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Wishing Your Life Away

Question:

I am particularly concerned about a friend who always seems unhappy at work, complains about how some colleagues are making her life difficult, and how little she earns. She believes that marrying and giving up her job would bring her happiness. She reads books that teach her “10 Ways of Dealing with People Who Make Your Life Miserable”, which is not a very useful category of writings, in my humble opinion. She also believes that an ideal job is one in which she could look forward to going into office every morning.

I think she is suffering because her expectations aren’t realistic. Particularly, I find the state of “always looking forward to” something very dubious. I have only ever looked forward to work probably for the first few months in a job. To me, “looking forward to” something is an extreme emotion that can only last for a short period of time. If I look forward to the weekend, I am probably expecting that I would enjoy every minute of it. There is some amount of indulgence involved in it. If I look forward to lunchtime everyday, it would probably make the rest of my day very tiresome in comparison. Hence constantly “looking forward to” some event is not only impossible to achieve, it also causes more suffering if that event is not what one would expect.

Well, that is my layman’s opinion. I would like to hear about the buddhist view of this. Is “looking forward to” something a realistic feeling that can be sustained in the real world, or even when one is enlightened? Or is it an extreme emotion, not unlike intense passion and attachment, which a Buddhist should avoid?

Many thanks for your response. I hope my question is not too vague to you, as I have not learnt proper buddhist terms to explain it in.

Answer:

Proper Buddhist Terms? Here? Not necessary at all, and I try to steer away from all the jargon anyway.

I don’t think having hopes and dreams are unrealistic at all. I have them, and I sincerely hope you do too. The problem, from the Buddhist standpoint, is when we get too attached to the dreams and start to avoid reality. If your friend is neglecting the here and now in favor of these hopes for something better in the future, then yes, she’s probably going to regret it someday. We’ve talked before on whether or not it’s OK for Buddhists to make long-term plans and expectations for the future (it is OK, by the way), and this is a related problem.

Buddhists are realists. The simple facts are that the past is gone. Dwelling on the past is unproductive. The future may or may not happen the way we envision it, and there’s no use in getting attached to hopeful outcomes. You are in the present, here and now. NOW is the only time you really have any control over, so make the most of it. NOW is all you really have, so enjoy it, learn from it, do some good with it.

Wasting the Now, thinking about what might be (or could be, or should be, or whatever) is robbing reality to spend on dreams. Work harder to make the reality of the Now a better place.

9 comments to Wishing Your Life Away

  • ZenYen

    ” … robbing reality to spend on dreams.”

    That is a wonderful way to put it. A nice, memorable phrase like that should be easy for people to keep in mind. Thanks.

  • In my Buddhism studies I find that there’s a middle path to many of the ideas, and this topic strikes me as no exception. To play Mara’s advocate for a moment — Yes, living in a dream world — be it past or present — contributes to a “robbing” of reality. But isn’t there something to be said regarding contemplating past victories or mistakes, and using that knowledge to prepare yourself to make the best decisions in the near future.

  • Abe Simpson

    The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers. Thich Nhat Hanh

  • candy

    After reading this, I almost thought the person was talking about me! I’m battling depression and anxiety and I’d usually rather be anywhere else than where I am only to feel the same way no matter where I am. I think that maybe I just don’t want to be with myself (if that makes sense). I’m always looking for ways to make myself content with the here and now (and with myself), but it seems that every road leads to disappointment due to my high expectations. It’s so tiring. Thank you for the insight.

  • Beth

    I think if we waste the ‘now’, by being preoccupied in thought and effort to the ‘later’, we’re losing out on something. Even if your sad, grieving, etc., and looking forward to the day when it all gets better, we might lose a lesson we were supposed to learn in the current despair.
    Then again…what do I know?

  • Jami

    Just think the answer was spot-on. ‘robbing reality to spend on dreams…’ is a powerful reminder of how dreams can waste a lot of time.

    Maybe ‘dreams’are our first & basic form of’meditation’ practice. But to focus is to meditate and perhaps to ‘dream’ in a different kind of way.

  • NJ Sam

    Two problems I see here. One is attempting to control what others feel or do. The only life you have anything to say about is yours. Through this, you can have an affect on others. Two, is expectations. If you keep your expectations low, almost anything will seem better. I have friend who practices this, and he told a funny story. He went on a family vacation, Mom, Brother, Wife, the works. When he got back, he said “I guess I didn’t keep my expectations low enough!”

    Peace

  • As with so many other questions about Buddhism (theory OR practice), I try to approach the question of “always looking forward to . . .” from the POV of the experience of zazen, itself. Many people practice meditation BECAUSE they believe it will get them something — enlightenment, relaxation, peace of mind, whatever. But I try to do my meditation JUST BECAUSE it is what I do (my chosen dharma), with no expectation of result or reward. I think this is how one should approach “right livelihood,” as well. It is wonderful if one loves ones work just for the sake of the work alone. But few of us are this fortunate. Many (probably most) of us have to do whatever work we find ourselves able to obtain, just to earn money, in order to support ourselves and our loved ones. Yet, even being in this position does not preclude one from regarding one’s work as a chosen dharma, and finding meaning in doing it JUST BECAUSE that is what one does, and NOT because of what one looks forward to getting out of it. AND, of course, there is no reason not to extend this mind to the entire arc of one’s career; there is no reason why doing what one does just because it is one’s chosen dharma precludes skill development and career advancement; the WHOLE arc of one’s career is one’s dharma.

  • This is a reply to Candy (I think):
    Yes, what you say makes LOTS of sense. Meditation is all about learning to be with yourself; not running away from yourself; and making friends with yourself, just as you are, right here and now, WITH all your flaws and imperfections — having compassion for oneself, as well as others.

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