“When you release expectation, you are free to enjoy things for what they are instead of what you think they should be.” – Mandy Hale
Just at the top of an steep hill on the hike my dogs and I take each day is a long, flat straightaway. It may be the part of the walk I most love. It’s here that my dogs each throw themselves into their favorite activity. As I crest the hill, to my right I will see Pax zig-zagging across the trail with a huge doggy smile on his face. He dives into the underbrush with unbridled passion, he leaps back and forth over fallen trees, all in joyful chase of a chipmunk or bird. The best part of all is that Pax’s joy is unfazed by the fact that he never catches a thing. He is chasing without a single expectation of success. He is chasing simply because he loves the chase.
If I look to my left at the top of the hill, I will see Bodhi frozen in a perfect point, like a painting of an English setter. He will stay in this pose for a remarkably long time as I head down the path after Pax. When I’m about halfway to the curve in the trail, I’ll hear him coming – and it sounds like a freight train. Each time he blows past me – muscles rippling – I am astonished at his speed. You can tell just by looking that he is having the time of his life. He is going as fast as he possibly can, not because he expects to set a personal record, but solely because speed makes him happy.
Watching them each so freely enjoy things for what they are leaves me with a smile on my face. Watching them feels like a message of hope from “beyond.” Watching them makes me wonder if I, too, could embrace this type of expectation-less “doing.”
It’s easiest for me to sink into expectation-free “doing” on my yoga mat. A downward facing dog is a richer, more enjoyable posture if I’m focused on making my heels “heavy” instead of striving to get them to the floor. If I’m focused on the finish line of the floor, everything along the way feels like it’s not good enough. If I’m focused on the journey toward the floor, however, each micro-millimeter further that my heels drop feels like a victory. Each tiny success inspires me to luxuriate in the stretch, to reach my belly back toward my spine, to roll my shoulders open, to shake my head gently to release my neck and jaw. Done this way, downward facing dog can feel as tender and nurturing as the very best massage.
Over the weekend, I decided to try this same exercise as I cooked. Faced with a quiet afternoon, I decided to make gumbo from a recipe I had never used before. Gumbo is always complicated. It seems to me that how delicious it tastes is in direct proportion to how long it takes to prepare. As I prepared the ingredients – chopping, dicing and measuring – I felt my expectations soar. Suddenly I was way out ahead of myself and, consequently, distracted from the journey I’d chosen to take.
I reined myself back in. Typically, these days, I cook from necessity, cramming meal prep into already jam-packed days, not enjoying the process at all. But this particular day, I had all the time in the world. I reminded myself that I had chosen to experiment with this new recipe because it would be fun to stretch myself as I rose to the challenge of it. So I determinedly set aside my expectations and stopped thinking about whether my husband and daughter would enjoy the meal and chose, instead, to simply enjoy the process.
I chopped away. I carefully peeled the shrimp, reserving the shells to make a stock that was a surprising, pretty pink. I experimented with the best tool to mince parsley. I watched the roux with curiosity as it slowly thinned. I was patient and brave about turning the heat off and on, allowing time for the roux to gradually darken to a deep, rich brown. I enjoyed the rich, sweet aroma as I added the vegetables and spices. I sang along to music as the stock simmered, staying engaged with the cooking process by regularly skimming foam from the surface of the pot. By the time I added the shrimp, I was thrilled with my creation. I had had a great afternoon. I was happy. And I hadn’t yet had even a bite. (It was delicious, by the way.)
The success of this experiment has left me hungry for more. (No, not for more gumbo.) What if I could, like my dogs, do whatever I was doing for the simple joy of doing it? Could it work when I am changing the sheets? Can I enjoy the act of smoothing warm sheets fresh from the dryer onto my bed with no expectation of crawling into them later? Could it work as I read and study for the class I’m taking? Can I embrace the act of learning without the expectation of success? Could it work as I pray? Can I enjoy connecting to the Divine with no expectation of what will come from it?
The short answer is, “YES.” Unlike Pax and Bodhi, I’ve found that it can take me a couple of tries to fully release my expectations. But just like Pax and Bodhi, when I manage to set aside my expectations, choosing instead to enjoy what is for what it is, I enjoy what I’m doing rather profoundly. While my smile will never be as big (nor as goofy) as Pax’s, I’ve certainly caught myself grinning unselfconsciously more often since I started my experiment in expectation-free “doing.”
Go ahead, give it a try!