“The point I want to make is that love can be true and lasting, under the right conditions…Yet often, instead of giving love room to expand, we box it in with our expectations. Expectations make our love conditional on what the other person does or says…For love to last, it is best not to have too many expectations. It is better just to offer love.” –The Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje
When I sat down with my co-author Meggan Watterson to write our book, How to Love Yourself (And Sometimes Other People), we shared our dating horror stories with each other. She was set up with a doppelgänger of her father, me with a woman who bore a tattoo that looked suspiciously like Hitler. And that wasn’t the uncomfortable part! It was the fact that as we dated we felt like we were being evaluated for a long-term relationship, if not marriage, based on a checklist the other person had internalized entitled, “Qualities of a Perfect Spouse.” Through these and other stories, it became clear that dating often begins with many expectations.
Meditation can be a helpful way to tap in to what is going on in your own mind, including all the various expectations you hold. Yet the practice of meditation is to gently acknowledge those expectations and come back to what’s actually going on, such as the physical sensation of the breath. In a romantic context, your mind may drift to thoughts such as, “Why hasn’t he texted me back yet? Is he not as into me as I am into him?” When you catch yourself thinking, the aim is to acknowledge the thought, loosen its hold on your mind, and gently guide your attention back to the cycle of the breath. In this way we dissolve the power fixed expectations have on us and are more available to what is going on in the moment.
We can engage in a similar process when we sit down on a date. After a few good dates I would find myself asking the lady about her family, and later contemplating scenarios within which I win over her dad. Or she might ask if I think kids are in my future, scoping out whether I’m ready to settle down and raise a family. At a certain point, fixed expectations would take over our dating process. It is in those moments when meditation training is helpful—instead of going deep into story lines around what could eventually happen, we can choose to remember to come back to what is going on right now. We can return to being present with another person.
While I do think it’s great to meet someone and aspire to be with them long-term, going into a date with a detailed plan about what you need in a partner to be happy creates a lot of room for disappointment. The more detailed you are in your expectations, the more you distance yourself from who you are with in that moment.
A few years ago I spoke about love and relationships at a Buddhist center in Boston. A woman raised her hand and said that she was in her 30s, knew what she wanted in a partner, and had written out all of those qualities on a legal pad. The list was incredibly detailed. The guy didn’t just need to like dogs; he had to like big dogs. He didn’t just need to enjoy nature; he had to be into hiking and camping. She then did what many of us do these days: she went online.
I am not opposed to online dating, but I do believe people look to it in the same vein as online shopping, browsing for mates who meet certain specifications. Often the real-life connection doesn’t live up to expectations. Our friend in Boston shopped in this manner for quite some time. Finally she put the legal pad away and ran into a man who, in her words, “flew in the face of everything on that list,” and fell in love. Three years later they are married.
This is the joy in remaining open to those you encounter. Meditation practice helps us be with what is going on right now, without giving in to fixed expectations of what needs to happen next. This is the flip side of fixed expectation: “bodhicitta.”
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Bodhicitta is a Sanskrit word. “Bodhi” can be translated as open or awake and “citta” as heart or mind. It is saying that when we drop fixed mind we can connect to an inherent well of power and joy, an awake heart. We can love fully when we suspend thoughts about the future of a relationship or whether the person we are with likes big dogs. Through meditating we learn to be present and open. When we are present and open, we can date authentically, offering our full self in any given moment.