Several months ago during a dharma talk involving the expectations one brings to Zen practice, Domyo Sensei posed the question to the class, "What expectations do/did you have when you began to practice?" Most of the responses were reasonable. Expectations like, "I want more focus," "more clarity," "inner peace" and "greater willpower" were bandied about. I considered offering up the expectation I had when I started my "Sangha-less Buddhist" practice some years ago but opted to hold my tongue. I had no noble spiritual aspirations of knowing a greater truth or even solid pragmatic reasons like the ones offered up in class. No, I simply wanted to have a kensho.
From my perspective now, it is hard for me to imagine a sillier, more self-indulgent reason to begin a spiritual practice – especially one that would become so profound to my life. Nevertheless, it seemed to make sense to me at the time so I sat for hours, employed different meditation methods and rigidly forced my brain to comply. Sometimes when I felt myself reaching a deep level during meditation, my conscious mind would kick in and think, "Here it comes, I can feel it!" Needless to say, after several months of vainly struggling, a mystical experience eluded me. It became clear that this was going to require more effort than my impatient self was willing to invest so I allowed my practice to languish.
Still, I think a seed was planted during those months. A few years later during a dark period in my life, I instinctively returned to Zen practice. I found myself obsessed with thoughts of my own demise. I would lie in bed at night and try to imagine death and what it held for me. I employed zazen to help me get through this and it helped. But in hindsight, I was simply bringing yet another expectation to my practice – I wanted to become comfortable with the idea that I was going to die. Death permeated my thoughts during this period of my life and I thought that if I could somehow get comfortable with this inevitability, I would be a happier person. I’m not sure I ever got totally comfortable with the fact that I am going to die, but I did get through this time in my life and emerged a happier person. I attribute this to my practice during this period and I believe that it laid the groundwork that would eventually compel me to seek out a Sangha to practice with.
I now practice with no expectations. Ironically, it was the step of letting go of them that has caused meaningful and positive changes in my life. As ridiculous as my past views seem to me now, I don’t regret having them as they have ultimately taken me on the circuitous path that has lead me here: to greater inner peace, a wise teacher and a compassionate, caring Sangha.