No expectations

In practicing mindfulness in daily life, it’s worth watching out for small experiences that lead to tension, stress, or anger.

I noticed several months ago that I’d start feeling resentful as I walked toward a pedestrian crossing with the intention, of course, of crossing the road. The resentment is connected with the number of drivers who don’t stop when they see someone — well, me! — about to cross the road.

But I’d actually start getting resentful before I even reached the side of the road, long before drivers could possibly realize that it was my intention to cross in front of them.

What’s important is that I recognized that this was a source of suffering for me. It wasn’t one of these things that ruined my day, but it created an unpleasant experience that would color at least part of my day.

And it’s completely unnecessary. I was pushing my own stress buttons.

So I got into the habit of saying to myself, as I walked along the sidewalk toward the crossing, “No expectations.” It was just a little reminder that I couldn’t expect drivers to psychically know that it was my intention to cross, and that even once it should be clear that that was my intention, it was pointless having expectations that they would stop. After all, we all have times when we’re a little distracted and don’t respond promptly to things around us. What’s the point of taking these things personally?

The interesting thing is that saying “no expectations” has not just prevented frustration, tension, and anger from arising — when I say those words I find myself relaxing more deeply and enjoying my present-moment experience.

It’s a small thing, but then our lives are made out of the small things.

To apply this approach, we first have to notice that we’re causing ourselves frustration. Noticing this isn’t necessarily easy to do if our habits are longstanding. And in any event, we often tend to think of these petty frustrations as just a normal part of our experience.

And we often externalize our feelings, by which I mean that we blame the outside world for what we’re feeling. We might see it as those drivers are the problem and they’re making me frustrated rather than it’s my frustration toward those drivers that’s the problem. So we have to remember that people do not push our buttons. Our buttons are inside our heads, and we do our own button-pushing.

I can think of other circumstances in which this could be useful for me. When I log in to Wildmind’s Facebook page, for example, I often feel some disappointment when I see that an article we’ve posted a link to has received a small number of “likes.” The link to the article may have been viewed by 2,000 people (Facebook helpfully displays this information) and perhaps only 12 have clicked “like.” Now there’s a side to this where I can perhaps learn to craft better Facebook posts or to find the best times of day to post, but as long as I cling to expectations, I’m going to suffer.

I wonder what circumstances the mantra of “no expectations” could help you in your life?

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Six ways to deal with anger

man standing in front of a bonfire, his silhouette surrounded by flames

I don’t know if anger, rage, and frustration are getting more common, but it certainly seems like they are.

As we find ourselves snarled in impossibly heavy traffic, overloaded with life’s complexities, dealing with technology that we think should work but sometimes doesn’t, and struggling to survive in a precarious and heartless economic system, it seems a lot of people live with hot coals of irritability burning inside them, and that these hot coals have more than ample opportunity to burst into the flames of anger, or to erupt as emotional explosions of rage.

Techniques from meditation can help us to damp down the flames of our ill will.

1. Stop, drop, and love

If you find yourself caught up in resentment and anger toward someone, the simple solution is just to stop whatever you’re doing and to start cultivating metta. This definitely works. In my own practice I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve gone from being irritated with someone to feeling appreciative of them — sometimes in the space of just a few minutes — when I’ve cultivated lovingkindness toward them. Many times, of course, the ill will is more entrenched, and the best I’ve been able to do is to soften the anger a little. But even that’s progress.

You can do this when you’re walking, talking, or driving. Just introduce a current of well-wishing: may you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.

If anger arises in meditation, switch over to cultivating metta. Sometimes people think they “shouldn’t” stop the practice they’re doing, based perhaps on a desire to avoid the restlessness that comes from chopping and changing practices. And while changing practices just because your mind is flighty isn’t a good idea, in the case of anger arising, just let go of any notion that you “should” continue with the meditation you’ve been doing. Anger can be a very destructive emotion, and it’s wise to treat is as an emergency situation. So switch to cultivating lovingkindness.

This doesn’t necessarily mean doing the full five-stage metta bhavana practice. If you’re annoyed with someone, you can just call them to mind and wish them well. You can keep doing this for as long as necessary. You may find that after a few minutes you can return to the practice you were doing, or you may end up working on developing lovingkindness for the rest of the sit.

