Letting go of expectations

This could mean a lot of things. It's not uncommon for people to say that what it means is that you should just sit: that you shouldn't actually try to do anything. If you just sit, the story goes, then that's enlightenment right there. Or something. I have to admit that it feels a bit hand-wavey to me.

There are two ways to take this advice. The first is to take it literally. This can be a very useful practice, particularly for getting out of the habit of striving in meditation. I think that's why we westerners hear it so often—striving is kind of our thing. So if you are having trouble with striving in meditation, "do nothing" meditation can be a really good way to reset that. Do nothing for a month, then go back to your regular practice and see if the striving has lessened. Giving yourself permission to literally just sit there and do nothing can be incredibly freeing.

But the other meaning of this is a lot subtler. If you are trying to "learn to meditate," you are probably following some practice. The practice I follow involves ten stages, from beginner to adept meditator.  What I do in my daily practice is to identify the stage I am experiencing that day, and then do the practices specific to that stage.   Someday maybe I'll experience the "adept meditator stages" on a regular basis.

And therein lies the problem. I'd really like to get to that point. Apparently it's quite nice: not only are the absorptions (jhanas) extremely pleasurable, but your mind becomes so clear that you can do some exploration. But to get there, you have to get through the earlier stages, developing skills as you go so that when you sit, the practices of the earlier stages just happen automatically, and the practice you need to do intentionally is quite advanced; ironically, the more advanced practices are easier, in the same way that skiing is easier for an expert skier than a beginner.

But as with skiing, there is no way to force this.   The more you try to make it happen, the less it happens. So how is it possible to do anything at all to bring about change?

It's hard to explain, but see if this sounds familiar. Suppose you sit there meditating, and you have a picture in your mind, an idea, of what you want to have happen, and you try to make that happen. How likely is that to work? The answer is that in fact it's quite commonly the case that you can make it happen for a little while, maybe a minute or two, maybe in the extreme even for as long as a half hour. But it's exhausting, and it's not really meditating.

The way that meditation produces the kind of results that we hope for in our practice is that we train our mind to do it automatically. When we have trained the mind in this way, then when we sit down, it just starts meditating without us having to try to meditate. This is the result we are trying to make happen when we strive, but striving doesn't get us any closer to having it really happen.

In order to have it really happen, we just have to do the exercises. The exercises sometimes produce really satisfying results, and sometimes produce really frustrating results. The trick to being a good beginning meditator is to stop caring which outcome happens. If something cool happens, great. If it's a dud, great. As long as we do the exercise.

How to do the exercise? Think of it like a science experiment. You decide what it is that you want to happen. You intend for it to happen. And then you watch and see what happens. When you notice that it's gone differently than you intended, be happy that you noticed. It's the noticing that is the training. The better you get at noticing, the more your mind does what you actually intend. When this noticing becomes completely automatic, then you have moved to the next stage.

But if you get upset when you notice it's "not going right," that has the opposite effect. You're actually conditioning your mind not to notice. 

So this is what it means not to have expectations. It's not that you're not trying to get better at meditating. It's not that you don't have aspirations for your practice. It's that you're doing the work, come what may, rather than expecting a specific outcome during a specific sit.