Last week somebody asked, "What do Buddhists do on Christmas?"
This is it. We meditate. Some of us are doing an all-day meditation retreat.
It's nice and quiet and peaceful here today, unlike some of the Christmas days
in my life.
Thinking about giving a talk on Christmas day brought up a lot of memories of Christmas as a child, and all the expectations that went along with it. This day is perhaps the biggest day for expectations in the year.
I was born into a Jewish family. My parents were of the generation that came of age during the depression, and they wanted their children to have a different experience, to make sure we weren't deprived of anything they could give us. So we celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas both.
Christmas, of course, was the most exciting because you went to sleep at night and then things appeared. If you're little and stay asleep, then you don't know where these things come from. But from very early on, you know that they're going to appear, and some of them will be for you. So morning comes and you wake up and go out into the front room and there're all these packages wrapped up in colorful paper with fancy bows. At least that's how it was in my house.
So everyone's real excited. Parents to see the surprise and pleasure on their children's faces and children to tear apart the packages and others to join in the fun. We all plan for a wonderful day. But maybe it's not so wonderful in reality. The family all gets together, maybe lots of people in and out of the house. And maybe Uncle Joe drinks a bit too much and has to throw up in the back yard. And Aunt Fanny makes a pass at her sister's husband, and the sister gets mad at both of them and pouts all day. The teenagers may be smoking dope where they think nobody can see them and acting accordingly. And the little kids are fighting over whose toy is whose.
We have all sorts of expectations. But expectations can lead to disappointments. Next week, we'll expect that things will change because we are beginning a new year. On our birthdays, we expect that being one year older will change us, we'll automatically be more mature, we'll finally get our lives together. But all of that is just notions in our heads. It has very little to do with our true understanding that comes from our bellies.
One more example. My mom, who was a real sweetheart, also had some funny ideas, not her ideas alone, but those of her generation and the culture in which she grew up. I remember one time--spring vacation was coming up and I was teaching school so would have a week off--I asked her to come with me and the kids and we'd go some place different for the week.
She got excited as we planned to go to Northern California to visit friends. But when we called them to confirm, it turned out that they had a houseful of guests and had no room for us. So I suggested we go camping instead; I did that with the kids a couple of times a year anyhow.
Now, this was not a very realistic expectation for me to have of my mom. She was a city girl who grew up in Chicago, and even though we now lived in the suburbs of Southern California, she rarely went out in the backyard, much less to uncivilized places with outhouses and bugs and animals. But I had the strange idea that she might enjoy this experience.
She was very disappointed about not going where we had planned originally. But she kept her teeth clenched and pretended she was happy anyhow. We went out to the desert, to Joshua Tree, and put up our tent. The wind was blowing constantly, and it was chilly. Every morning, she woke up, put on her deodorant and make-up and swept in front of the tent. After a couple of days, I could no longer stand to watch her suffer and drove her home.
The problem with Mom wasn't that she couldn't enjoy different things, nor even that she couldn't deal with disappointment. It was that she couldn't let go of her expectations. She wanted things to be the way she wanted, but pretty much didn't expect them to work out anyhow. As I was growing up, I remember her often saying, "Don't get your hopes up, or you'll just get disappointed." We can say that, but we can only avoid disappointment if we let go of our attachments to our expectations.
Thoughts fill our minds, and we take them very seriously as though they are the truth revealed to us by some higher power. Expectations are just more thoughts--the sensory impressions of the working of our minds. They don't have much to do with the real world. They distract us from our precious moments of here and nowness and get in the way of our seeing clearly. If we understand this, we have a better chance of letting go of our thoughts. For that is all we need to do, see them and let them go, just as we see a butterfly, appreciate its beauty, and turn our attention to the next moment.
Expectations prevent us from seeing ourselves and what exists in our world with clarity. For example, our relationship, marriage, partnership may break up. We may say that it was all the other person's fault because they did this and they did that and they did a very long list of transgressions that don't fit into our expectations. We may not understand that relationships are interactions and depend on both parties' efforts in order to be tenable. If it's somebody else's fault all the time, we don't have to take the "blame," but we also don't get any credit. It's up to us to do the best we can in order to be happy.
When we allow ourselves to open up enough to see what went wrong, we may have better luck with our next relationship. Otherwise, we may push other people away out of fear of failure or continue to have relationships that never quite work out.
Sometimes our expectations become self-fulfilling prophesies. We expect something of the world or of ourselves or of another person. Because we have those expectations, we behave as though they are reality. If someone announced that there was going to be a riot at Hollywood and Vine tomorrow night, a lot of people would go there to see it. And if there wasn't a riot, they might create one to satisfy their expectations.
I recently spoke to a friend of mine who lives in Utah. She told me that people in that state have a big concern about the millennium, that is, the year 2000, because they believe that the world will end at that time. If that's true, we only have a few years left. We can never tell how long we will be alive, anyhow. But apparently a lot of people are preparing for this time by buying weapons so they can protect themselves when this disaster occurs.
I don't understand why one might need a weapon if the entire world is going to end, but the important point is that they are building their lives around an idea. There is no way to know what will happen in the future and no way to know when and how we will die. A good reason for us to do the best we can in every moment.
