Realistic Expectations

It’s good to have some idea of where you are headed. The inspiration that comes from imagining a happier future can be a real support for your practice, especially in the beginning and intermediate stages. As you continue to practice, you will find out for yourself what practice leads to; meanwhile, it’s not a bad idea to have some dreams and goals.

One good source of inspiration is a role model. If you can find someone who seems to embody the happiness you seek, then you can ask that person how they got that way. If they can then outline for you a clear course of study or action, you have only to put their suggestions into effect.

I recommend finding a living person to serve as your role model. There are lots of people to choose from, and you can even change role models as your understanding develops. I don’t recommend choosing someone who is long dead, simply because we have no reliable biographies of such people. Until recently, biographies were only considered worth reading if they included miracles, virgin births, improbably heroic acts, magic powers, omniscience, etc. It was a formula; if you wanted a biography to be taken seriously, you had to include this laundry list of remarkable events. In other words, until recently, biographies were not biographies at all, but rather hagiographies. Hagiography is the study of saints.

From Wikipedia: “The term ‘hagiographic’ has… been used as a pejorative reference to the works of biographers and historians perceived to be uncritical or ‘reverential’ to their subject.”

So, while there is a wealth of excellent teaching available from people who are long dead, it’s important to acknowledge that we don’t know very much about the real, everyday lives of those people, and it would therefore be naive of us to attach much significance to the legends we hear about how wonderful they were.

By extension, it is unwise to form expectations of what your own enlightened life will look like based on descriptions of ancient saints. Such expectations, while romantic, would not be based in reality but in mythology. One sign of spiritual maturity is the willingness to give up childhood dreams in favor of expectations that are firmly rooted in observable reality. Once you can make this extraordinary leap (and I am not suggesting for a moment that it will be easy or that you won’t bounce back and forth), you can get down to the serious business of waking up.

It is possible to be happy. But unless you are already awake, you don’t know quite what that will look like. As you work toward finding out, here are some guidelines to help keep your expectations grounded in reality:

  • Be skeptical of claims that in olden times people were different than they are now, or that we live in a “degenerate age.” I am not aware of any evidence to support this view.

  • Look around for someone you admire and find out how they became admirable. Try to own your projections and cut that person some slack when they turn out to have feet of clay.

  • Be skeptical of your need to be special. You don’t need to be holy, omniscient, blameless, or immaculately conceived. You need only find out how to be happy. The rest is just your ego talking.

  • Get to work. Find a contemplative practice that has led to happiness for a real, flesh-and-blood human being and do that practice until it bears fruit.

Enlightenment is both much better and much worse than you think. It’s much worse because it will not result in your becoming a saint. It’s much better because you don’t have to change in order to have it. The happiness you seek is what you already are. And if it takes you another twenty years to notice what you already are, it will have been worth every minute. On the other hand, you might notice now…

Kenneth Folk May 2010 (Revised March 2011)