Our consumerist society has conditioned us into making choices about experiences which we label as good or bad. It has led us to make choices which we pay for and which we expect will align with our needs and desires. Having our expectations met makes us feel powerful, in control and safe. It makes us feel that life is going in our chosen direction. It gives us the neat illusion of riding our destiny in our choice-led cruise control cadillac with our leopardskin smug pants on, smiling at the sweet and easy simplicity of it all. You want a holiday? Big Travelcorp will promise you the experience of feeling like a pampered prune when you buy that all-inclusive week in Barbados.
You want somewhere where you can take the kids, feed them cheaply and keep them occupied while getting your fix of oily cheese-dough and that sanity-inducing glass of multipulciano? Big Chain Italian will meet your needs.
You want a car that will make you feel like you and your family are safely couped up and free from harm, floating above the traffic while being able to ‘tune out’ the experience (and awareness) of other road users – you get a 4 x 4.
Recently, I found myself hijacked by my own expectations on holiday. Faced with a dilemma as to how to fill Twixmas this year, I booked a hiking holiday in Scotland, looking forward to a bit of time on my own away from responsibilities. Holidays are a precious investment, both in terms of money and time and I, like everyone, want to feel like a holiday is going to give me the feeling of wellbeing that work and responsibilities often snatch away, especially in the time leading up to Christmas.
I was also looking forward to some social time as I don’t get it very often these days and if anything, I’m a bit reclusive. I was thirsty for connection. I expected to meet people who were sharing similar life experiences – perhaps juggling kids or wondering when they would have them; hitting middle age and wanting to do a U turn back to twenty-something or trying to keep sane through the insanity of the modern era by cultivating an obsession with bikes or anything else expensive and distracting. Instead what I discovered was a group of elders who were spending their third ages getting away from the near-approaching threat of declining mobility by walking up high mountains.
On discovering that the holiday had not delivered what I had expected by handing me over to my ready-made tribe of thirty or forty-something brethren, I spent the first day in my room wondering whether to go home. My ego told me that I couldn’t possibly go downstairs and have low-drone conversations about arthritic knees. My prejudices reared up like killjoy beasts that wanted to slay any prospect of enjoyment of a different experience in a different place with – God forbid – different sorts of people. We humans are quite generationally tribal, especially these days where owing to rapid advances in technology over a short space of fifty years, the gaps between generations are starker than ever and we even have names for each other – Xers, boomers and millennials. There is a sort of intra-generational clanship that perhaps didn’t exist before but that too can create division and therefore less openness.
After chucking a few toys out of my middle-aged pram in the quiet of my own room and secretly plotting my escape, I did some mindful breathing, which made me reach in and meet a fear. This was the fear of getting old, of missing out on having fun and of letting life pass me by. There was also the fear of not getting old – something that has risen to the fore in these times of apocalyptic hysteria and XR. The fear both of having the future but also not having it caused some sort of strange inner conflict. Once I had pinpointed this feeling of anxiety and brought some kind awareness to it, I let go. From that point onwards I determined to make the holiday my own and to allow it: to let it be what it wanted to be as though it were some sort of big Jackson Pollack canvas. I decided to let go of all expectations and to revel in the moment by moment experience of it all (which in fact caused me to succumb to a spell of hysterical laughter).
Having let go, there was more of a pleasant unfolding. I partook in the festive quizzes, did some chaotic and totally unsynchronised Scottish dancing and walked up some magnificent mountains, exchanging words about the incredible views with complete strangers. I found commonality and connection in simple shared experiences, whether that was small talk about vegetables at the dinner table or the appreciation of an open valley vista. I made some beautiful, heart-warming connections with nature and people. It was different, new and inspiring even though it was not what I had expected to experience. It was as if someone had lit a new tiny fire in the core of my heart.
As for the fear, I lost the fear of ageing and realised that fun, connection and adventure is available to you whatever your age. Indeed, for a lot of people on the holiday it seemed like life began after 55, which made me even more open to the unfolding magic and diversity of the experience of life at each stage.
Expectation can be the killer of creativity and the author of disappointment. It is a stricture which keeps us in the safety of certainty and prevents us from feeling the discomfort and fear of uncertainty. It keeps us from doing things so that we don’t risk what we might classify as having a ‘negative’ experience, being disappointed, being lonely or being short-changed. It keeps us holding on to what we think we want but that holding is also the illusion that keeps us from growing and living.
Experiences are just experiences. It is our judgment of them as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ which creates the fear, disconnection or disappointment. The magic moments appear when you drop all attachment to experiences or events being the way that you think they should be.
You can instead choose to let life unfold in each moment in the knowledge that life, love and beauty exist everywhere, even in places where you least expect them to be. You can choose to create your life with your mind’s set of fairly limiting pre-judgments and expectations or you can choose to allow whatever comes your way, observing the unfolding. That is where the freedom lies. However you choose to respond in each moment is a choice that is always entirely yours.