When is the last time your life worked out the way you planned and expected it to? And if by chance a segment of it did happen to go as planned, did you feel how you expected you would according to your design? And if you did feel how you expected to, did it last forever? And if you insisted upon making it work out your way, did you feel confident that this was indeed the optimal way it could have gone?
I don't know if I've ever met somebody for whom life has both turned out how they expected and hoped it would and who has been completely content with the outcome. Yes, there are those whose plans are so narrow and whose intentions are so rigid that they have more or less managed to squeeze life into the elegant or not-so-elegant box they have created for it, but we all know pretty much what this kind of life looks like. It is highly structured, made-up, and pre-recorded with decor taken from Better Homes and Gardens, and recipes taken from Gourmet Magazine or Healthy Living. The house is the one sung about in Pete Seeger's song about "little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of tacky-tacky . . . ," and everything is always going "just fine."
The lives of these people may indeed be going as planned (yet often they are not -- for who can easefully escape illness, divorce or depression), but they are paying a high price in terms of aliveness in exchange for the success of their plans and expectations.
Life Rarely Works Out How We Expect It To
Aside from the privileged few who have in some way managed to either buy or finagle their lives into a desired set of outcomes, for most of us it doesn't work that way. Life rarely works out how we expect it to, and anything but short-term and highly concrete plans tend to turn out differently than we imagined. This may appear to be bad news, but if we want to succeed in life in a real way, we should be grateful for this fact.
Life in its essence is ordinary, but it is also wild, and really has no concern for the personal wishes, desires, expectations and plans of the human beings contained within it. Human beings have certain expectations of what life will give them, and constellate any number of plans and schemes around these expectations in an attempt to secure the likelihood of their fulfillment. But, these expectations are often borne from ideas instilled in us through cultural myths, advertisements and television commercials that are so subjective that there is no reason why even a most loving universe should or would care to satisfy them.
As human beings we did not create the universe and thus we cannot control it. Somewhere along the line, we as human beings (at least in the Western world) decided that we knew what was better for us than God or Truth did, and we thus set about trying to seize nature and psychologically control those around us. Our conscious or unconscious awareness of the intense vulnerability and fragility of our humanity, combined with the often-present feelings of psychological helplessness and abandonment accrued through living in a culture chock-full of neurosis and abuse, have left us feeling so powerless that many of us have attempted to create ourselves to be larger-than-life itself in order to feel some semblance of power or control.
Trying to Manipulate and Control Life
In spite of the obvious proof that life will not coincide with our plans and expectations, we nonetheless engage in a thorough effort to try to manipulate it that way. When we ordinarily think of manipulation, we think of intentional and maliciously based scheming, but for most of us the ways in which we attempt to manipulate life are subtle and unconscious to the point of appearing totally natural. Yet each manipulation is an expression of our basic distrust in the universe and in life as it is, as well as a fear-based desire to control life enough so that we can be confident that we will be taken care of.
Fortunately for us, life rarely turns out according to our plans and expectations. To use myself as an example: several months ago I was living in a small community in the Midwest, supported financially, engaged to be married, and fully settled into a life that I never imagined leaving. I had plans to work in Europe, go on vacation with my partner, and have completed a large research project by the year's end. In fact, however, I now live on a gorgeous hilltop in the hills of California, teach in a university, counsel clients who are on the spiritual path, help people manifest their writing dreams, and have nearly completed a book on the fullness of failure rooted in my own experience.
When Your Plans and Expectations Fail
What happened? My plans and expectations for life failed, and life then set up a program for me. Did I fail in my old life, or did that life decay in order to give rise to what was to come next? Of course, no one can answer these questions definitively for anybody else, but we can see how what from one angle may appear as abject failure can from another angle be seen as utter success.
If Life obeyed our plans and expectations, then Life itself would only be as wide as our own underdeveloped intelligence, and science tells us that as we are situated today we use less than ten percent of available mental capacity. Human selfishness and self-centeredness being what they are, without the help of life's unpredictability most people would live in a little Disneyland (whether it be a spiritual one or a Hollywood one, depending upon their tastes) in which everybody worshiped them, the sun always shone, the wardrobes changed daily, the seducers and seductresses waited longingly on all fronts, and they basically chilled out and said to hell with everyone and everything else. Things might be great, it just wouldn't be LIFE.
