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Toss Your Expectations Into the Ocean (zenhabits.net)
32 points by manish_modi on July 1, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 28 comments



I would like to toss the author of this paean to passivity into the ocean.

Yes, sure, clinging on to certain kinds of unrealistic expectations, in certain contexts (particularly personal relationships), can be fatal.

But this is a truism that any idiot could tell you - and in this case the post is generalized to the point of meaninglessness.

Suppose you encounter someone who is openly racist, dishonest or technically incompetent at their job, and no one is challenging him about it. Because it's bad to have expectations about public & professional behaviour, and even worse to actually impose them on others!

Here's the core message: when the world isn't how you think it should be, don't have the courage to try and change it, or to speak out about how you feel. Suppress your feelings, accept everything just the way it is, and - just as long as you yourself behave well - all the bad energy will go away!

Sounds to me like someone trying to justify being a total wimp. Like someone who's so afraid of experiencing any degree of anger or disappointment that they philosophize their way to vapidity and numbness. And I'm afraid that's my overall impression of people who embrace "zen" as a lifestyle paradigm, (rather than just a mindset for, say, a discrete programming project, for which it can work wonderfully). Zen has its place, but taken too far it becomes morally corrosive, and turns personalities to mud.


Most of that is your expectation of what the author intended. I didn't read any of that. Just this: try to improve the world, try to help others perform better. Emotionally respond to the result, sure. Then ... let it go. Live and learn. Try something different next time.

I've met folks who live this way. They are not wimps. They are strong, and resilient.

What is a wimp? More like, someone who is afraid, who lashes out at things before they understand them, staying in their disfunctional rut rather than risk any emotion other than anger.


Absolutely agree. To make an assumption about the world, test it and find out you were wrong is way better than to not make any assumptions and just being passive. And what upsets me more is that such 'zen' philosophy become more and more popular. Like relax, lower your standards, don't have expectations, don't care for work too much, go play soccer. This is how western civilization fades away becoming more lazy and less competitive.

Why is it bad to constantly challenge yourself and the world around you. Humans are great because they can change the circumstances and not to surrender to them. Although often times it comes through terrible mistakes, but the process is moving forward.


I had a lot of trouble with this aspect too and your logic is perfectly valid but your assumptions are missing a key piece. Part of accepting things the way they are is understanding that you are an integral part of the world. This implies that not only do you have the power to influence it but that doing so is both inescapable and your duty.

Telling someone that they are ignorant or incompetent is far more effective when you're not hinged on whether or not they will listen to you. If you are attached to the result, you will become a dictator. If you are not, you will become the most effective type of leader. It is far more effective to give someone the message and trust them to figure it out then to force them to change when they either don't want to or are not yet capable. If one person hits a bottleneck, there are millions of others who are capable of taking their next step with a little guidance from you.

I completely agree that a lot of people fall into the trap you described.


You have broadened my thinking on this issue, but I'm not convinced that being "attached" to the result of an intervention is necessarily harmful (let alone something that makes me a dictator!). There are many ways to positively accommodate our natural emotional responses to things being other then we would passionately want them to be, into our continued efforts to make those things so. I agree with your comments on leadership (although I can think of some contrary examples), but leadership is just one area informed by expectation.

I think I am guilty of further polarizing what was presented as a false dichotomy in the first place. It is not the case that either we live a life full of expectations that poison us when they are not met; or that we must be devoid of expectation and experience all outcomes with equanimity. Shades of grey predominate.

That was really my beef with the article: its absolutism. Life requires a repertoire of attitudes and responses. It is futile and naive to say we must always adopt a principle of throwing all our expectations away. It is not so different from saying that the culture and technology we treasure could have been more painlessly attained in a world of wandering sadhus.


Really, it depends on what your goal is. The point of enlightenment is to stop suffering, so if you're trying to do that then our emotional responses must be transcended. If you're not, then what you say makes more sense. I think that the target audience of this website is people who have the goal of transcendence.

The interesting thing is that detachment does not remove the shades of grey, it's not about removing anything and more about accepting it. It's the difference between having a favorite colour and having every colour as your favorite. In the latter case, you don't care what the weather is, you're still smiling.

In a world of wandering sadhus there wouldn't any development of culture and technology since they would all be dedicated to reaching enlightenment, which means that none of them would have attained it. It would be a world of people with the same goal which nobody has actually achieved.

