen in that moment and not another? It was because he let go of expectations, he relaxed, he started from where he was rather than staying stuck in his ideas about meditation. I have seen this time and time again. I don’t mean to minimize this yogi’s previous effort. He had diligently worked toward his goal, which created the proper causes and conditions so that when he let go of expectations, he was capable of entering an altered state of mind.
It is very easy and very dangerous to get caught in expectations that might be called “spiritual materialism,” such as wanting to have special experiences, to receive a sign that guarantees you are on the right path, or to enter altered states of mind. You may expect to be rewarded in life because you are a good person. You may secretly desire recognition for your good works or for being a dedicated student. You may feel it is unfair that you should suffer from a lack of material comforts when you have been so faithful. You may desire certain powers of mind to control outcomes, to manifest your will, or you may feel that God owes you for being faithful. These are all examples of the delusion that can be created by expectations, and they can tyrannize your life.
All of us have to be alert to these expectations sneaking into our minds. When you discover one, the proper response is not to judge yourself but rather to laugh at yourself with compassion. The Buddha himself was repeatedly visited by a deity he called Mara, who would tempt him with such expectations. His only response was to say, “I see you, Mara,” and it is said that Mara would eventually slink away in defeat.
Sometimes students confuse expectations with self-discipline. They will sincerely ask, “If there are no expectations, why should I apply great effort?” I like this question, because it helps clarify the difference between living out of your values and living for results. The Buddha continually warned us not to be attached to any specific outcome, yet he also stressed the importance of making an effort and sacrifices, of living a life of moral discipline. Right effort is part of his eightfold path. The difference is in what you control. You have the power to choose your level of effort; you can learn from experience how to improve it and how to be balanced in what is skillful and what is not. But you cannot control the result of your actions. As painful as it is to admit, oftentimes you cannot even know if the results are truly positive or negative just because initially they appear to be one or the other.
Live in the Now
The stories of most of our great spiritual teachers are not about ease and glory, or about having all of their expectations met; rather, they’re about patience, endurance, sacrifice, and unconditional love. This is not to say that extreme pain and harsh self-denial are to be considered inevitable, for that would be yet another expectation, a negative one! Instead, the call is to be in the present moment whether or not the situation meets your expectations.
To truly be in the moment, to not be defined by expectation, requires mindful clarity; a heart conditioned by love, compassion, and empathetic joy for others; and equanimity that allows you to receive life however it unfolds. This may seem like an inconceivable challenge, but it can be your goal, your beacon through the fog of your life. Most important, it can inspire and orient you in how to live in the moment. You simply lay aside your expectations as best as you are able.
You may be surprised when you discover how much choice you have in letting go of expectations. As you have seen, there is nothing to be gained from a mind filled with expectation. But there is much to be gained by living out of your values with real effort and discipline. When you do this, you are showing up for what you value and discovering a sense of joy and ease that is independent of the conditions in your life.
When you practice staying in the “sacred now,” the future will take care of itself as well as is possible. My teacher the Venerable Ajahn Sumedho calls this “trusting your practice.” It is an acknowledgment that you cannot know the mysteries of how life unfolds or even if a certain outcome that seems desirable would, if it occurred, truly be beneficial. At the same time, it is a declaration that you can attune yourself to that which is loving and benevolent in life. What else would you choose to align yourself with? Do these values not offer the best prospects for any possible future?
I often end a meditation retreat with a poem by the 12th-century Persian poet Hafiz, called “The Sun Never Says.”
“Even / After all this time, / The sun never says to the earth, / “You owe Me.” / Look at what happens / With a love like that, / It lights the whole sky.”
This is the power of giving to life without the burden of expectations.
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