Although expectations and plans differ for different people, let us examine for a moment some of the common ones that people tend to place onto life. We expect life to give us happily-ever-after love and financial and worldly success; we expect life to go as planned, to provide us with a secure home and perfect health. We expect people to be how we imagine them to be, for life to provide meaning, for God to be a nice old man in the sky, and of course if we are spiritually inclined we expect to be enlightened, to transcend our egos, and to excel in whatever endeavors we set out to do.
What Are Your Expectations of Life?
We may not admit to placing such high standards on life, but this is indeed the way our ideal blueprint reads. We rarely stop to examine the nature of expectations themselves and our own feelings of entitlement in relationship to them. We rarely ask, "What am I expecting and/or demanding from this situation or from life itself?" "Where did this expectation come from?" "Are my expectations reasonable or not?" "How do I want to relate to the situation if my expectations are not met?" "Do my expectations take into account the possibility for wider and unforeseen outcomes?"
By asking these questions, we can learn far more about ourselves and about the demands we place on life. We can also begin to glimpse the possibility of a life lived less in the grips of our expectations and impositions.
In some spiritual circles it is common to hear things like, "Cease to have expectations," or even worse, "There is no longer any 'I' to have expectations." Although these ideas are noble as well as essentially true, the reality of their fulfillment is neither practical nor realistic for most of us. First, all but the few saints among us cannot just cease to have expectations at our own will. We can learn to observe our expectations, to create space around them, or to hold them lightly, but we will continue to have them. And second, most of the people who think that they no longer have expectations are simply fooling themselves. They may have had a mystical experience in which they dropped their expectations for an hour or a week or even a month, but shortly after that even the one within us who has no expectations begins to expect to have no expectations, and to expect to expect to have none, and so on. We need to cultivate awareness about our expectations, but not to expect more than that!
Having said all of this, as ordinary people we cannot not plan our lives, nor can we realistically refrain from placing expectations upon them in any consistent way. Our capacity to plan is a creative ability if we learn to use it as such, and if we discover how to make our expectations wide enough, they too can create a space for a great range of possibilities to be expressed in our lives. The task, therefore, is to consciously reconsider our relationship to our plans and expectations, working to cultivate a relaxed flexibility about them. Paradoxically, we proceed with our expectations and plans with all of our will and effort and passion while simultaneously acknowledging the inevitability of their failure to turn out how we desire them to. We "succeed" by having cultivated an attitude toward life that is both open and allowing.
Expectations in Love and Marriage
As an example of flexibility, let us return to the issue of love and marriage. As it usually stands, we meet somebody whom we fall in love with, develop or impose a previously developed set of expectations about how they should be, how they should dress, talk and act, create a set of plans with them regarding our lives together, and finally begin to pass a period of time with our new beloved in which all of our expectations and plans slowly fail us one by one. Our partner will have habits that annoy us, or dress strangely, or weigh too much or too little, or act immaturely or needy or insecure. They won't listen the way we want them to, or will talk too much, or won't touch us how we want to be touched. Or they will love us too much, or too little, or they won't want to marry, or they will want to marry too soon, or they will want five kids when we want none.
The difference at this point between a relationship that is full and satisfying and one that is a disaster -- assuming that there is "love" between us -- is that the underlying context in working relationships is that life is not going to unfold according to our expectations. Instead, we create an intention, offer that intent before life, wait to see what we are given, and then diligently go about the task of accepting what is offered and creating fullness within it.
To use another example, when embarking on a new career, planning is essential, and having high expectations will encourage us to expand ourselves to be someone capable of fulfilling our desired task. If we have neither plans nor expectations, we will not succeed in our career (though we still may succeed within ourselves, depending upon what we want for our lives). Yet again, after we have done our part of the career-planning bargain in terms of education, training and promoting ourselves, we must then be open to what is offered and be willing to make whatever it is work for us. In this way, our plans serve to create momentum in our lives and open up any number of possibilities, but do not confine us to the limits of what we imagined we wanted or needed.
The Failure of Our Expectations? Or Life Delivering Something Better?
The failure of expectations becomes a point of gain and not loss when life becomes so overwhelming or confusing or insistent upon its own way that we give up on trying to control it. We become so exhausted from swimming up the stream of control and manipulation that we finally give in. Oftentimes, when we are forced to give up we think, "I have failed," or, "I just couldn't make it work." Our own omnipotence has forsaken us and we are forced to give in to something we assume will provide us with less than we could have given to ourselves. Yet life almost always delivers far more than what we ordered.