2. Adjust your attitude

The way we’re looking at the world can set us up for experiences of ill will. For example, when we’re expecting perfection, we’ll get frustrated, because perfection doesn’t exist. Most people who are habitually angry have something like this going on. We often expect perfection from ourselves, from others, and from our technology, which, when you think about it, is both unreasonable and a recipe for misery.

So you can look at your attitudes, and see if you’re inadvertently creating the conditions for irritability to arise. It’s useful to think in terms of accessing qualities playfulness and humor, which you can do via imagery or a memory of having those qualities.

2. Accentuate the positive

Also along the lines of how our views condition our emotions, when we’re angry with someone we generally focus only on their faults. If you remind yourself of positive things about the person you’re angry with, this helps undercut your irritation with them.

It can also be helpful to remind yourself that you have faults as well.

4. Guard the gates

Exposing ourselves to unpleasant stimuli also sets us up for experiences of ill will. Hanging out in internet forums where there’s a lot of negativity, or watching a lot of outraged discussion on television may make you more prone to ill will.

The Buddha called this practice “guarding the gates of the senses.” He compared it to posting guards at the gates of a great city. If you want a peaceful city, then keep vagabonds and ruffians out.

This reminds me of the computer programmers’ saying, “Garbage In, Garbage Out,” which means that if you put in nonsensical data, then your computer will output nonsensical data. In this case, it’s our minds that are the computers. We need to be aware of the fact that certain forms of input lead to the output of angry emotions. If you want to reduce the output of anger, then cut back on the input of anger-generating stimuli.

5. Summon a Super Hero

Superman or Batman won’t swoop down to save you from your anger, but calling to mind a patient friend can help you to act with greater forbearance. One of the problems we face is with having a limited menu of behavioral options to choose from. When you’re prone to anger, it’s because anger is just so damned easy to use as a tool. You’re in a frustrating situation, you reach into your behavioral toolbox, and anger leaps into your hand.

Thinking of how someone who is patient and kind might act actually enlarges the range of tools open to you, so that you don’t fly off the handle. A while back I read about an interesting study where some students were asked to think about a professor before taking an exam. Those students who thought about the professor actually performed better on the quiz!

6. Practice self-compassion

This last technique is the one I find to be the most powerful of all. When you get angry, you’re actually reacting to a sensation of discomfort. There are stages involved in getting angry. First we see, hear, think, or otherwise perceive something. Then our mind categorizes the perception as wrong, bad, threatening, or otherwise unacceptable. This produces an unpleasant feeling, which is often centered in the solar plexus. And that unpleasant feeling acts as a signal, triggering a response of anger. The anger itself is designed to scare away the thing we identify as being the threat to our well-being. This works great if you’re a alpha wolf who’s facing a rival for pack supremacy. Snarl just the right way and your rival will slink off, chastened. It works less well in intimate family relationships or at work, where anger creates bad feelings and resentment, or when you’re frustrated with a slow website, where anger accomplishes nothing useful at all.

The “gut feeling” part of this process is something we often don’t pay attention to, although we should. Our anger, frustration, or rage arises so quickly that we’re immediately caught up in angry thoughts and emotions, and usually we don’t really acknowledge that we’re in pain.

But I’ve found that if I pay attention to the fact that I’m in experiencing discomfort, then the whole superstructure of angry thinking and angry emotions simply collapses. The whole point of anger is to defend you from feelings of pain by removing their source (the angry wolf snarls at its rival, and the rival backs down). But if you mindfully and compassionately pay attention to your discomfort, then there’s no need to get angry. The pain is being dealt with creatively.

Having paid attention mindfully and compassionately to my discomfort, I find not only that my anger subsides entirely, but that I often feel compassion to anyone who may have done something I felt annoyed by — like my children clamoring for my attention when I’m busy, or a driver who’s cut me off.

As I pay attention to them, the embers of hurt remind me that just as I suffer and want to find happiness, so others suffer and want to find happiness. I find that the slow burn of hurt, while it lasts, becomes fuel for kindness, rather than for anger.

Anger is nothing more than a strategy for finding happiness in the midst of a challenging world, but it’s not a very effective strategy. Mindfulness and compassion work much, much better.

