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Expectation as a Barrier to Practice

Every student who walks into a meditation class for the first time arrives with a set of expectations and hopes; the first thing that I do as a teacher is to ask them to leave all those expectations and hopes at the door. This is probably the hardest lesson for the beginning student – that the expectation of receiving something from the practice of meditation is actually more likely to prevent it happening. The look on students’ faces when I tell them this ranges from surprise or disbelief to frustration and anger. Zen Master Dogen said of some of his students, “their greed for gain is so deep.”

Their first thought is, “So what is the point in even starting this, if I’m not going to get anything out of it?” Then I gently explain why it is important to let go of this thinking. We are conditioned in our Western way of thinking that there must be a goal, and that if I do this or that, then there will be a tangible outcome. Having worked in the business world myself, I fully understand this. To come to a course where we have made a commitment to attend, to be told that we may not get anything out of it because we expect to, is a hard idea to get our heads around – but this is what we must do.


Let’s have a look at expectation – what is it? If we look at it solely in terms of meditation practice, it is a desire, even a need to be something else; perhaps to be a better person, or a desire to have wonderful experiences that make us feel calm or relaxed. Unfortunately, neither of these things are what meditation practice is about. Expectation in a student is a form of self-judgement – it says “I am not good enough as I am, but if I do this course I will be a much happier, wiser, calmer person.” In other words, meditation practice is going to solve a lot of my problems in life.

When we look at it like this, we realise what a weight it is to expect that meditation is going to resolve issues for us. If we can’t let go of this expectation, once we start to practice, the mind wanders; it thinks “Nothing is happening, I’m not getting anywhere”, and we get frustrated. Unless I can sit down with students and get them to talk to me about what they are experiencing, sometimes they leave. Not because they don’t like the classes, but just because they feel that “they just aren’t getting it.” Or they persevere, but always with that little critical voice that says, “You aren’t smart enough to get this, you are wasting your time.” Inevitably, they don’t get very much from the course, or certainly not as much as they would if they could just take that weight of expectation off themselves.

So bringing all of this mental baggage into a class is a roadblock even before we have sat down for the first meditation. Then, not only do we have the weight of the expectation, but we then become further frustrated because we can’t stop thinking. Again, that critical voice comes in; we are disappointed that our minds are wandering, that we can’t seem to calm down – and the more frustrated and disappointed we get, the more agitated and frustrated we become. No wonder meditation does not appear to be working! And we do all this to ourselves; this is all going on in our minds with no outside influence, not from other students, or the teacher. Isn’t it extraordinary that we put such pressure on ourselves?

How to approach our practice

I know all this, because I too was once a novice meditator going through the same frustrations that every student does. How then do we approach our practice? The simple answer is – with an open mind. I say to students right from the beginning, “Let go of all your preconceptions and ideas about what meditation is, and what it will do for you. Just sit, and very gradually you will start to see subtle changes in your life.” Meditation is not a quick fix, and like anything, it takes time and practice. I equate it to a long distance runner, or someone learning a musical instrument; it takes hours of daily practice and dedication before we start to make progress.

Years ago I used to do martial arts; I kept coming to classes, kept training, all the time feeling frustrated that I wasn’t getting it, feeling like I was a hopeless student. My instructor told me to stop thinking and keep practicing. It took me two years, before I suddenly realised that I could do particular kicks and moves; once I could do them, I never forgot – a bit like learning to ride a bike really.

Unfortunately, students come to meditation with the wrong approach; they think, “Well, this doesn’t require any expensive equipment, it isn’t physically challenging. All I have to do it sit here and breathe slowly and calm my thinking. How hard can it be?” Certainly it seems simple, but what we are doing is training the mind, and this is not easy. It is used to thinking all the time; that’s what it does. Even stopping the mind from thinking for even a few seconds for a beginning student is an achievement – not that we think in terms of goals and objectives!

Just practice

So, firstly we just sit, and the more we practice we begin to let go of this need to get somewhere or to achieve something. We need to be gentle with ourselves, accept that actually this can be quite difficult, and not get upset if we can’t quieten our thoughts for more than a couple of seconds. Meditation is not a race, and there is no prize for who can sit there quietly for the longest time without moving! The more we let go of all this weight of expectation the easier our practice becomes – and we actually start to feel lighter in ourselves.

We also begin to realise that we are already wonderful human beings, we can accept ourselves as we are; we don’t need to change our life, we just need to change the way we think about it, and our responses to people and events. This will creep up on you, and in time you will realise that you feel happier, you don’t yell at the kids or your partner anymore, [or maybe not as much!] you don’t want that next cigarette or extra glass of wine.

I tell my students the lovely Zen proverb that says, “As you walk in the fog, very gradually you begin to get wet.” Meditation seeps into us, and we don’t usually become aware of how it is working for us until we stop to have a good look at how we live, or another person points out how much we have changed. I hear this a lot from my students.

Start your practice with an open mind if you can – but I understand if you don’t. However, be open to the idea that if you can, and you are prepared to work at it, then things will start to shift for you. Just walking through that door into a class is a good start – the rest is going to be all your own work. As Zen Master Dogen said back in the 13th century, “Proceed with the mind which neither grasps nor rejects, the mind unconcerned with name or gain.”

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