Tangled Expectations

This summer I wanted to observe first hand what causes the tangles of distress that interrupt the wonderful expanses of peace we all experience. I even hoped to learn how to unravel some of those tangles. What an adventure! I could never have predicted what I’d learn — that expectations drive our experience of life. I discovered that we have expectations about almost everything — many below our levels of awareness — and the satisfaction or disappointment of these expectations is what creates contentment or agitation. This new awareness changes the possibility of converting distressing circumstances into peaceful ones on the spot. It provides a higher likelihood of being able to relax and have fun, even in the midst of rising upset. Let me share how it all unfolded.

I began the summer as I often do, with an art project that had no plan. And the story of how things went applies to every other aspect of my summer.

I selected a 4’x4’ blank canvas — the largest that fit in my car; chose a unique but easily available medium — rolls of vibrantly colored electrical tape; set up a space where I could work with few interruptions; and began. I became totally immersed in the process of creation, allowing it to happen organically, unhindered by expectation, or so I thought. Everything moved effortlessly until I began to struggle with the medium. That’s when I realized that I did have an expectation and it was being thwarted, creating frustration and upset, not art!

I chose the electrical tape because I admired its smooth, flat surface, pleasing width, and straight edges. But as I unrolled the tape, its characteristics changed radically. The flexibility and stickiness of the tape caused it to curl and buckle. Instead of being easy to use, it stuck to itself and to my fingers more readily than it would adhere to the canvas. It became an impossible challenge to keep the tape flat and straight. I struggled to no avail. I was upset, disappointed and resistant. But why? What turned pleasure into pain in one brief moment? The answer — tangled expectations. Here I was, at war with electrical tape, because it was acting according to its nature, rather than according to my preference.  

Silly as it sounds, my mind was plotting warlike strategies for dominating the material; strategies for forcing it to fulfill my unrealistic expectations. Angry dialog shattered the former quiet of my mind.

 “This should behave the way I want it to.”

Really? Was I at war with electrical tape? What exactly was there to win? Why declare war over straight, flat lines rather than curved, wavy lines? A few moments earlier I was having fun, but now I felt disappointed and out of control. What force was strong enough to transform the peace and harmony I had been enjoying, to the frustration and irritation of outright war?

Could something as simple as an unrealistic expectation cause this much distress? The answer was a clear “YES!”  Realizing the absurdity of the situation, I surrendered my expectation. I embraced the twisting and turning of the brightly colored sticky tape, and allowed its characteristics to indicate how to place it on the canvas. We were back in a dance: no leader, no follower; no separation of me from material. There was simply a flow of folding color and 3-dimensional texture moving under my cooperating fingers. Once again my mind was at peace and I was caught up in the momentum of what was happening. Occasionally I stepped back to observe the changing canvas from a distance. And in one of those moments there was a wordless message, “Done!”

Here’s the finished canvas.

This was the colorful beginning of my summer of exploration. And it continued.

I discovered that as soon as we entertain a possibility, it almost always includes one or more expectations. It’s helpful to reveal them, because expectations, even those below the level of awareness, become the baseline against which we compare reality.

  • When expectations and reality align, there's satisfaction and peace.
  • When experience contradicts our expectations, tangles of agitation arise.

We only regain peace when we can be present enough to unravel the tangle. It is, always has been, and always will be, our own internal dynamics that drive our reactions.

For now, I hope reading this blog meets your expectations.

It’s good to be back!