The Elements of Living Lightly

“Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it.” ~Eckhart Tolle

Today I’m going to suggest a small change in mindset that could change your life.

I won’t keep you in suspense. Here it is: think of nothing that happens as either good or bad. Stop judging, and stop expecting.

It’s a tiny change — all you have to do is say, ‘That wasn’t good or bad, it just happened, it just is.’ It’s tiny, but it takes practice, and amazingly, it can knock you on your ass.

Why? Because with this little change, you will no longer be swayed up and down depending on whether good things or bad things happen to you, whether people (and their actions) are good or bad. You will learn to accept things as they are, and move within that landscape mindfully.

You will no longer expect good things to happen (or bad things), but will just take things as they come, and be content with whatever comes. This means you’ll no longer be disappointed, or unhappy.

“When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.”
~Lao Tzu

A Little Exercise

Think of something good that happened to you recently, and how it affected your mindset. Now think of something bad that happened, and what that did to your mindset.

Now imagine that neither event was good, and neither was bad. They simply happened, existed.

How does that change how you would have felt as a result of those events? How does it change your happiness, your mood? How does it change what you do in reaction?

When you stop judging things as good or bad, you are no longer burdened by the emotions of this judgment, and can live lighter, freer.

Nothing is good or bad

Hamlet said, ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’

He was right. Without the human mind, things just happen, and they are not good or bad. It’s only when we apply the filter of our judgment that they become good or bad, beautiful or ugly.

A weed is only a weed when we don’t like it. Children are only naughty if we don’t like their actions. Life only sucks if you judge it as bad.

But what about truly horrible tragedies, like a plague or tsunami or the Holocaust? Surely those are bad? Sure, through the lens of the judgment we’ve been raised to make, they are terrible. But then again, remove the judgment, and then … they simply happened. Death and cruelty will probably always make us sad, but they’ve always happened and always will, whether we like them or hate them.

Holocaust survivor and author Victor Frankl wrote of a rich woman who went through the Holocaust, and who was grateful for the experience, as much as she suffered, because it opened her eyes. It transformed her. I’m not saying the Holocaust was good, but perhaps we can say that it happened. It serves as a lesson — one we should heed, by the way, in these days of politically charged hatred, of blaming our ills on immigrants and minorities.

There are other tragedies that happen that aren’t necessarily bad. They’re devastating losses, without a doubt, but in life there are always losses, and people will always die. It’s how we judge them that determines our reaction, and determines whether we’re capable of dealing with it sanely.

Great Expectations

The second half of this change is just as small, but just as important: dropping expectations. Not lowering expectations, but eliminating them.

Think about it: when we have expectations, and things don’t go the way we expect (which happens quite often, as we’re not good prognosticators), we are disappointed, frustrated. It’s our expectations that force us to judge whether something is good or bad.

When you expect something of a friend, co-worker, family member, spouse, and they don’t live up to that expectation, then you are upset with them, or disappointed. It causes anger. But what if you had no expectations — then their actions would be neither good nor bad, just actions. You could accept them without frustration, anger, sadness.

What if you went on vacation, to a place you had high expectations of, and it wasn’t what you thought it’d be? You’d be bitterly disappointed, even though it’s not the fault of that place — that’s just how the place is. It’s your expectations that are at fault.

When people disappoint you, it’s not their fault. They’re just being who they are. Your expectations are at fault.

The Why

But why make this change? Why should we stop judging? Why should we stop expecting?

Because judgments stop us from understanding, and can ruin our happiness. When we judge, we don’t seek to understand — we’ve already come to a conclusion. If we stop judging, we allow ourselves to try to understand, and then we can take a much smarter course of action, because we’re better informed by our understanding.

Judging makes us unhappy. So do expectations.

When we leave judgment behind, we can live in the moment, taking what comes as neither good or bad, but simply what is. We can stop ruining our happiness with our thinking, and start living instead.

The How

So how do we start doing this? In small steps, as always.

1 First, start by being more aware. Throughout the course of the day today, note when you make judgments, note when you have expectations, and when things don’t live up to them. Over time, you’ll notice this more and more, and be much more conscious of these types of thoughts.

2 Next, pause each time you notice a judgment or expectation. Take a breath. Then tell yourself, “No expectations, no good or bad.” Repeat this, letting go of the judgment or expectation.

3 Third, seek to see things as they are, and to understand. Be curious as to why things are the way they are, why people act the way they act. Investigate, empathize, try to put yourself in people’s shoes. See the landscape of your life as it actually is, without the filter of judgments or expectations.

4 Next, take what comes. Experience it, in the moment. React appropriately, without overreacting because it isn’t as you hoped or wanted. You can’t
control life, or others, but you can control how you react.

5 Then, accept. When things happen, understand why they do, without judgment, and accept them as they are. Accept people for who they are. Accept yourself, without judgment, as you are. This takes practice.

6 Finally, know that the present moment, being as it is, also contains infinite possibilities. And those possibilities are opened up once you see things as they are, without judgment or expectations.

The Elements of Living Lightly was first published on Zen Habits 4/29/10.