I think that after enlightenment has been attained, people do the same things as we do now, just with infinitely less friction. The saying goes - "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water." Some minds are inclined towards science or cultural development or computer programming and the same would apply to them.


> philosophize their way to vapidity and numbness

I've often felt that the Buddhist "no desires" and "no mind" concepts are akin to the trivial solution in polynomials or vector math: set everything to 0!

That it's one solution does not mean there are not other, non-zero solutions.


You've fallen into the classic trap: Buddhism does not espouse nihilism (the negation of all things),

Buddhism simply asserts that what you think is your reality, isn't. That's not to say that NOTHING is real or that you don't experience something, it's to say what you put stock in is very much not worth doing so.


No. My statement was short, but that's not what I said at all. And while I'm not an expert, I've read extensively on the subject (20 books?), am actually quite familiar with and fond of eastern ways of thought, and am well aware of common misconceptions.

My main point, though, is in striving to be desire-free. (To the adept, this is an upaya, a clever means of potentially pointing out the truth, not the truth itself. However, it's an oft used one.) In the case of this article, being desire-free is translated into being expectation-free. They're the same idea to the author.

I'm not discussing what reality is here, or what it is not, but am looking at the idea that desire causes suffering. I've imagined this phrased as a set of coefficients indicating quantity for all desires in the world, i.e. x1 is how much you have desire d1:

x1 * d1 + x2 * d2 + ... = Suffering

In the classic Buddhist disciplines, one eliminates desire (whether as an end goal or upaya is up to you to decide, or more appropriately, ignore). To phrase it again as math, it's the trivial solution to the equation above:

0 * d1 + 0 * d2 + ... = No Suffering

My hypothesis is that the coefficients need not be 0 to find a non-suffering answer.

(And, in fact, I do believe that's what Buddhism teaches, or shows, eventually. But all of the above holds.)


Since you pointed out that you've read lots of books, I assume that means you haven't actually practiced under a teacher's guidance. Reading about riding a bike is a far cry for actually doing so.

As a practicing Buddhist for a decade, having attending multiple retreats including a 30-day one, this statement right here indicates the flaw in your argument:

In the classic Buddhist disciplines, one eliminates desire

Actually, Buddhism is about being OK with the desire, but the idea isn't to become some robotic zombie walking around. That's a classic mistake. Buddhism DOES talk about the ability to first limit and later eliminate your REACTIONS to desires, but never the desires themselves. They will always arise, no matter whether you're enlightened or not. It's a question of whether you respond to those arisings.


It's a lot more complex than that. Check out Lama Yeshe's Introduction to Tantra: Transformation of Desire -- http://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Tantra-Lama-Thubten-Yeshe...


I don't think "no mind" is a trivial solution by any means; and Vajrayana Buddhism (as well as some other branches) do allow for desire.

Agreed that there can be other solutions as well. However I do think Buddhism has some very valid critiques of unity and duality that it's well worth paying attention to.


I think this method of thinking does have that pitfall, but it does have a tweak that I find useful.

You can throw away expectations about how things are, without stopping work on making things better. Anger is not useful without action.


This is so much easier to see in other people than yourself.

For instance, I know someone who is very giving with his time and energy, but when someone fails to thank him to a degree that he thinks is proper, he gets really angry about it.

I've tried telling him not to do things with an expectation of something in return, even a 'Thank you', because it will just make him angry. He should be doing them because he wants to do them for the person.

For another example, a lady gave to charity at work every year. Then, her daughter fell on hard times and there wasn't enough money for her daughter, and her grand-daughter. She went to some of the very same organizations that she donated to for years and they all told her that she wasn't their target and they couldn't help her. She got really angry and stopped giving to charity at all.

I don't blame her, but she'd have been much less angry if she'd not expected anything.


They could have elaborated on how to achieve this a bit more. At it's core, the thing which must be increased is awareness, of both yourself and the world (which, from the proper perspective, are one and the same). The concrete method is meditation, where the goal is to learn to make your mind perfectly still. In attempting to do so, one will become aware of the things which are not still, these things are attachments. Enlightenment is called the process of self-realization for this reason - when you become aware of how much of what you think you are is really not you at all, you will know your true self and transcend suffering. You will transcend it because you're not the one who's suffering in the first place. Suffering is essentially an identity crisis.


Expecting less or nothing can indeed be calming, but it's not the only Way.