We expect ourselves to be perfect, important, significant, advanced, and more. When we are not those things, we become judgemental and disappointed. This happens to a lot of people as they continue their meditation practice; it can be a sticking point. Our minds settle, and we see more clearly. We see who we are and what we do and are not always pleased with ourselves. We may say to ourselves, "I am no good, I've failed. I can't do any better than this, and it's not good enough." So we reject ourselves, have no compassion for ourselves, because we haven't yet attained the wisdom that allows us to accept ourselves without passing judgement. We are human beings, and that includes our imperfections.
When we expect to do something in a certain way and then we find that doesn't work, a conflict is created inside of our minds. That conflict distracts us from our real work. We need to become mindful and see this process without expectations. Changing our habits is very difficult and can't be accomplished with sheer will power and gritted teeth. Most of us expect that we should be able to do it, and then we are disappointed with ourselves. We try all the ways others suggest, and we feel like failures if we can't do what's expected. Until we can relax, open up, be clear, we can't do it.
When I first met my teacher, he smoked. He preferred a pipe, but I also saw him smoke cigarettes. After a few years, he decided to stop. He said, "A lot of my students are giving up smoking; I should also give up smoking." We didn't even realize how unhealthy a habit it was back then. But he decided, and he stopped. He never went around picking up other's cigarette packs, or borrowing cigarettes, or even sitting next to someone while they were smoking so he could inhale the smoke, although I've certainly seen such behavior in others who were trying to break the habit. Suto was very Zen. He didn't think about it; he just did it. Make a decision and do it. Don't wobble.
He didn't have expectations of himself, as far as I could tell. He just saw that he didn't need to do that anymore, so he stopped doing it. But he was very advanced in his practice. He was open and easy and relaxed.
I'll just mention the posture of meditation, because I notice that some people sit tensely. Posture is very important in practice. If you have the position and posture down, it's much easier to reach a state of samadhi. When you sit tense and tight, you're using a lot of muscle power to hold yourself up. When you relax and sit as though you are hanging by a wire from the ceiling to the top of your head, your body is in line. Then energy flows smoothly through your chakras. Put your mind in your belly.
What would happen to us if we dropped our expectations? Would we ever achieve anything? Could we ever have an impact on the world?
If everyone dropped their expectations, we would all live peacefully. We would be living in the moment instead of our gray matter. Saying things based on the reality of here and now rather than on our intellectualization.
From the point of view of anyone who is following a monk's path, expectations are very important. This way of living is more intense in terms of practice than we can manage while living as a householder. Not everyone wants it nor is cut out for it. One of the hardest parts is that non-monks have expectations of monks in addition to the expectations we have of ourselves. People may think that, because someone wears robes, they have attained enlightenment. Of course, it's not true. But when they see a monk acting in a way that they consider "unmonkly" they are disappointed.
People also feel this way about their parents when they are children. We only begin to realize they are simply human beings when we are adults. Our teachers. Our government officials. All the people we expect to be beyond human foibles. No one is. We all have Buddha nature, but we can't all manifest all the time yet.
We need to take things lightly. Yes, the world is a serious place, but maybe not so serious as we take it. We make little things into big deals because of expectations. We take our interrelationships more seriously than need be, because we are always projecting into the future. We say, "Okay, now I've found this person, and I'm going to be with this person forever." So when you're with the person, you are being with that idea of forever, imagining what it will be like. But you're missing out being with that person now. Because we have expectations about the relationship, each time the person says something that might indicate they don't plan to stay with us forever, we get real nervous. And we miss being together. Being aware. Being fully in the moment.
This morning in the L.A. Times comic section, Calvin and Hobbes is very incisive. Calvin says, "I'm getting disillusioned with these New Years. They don't seem very new at all. Each new year is just like the old year. Here another year has gone by and everything's still the same. There's still pollution and war and stupidity and greed. Things haven't changed. I say what kind of future is this? I thought things were supposed to improve. I thought the future was supposed to be better."
Hobbes replies, "The problem with the future is that it keeps turning into the present."
In Zen, we talk a lot about this moment. Attain this moment. We don't need to attain fame and fortune. Fantasies of such a life are more appealing than the reality from what I can see. We may think we'd like it, but when we see how it affects people who do attain such things, we may prefer to keep our lives simple. Our Buddha nature is clouded over by our greed and our anger and our ignorance of how the world really works. But to attain the moment is to have it all. And more and more. Moment after moment.
What are you doing now? Just do that. Just be here and now. Let your expectations flow through, along with your feeling/thoughts, dreams, opinions, attachments. Feel them fully. Watch them clearly. But don't grasp on. You don't need to clutch onto any one of them; more will come when each one leaves.
We come into this world empty-handed. We leave this world empty-handed. If we live empty-handed, we can be in the now and experience it all fully. Without expectations of ourselves that separate us from reality. Without expectations of others.
As always, I don't have answers for you. Each one of us must find our own answers. When I speak on a topic, I share my own explorations and encourage you to pursue it. Expectations is a good topic for meditation; take it as a koan. Look at who is doing the expecting. If no expectations, then what?
Each moment. Only that.