A good friend wrote me an email this morning that included a lament on her current less-than-ecstatic mood. Her assessment of her options seemed to be missing something and this seemed like the perfect forum to respond. She said:
“I keep bouncing between being ecstatic and maudlin (in a teenage way, not a manic depressant one) for short periods, which is kind of irritating. It didn’t click until yesterday that I’m currently in a transitional period, and sadly, I don’t like to be in flux. I like things to be settled and I enjoy having my expectations closely mirror reality. This leaves me with only one choice: muddle through until I get to the next place I’m meant to be and try to make the most of being where I am at the moment (irritatingly unsettled.)
After her comments, she asked me for a book recommendation from my favorite spiritual teacher, Pema Chodron, since Pema has so many amazing writings on finding (and redefining) the elusive state of happiness. Oddly enough, a blog post I’d read this morning had me already thinking about Pema and similar questions.
Dear friend of mine, and anyone who has ever felt as she does, go read or listen to Pema’s True Happiness. Life-alteringly good. I was listening to the audiobook just last night, and it seems to hold more wisdom with every successive listen.
I believe what you are experiencing, indeed, what many people struggling to find happiness experience, is the evil trap of expectations. In the book, Pema asks: What if your happiness does not depend on getting what you want? Breathe that in. Think of everyone whose happiness you admire, whose solidity of peace and contentment seems to be a part of them, not a part of their environment. Put another way, what if getting what we want doesn’t always lead to happiness? What if our expectations for what makes us happy are wrong?
Personally, I believe that expectations are the root of all evil. Well, perhaps that’s a bit strong, but living life with expectations basically means that you’re trying to predict the future, and base your happiness on the degree of correctness of your predictions. Not only are we wrong most of the time, but even when the outcome is good, perhaps even better than we expected, some part of us is usually disappointed that our expectations weren’t met. Intellectually, this is just ridiculous.
Perhaps you expect that friends will throw you a huge surprise birthday party at your favorite restaurant. You’d planned what to wear to the party, your gracious thank-you speech, and instead your spouse whisks you off at the last minute for a terrific weekend out of town. And perhaps you find yourself a little disappointed even as you’re enjoying yourself at the hotel pool. Does that make any sense? Expectations make it hard to enjoy life unless we guess exactly right. And sometimes, even when we’re right, reality doesn’t quite live up to our hopes, and we’re still disappointed. So what’s a happiness-seeker to do?
Throw the expectations out the window.
Yes, it’s a bit scary at first. It requires some getting used to living in flux, not “controlling” where you’re going by dictating what you expect and how fast you’d like it to happen. And I’m not advocating never looking forward to something, or tossing planning aside for spontaneity. But adopting a wait-and-see attitude, truly internalizing the idea that life, karma, God, or however you define the order of the universe, will bring you exactly what you need, brings peace. Suddenly, there’s no reason to try to guess what that might be in store, because you probably couldn’t guess anyway – why bother? And you also realize that the spaces between your expectations, the ones you’d been “living through” to get to the good stuff, are the good stuff. There are no moments to be just tolerated while you anticipate that party. Every moment is equally short, and to be cherished with the same fervor.
Let go of the steering wheel. Realize that life is not defined by what you think will make you happy nearly as much as by what actually does make you happy. Sometimes those things surprise you. Many times you’ll miss them if you’re hanging on to an expectation, looking past the now to that hope.
This is a central idea to my happiness manifesto, and one that I haven’t quite put into complete thoughts. I welcome your comments, and look forward to writing more on this to come. Until the, peace be with you, my friend. Enjoy your transistion as much as you look forward to being settled. There is beauty and mystery in every moment.