An expectation is a hope, an acknowledgement or maybe a worry that something specific will happen in the future. It is something you are waiting for. The result of an expectation is something that is received by you back from the world.
Whereas a desire is a wish for something specific to happen and is, therefore, a request that you send out to the world.
According to The Buddha’s teachings, you may have positive desires and/or negative desires. Examples of positive desires are wishing good fortune for your friends or a hope for world peace or a desire for enlightenment, etc.
Negative desires are wishes for things that won’t do you or anyone else any good. And it is negative desires that are considered by Buddhists as even the primary root cause of your dissatisfaction with the world.
The teachings then continue to say that these negative desires can be eliminated and you can achieve a state of calm acceptance. This is Nirvana which I interpret as a stillness as of the air. Others interpret it as a quenching as of a fire or as extinguishing as of a candle flame.
Expectations or Desires
I am not a Buddhist, nor do I want an in-depth discussion of Buddhist teachings here, but I do want to use old teachings to illustrate and support some of my personal life insights.
I think the main problem is not so much of desires but more of expectations.
Because in my own experience, unfulfilled expectations often lead to dissatisfaction more strongly than unfulfilled desires. This is like the old formula that happiness is the difference between desire and fulfilment and gives us a clue to what is going on here. This formula is indeed the basis for many countries’ current measures of happiness eg. in Bhutan and more recently in UK discussions.
In Gnostic teachings too, desires for good things are considered a useful motivational force for people. One such desire is to experience the “kingdom of the father” which can be likened to the heavenly realm.
It is interesting that in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, that originates in the first few centuries of the Common Era, the people ask, “When will the kingdom come?”
And the reply given is that it will not come because they are watching for it, nor because they are waiting for it and nor because the are expecting it. Nobody will make any announcement that it’s here or there. But instead, the reply is,
“The father’s kingdom is already spread out upon the earth but people do not see it.”
So, the heavenly realm is already all around us. And, in Buddhist terms, the world is already perfect just as it is. The only thing that needs to happen is that you need to wake up and open your eyes.
To live in expectation is to live for the future and not to live in the present moment.
So my view is that expectation is a major cause of confusion and dissatisfaction. It’s ok to wish for things out there in the world, but don’t expect the result you hope for to come back. That way leads to dissatisfaction.
Optimism and Pessimism
I think that expectations are intimately related to optimism and pessimism. Everyone is told to be optimistic rather than pessimistic. And both of them are attitudes towards some specific expectation that may or may not be based on a desire.
But the world does not pander to our wishes. The world is actually indifferent to our wishes. So being either optimistic or pessimistic is simply a way of trying to influence the outcome of events and neither are really valid.
My idea is to let them both go: the optimism and the pessimism. Take the middle way.
This is like the Wheel of Fortune card in the Tarot Trumps. The outer rim leads to success and failure, but the central hub leads to the middle way.
Both Buddha and Jesus referred to flowers in their sermons:
- Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
- The Buddha once gave a sermon that was totally wordless. Instead, he simply held up a flower. All the audience was confused except for one person who simply smiled to show his understanding.
The meaning of these two teachings to me is that, in both cases, the teacher is saying that, for example, flowers do not have expectations in life. They simply are what they are without doing. In nature, it seems that only people have expectations and these expectations are part of our illusions in life and we would do better to let them go.
Stop waiting and live your life now.