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Transforming hurt and anger through self-compassion

Baby sitting on a picnic blanket, looking unhappy

The practice of self-compassion is a powerful tool for transforming our lives, freeing us from emotional ruts and unleashing a more joyful and creative approach to life.

Anger can erupt at any time, especially in our crowded and fast-paced world. We’ve probably all had experiences like getting into a “flame war” on social media, or having a heated email exchange with a friend, or have found ourselves driving dangerously after being cut off, or becoming enraged while going round in circles in some company’s automated telephone menu.

When properly handled, anger can be a useful and even a necessary emotion. Anger can help us get through to other people when there’s a sense of urgency that they fail to appreciate. It gives us energy. It can help defend us. But anger can easily run out of control and turn into a raging fire that harms ourselves and others. And repeated anger can turn into long-term hatreds that poison our lives.

So how do we deal with anger? Sometimes, in our efforts to prevent anger from getting out of hand, we negate ourselves and repress our rage, becoming martyrs. While that may seem to prevent conflict with others, it’s deeply harmful to us. In effect our anger goes inwards. Instead of hurting others, we hurt ourselves. So denial and repression don’t seem to work.

So the question is, how can we honor ourselves and our feelings without letting anger take us over? In my work as a meditation coach, I teach an approach to lovingkindness that helps us to recognize where anger comes from, and that prevents it arising in the first place—or prevents it getting out of hand if it does. And it’s an approach that doesn’t involve suppression or “being nice.” It’s an approach based on the Buddhist understanding of psychology, which draws a distinction between feelings and emotions.


Feelings are, in this view, fairly basic responses, experienced in the body, that tell us whether a particular thing we perceive is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. As soon as we perceive anything, we have a feeling about it. Take a look around you at the moment and allow you eyes to roam around the room, allowing your gaze to rest on a succession of objects. As you do this, notice any feelings that arise. You might want to particularly pay attention to the area of the solar plexus, just below the breastbone. Some of the things I notice right now are accompanied by pleasant feelings: a colorful screensaver on a computer monitor on the other side of the room, a picture of some flowers, a woodcut print I picked up in Ethiopia, and a wooden statue of the Buddha. Some are accompanied by unpleasant sensations: a pile of paper by the shredder, a stack of mail, and a measuring tape that I forgot to put away, lying on the desk. In fact I almost have to force my gaze onto these objects, because I resist paying attention to them. A few of the things my eyes rest on are accompanied by neutral feelings: the wall, the beige curtains, some DVDs on a shelf. I just have no interest in them.

Feelings, in this specific sense of the word, are our personal responses and aren’t inherent in the objects we encounter. Another person, for example, might experience strongly unpleasant feelings looking at my Buddha statue, or feel a pleasant sense of anticipation to see what movies I have in my collection, or might find the stack of papers pleasant because they enjoy organizing!

And the feelings we experience can change, depending on the context. There are times when just seeing or thinking about a partner or family member brings a rush of joy, and other times that it’s quite the opposite. Feelings are not inherent in objects. They come from us.

And we’re always “projecting” these feelings onto the world around us. Atop of the world of simple perceptions, we overlay our feelings, which tell us what we value at any given time. Our feelings are filters that stand between us and the world, and which tell us what we value in any particular moment—what we value both positively (“this could benefit me”), or negatively (“this could be a threat”), or what we see as having no value to us because it’s not relevant to our needs for happiness and security.


So far we’ve only discussed feelings. What about emotions? Emotions are much more complex. They arise as responses to feelings, and suggest to us how we should act in response to those feelings. Emotions generally lead to action, and in fact the word “emotion” comes from a root meaning “to move.” Emotions are what move us to engage. For example, imagine you see a close friend passing on the other side of the street. You’ll probably experience a feeling of pleasure, which we’d call joy. On the basis of that joyful feeling arises an emotion—say a longing to connect with them. And that emotion translates into action—it moves us to act—so that you might give them a shout and a smile and a wave. Or we see someone who we don’t like being rewarded in some way, and that feels unpleasant. And we may experience the emotion of anger, or resentment. And that might cause us to speak in a derogatory way.

