“What’s astonishing is the gulf between what we expect to find and what we find when we actually look.” ~ Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life
This month, we’ve been practicing slowing down, doing nothing, and getting grounded - all practices that have to do with the body. Yet, our minds can still get in the way of seeing clearly, most often through expectations as to what we want to or think we’ll see. As Sheldrake says, there’s often a big difference between expectations and reality.
This week, we’ll practice letting go of expectations and outcomes, at least in the short term, and living with uncertainty. The truth is that nothing is ever certain and so we often end up disappointed if our expectations or plans don’t pan out. This has become even more evident in the past year and a half, a time of great uncertainty. It’s difficult to make plans even now because we never know what’s around the corner. We’ve had to learn to adjust and adapt.
Ellen Langer on Mindfulness
Ellen Langer is one of the original researchers on mindfulness. She’s been doing her work for decades, long before it was the current rage. I really like her definition of mindfulness.
“Direct mindfulness is when you actively notice new things that puts you in the present; makes you sensitive to context. As you’re noticing new things, it’s engaging. And it turns out, after a lot of research, that we find that it’s literally, not just figuratively, enlivening.”
Normally, we think of practices like meditation and yoga as ways to be mindful. Langer says that these are fine practices, but they are just that - practices, a means to an end, which is to be more mindful in your everyday life. They are not absolutely necessary because mindfulness is not something you “try” to do; rather, when you actively notice new things you are quite naturally mindfully present.
We all know how to actively notice new things. This is what makes vacation travel so much fun. However, it’s not so easy in environments and with people with whom we’re very familiar. In these situations, where we have the most expectations and preconceived ideas, it’s more a matter of letting go.
Langer is also a painter and wrote a fascinating book called On Being an Artist: Reinventing yourself through Mindful Creativity. In it, she speaks about the value of uncertainty as part of the creative process. Below are some of her thoughts on this topic. Think of these in the context of seeing clearly.
Making the “right” decision about something is not easy because the outcome is never pre-determined. How often do we paralyze ourselves by not knowing what decision to make. Langer says to just make the one that feels best at the time and then adjust as necessary.
Our purpose in life is not to bring about an outcome, but to bring about ourselves. When we focus on bringing about ourselves, the outcomes will follow. Isn’t that a cool reframe?
Small, daily annoyances are what cause most of our stress – things we can’t control. Isn’t that the truth? Langer explains that while we don’t have much control over these small, daily annoyances, we do have control over our psychological experience of them. We always have to work with what is at hand.
Every choice we make affects every other choice to come. Therefore, we can never truly know the outcome of our choices.
I’ll be talking about expectations again next week with regard to attention. In the meantime, here is an important practice for letting go of expectations, called choiceless awareness.
Choiceless awareness is a term popularized in the mid-20th century by the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. It’s considered to be “a state of unpremeditated, complete awareness of the present without preference, effort, or compulsion.” (Wikipedia)
Very similar to Langer’s definition of mindfulness, this kind of awareness takes in everything but attaches to nothing. We sometimes forget how much choice plays in everything we see and do. We’re constantly selecting, moving towards what we like or away from what we don’t.
Choiceless awareness is a state of being that happens pre-choice, pre-thought. This is called the perceptual space, and it’s often unconscious. You will make a choice eventually but experiencing this choiceless space can be quite freeing and enlivening. Again, like Langer, Krishnamurti says that you can’t practice being aware. There’s no will involved, it's a letting go of choice - simply observing and seeing what’s there before your mind tries to choose or make sense of anything.
What happens when you let go of your destination, your to-do list, your expectations, and just enjoy a moment? Or, do what you set out to do but let go of the outcome. Be open to surprise.
This week, notice when.you have expectations and practice letting them go. Actively notice new things in your familiar world with familiar people. What do you discover?
Exercises in Choiceless Awareness
Set a timer as a reminder or just take random pauses throughout your day. Slowly scan your environment, noting everything without fixating on anything particular. Then, scan your body and note how you feel - warm or cold, comfortable or not, aches or pains, without trying to change anything. Then, let it all go and continue what you were doing before you took the pause.
Here’s a practice for a walk. Do the practice above before you begin your walk. Begin walking and count to 10 or 20. Stop and do the practice again. Note how the details have changed slightly. If you’d like, you can take a photograph of what’s right in front of you at each stop. This way you can visually see later how awareness is different in each moment.
The purpose of these exercises is to take your selective predilections out of the equation and to see the whole picture and what you might normally miss. The constraint of every 10 seconds means that you see what’s there in that moment. This is the choiceless part. How does it feel to move through your day with this kind of choiceless awareness?
The Science of Mindlessness and Mindfulness with Ellen Langer via On Being
J. Krishnamurti, The Book of Life
Langer’s book inspired me to create a course on celebrating impermanence. You can download the PDF of the course here.