I volunteer at a prison, participating with inmates in meditation and mindfulness. The work is meaningful and worth the one-hour drive each way. Last month, I arrived at 8:15am, only to be told our program was cancelled. The news was disappointing—these inmates value our mindfulness group—but I wasn't angry or frustrated. My only option was to get in the car and drive home. On route, I noticed the beautiful spring landscape: trees in a variety of colors, fields of new growth, wildflowers in the ditch. I was aware enough to realize: If I'd chosen to blame someone or be angry, I wouldn't enjoy the scenery. Letting go freed my heart and mind.
Fast forward to the afternoon. I needed a battery-powered, small digital clock. I began this errand with an expectation: a simple clock should be easy to find. Yet store after store didn't have it. My frustration built, so I stopped the search and returned home. Hours later I realized how irritable and constricted I felt. I compared this constriction to the ease on my drive back from prison. These juxtaposed events were vastly different.
When I volunteer in prison, I have clear intentions with no expectations. My intentions are to be present and available; to help and heal others; to hold nothing back. If class gets cancelled, that's part of the process (and part of my mindfulness practice). Yet when I run errands, I have solid expectations: This will be quick and easy; my needs will be met. These assumptions lead to disappointment, which can morph into anger and blame.
Expectations are interesting. If something exceeds our expectations, we're happy, but only briefly, and then we move to the next thing. If something disappoints our expectations, we're frustrated, dismayed, judgmental, and often stuck. In both directions, we're not content.
It's most helpful to drop expectations; to let go of how we think things are "supposed to be." But wait: Won't we become lazy, non-discerning, uncaring people? I don't believe so. We can put in serious effort without expectation of a specific outcome. When I attach to outcome, I'm stuck. When I work hard from intention, I open to possibility. When I expect people to act a certain way, I'm unhappy. When I see people anew, I open to love.
Expectations are a habit, and habits can change. Often I catch myself after the fact. When I reflect on a difficult experience, I ask: How was it supposed to be? My mind floods with expectations and judgments. Bingo: there's the suffering. Noticing is the first step. And when I notice, I try to smile. Because life isn't supposed to be a certain way. Life just is. This world wasn't created to meet my whims and expectations. When I let go—bit by bit—this complicated world opens up in a beautiful way.