Feelings are often fleeting, and can easily be drowned out by the powerful emotions that spring from them. Here’s a common experience: we’re driving along the road, and someone cuts us off, coming way too close for comfort. Immediately a tight knot of fear (a feeling) appears, but then our emotions kick in and we’re suddenly angry. Really angry! And thoughts gush forth of all the things we’d like to do to that inconsiderate so-and-so. And we may stay angry for quite some time, because the fear and anger are unpleasant, and once they exist they find reasons to perpetuate themselves, by recalling, for example, other times we were scared and angry.

So before the surge of anger arises, there is a brief moment of painful fear, anxiety, or hurt that arises in response to events around us. Often we don’t acknowledge or notice those feelings. In some cases we don’t even want to notice them. Say we’re been taught that feeling hurt is a sign of weakness; we don’t want to acknowledge our vulnerability, and so we skip quickly on to the anger, because then we can have fantasies in which we reestablish our sense of power and control—for example we imagine we’re yelling at the person we’re angry with.

Whatever the situation, when anger arises there’s a great risk that we’ll do something we regret. We might say something that’s going to come back and bite us, or we might damage a relationship, or break something, or even hit someone. And anger in itself is on the whole a painful state to be in.

But what would happen if we got better at recognizing those often-fleeting feelings? What if we just stayed with our feelings, rather than letting them trigger the emotional response of anger?

Catching our anger before it starts

Taking our awareness ‘beneath’ our anger and fully acknowledging our pain can be a potent way to transform our anger.

With our pain held in the compassionate embrace of mindfulness and lovingkindness, we are able to let the the hurt pass naturally, without it triggering a cycle of anger.

There are two primary skills needed in order to relate to our pain in this way.

First is mindfulness, which is the ability to notice our experience. With practice, we get better at recognizing fleeting and often very subtle feelings. This is an incredibly useful ability to have in life, because intuition, empathy, and creativity depend upon the ability to notice subtle feelings.

Second is lovingkindness, which is the ability to relate in a non-judgmental, caring way to ourselves and others. Lovingkindness allows us to experience pain and to simply allow it to be. It allows us to value pain as a normal part of being human, rather than as a sign of failure. It allows us to get close to our pain without being overwhelmed by it.

So let’s revisit an example we used earlier. This time we’re driving along, and someone cuts us off. A fleeting moment of fear appears in the solar plexus, and we notice this. Recognizing that we’re in pain, we acknowledge our hurt and embrace it with lovingkindness. We treat it just as we would a hurt child; we hold it in a loving embrace. And anger simply doesn’t appear. The pain that’s arisen will pass in a few moments or in a few minutes, because once the initial perception of danger has passed, there’s nothing to support the fear.

What’s happened in doing this is that we’ve created a degree of freedom from our usual mental habits. Our mindfulness has created a “gap” between feeling and emotion, so that anger simply doesn’t arise. And in the mental space we’ve created, lovingkindness and compassion for ourselves naturally manifest. We may even find that this compassion automatically extends to others, including the person who cut us off. We’ve created a whole different experience for ourselves simply by paying attention to our fleeting feelings.

Even if anger does arise, we can usually “backtrack.” We can look for the pain underneath the anger, and switch our focus to that, once again embracing our hurt in a field of lovingkindness. And often any anger that’s arisen will just evaporate.

By honoring our pain and by responding to it with compassion, we are able to let go of our anger and to extend our compassion to those around us – including those who prompted our pain. Not caught up in the flames of anger and hatred, we manifest a warm, loving, aware space from which to respond to others, and unleash our creativity, finding intuitive responses to situations that we previously found maddening, whether it is listening to others’ unskillful communication, being cut off in traffic, dealing with unruly children, or coping with things not going the way we want them. Anger becomes a choice and not a compulsion – just one strategy among others that we can employ in responding to our world.

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“Hanging onto resentment is letting someone you despise live rent-free in your head.” Ann Landers

ann landers

In the long run we inevitably hurt ourselves more than others do. Someone in the past did something that we found hurtful. They did or said something, or failed to do or say something, and we experienced physical or emotional hurt. It’s bound to happen. Each instance of hurt only happened one time in our past, and yet we have the faculty of memory that allows us to recall that incident over and over, and thus hurt ourselves over and over again. That’s how in the long term we can end up hurting ourselves more than the other person did.

