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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

When Meditating, Let Go of Expectations.

It is important to sit with the clear intention to be present. At the same time, we need to let go of expectations. In a very real sense, what happens when we sit is none of our business.

The practice is to accept whatever arises instead of trying to control our experience. What we can control is our wise effort to be present with what is. We can spend a lot of our sitting time dwelling on memories of past sittings or fantasizing of those to come.

When we read or hear about the benefits of meditation, it is tempting to dwell on the stories of wonderful outcomes instead of doing the work of actualizing these possibilities ourselves. There can be a big gap between what we have read about and what is actually happening. Sitting is a way of putting our bodies behind our aspirations.

-Narayan Liebenson Grady, "The Refuge of Sitting" (Winter 2003)

James: Nothing breeds discouragement with our meditation practice more than having expectations of how it is "supposed to be." That is why I like this quote about using meditation to just be present with your mind in whatever state you find it in. To become aware of our mind and what it is reflecting from inside our subconsciousness at any given moment is enough practice to work on for a lifetime. As much as we like to think we have things figured out in this existence the reality is that most of us are clueless, and bumbling through life like an inexperienced boy scout crashing through the forest.

In keeping with the analogy, I was always told when I was a boy scout that if I ever got lost to just sit down next to a tree and stay in that area. It makes it easier for people to find you as you aren't a moving target and you don't waste energy needed to sustain being lost for an indefinite period of time. Spiritually, we are lost in the woods. The woods being samsara while staying put in one place is akin to sitting down to meditate and center our mind in one place. When our mind is resting in the present moment we stop wasting energy chasing expectations and come to terms with what's really going on in that spinning washing machine like mind of ours.

Only when we accept what is bubbling up from our subconsciousness can we truly understand what is causing our suffering. Yet (as the quote warns us) don't expect every meditation session to ease your suffering. It seems that meditation is a bit like a box of chocolates (as Forest Gump would say) "You never know what you're gonna get." Sometimes meditation can make you feel a bit worse before you feel better because it will dredge up a long hidden obstacle. But don't freak out and stop meditating--it's good to dig up that shit because you're now aware of it and being aware is useful because you know where to focus your energies. Regardless of what happens when you meditate, it's all beneficial. There is nothing in life that isn't beneficial. It's our mind that says otherwise but the mind is exactly where the problem lies in the first place!! We can't rely upon the very mind that deludes us to bring us back to reality.

The mind might not want to reflect on something painful and seek to cast it aside as unhelpful but perhaps that's the exact reason to NOT cast it aside but to focus extra attention upon it. Perhaps the mind casts it aside because it knows that to focus upon it would mean it would have to see things differently and it doesn't want to do that because old habits are hard to break. Yet habit energy is what propels us incessantly through this cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Habit energy is another way of saying karma.

The mind isn't our friend--It's a delusion in an of itself, so of course it's going to try and distract us with doubt, which is one of the five hindrances Buddha taught to be aware of. Meaning, even BUDDHA faced those obstacles to meditation or else how would he be aware of them to warn us? So, you're in good company in facing obstacles to your meditation practice--that's what I try to keep reminding myself. Buddha and countless other greats in Buddhist history faced similar trials. So, in it's basic form meditation is simply about watching the mind--keep a eye on it to see where it has led us astray and where it would continue to like to lead us astray. Above all else don't feel bad if you can't always formally meditate because awareness can be had while doing anything. Washing the dishes mindfully or taking a mindful walk around a park. That's the beauty of Buddhism--it can be practiced anywhere. Not just in a formal meditation posture.

ADDENDUM: Special thanks to Philip Ryan over at Tricycle for the quote.

~Peace to all beings~

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Paul Garrigan said...

Thanks for the reminder. I think that expectations really are a huge problem for me in meditation; they gets in the way. It is often when nothing appears to be happening that the work really gets done.

I also worry that too many expectations might be sending the meditation practice in the wrong direction; they can delude me. I would love to be able to approach meditation with a blank sheet, but it is difficult to do this. Too many expectations might mean a form of self-hypnosis rather than actual progress.

Rob Gee said...

"Only when we accept what is bubbling up from our subconsciousness can we truly understand what is causing our suffering."

Yes! My first deep meditation was the most painful experience of my life. It ended with me sobbing in tears over trauma that had been suppressed in my subconscious for my entire life; trauma related to a near-death experience I had when I was about one year old, and further trauma related to my upbringing.

These experiences are invaluable, because by shining the light of awareness on our traumatic experiences and observing them mindfully we can transform them into a growth experience where before they were simply subconscious hindrances to our day-to-day functioning. Deep knots, as Thay Hanh would call them.

I do want to say that the seemingly casual use of the word expectation, here with negative connotations, has me a little disturbed. I write extensively about expectation on my blog, with slightly different meaning.

There is a word for meditating without expectation, I can't place it right now. It is the yogic form of meditation involving the cessation of thought in order to achieve expansion of consciousness. This has its place, but when we speak of Buddhist meditation -- particularly mindful meditation -- I feel it is important to emphasize not that we have no expectation, but rather that we have *right* expectation.