Rather than letting go of all expectation, simply shift your expectations as required by reality, and shift them without anger or regret. If one of your predicted expectations goes wrong, use Bayes' Theorem to adjust your probability functions until your expectations are right. If expectations turn out to be unpredictable, then we might wish to not have them. I don't think that is the case.

Here's more from the Tao Te Ching:

    The Master's power is like this.
    He lets all things come and go
    effortlessly, without desire.
    He never expects results;
    thus he is never disappointed.
    He is never disappointed;
    thus his spirit never grows old.
People focus their thoughts in the "results tank" but not in the "effort tank" or the "action tank". It's always "I want money!" not "I will learn a valuable skill and start working to use this skill." It's not that people have expectations, it's just that their expectations are often wrong and they don't adjust or take action.


The concept that verse espouses is Wu Wei. It's worth anyone's time to understand. My favorite explanations of it come from Alan Watts in Tao: The Watercourse Way [0], but Wikipedia [1] is not terrible.

The other concept indicated in the last paragraph on "results tank" not "effort tank" is lust of result. There aren't as many sources discussing this topic directly, but Zen in the Art of Archery [2] is good, as is Watts' Way of Zen [3].

I highly recommend them all for anyone interested in creating things.

[0] http://www.amazon.com/Tao-Watercourse-Way-Alan-Watts/dp/0394...

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_wei

[2] http://www.amazon.com/Zen-Art-Archery-Eugen-Herrigel/dp/0375...

[3] http://www.amazon.com/Way-Zen-Alan-W-Watts/dp/0375705104


> What’s a life without expectations like? It means you accept reality as it is

Actually no.

The fact that some expectations don't match reality does not imply that there aren't any expectations that match reality.

Realistic expectations seem quite reasonable and useful.

Note that realistic doesn't have anything to do with your preferences.


I can appreciate the benefits of lowering your expectations of others, but I have trouble reconciling how to lower expectations of oneself without sacrificing your goals.

My friends and family often tell me that I'd be more content if I lowered my self-expectations, but I have trouble not equating that with throwing in the towel.

Is it possible to obtain a healthy balance in the middle? I hope so, otherwise I worry that the next Benjamin Franklin, or Steve Jobs, or insert-your-favorite-overachiever-here will read advice like this and take the easy route instead of working harder to follow their dreams.

Seriously though, I'd be thrilled if anybody could suggest that both are somehow possible.


This is easier said than done. I'd like to think I learned not to expect anything from anyone, apart from very close persons. And I think it fits in the rational part of how I see things.

But even if I act and prepare myself to cope with people doing unexpected stuff, deep down I'm still hit when they actually do it. And this deep feeling is hard to suppress.

Besides, if you want to actually do something with other people, you're bound to make some assumptions on how they will react. Thus, expectations.


Haha nice, I publish an essay on amazon kindle a few months ago along the same line. http://www.amazon.co.uk/To-Be-Human-ebook/dp/B00551JJTM/ref=...


It is hard to just drop your expectations, it requires practice. You might even end up doubly disappointed - once by your expectations and twice by your expectation about your expectations not being there anymore :)


I ended up doing this without trying, apparently. Had I not read this, I wouldn't have formulated my degree of relaxation as a lack of expectations.


Living with no expectations is an exceedingly dull, soul-sucking way to live. I know, I've tried it.

Some expectations are a good thing. Just let go of the bad ones, or learn how to let go if an expectation is not met. You don't have to get upset when expectations are not met.


Goals are a good think. Faith in your own ability to achieve your goals is good. Spending time dreaming about outcomes and then wasting time wishing the real outcomes did not happen and wishing things had been different and that you had done something different ... that's all counterproductive.

Zen is all about cutting out the BS in your mind. Living inside your dreams about what should be, what should happen and what should have happened is all bad thinking. It's illogical.

Zen helps become less wrong.


The most famour Sanskrit Verse from India : "karmanya Eva Adhikastha, maa Phaleshu kada Chana" - Do your work without thinking of the returns.


This is a fine way to live.

But it falls apart when you mix in other people. Because, if other people are emotionally immature (and most people are) they'll perceive you as weak, and limit your opportunities because you're not posturing as a chest-thumping blowhard. Thus, you too have to speak the language of power while knowing full well that you don't buy into it. I can think of nothing more boring than taking yourself seriously.


Not sure why this was downvoted. I'd hope to find real solutions to practicing this sort of viewpoint within social systems that value power.




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