Of course we often don’t think of this is as hurting ourselves. We tend to take the mini-dramas that unfold in the mind as being real, and indeed we respond to them as if they were real. When we recall someone saying something cruel to us we feel hurt in much the same way we would if they were here, now, speaking those words.

It’s absurd, really, that we do this — that we keep running through painful scenarios in the filmhouse of the mind. We watch the same movies over and over again, experiencing the same pain over and over again. It’s a form of self-torture.

In fact we often embellish the hurt, imagining whole scenes that never actually happened or imagining that we know the thoughts and motives of another person, as if we were omniscient. Sometimes we even invent scenes that might take place in the future, rehearsing for conflict. These imagined arguments and conflicts may never happen — the future is always uncertain — but we manage to feel the pain of them right now. Self-torture.

I sometimes find myself replaying clashes from the past. Sometimes I think I’m doing it to try to convince myself that I was in the right: “Look how awful he is. Hear the terrible things he says. I’m the injured party. I deserve sympathy.” But when I notice that I’ve slipped into one of these resentment-fests I often try to break out of it by thinking “Who’s arguing with whom?”

It’s obvious when I think about it that I’m arguing with myself. The figure in my imagination who looks like that Fred isn’t really him. It’s not a real person. It’s just neurons firing in my brain, creating a virtual reality representation of Fred (that weasel!) through which I can talk to myself. I create a virtual representation of Fred (the louse!) from one set of neurons and one of myself from another set, and the two parts of my brain have a battle with each other. Isn’t it crazy! And yet we do this all the time.

And it’s so hard to let go of our resentments sometimes. We can keep noticing resentful thoughts arising and try to let go of them and we can keep doing this literally for years and the thoughts will still keep emerging.

Ann Landers’ quote (Esther Lederer was her real name) is a good reminder about the ways in which, through resentment, we give space in our minds to people we have conflicts with. Although of course it’s not really them we’re renting space to.

As well as stopping myself short by reminding myself that both parties in these resentments are myself, I’ve found that I need to have empathy for myself. That, ultimately, is what I think I’m looking for in harboring these resentments. I want sympathy. The drama I’m imagining in my mind is played out for an audience. So who’s the audience? It’s me. But it’s not the same me who’s involved in the argument. That me, remember, is a virtual reality version of myself, conjured up to play a part in a struggle with the virtual Fred (that no-good hound!). No, I think who I’m looking for sympathy for, ultimately, is my real self. And it’s because I’m not giving myself empathy that I have to play the fantasy over and over again.

So why am I not giving myself empathy? Generally it’s because I’m too busy identifying with the virtual-reality me who’s busy fighting with Fred (the snake!). I’m too busy taking his part, thinking I’m being attacked by someone else, to realize that both actors in the drama are parts of me.

So what does it mean to give myself empathy? It means that rather than taking the part of the virtual me against the virtual Fred (the bounder!) I need to realize that I am in pain. The whole drama is unfolding because I, for some reason, am in pain. This isn’t the virtual me I’m talking about, but the real me. So I need to empathize with my pain.

First I need to acknowledge the pain and accept that it’s there. That’s often hard to do because we can feel a sense of shame around feeling pain, as if it’s a sign of failure or weakness.

Next I need to accept the pain. Pain is not something “bad” that has to be banished from our experience. Pain is unpleasant, but it’s simply another experience. So we need to allow pain to be there.

Next I need to send metta (lovingkindness) to the pain. I have to love my pain. Loving my pain doesn’t mean that I want more or it. It’s not a masochistic act to love your pain. Rather, it means relating to the part of ourselves that is in pain, not blaming ourselves and not seeing the pain as something to be gotten rid of, but simply offering the hurting part of ourselves our compassion. Sometimes this is wordless, and other times I use phrases from the Metta Bhavana (lovingkindness) meditation practice: “May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from suffering.”

I find that in doing this I’m addressing the underlying sense of hurt that gives rise to the recurrent resentment. When I wish my pain well in this way I find that there’s a sense of reconciliation and even of relief, because I’ve finally realized exactly what it was I was looking for. When instead of simply appealing for sympathy we actually give it to ourselves we start to become healed. We’ve begun to address the underlying cause of our inner dramas and we realize that we no longer have such a need to rent out space in our head to conflicts.

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