Expectations is a word that changes as you change, and the secret to achieving your expectations, first and foremost, is to absorb this fact. You are not the person you were as a child or adolescent, obviously. But what's less obvious is that you aren't even the person you were yesterday. The process of living brings uncountable experiences, each of which makes an impression. You don't have to use the term Karma to realise that these impressions have shaped you from day to day.
But what does this have to do with expectations?
Unless you are centred in a reliable sense of self, your old conditioning, family setting, strong impressions, and social background—all of which come from the past—are guiding your expectations, not you. To expect something is to foresee it in the future, and psychologists doing research on happiness have concluded that people are very bad at predicting what will actually make them happy. Expectations don't often live up to what the present moment brings.
Adapt to the Present
Therefore, the best way to get what you really want out of life is to constantly adapt to the present, because there is wisdom in its uncertainty. When people expect to be made sublimely happy by getting married, having children, achieving a successful career, etc., they are substituting social norms for something deeper. Those external satisfactions can make you happy, of course, but psychological research once again indicates that they are highly unreliable—one of the most stressful experiences in life is caring for an infant child, for example, which comes as a surprise to many new mothers.
The most common ways that life expectations don't turn out well include the following:
- Setting your expectations too low
- Stubbornly sticking to hopes and dreams beyond the likelihood that they will be fulfilled
- Clinging to your family's expectations of who you are or should be
- Being defeated by bad experiences or setbacks that stifle your growth
- Becoming entangled in unsatisfying work or relationships
Any of these things can become a psychological burden, and the outcome is often the same thing: constricted awareness. Whenever you hear a voice in your head that says things like, "Things always turn out badly," "I'm not good enough," I should just settle," "Great things happen to other people, not me." The voice in your head comes from the past. An old, outworn self has gained a second chance at life in mental activity that is divorced from the present moment.
We've all heard a lot about living in the now, but it's hard to realise that what makes the present moment so elusive is that it exists and doesn't exist at the same time. Most people accept that the now must exist because their lives are a string of separate experiences happening to them. But in the world's wisdom traditions, the now vanishes the instant it is noticed; awareness on the wing is an illusion when viewed from timeless awareness.
Therefore, only timeless awareness and the higher self that exists in timeless awareness is truly real. The fact that the ancient sages of India discovered and recognised this point, which is central to Vedanta, remains incredible. After all, countless people struggle to raise their life expectations, to achieve perfect happiness and experience unconditional love, yet very few realise that these things cannot be attained in the domain of ordinary clock time. This isn’t because life is somehow rigged to keep us unfulfilled but because the now, where all love, happiness, and fulfilment are actually experienced, must be grasped as timeless.
The spiritual teacher J. Krishnamurti asked a pointed question once: "Have you noticed that as soon as you say to yourself, ‘I am happy' that the happiness starts to fade, ever so little?" What he was getting at is that the instant you put an experience into words—not just happiness but any experience—you are adding to the story that you keep building up around your life. This story tries to freeze the present moment, which is impossible. All that happens in reality is that another little bit of the past has been added to the heap.
How to Revise and Raise Your Expectations
With this knowledge in mind, there are practical ways to revise and raise your expectations, starting right now. To begin with:
- Establish yourself in the reality of now through meditation. Meditation brings the mind closer and closer to the experience of its source, which is timeless.
- Place a value on becoming detached. Your true self is a witness that doesn't get stuck in drama or distracted by the stickiness of strong momentary experiences.
- Don't fall for the voice in your head. No matter what it says to influence you, repeat these words: "That's the past. I am not that person anymore."
- Don't buy into second-hand opinions. Form your own opinions, instead.
- Don't accept other people's stories about you. Whether the story is good or bad—usually it's mixed—the overall effect is to put you in a box, which is more for their comfort than anything else.
In the end, the very best thing you can do is to escape the whole rigmarole of expectations, choosing instead to live your life without them. There is deep satisfaction in the now, which eternally renews itself instead of running after illusions that come from the past and deserve to remain there.