Expectation is defined as the anticipated result of uncertainty. Speaking in terms of the way our mind processes the Universe, I use the word expectation to refer to the effect our consciousness has on determining the reality we experience through anticipation of uncertainty -- including the reality of our thoughts.

For example, if I meditate with the intent of discovering a subconscious knot and untying it, that becomes a subconscious expectation. The expectation is that in meditation the knot will be revealed to me. Thus, I am meditating with a clear expectation.

If I meditate on my unity with all of existence, often times I will cause my brain to resonate with the other consciousnesses in the Universe to achieve a kind of shared consciousness. This is driven by expectation, as well.

So I guess what I'm saying is that it is not fair to say that the best way, or only way, to effectively meditate is by abandoning all expectations. What I focus on is disciplining my mind so that I have *right* expectation which follows my intent.

More on this subject here:

Rob Gee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rob Gee said...

As an aside, it is arguably impossible to be without expectation. I know I expect certain things when I meditate, including physical sensations, and I have very little control over that. These expectations stem from years of experience and are a result of how my meditation practice evolved.

I guess if we take expectation in a less literal sense it can be said that we can meditate without expectation, but in the literal sense we always have expectations that stem from habit, memory, projection. Expectation is subconscious, not conscious, so a thought we have about meditation could form a subconscious expectation years after the thought occurred because it is part of our wide ranging memories that we subconsciously consult when forming expectations.

Without expectations we would not form or experience reality.

They call him James Ure said...

@Paul...It is difficult to do. I find what helps is to just sit down and focus on the breath while listening mindfully to the sounds around me. It helps center me into the meditation and allows me to better address whatever enters my mind stream.

I don't push anything out of my mind because it is appearing to my mind stream for a reason. So, I welcome it, acknowledge it, think about it if I think that's necessary.

However, then let it go and it helps letting it go to think of the thought as a cloud passing across the sun. Soon the sun (or mind stream) is clear again. I find visualizations like that help keep the meditation fresh and fluid.

Too many expectations can seem to lead to suffering if we our meditation doesn't live up to what we've hyped it up to be.

@Rob...Indeed those experiences are invaluable. You're right that when the energy they take from us is seen differently they can be great motivators and teachers.

As for expectations, I think the main gist of it is to avoid expecting something amazing to happen. Like enlightenment. Or expecting that when you meditate you should notice some cool mystical experiences.

Now, meditation to concentrate upon a specific problem isn't necessarily bad as there is a type of meditation geared toward that. Vipassana or insight meditation. The Dalai Lama also talks of contemplation meditation in using it to contemplate how we can solve problems in our life.

I don't think there's a best way per se with meditation but rather that TOO many expectations can easily discourage us from meditating at all.

Rob Gee said...


True that meditating with expectation can be discouraging... But on the other hand, how would Buddha have ever achieved enlightenment if he had not dedicated himself to continuous days, and then weeks and months, of meditation with the clear expectation that some incredible insight would come of it?

Overcoming discouragement and remaining dedicated while never relinquishing expectation of transcendent experience seems to me to be the ticket to life-changing meditation.

This has inspired an article on my blog which I hope you will take the time to read/watch later today after I get to writing or recording.


They call him James Ure said...

@Rob...I think it comes down to balance. True, we need to have goals in mind to our Buddhist practice but we also shouldn't expect too much. The middle path I guess. ;)

Rob Gee said...


Touche! The middle path it is.

I published an article on this subject titled Āśābandha, meditation and expectations because I find it so intriguing.

I am not necessarily opposed to meditating for the present moment or the idea of sometimes meditating with no other expectation than to just be present. In fact, I believe mindful meditation to be the cornerstone of daily practice. I also feel, though, that other types of meditative experience are very important for cultivating the Buddhist worldview in a way that transcends intellectual understanding and becomes something real, something tangible, livable, lovable. That is what this article is really about.



Arhat Ariya said...

Awake, James Ure!

Immediately write in defense of the life of the Dalai Lama!

Long live Tenzyn Gyatso, the XIVth Dalai Lama of Tibet!

Paul Garrigan said...

Thank You James, I think what you said about things coming into the mindstream for a reason makes a lot of sense. I suppose all phoenmena should be treated the same during meditiation. I just forget so easily.

Anonymous said...

thief_wins said...

Pleasure and pain. All behavior is understandable through this lens. It's the force behind all our habitual actions. We can be aware of it to change how we act, feel. Or we can let go of our expectations. Pleasure and pain, what are these things?

Doug said...

I have always been musical and have been meditating for years. One of my biggets distractions during meditation is internal music- so I have learned to create breath in - breath out tones in my head that remove all of the background music that I have difficulty stopping. Chanting helps also.

They call him James Ure said...

@Doug...That's great!! I find chanting to be a great way to ease into meditation and center the mind.

When I come to awareness that my mind is off someplace I recite this mantra, "Breathing in I am present, breathing out I am aware." This helps me center back with myself.

I find though too that it helps sometimes to just let the mind go where it will go for a bit and contemplate what it's saying to us. Then gently bring it back to centered awareness.

I'm not a teacher but that seems to help me. I've been told by teachers that meditation isn't necessarily about blocking out all thinking but sometimes special needs demand it a bit.w

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