by Donna Quesada: The key to minimizing stress and maximizing contentment, is to keep our expectations in check.
On this point, both the Buddhists and the Stoics can agree. The gap between our idealistic expectations of a situation and the reality we find ourselves in, is where suffering exists. For Buddha, the mental ideas that we cling to is what sets us up for continuous vexation. For the Stoics, it is couched in terms of being clear about what it is we’re getting into, as exemplified in the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus’ famed quote about the public bathhouse:
“If you go out to bathe, picture what happens in a bathhouse—the people who splash you or jostle you or talk rudely or steal your things. In this way you will be more prepared to start the activity, by telling yourself at the outset, ‘I want to bathe, and I also want to keep my will in harmony with nature.’ Make this your practice in every activity.”
What he’s saying, is to keep in mind, from the get-go, that there will likely be obnoxious people and other various annoyances that go hand in hand with the otherwise peaceful experience of bathing. Of course, today, we might envision the beach, the gym, or a public pool, in lieu of the public bathhouse. But the point is the same, which is to have realistic expectations about the activity… To know that it’s all part of it.
What I always loved about the Stoics was how practical this wisdom is. If we only think about how perfect everything is going to be when we get there… wherever there is, then we’re deluding ourselves into inevitable disappointment. For example, if… in our fantasies, we only envision the “perfect” vacation, with clear water, a lovely hotel, and fine dining, at the expense of a balanced mental image, which would likely also include mosquitos, traffic, jet-lag, as well as hassles at the car rental, then the stress of these sorts of occurrences will only be exaggerated.
It is a very practical and simple philosophy. Because I like useful philosophies, I also took to Buddhist teachings when I was a student of both western and eastern philosophy. Although Buddha’s teachings include more complex elements, on things like reincarnation and the notion of the Self, the likeness in this context is striking. Buddha knew that getting stuck in our head is where the trouble starts. The ideas and desires that we cling to, about how things should be, and how we’d prefer things to be, rather than how they actually are, is the source of our angst.
But, what about thinking positively, you might be asking? To this objection, I can say that neither Stoicism nor Buddhist teachings are an exercise in pessimism, but rather a balanced and neutral notion of what life is and what any scenario will include. It’s about minimizing the surprises, so as to minimize the stress that unwelcome surprises generate. Nature itself, includes tranquility and tempestuousness.
I can also offer that through experience, I’ve found that both the Stoics and Buddha were right when they said that the only thing we have any semblance of control over is our mental outlook, and our ability to accept whatever reality presents us with. It’s our inner resistance to a situation that creates heaven or hell, rather than the situation itself.
And so, in the end, by having a clear set of expectations in any circumstance, we minimize our disappointments when things don’t go as planned… because although it seems glaringly obvious, we forget that things won’t always go as planned. Despite all the best planning, it may rain on the parade.