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Great Expectations

I (along with what seemed like about everyone else on Earth) was watching the US Presidential inauguration on Tuesday and Twittering about it at the same time. I was being a bit negative, or perhaps overly realistic, when I asked something along the lines of, “Are we expecting too much? Can he actually DO all this? Can ANYONE?” during the new President’s inaugural speech. As always on Twitter, someone called me on that statement, asking “What does Buddha say about expectations?” Touche.

All right then, what is the Buddhist perspective on expectations?

We’ve looked at being “in the present” a few times here already. Buddhists are supposed to live in the present moment, but it would be unrealistic not to have expectations and plans about the future. The real problem, as you can probably guess, comes from being overly involved with those expectations. Think about the greatest disappointments or the greatest sadness you have ever personally had to face in your life. I think, at least in my own experience, that broken expectations and disappointment in things that I had built-up in my own mind have been the worst.

If it comes right down to it, you can exchange the word “expectation” to “attachment” in most cases. If you do this, you can already see where I’m heading. As Buddhists, we already know that being overly attached to anything is bad, and being attached to expectations may be the worst of all. Being Buddhists, we need to try to look at things as they really are by stripping away the illusions imposed by our minds. Take things as they come, good or bad. Prepare for the future, but make every effort not to be too attached to the outcome.

It sounds so easy sometimes, doesn’t it?

7 comments to Great Expectations

  • Jami

    Very thoughtful piece. It raises a linked problem: should a buddhist strive for ‘change’ in the manner that Obama desires?

    To desire ‘change’ is to expect it. Implicitly, this might involve the ‘language’ and ‘actions supporting it. It may invoke ‘hope’ (‘keep it alive’, as Jesse Jackson states).

    In short, should a buddhist be involved in the Movement for Civil Rights? If so, should she be committed to the idea of ‘change’, with the psychological ‘anchor’ that they should expect it?

  • Jan R.

    Dear Brian,

    Expectations are an interesting topic. I’m currently in the process of trying to start my own business, and with that comes a lot of planning and projecting of sales and finances. How does one balance Buddhist philosophy when it comes to expectations, and managing a business?

    Thanks for your interesting posts and podcasts!

    Jan R.

  • Jan;

    Plans, goals, and expectations are a required part of running a business. You have timelines, steps, business plans, financial goals, and personal objectives; it may seem like it’s all about expectations (I’ve been there!).

    You have to follow the plans and steps and try to reach your goals. The trick is not to get too personally wrapped up in achieving them. Your goals are not you; you will survive if the business fails. You are not your business. If you fail to meet the goals, move on immediately, do not dwell on the failure. Have your goals, but live in this moment.

  • Jami;

    One of the fundamental ideas in Buddhism is that nothing is permanent. Nothing. To try to hold on to things the way they are is grasping and attachment to something that cannot last. Change will happen all by itself, and we need to adapt to accept those changes.

    That being said, the ongoing Civil Rights movement is there to eliminate injustices and reduce suffering due to irrational prejudices. Buddhists should support any group that has motives like those. Attempting to remove suffering is hoping or expecting to effect a change. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that at all, the problem comes with disappointment if it doesn’t come fast enough or in the ways you expect.

  • Jerry

    Acknowledging the three marks of conditioned existence (suffering, impermanence and not-self) does not mean that we are have just go along with whatever misery there is. With all humility, I think it’s still reasonable to hope for and work for positive change.

  • Jenny

    Expectations mean different things to people in various stages of their lives. To become a Buddhist, you must have a subtle act of expectations (to dream, anticipate, look forward to)as you embark on this awesome journey (Enlightenment & the end of Suffering). I think if we have realistic expectations on what WE can do (on what “I” can do) we are safe to dream/anticipate/look forward to. Especially, if we do not attach a consequence of harm to the finality of the outcome. If we can lighten up and be accepting of what will come our way… why not dream?

  • Pete

    I think Buddhist come with this assumption (by people who are not Buddhist or know little about it) that we are passive people, who just sit around doing meditation or walking around in a temple and that is 80% of our lives. What people fail to realize and some beginner Buddhists might not know is that the world needs to be changed, especially since we are so against suffering of others and ourselves. For us to be sitting around doing nothing to this regard contradicts our teachings. The public, and the media have deemed Buddhists to be sitting around in robes and meditating, often times feeble minded individuals who are isolated from the rest of the world, but the truth is just the opposite.
    On the topic of expectations, our goals envisioned in our head are very idealistic. We see these visions and we expect them to come out that way, but we all know that it might not be exactly the same as how we envisioned it. We need to realistically understand that we can achieve our goals but we need to have the expectation that our vision is impermanent, but if we can get something similar to what we thought then we will look back at it and reflect at how great it really is.
    I spend alot of my time reflect on the things in my life that I have and how great they are, knowing that I could have alot more or alot worse but what I have is perfectly fine.