One of the trickiest myths about meditation is that it’s a way to clear your mind of thoughts. Many people (myself included) start out meditating with the unrealistic expectation that the practice will stop their thoughts from arising.
I used to think that sitting to meditate meant you would become filled with a magical white light of wisdom and clarity. When I traveled to India to learn to meditate, I realized that meditation involved lots of moments of physical discomfort, distraction, judgment in response to distraction — the list goes on. And so that myth was quickly debunked. But rather than accept that my expectations were off, I continued to grip to a fixed idea of what should be happening.
Having expectations about others and ourselves — and overthinking about the ways we “should” feel, act, and think — is sometimes inevitable, even if we are able to recognize expectation as a common source of disappointment and self-judgment.
This pattern happens for most of us in the context of meditation, but it’s also something we tend to see in most facets of our lives. Years ago in Washington D.C. during the spring, I made plans with a friend to see the Tidal Basin area with all those cherry trees in bloom. I had visited the previous year, but only at night. This year, my friend was determined to get me there during the day.
The delicate pink blossoms looked so beautiful against the sturdy D.C. landscape, accompanied by the early-spring warmth. That is, I was moved until my friend frowned, looked at me, and lamented, “Oh no! It’s past the peak!”
Immediately, I felt disappointed that the scene wasn’t the ideal, and began questioning my positive reaction. Such is the nature of distortion, and our conditioning.
Ironically, the aspiration to be “spiritual,” regardless of what that means, can get in the way of being present and feeling connected to ourselves. We may be seeking “truth,” and yet committing to the idea of a spiritual journey may involve denying the truth about what we’re feeling.
I used to joke that since the title of my first book was Lovingkindness, the title of the “shadow version” could be The Tyranny of Lovingkindness. If I don’t feel compassionate toward myself, I’d think, what am I doing wrong? Am I not spiritual enough?
It seems ironic that spiritual practices can cause us to feel more self-conscious about our behaviors, feelings, and thoughts than we did to begin with. The Buddhist meditation teacher Kamala Masters told me years ago that she was once sailing with a group of friends in Hawaii when she found herself feeling seasick. Kamala’s friends encouraged her to swim in the ocean to ease her queasiness, but Masters was a bit apprehensive about not having a life vest. Since her friends dove in alongside her, Masters went in without a life vest, and was enjoying herself until a squall blew up abruptly. The friends still aboard the boat couldn’t lower the sails in time, and the boat began blowing away. Kamala began panicking.
Kamala has dedicated her life to the teachings of the Buddha. So one might think, as some of her friends certainly did, that her experience in the ocean was a poignant opportunity to reveal her practice of letting go, self-compassion, and skillful recognition of impermanence and suffering. In the midst of the panic, her friends asked, “Kamala, what if these are your last moments?” Surely, Kamala knew what she might’ve said as a teacher of Buddhist meditation — she could’ve emphasized her commitment to love and compassion. But Kamala instead realized her first priority — the pursuit of truth — and answered, “What I want right now is that boat!”
Sometimes, we may have expectations for our behavior or thoughts that are productive. We may challenge ourselves to practice more compassion or to meditate for ten minutes a day because we know it makes us feel good, even if we’re “not in the mood.” The issue isn’t having expectations, but where the expectations are coming from.
Kamala might’ve been able to talk about the importance of love and compassion in most other moments, but in the midst of panic, she didn’t let her desire to project a particular image of herself stand in the way of recognizing what her truth was in that moment — that she wanted the boat! As the Buddha instructed, we learn a lot about whether our actions and thoughts are skillful or unskillful based what our intentions are.
If we are overly attached to a persona, such as that of “being spiritual,” we tend to put too much pressure on embodying that persona. We glue ourselves to expectations, and lose the sense of flexibility, presence, and connection that is actually much more relevant to spirituality and self-discovery. This is the tyranny of aspiration.
Deep spirituality isn’t just about having a rigorous meditation practice or reciting spiritual texts correctly. It’s about asking questions and challenging our beliefs, and the beliefs of others. Sometimes that means pushing back on things we might, at face value, identify as spiritual — like Kamala’s wanting the boat to come back in a moment of panic.
I used to want to use Buddhism as a way of becoming perfect. After all, there is comfort in an ideal. But the more difficult and more alive part of my spiritual practice was realizing the power of openness — in directly experiencing uncertainty, distress, and ambiguity.