Unnecessary or Unreasonable Expectations

By Desmond Yeoh SC

Unnecessary or unreasonable expectations are actually attachments. They reflect our inability to accept things as they are. We then suffer because we are not able to let go of these expectations. A common example is to expect our children to have straight A’s. Does this guarantee that they will lead successful and happy lives?

white and grey kitten smelling white daisy flower

Another expectation is that all human beings or animals be free from suffering. Yes, this is a compassionate expectation but it denies the law of karma. Karma exist for a reason. Suffering can lead to spiritual progress and eventually enlightenment. The seeds of karma exist within us because there are some negative tendencies that we have yet to overcome. When we go through suffering, we develop compassion and will not harm others in the same way because we understand how painful it is. Even animals can and need to evolve spiritually.

Whenever we go through some mental suffering, it is useful to ask ourselves, ‘what are we attached to?’ or ‘what is the expectation that is causing this?’ ‘What can’t I let go of?’ As we watch our thoughts and understand those expectations, we then use our wisdom to challenge those expectations. In almost all cases, we will find that they are really unnecessary or unreasonable.

The following story from “Stillness Flowing” by Ajahn Jayasaro shows how the late Ajahn Chah’s monks went/go through this process: –

It was not easy for the Westerners to adapt to life at Wat Pah Pong. Not only were they faced with all the innate, fundamental challenges of an ascetic life, but these were compounded by the need to learn a new language and adapt to a new culture. Physically, it could be brutal.

The heat of the hot season, combined with the energy sapping humidity, made for a particularly enervating climate. Many of the foreign monks developed gastric disorders, especially those whose diet had formerly consisted of highly refined foods. They found sticky rice heavy and hard to digest, but with only one meal a day, they had little choice but to eat a large ball of it. The alternative was losing a lot of weight, and, indeed, many of the monks became so thin their ribs protruded alarmingly. Most of those who stayed on became seriously ill at least once: malaria, scrub typhus and amoebic dysentery were a constant threat.

Ajahn Chah told them to patiently endure. When Ajahn Brahmavamso was hospitalized with a high fever, Ajahn Chah visited him and encouraged him with words that were as far from mollycoddling as could be imagined. He told the young monk to reflect that there were only two outcomes to his illness: either he’d get better or he wouldn’t. He should be at peace with both possibilities.

On one occasion, Ven. Sunyo told Luang Por that he felt that since becoming a monk his hardships and suffering had increased rather than decreased. Ajahn Chah replied, “I know that some of you have had a background of material comfort and outward freedom. By comparison, now you live an austere existence. Then, in the practice, I often make you sit and wait for long hours. Food and climate are different from your home. But everyone must go through some of this. This is the suffering that leads to the end of suffering. This is how you learn. When you get angry and feel sorry for yourself, it is a great opportunity to understand the mind. The Buddha called defilements our teachers”.

On such occasions Ajahn Chah would conclude with his keynote teachings: patience and Right View. He said, “You must be patient. Patience and endurance are essential to our practice. When I was a young monk, I didn’t have it as hard as you. I knew the language and was eating my native food. Even so, some days I despaired. I thought about disrobing or even killing myself. This kind of suffering comes from wrong views. However, once you have seen the truth, you become free from views and opinions. Everything becomes peaceful”.

On another occasion, after reminding the monks that ‘patience is the heart of Dhamma practice, the root virtue of practitioners’, Ajahn Chah observed that, as few people would freely choose to practice patience, the Westerners could be said to have one advantage: it was much harder for them to run away than the Thais. He said, “The thought of going all the way home is daunting, and so you’ve been able to put up with it so far”.

But it wasn’t enough for them to simply grit their teeth. They needed to see the purpose for exercising patience. He was not advocating asceticism for its own sake. Ajahn Chah said, “Things here run counter to your old habits. You eat out of your bowl, with the curries and sweets all put in together. Who could like doing that? If you’ve still got any defilements left, then they will be continually thwarted. Food of different kinds gets mixed together in your bowl. How does that feel? Do you see any defilement arising in your mind? Have a look. This way of eating is niggling and frustrating. That’s how it’s meant to be. The training is a wearing away of defilements. Even if the effort to awaken sati (mindfulness) is not always successful, you can at least oppose defilement. That’s how the training has to be”.

Sadly, the intellectual defilements of the Western monks did not entail a compensatory deficit in the earthier afflictions, and they were not spared Ajahn Chah’s methods intended to ‘toraman (torture/fight) the defilements’. The rationale was explained to them on many occasions: Defilements could be most clearly revealed as defilements – the cause of suffering, and not-self – when they were steadfastly opposed. Looking at what happened when one was separated from the liked and united with the disliked provided a simple shortcut to understanding the nature of the mind. As this path of opposing desire was one that few people, even dedicated monastics, could follow consistently in a balanced, constructive way on their own, it was embedded in the heart of the training at Wat Pah Pong.

For some, the need to constantly go against old habits could be overwhelming. One English postulant famously exclaimed loudly in a broad northern accent: ‘This going against the stream: it’s not a babbling brook we’re talking about here, it’s WHITE WATER!’

One of the monks who felt the brunt of this style of teachings was Ven. Varapanyo. His well-known craving for iced drinks – a cause of much teasing – meant that he was seldom given the chance to indulge it. “When I went to Luang Por’s kuti, it was as though he didn’t even see me. If there was ice or a drink for the monks, he would wait until I left before passing it out … Years later, he recounted these episodes, saying that he felt for me, but that he knew he had to give me a hard time for my own benefit … ‘Now you see the value in such treatment, don’t you?’ I did.

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