Spring this year was uncharacteristically warm in Nova Scotia. Most years, April and May can feel like a drawn out extension of winter- an annual test of patience as temperatures stubbornly hang below 10°C and greening fields beckon the hesitant temperature gauge to hurry up already, to hear the song of the spring peepers, to see the sign of the first purple crocuses, to follow suit with the change of season. But this year, sun and heat more known to July took the place of our more usual cold and grey, rainy May, and in what felt like one brazen leap into twenty-degree days, that stubborn 10°C threshold became only a memory. Though with an undercurrent of climate concern, I felt like summer had arrived early- a confusing thrill. My expectations of summer started taking shape fast and frantically, most pointedly, in regard to the weather. I felt an anticipation of beautiful weeks ahead and with these seemingly extra sunny days we’d been given, less sense of urgency- a feeling familiar to me with Nova Scotia’s shorter summers- to savour, make the most of the longer days, and to get outside as much as possible. Here I was, facing my favourite stretch of the year and, it seemed, it had all begun early.
Well, June came, and it rained- at first, much welcomed after the devastation of forest fires in May. July came, and it rained some more. And some more. And then, there was flooding. “Forest fires, fog, and flooding” became the summer’s sad alliteration in day-to-day chit-chat. As July turned to August, the sun poked out and yes, finally(!) showed its face fully for one gorgeous week during which I said a timely yet heartbreaking goodbye to my dear old dog, Piper. Then August carried on, and it rained some more, with tidbits of sun here and there that teased more than eased me, my expectations now soggy and overripe. Finally, with surrender, though at times, bordering more so on the side of resignation, I let summer be what she was for me this year: an immersive training in tendencies of mind when it comes to forming and gripping too tightly to expectations, and a lesson in letting go and learning to flow with some grace (even if only morsels of it) when expectations go unmet.
The mind’s capacity for learning and in turn, tendency to form expectations of how we experience the world is adaptive and functional. For better and for worse, our conditioning through learned association and observation allows us to navigate our days without much mental energy expenditure toward basic tasks like brushing our teeth in the morning, driving to work, opening the fridge when we’re hungry, and so on. Without conscious effort, neural maps allow us to predict where to find food and water, place our loved ones, and help direct us through our physical world without us having to rediscover and relearn our way through it with each new day.
Tara Brach, whose work merges at the intersection of clinical psychology and Buddhist contemplative practices refers to these propensities of mind as our “evolutionary predicament,” and points out that the conditioned mind makes for a much better servant than master. With mind as master, we mistake our thoughts as The Truth, whereas with mind as servant we see our thoughts as yes, real- they’re actually happening as neural processes, have an impact on our physiology, emotions, and perceptions- but are not The Truth of reality, per se, which is far more accurately informed by our moment to moment incoming sense data of the world. Recognizing thought as thought, we get to engage with them without “living inside of them,” in Tara’s words. Ideally, we allow our brain maps to do their thing: to guide us through our days, to help us navigate our physical and social worlds, while recognizing the agency we maintain through a conscious mind observing the conditioned mind, seeing our expectations for what they are- a series of predictions that help us to meet our needs, automate habitual tasks, avoid pain, and experience pleasure. With conscious awareness, we see when our predictions and responses are hindering rather than helping us- when we’ve outgrow our former conditioning that was previously adaptive, that served us once upon a time, but no longer fits our present and ever-evolving lives.
While I can understand, write, and counsel on such teachings, like for all of us, lived experience is the greatest teacher and understanding is different than embodying what I know. I’ve spent plenty of time living inside of my thinking mind this summer, and especially so inside of my expectations. My “brain map” of June, July, and August included a lot more sun than rain, and certainly hadn’t accounted for grief. For more hours and days than I’d like to admit, I felt a dissonance between my mind’s expectations and my living reality. Some days, I successfully opted to “make the most of it” with rainy day swims in the ocean and early morning writing sessions made cozier by foggy views from my window. But still, both knowingly and unknowingly, I gripped only harder onto my expectations for the summer I’d imagined- the full bloom vitality of summer evenings at the beach after work, sunny bike rides on the weekends, and Piper making it through the summer strong and healthy enough to enjoy her favourite annual camping weekend with us in early August. As if the universe is so preoccupied with my own personal agenda, a sort of dealmaking with Mother Nature was happening below my conscious radar- a conditionality on my efforts to make the most of the rain. I’ll make the most of this, but please recognize my efforts with beautiful weather this weekend, ok? June turned into July, and with my expectations of summer still unfulfilled, the rain and fog started to feel more claustrophobic than cozy. Special weather statements for high amounts of rainfall in August glared red at me, a taunt in response to my now white-knuckle grip on expectations for sun.