And, sometimes we do give up on our expectations and hopes of life solely because of our own weaknesses. We hit the same wall over and over again -- whether it be in a relationship, in work, or in our cycles of depression and self-pity -- and finally just plop ourselves down against the wall in exhaustion, hoping that some miracle will occur and we will mysteriously end up on the other side of it. While we may feel defeated by our own powerlessness and failure, at this moment we have already done something extremely powerful. We have admitted to our own human weaknesses and limitations -- which is not easy for anyone to do -- and in so doing have silently said to a larger force, "If you want me to break through this, you make it possible."
There is a quality of useful humility in the act of giving up when we do it gracefully. If we give up resentfully and insist upon feeling like a victim of life, there is little grace, but there is integrity in the admission that we are unable to conquer life all the time. In our culture, we attempt to symbolize this virtue at the end of football games or Olympic competitions when the losing team or individual shakes hands with the winner or winners. Of course they may not always be genuine in their gesture, but the act is one of saying, "I failed in my hopes and expectations, but I'm willing to stand in integrity and honor in this situation." We admit to our own failure to win or for things to go the way we hoped or expected them to, and there arises a sense of dignity in that admission, for who we are essentially as human beings has nothing to do with whether or not the universe conforms to our wishes and expectations.
Furthermore, there is great truth in the proverb "Give in so as to conquer." If we apply the principles of Aikido to this consideration, we use the perceived aggression of life not giving us what we wanted it to -- which is not actual aggression but only energy -- and we take that energy all the way inside of us and then utilize it to "win" through the pure strength acquired through letting go. We win by letting life win, and when life wins, the prize is an unlimited number of possibilities -- particularly for the cultivation of inner qualities of being and fullness both within and without.
Aligning Ourselves With a Greater Force
Perhaps life has its own expectations and plan for us, and it is our job to discover what those are and live in accordance with them instead of continually attempting to impose our will on life. "Surrendering to the will of God" is what some spiritual paths call this process of relinquishing one's own will to that of God, Life, the Tao or the Universe. The idea is that there exists a Will or a Way far greater than our own that, if we align with it, will guide our lives better than we would have guided ourselves. This Way will look after not only our own best interests in the larger scheme of things (which again may or may not have anything to do with our personal desires and wants), but will also be caretaking the greater whole and orchestrating a place for us within that which will allow us to help serve and fulfill a greater good.
The process of aligning ourselves with a greater force may also be referred to as "resonance." We attempt to allow the inner chords of our own being to sound with those of the universe. With our plans and expectations floating loosely in our consciousness, we maintain an open-eyed intention to see clearly what the universe is calling for on our behalf. We hold in awareness our own desires and known capacities, while simultaneously remaining cognizant of an element in the universe that is yet unrevealed but potentially greater than anything known to us at this point in time.
Practically speaking, we can learn over time to read the signs of the universe. Again, this is a tricky task, for if our desire to give up our own will in favor of the universe's will is not as strong as our insistence upon the fulfillment of our plans and expectations, we can and will take any sign the universe provides and manipulate it in such a way that it tells us whatever we want to hear. Over time, however, and only through trial and error, we can learn to read the signs truthfully. We become effective readers of these signs when, once again, we learn to intend for our lives not only the fulfillment of our own needs and desires, but those of the greater good.
The design of life will undermine our plans and expectations. It is the only way that we as human beings will understand that we do not run the show. It is the only way we might realize that in spite of our own relative and very real greatness, we are not the Boss, and that whatever name we give to the Boss, it is a force to be respected and related to with a wise but unqualified honor and deference. It is in the lived expression of this realization that we are wholly successful.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher,
Hohm Press. ©2001. www.hohmpress.com
The Way of Failure: Winning Through Losing
by Mariana Caplan.
This book offers a direct means of using failure for: profound self-understanding; increased compassion for self and others; significant spiritual development. Instead of speaking to where we should be, this book looks to our lives as they are now, realistically -- since everybody has experienced failure in big or small ways at some time or another in life. The book deals with a subject most people consider negative or depressing, but it is actually highly inspirational, giving us permission to find joy and contentment within failure.
About the Author
MARIANA CAPLAN is the author of many books, including the acclaimed Halfway Up the Mountain, which explores the dangerous nature of premature claims to "enlightenment." She has written for Parabola, Kindred Spirit and Communities Magazine, and teaches at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco.