Life is about walking through a sea of experiences and events every day. We become upset when the world doesn't fit our expectations.
We blow things our of proportion, instinctively try to change what we can't control when the only thing we can control is ourselves.
The keys are being aware of what our minds are doing, keeping perspective, watching, accepting, and appreciating what the day brings us.
We all have expectations about the world around us. If you're headed out on vacation this summer, you might expect to have good weather at the beach. You might be looking forward to your work evaluation and expecting your boss will talk about a promotion. You may expect your boyfriend to call when he gets settled after his long trip.
Now, imagine you're snorkeling and a school of fish comes right towards you (or if you’ve ever been to an aquarium and stood in front of those large tanks and seen the same), this is what moving through life is like. According to non-dualism and other traditions, our everyday life is comprised of moving through a sea of experiences and events—we are walking eyes—that, like the fish, we can’t control. What we can do is notice, and, at times, even appreciate, that bright yellow fish as it goes by.
Where we get into trouble is when we have expectations about how life is supposed to be. We create our own reality about the beach, the race, the boyfriend. When life doesn’t match our expectations, we get upset—anxious, angry, disappointed, uncomfortable. But life isn’t designed to fit us; life fits itself.
What do we do? We try to change it and do our feeble best to make the world conform to our reality. We try to get others to do what we think they should do. We make up a story about how the world is out to get us. We try and kill the feeling—disappointment, anger—by acting out, using drugs, etc.
The bad news is that you can’t control the fish coming at you. The good news is that instead of trying to change the world, you can learn to control yourself, the only thing you always can. Here's how to do it:
Stuck with rain at the beach, no talk about promotion, your boyfriend doesn’t call. You’re disappointed, angry, anxious. Life isn’t conforming to your expectations, your reality. Take a few deep breaths—lower your shoulders.
#2. Be aware
There is your mind that is always running—thoughts, thoughts, thoughts—and your consciousness, your awareness that your mind is running. You want to practice stepping back enough to see what your mind is doing. It’s scrambling, likely telling you all kinds of things to do to get the world to conform to your expectations—triple-checking the weather report, texting your boyfriend, obsessing about your promotion.
#3. Watch, don’t fix
Studies on patients with chronic pain have shown that one of the best ways to reduce pain is to watch and be curious about what you're feeling it, but not try to change it or make up a story about it. When we try to change our experience—when we listen to our panicky mind and do the texting, the checking, the obsessing, it often gets worse. By simply adopting a curious awareness—let’s see where this event, this experience goes—it often changes; the fish swim by.
#4. Keep perspective
Here you say to yourself that the world is not built around me, that this is a first-world problem, that I can’t control others.
#5. Appreciate the experience
If life is about walking through a sea of experiences and events that are outside your control, rather than fighting and getting upset by it, learn to appreciate it. Appreciate that bright yellow fish swimming by; notice the trees waving in the breeze as you sit at that red light. Be curious about what life is serving up today. Absorb what is happening around you, because that is not only the best you can do but can help you learn to appreciate all that is around us each moment.
#6. Have goals
All this being said, have goals. Goals help you sidestep all these traps. Yes, goals are about the future but are independent of others; they come from you. And yes, there is an outcome—reaching the goal or not—but the focus is oriented towards the process, the getting there step by step. Goals have a built-in mindfulness that's missing from expectations. Your goal may be to move into management and out of direct service, but it’s not dependent on whether or not your boss retires or if she likes you.
Goals are about challenges and desires, and what you want to become or ultimately do, while expectations get into the weeds of specificity, about events or emotions you can’t control.
Thinking this way is something that takes practice, a rewiring of your brain, but it gets easier, more automatic over time. Set goals, skip the expectations, practice awareness. As the Buddhists say, “If you live without expectations, you’re a happy person.”