In the book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown guides us through her map of human emotions (eighty-seven, to be exact)- including those that we tend to experience when life doesn’t go according to our expectations of it. Chapter three, “Places We Go When Things Don’t Go as Planned,” walks us through the different kinds of expectations that we form, inevitably so, on a daily basis. Our examined and expressed expectations are those we’re consciously aware of and are able to effectively communicate with others, while our unexamined (“stealth”) expectations are those we form without awareness of them, and in turn, become our unexpressed expectations. (If we don’t know what our expectations are, how are we supposed to effectively communicate and express them aloud?). Not so surprisingly, experiences of disappointment, anger, and resentment tend to correspond with our unmet expectations, and the bigger our expectations or the more importance they hold for us, the bigger our emotional response. In short, the chapter encourages us to see the benefit in transforming our unexamined and unexpressed expectations into examined and expressed ones (with discernment of the latter: with who, what, when, and why?), and to be especially wary of expectations we form pertaining to outcomes beyond our control.
When it comes to outcomes beyond our control, what better example than the weather! Alas. Lack of expression wasn’t my issue- “I want sun!” was vocalized often enough. It seems my expectations needed closer examining- according to Brené, anyway- for me to recognize the roll of a dice it really is (with odds in favour of disappointment) to count on outcomes that are beyond my control. Tara might have encouraged me to bring greater awareness to my moment-to-moment experiencing for the sake of dissolving the movie in my mind of how summer was supposed to look so as to relate more fully to the summer that was actually happening. In the same vein as Tara’s teachings, Joseph Campbell teaches that a free mind is unconditioned (a realized mind) and without craving (an achieved mind). Well, I was conditioned for summer = sun, and lots of it, and I was definitely craving beach days. Damn. Luckily, he also teaches that an aspiration as lofty as realized and achieved mind is best approached as a path, rather than as a place we arrive and stay, since we are not the Buddha himself. But we can aspire to Buddha nature, yes? To see the mind in its evolutionary predicament, smile at ourselves with some compassion and humour, and step back onto the path of awareness, again and again.
Living inside of my expectations of the summer months was keeping me from loosening my grip on the summer I’d imagined, and my brain map needed an update. It was an update facilitated with a good dose of beginner’s mind. With that, and some surrender, I let my heart carry the sadness of a summer that held a strange unfamiliarity to it, and that had brought a hard goodbye. Alongside my growing acceptance, I maintain a profound gratitude for what felt like a divine exception to a very rainy summer- one perfect week of sun and beauty that carried my sweet Piper and my heavy heart through her last days. I don’t expect to transcend my neurobiology- my evolutionary predicament. My mind will form expectations. But my lifelong practice is to bring my conditioned mind under the wakeful eyes of consciousness, to be aware of my expectations so as to engage with them more skillfully, whether that be in support and expression of them, or to loosen my grip on them altogether so as to live more closely with my life as it is.
There is compassion to be found in understanding that the conditioned mind carries resistance to change- it’s simply part of our wiring to survive, and in turn, part of our humanity. Conscious awareness is also our humanity, though- and in exercising it, we exercise our capacity to thrive. Resistance of mind to how things are tends to arise in response to expectations gone unmet, but the resistance softens in our awareness. So, we resist, soften, resist, soften… As a practice, we can see the mind’s resistance like a game of whac-a-mole, but instead of acknowledging our resistance with a mallet (say, as judgement or further narrative), we bring the light touch of a feather to it. The light touch of conscious mind is the simple recognition of ah- thinking, thinking, expectation, clinging, ah- feeling, feeling, and so forth. In each moment of softening, surrendering, and living into the wisdom of the changing nature of all things, we can allow for the inevitability of our expectations to take form again and again, but we learn to better meet the unexpected as it comes, and we do better in flowing along with our lives.