“By practicing, it can happen anytime, at any door of perception, when one is ready, but not by expecting. Continue working. Every step is taking you near the goal. Continuity is the secret of success. Anyone who wants to know the art of living, who wants to experience this Dhamma [Dharma], has to understand it clearly. But as long as you are expecting, then it will not happen.”

The Buddhist teacher, Anagarika Munindra [1]

Sometimes in the spiritual life, we are our own worst enemy. Our fantasies and wishful thinking become our greatest obstacles. The way to succeed in the spiritual life is to have no expectations.

To have no expectations means to be open to whatever God puts in front of us. It means to stop looking around us to see what others are doing or what future steps we ought to take. To have no expectations is to remain rock bottom in our appraisal of ourselves and our spiritual life.

In one of his teachings, the Baal Shem Tov compares the process of spiritual growth to the physical development of a human being. When we are babies, he says, the rate of our development is spectacular; but as we go on, the growth becomes hardly perceptible. This is because, in the latter stages, our development is occurring on a much more sophisticated and refined level which is much harder to detect.

Similarly, in the beginning of the spiritual life, our growth seems extraordinary because the changes which are taking place are fundamental and dramatic. Therefore, the stark contrast with our former condition is easily visible to all. As we move along the path, however, the changes occur more internally and at deeper levels of our being. Such changes are much more difficult for us and others to perceive.

“I learned a sense of steadiness in the practice and a sense of patience with the way that things unfold, just somehow a lack of melodrama around this spiritual journey. His example showed us that you don’t have to worry about a lot of bells and whistles or [about] achieving something. You just keep plodding along on the path. –  A student’s reflections on Anagarika Munindra [2]

At the start of our journey, God bestows powerful spiritual experiences upon us in order to give us a boost as we set off on our way. As a result, our self-expectations tend to become rather grandiose and glamorous. The further we go on in our spiritual evolution, however, the less we expect all our dreams and fantasies to come true. We come to realize that there is very little glamor attached to the life of the Spirit. We learn that serving God is about renouncing the desire for fame and glory, and accepting quiet burdens and anonymous labors instead.

Across Asia, one can see whole communities of migrant workers who work all day long breaking rocks with hammers to make gravel for construction. Anagarika Munindra used an analogy from their lives to explain the nature of the process of spiritual awakening.

“If the rock-breaker strikes the ninety-nine times and it doesn’t break, yet it breaks on the hundredth strike, were the first ninety-nine strikes wasted? Perhaps, all ninety-nine strikes were needed before the stone would break, but at the ninety-ninth strike you may feel like you are making no progress at all.” [3]

The key to the spiritual life is not a specific great experience or event but constant and steady work. This sustained effort leads to the gradual wearing down of the personality and the slow revelation of the light of the soul.

This attitude needs to permeate every aspect of our spiritual life. When we meditate, we need to just sit on a daily basis with no expectations that anything special will happen. We do not get excited if something happens, or deflated if nothing does.  When we work on a spiritual project, we should just do the work with all of our heart and mind, with no expectations as to where it might lead us – no expectations how others will respond. When we prepare for a holyday or festival, we need to have no expectations as to what spiritual blessing we may or may not receive. We prepare as we can and then give everything over to God, knowing that He will give us the holyday that we need, or more precisely, the holyday that He wants for us.

This mindset of no expectations is an integral part of our relationships with others. We should have no expectations of those around us. We need to be joyful when they go forward in their spiritual journey, but not become depressed if they take a backward step. We love them and support them in all of their efforts. We uphold them when they are falling and strengthen them when they are afraid.

Having no expectations does not mean that we should live without aspirations or ideals. We hold the highest ideals, but at the same time, have no expectations that these ideals will quickly be fulfilled. We work steadily and consistently, keeping that which we hold dear in our heart. We do not allow despair to overcome us when we see the tremendous gap between the reality before us and the hope that we cherish within. We embrace great aspirations as our guide, and no expectations as our rule of life.

We look at life from the expansive perspective of God’s vision, and stride forward with the profound patience of the soul. We strive for excellence and perfection in everything that we do. We work with no expectations from our labors, but with full faith that all of our endeavors will find their place in God’s Eternal Purpose and Plan.

We have faith that no act that is undertaken with sincerity is in vain. We trust that no real longing for God goes unnoticed. We have confidence that no kindness is left wholly unreturned. We rest in the knowledge that love between spiritual brothers (and sisters) will overcome all human frailties. We live with the firm conviction that working with no expectations will bring the Divine Design to fruition at the right moment and in the appointed place.

copyright © 2012, by Yoel Glick

Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Mirka Knaster, Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra, p. 127
  2. Mirka Knaster, Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra, p. 128
  3. Mirka Knaster, Living This Life Fully: Stories and Teachings of Munindra, p. 127