Updated: Sep 16
Photo by Taylor Deas-Melesh on Unsplash
You bumped into an old friend when you were least expecting to: cue joyful surprise. You felt well-prepared for an event, but then the computer or car suddenly malfunctioned and the plan went pear-shaped: cue, probably, stress.
Our brains operate by predicting what will happen based on what has happened before, so assumptions are programmed into being human. When things unfold as normal, we don't even notice. Mostly when we walk into our kitchen, all is pretty much as expected. It is only on the occasion when something different happens: someone has left out a red bill, or a gift, or we detect micro-signs of a resident mouse, that walking into the kitchen is in any way remarkable.
Expectations are extremely useful. Many things, for example our kitchens, don't usually change so much from one day to the next. And our brains have no need to process what hasn't significantly changed, saving a huge amount of energy. Hence, we evolved to select the information that is new and might therefore present a threat (bill or mouse) or an opportunity (gift).
As each moment unfolds, life may or may not live up to our expectations. Pleasant surprises can be a delightful boost, disrupting habitual routines with something fresh and new. Unpleasant surprises are harder to deal with, as life gives us what we didn't want...or even, simply, what we didn't expect.
When my workplace changed under a new boss, in my view for the worse, I was incredulous: "this cannot be happening!" Clearly it was happening. Arguing with the fact of change can be an additional source of suffering on top of whatever unpleasantness was already present.
With Robbie Burns, deep down we know that life is capricious and "The best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.." Yet our fundamental response to change is very often denial and resistance. At some point in our lives, most of us are subject to the devastating feeling of disappointment when things don't work out as we anticipated, for example in a relationship, job or project. Author David Whyte is eloquent on the subject:
" Disappointment is a friend to transformation...the initial meeting with the frontier of an evolving life, an invitation to reality, which we expected to be one particular way and turns out to be another, often something more difficult, more overwhelming and strangely, in the end, more rewarding."
It is now five years since I felt compelled to leave what had previously been a satisfying career. I was taken aback by the extent of my fear at the prospect of letting go of the familiar environment and financial security. But I knew I needed to loosen my grip and take a leap of faith. Far from the disaster I feared, notwithstanding challenges along the way, I now find myself doing work that engages my skills and interests much more deeply than my previous job. David Whyte's words eloquently convey that whole experience of that ultimately positive shift.
Does this mean we should never plan or try to direct the things that are, to some extent, within our control? This is surely impracticable and not even desirable. It is not the planning that causes us grief, it is the attachment to a particular, expected outcome. The skill here is to plan ahead, to be as prepared as we can be for what might happen, but with an openness to whatever outcome arises.
Some of us may be better at rolling with uncertainty than others; positively enjoying responding to what arises in the moment. This is surely a great life-skill, one which we can cultivate. You might like to try these five suggestions:
Be inspired. Do you know someone who is often able to respond with flexibility and spontaneity in the face of life's challenges, whether because of their life-experience or just their character? How do these qualities feel to be around? Take a moment to appreciate and draw inspiration.
Notice when we are strongly attached to a particular outcome. We may spot a tightening in the body accompanied by mental stories of how things "should" be, or thoughts of how "this is not what I signed up for!" / "this wasn't in the plan!" etc. Becoming more familiar with our views and reactions over time allows us to honestly assess how realistic our expectations have been, being patient and kind in the face of our fears and attachments. These responses are very human.
Soften and calm the body-mind. Time spent in 'being' or 'soothing' mode: when we are connected with our immediate sense experience; not stressed or actively pursuing goals; helps to cultivate qualities of relaxed openness in the face of whatever arises.
Call to mind the serenity prayer. "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference."
Enjoy the moment! When we are able to open and even surrender to what life brings, we may notice qualities of freedom and a satisfying sense of aligning more closely with the truth of life. Relish the excitement of new possibilities!
Whatever life has in store for us may turn out to be far richer and more satisfying than what we anticipated.