Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What are you expecting?

Barry Schwartz gave a TED talk in 2005 that, at the time, really resonated with me (view his talk here). In this talk, psychologist Schwartz talks about the relationship between choice and satisfaction. More specifically, his conclusion is that too little choice leads to suffering AS DOES too much choice. Why? Because having a lot of options raises our expectations of the outcome. The more choices we have, the more information at our fingertips, the more we expect these choices to lead us where we want to eventually be.

I first started thinking about expectations when I trained for a running event. I'd been a runner for much of my life, starting as a mid-fielder in soccer. I loved soccer. Loved chasing down the ball, loved chasing down the player with the ball. There wasn't a stopwatch, but rather an immediate goal right in front of me: get to the ball! As my brief soccer career came to a close (as many high school sports stories do upon graduation), I continued running and eventually decided to enter a race. I embarked on a training regimen that included running for time, so each run began by strapping a stopwatch onto my wrist before tying on my shoes and running out the door (don't you just love the convenience of running?!). I found the stopwatch difficult and distracting. My previous running experience involved no expectations about time versus distance covered; I just put my shoes on my feet and ran. Now, with the clock ticking seconds away, I was pressed to run a specific distance within a specific time. I felt a lot of pressure to perform, to meet my time limit, to improve. I expected myself to run fast. And then, to run faster. However, quite the opposite happened - each run became more of a struggle than the previous one. The joy was sucked out of running as the pavement sucked the life out of my legs with each step. In the end I raced my race, I achieved my goals, and then I quit. I took the watch off and never put it on again. Ahhh, the relief. Running was free once again.

This little life experience seemed to corroborate Schwartz's theory that "the key to happiness is low expectations." Or, in my case, no expectations. This approach leaves more room to be pleasantly surprised. It leaves us open to possible outcomes that are limitless and acceptable. And I agree...but lately I've been thinking that there is a bit more to this theory.

Let's begin with the very definition of "expectation", which is a belief that something will happen or that someone will do something in the future. Right off the bat we can see that our mind is in the future. We've mentally left our physical body for an idea of some action that may or may not happen; for something that simply does not exist. In fact, many times we've pinned a large part of our happiness on the fulfillment of our expectations. It is like putting all of the proverbial eggs in the place where you expect that some basket will appear at some future point. In the meantime, those eggs are left to wallow in their fragility, ready to be cracked or crushed at any given moment. And this is precisely what happens to the body when we vacate it mentally. We begin to feel the stress of trying to hold on to something that does not exist and experience higher and higher levels of stress. At some point we might even begin doubting the fulfillment of said expectations and become anxiety-ridden or depressed or both. So what is a person to do? Erase all expectations in life? What about our goals? What about working towards our vision of the foreseeable future? What about our DREAMS?!

Keep them. Keep all of them. Keep your goals. Keep your visions. Keep your dreams. But don't live in them. Be present in what you are doing right now. If the present moment serves the future, we need not worry about the future. It will materialize in our lives like a gift. It is what we are doing right now that will determine what the future holds. Then, be open to being wrong. Be open to change. Be open to the idea that you are limitless and, as Whitman said, you contain multitudes. There is no guarantee that the future will be what we envision, even if we are working presently towards it. But there is a guarantee that what you are doing at this very moment is going to determine it. So be present. Be here, right now. Be engaged in each moment because each moment actually exists.

The mind will wander. It will travel to tomorrow, next week, next year. The mind will plan and worry. The mind will fear that what we want will not materialize. This is normal. This is part of what it is to be human. When this happens, inhale and say to yourself "here in this body"; exhale and say to yourself "now in this moment." Recognize the action you are taking right now. Trust in what you are doing at this very moment. Bring the mind back to what is actually happening. This is the practice. Breath by glorious breath.

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