Look Around and Look Within

The Science and Art of Human Behavior

What Are Your Expectations?

Mindfulness is all about discovering one’s expectations of self.

The other day I read that 75 percent of us cannot park a car in our garages because they are so jam-packed full of stuff. My husband and I spent a weekend weeding through our garage two weekends ago, only to be left with a fresh amount of new space for the overflow of stuff from the house to be moved to garage. My car will never make it there and given that I drive a Smart Car, that says a lot.

It got me thinking that perhaps we need to change our expectations of the building originally assigned to house cars. If we were to really call it what it is—at least for 75 percent of the American population—it would alleviate this need to constantly "clean it out." Let’s just rename it a storage space and forget about it.

The idea that changing expectations can change our attitude toward things reveals itself all the time.

As a mother of three adult children, I see other parents stressing about their expectations for their children, be it over an Ivy league college, a particular type of boyfriend or girlfriend, or the kind of jobs their children take. While we all want the best for our children, being flexible as a parent in the expectation of "best" is like letting go of our garage ambitions.

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I heard today—in the aftermath of the Olympics — that the training of athletes often leads to their ongoing comparison of self to others or to an ideal for self success that can lead to a vast amount of unhappiness in life. The report said that a silver medal is often more disappointing than a bronze medal because of such comparisons.

The practice of mindfulness is all about discovering one’s expectations of self and then letting go of them. Through the ongoing practice of becoming present with experience "as it is," there is a gradual increase in experiencing things as they are without trying to change them (and a subsequent joyfulness in the experiences). In the simplicity of accepting something—including oneself—as it is, there is a release of the need to be something "better." This is not to say that you lose ambition or desire to help oneself, others, or the world at large, but that the efforts to do so no longer carry a striving or "must-ness" quality to them. I get up everyday to do what I can to help the world be a kinder and more equitable place (and me in it) but with a lot less anxiety or urgency to it. 

Learning to let go of expectations is like a gardener celebrating a garden’s changing nature.

“Gardeners celebrate variety, unlikeness, spontaneity. They understand that an abundance of styles is in the interest of vitality. …One does not bring change to a garden, but comes to a garden prepared for change, and therefore prepared to change. True parents do not see to it that their children grow in a particular way, according to a preferred pattern or scripted stages, but they see to it that they grow with their children. So, too, with teaching, or working with, or loving each other.” (Carse, 1986)

I love that quote because it is so easy to get caught in an ideal of how things "should be" and forget to be accepting of how things are. I remind myself often to leave the world of "should" and "could" and enter the world of "is" and "are."

 

James Carse, “Finite and infinite games,” New York, The Random House Publishing Group, 1986, p. 152.

 

Susan L. Smalley, Ph.D., is a professor and behavior geneticist at UCLA Semel Institute and Founding Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).

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