Meditating With Monks: Insight 2 - Expectation
Updated: Jan 22, 2019
This 12-post blog series is dedicated to 12 of the most valuable insights that I gleaned during my 10-Days of Silent Vipassana Meditation at Wat Suan Mokkh, a Buddhist monastery in Surat Thani, Thailand.
Having listened to monks speak for 10 days, I can confirm that most of them are closet comedians. In honour of their light-hearted approach to life, I’ve tried to write these 12 blog posts in an amusing and entertaining way.
The 12 insights are: 1) Silence. 2) Expectation. 3) Fatigue. 4) Adversity. 5) Cleaning Toilets. 6) Impermanence. 7) Attachment. 8) Authority Figures & Control. 9) Pace of Life. 10) The Present Moment. 11) The Pond. 12) The Tree.
I hope that these insights prove to be as valuable for you as they were for me.
Insight 2 - Expectation
My past travels had already taught me so much about expectation – the main lesson being that expectation is the root of so much suffering in our lives.
When we permit our mind to form expectations, we’re creating attachment to a future outcome that hasn’t yet occurred. These expectations generally take two forms:
1. The 'ideal' future outcome
The first form of expectation is when we desire an ‘ideal’ future outcome. This is when a simple hope graduates to a full-blown expectation, such that achieving a ‘pleasure’ emotion (e.g. happiness, relief, relaxation) becomes conditional on the fulfilment of this outcome.
The ‘ideal’ future outcome is the most dangerous form of expectation. It only takes a slight negative deviation from our ‘ideal’ outcome for us to feel disappointed or cheated. In this state, our mind holds on to the disappointment that we feel. It doesn’t permit us to look for an alternative way to interpret the event, and so we don’t even give ourselves a chance to find a different way to enjoy or appreciate the moment.
I’ve learned over the years to become aware of my ‘ideal’ outcome expectations. By consciously recognising them and making a decision to downgrade them from expectation to hope, these expectations lose much of the power and influence that they have.
I made sure that, going into this 10-day Vipassana retreat, I had none of these ‘ideal case’ expectations. I didn’t expect this to be a life-changing experience. I didn’t expect to come out of it an enlightened man. I was simply going to be present, open and receptive to a new experience, and I was willing to approach it with the expectation-free curiosity of a child. I hoped that it would be a valuable experience – without expecting it to be.
I’m grateful to say that this mindset paid off. I gleaned so many insights from this experience that I may have missed had I been blinded by expectations.
2. The 'negative' future outcome
The second form of expectation is when we’re preparing ourselves to encounter a ‘negative’ future outcome. We feel less afraid of the future when we believe that we’ve anticipated the threats which might cause us to experience ‘pain’ emotions (e.g. disappointment, anger, guilt).
In general, these aren’t as harmful as ‘ideal’ future expectations, especially if we’re aware of them. The negative scenarios created by our mind are a natural defence mechanism – our mind doesn’t feel comfortable with the unknown, so it tries to anticipate threats.
If we’re aware of this, we can use it to our advantage. Our mind feels more at ease when it perceives itself to be ‘prepared’ for the unknown. Therefore, as we actually experience a situation in the present moment, we can quiet our anxious mind-chatter by reminding it that it has already anticipated the threats and prepared itself for the worst-case scenario. In doing so, we relax our mind, thus freeing ourselves of its incessant noise so that we can truly immerse in the present moment.
However, if we’re not aware of this, these negative future outcomes can very quickly escalate into anxieties. Many of us experience this in our day-to-day life. It occurs because we’re not consciously in control of the thought formations that our mind creates, and we try to resist the process by which it tries to anticipate threats. By consciously becoming aware of this process and accepting it as a natural defence mechanism, we can learn to manage this process and prevent this anxiety escalation.
I didn’t have this problem.
My problem was that my mind expected negative future outcomes from this retreat – and it identified the wrong ones!
I expected that the biggest threat to my mental well-being would come from old psychological demons (fears, insecurities, etc.) bursting out from the recesses of my mind. Without the distractions of everyday life (routines, sports, TV, WiFi, talking to people, and so on), they would bubble to the surface, consuming me in grief and pain.
My mind anticipated this. It told me that this was likely to happen. In doing so, I steeled myself and prepared myself for the inevitable suffering that this threat would bring me…
…and it never came.
It turned out that years of confronting, understanding and managing old demons meant that I (fortunately) didn’t have any to deal with at this moment in time.
Not quite. Instead, I faced a different kind of demon that I was not mentally prepared for – my living conditions.
My room was a prison cell. My bed was a concrete slab. My pillow was made of wood. There was gecko shit all over the floor. There were spiders bigger than my hands lurking in the toilets. There were biting ants invading our dorms. We took showers with buckets of cold water.
It was unknown. It was uncomfortable. It was inconvenient.
But here’s the thing.
If I had truly been without any expectations, my living conditions would have been inconvenient – but not necessarily a threat.
But they became a threat because I had started off in the wrong frame of mind! I had permitted my mind to operate on the basis that this retreat would be filled with ‘threats’. My mind expected there to be threats. It scanned and attempted to anticipate threats.
Remember – what we focus on, we attract. If we’re looking for threats, believe me, our mind will find threats!
So instead of facing a curious new living situation that was slightly inconvenient, my mind told me that I was facing an unknown and unanticipated threat to my way of living, far outside of my comfort zone. This led to heightened feelings of discomfort, discontentment and dissatisfaction for the first 3 days of the retreat – after which the ‘unknown’ situation finally became ‘known’ to my mind, and it downgraded its assessment of the situation from ‘threat’ to ‘inconvenience’.
Those first three days, from Induction Day to the end of Day 2, were hell.
And they could have been avoided had I managed my expectations more effectively.
This experience taught me that there is no such thing as good expectation. It’s natural for our mind to form expectations of both types – the ‘ideal case’ and the ‘negative outcome’. We have to be vigilant and aware of these expectations as they form, and we also need to understand the state of mind that these expectations create.
By consciously recognising our expectations and accompanying mind states as they form, we take away some of the influence that they hold over us. We become more able to manage them and introduce alternative thought patterns and mind states that are more conducive to our well-being – for example, openness and gratitude instead of desires and threats.
Hope for the best – but don’t expect it to happen.
Prepare for the worst – but don’t expect it to happen.
Be open, be adaptable, and always be grateful.
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making cheesy motivational Instagram posts.