The Box of Expectations

The desire to know the future runs deep. Every culture has had its forms of divination; many and colorful are the varieties of ways we have ritualized asking the cosmos what tomorrow may bring. We enjoy dabbling in astrological charts, Tarot readings, throwing the I Ching and reading tea leaves, to mention just a few of the more popular techniques of our own time. Mainstream culture dismisses all this as so much regression to our superstitious past while turning to the predictions of economists (to take a cheap shot) and scientific modeling (to give due credit to the best form of prognostication we have yet to develop collectively) for guidance.

However we might personally and collectively choose to populate our expectations, thoughts about the future remain powerful things. Some of the anger of the Occupy movement could be traced to shattered expectations of college students unable to find the employment they had been led to expect. Some of our most bitter interpersonal experiences likewise come from shattered expectations when we discover someone is not as honest, loving, loyal, trustworthy or dependable as we had anticipated. Fear of a possible nuclear attack has lead the world into the nightmare of mutually assured destruction (M.A.D. Indeed), and fear of a planet ravaged by climate change is bringing people out to protest against the largest corporations on earth. Thoughts about the future are powerful things.

The human mind plans. It is part of how we share concern for one another as well as to look out for our own survival. The wise seek out as much relevant information as they can assimilate to aid in making the best plans they are capable of, after all, lives can depend on it. Still, living skillfully with this aspect of mind involves learning to hold it with a light touch. Obsess about possible tomorrows and you will miss the opportunities for contentment that are available today. If our expectations are not held with a light touch the future looks predetermined. The role of choice and freedom all but disappears as we become dogmatically sure tomorrow will be just as we imagine it. We have put the real future of the real world into a box built out of our own individual expectations.

Those of us trying to walk mindfully with the aid of ecological awareness are particularly susceptible to the temptation to put the future into a box. Studying ecology’s limits to growth, overshoot, phantom acreage and the way peoples’ relationships with their environment has accompanied the rise and fall of civilizations, it is easy to adopt a default picture of the future that fails to fully account for the role of the unexpected. In other words, the real world will not fit into the box of our expectations. It is easy for us to understand how this is true for those who expect business as usual to continue indefinitely. The challenge is for us to recall it is equally true for those of us who expect disruptions and systematic failures.

It doesn’t really matter what analysis of the ecological crisis we find rings most true for us. From fast crash scenarios to catabolic collapse all of them use the only tool we have access to from every day, waking consciousness for making such prognostications – probability. We all would do well to admit that the crystal ball has grown dark, that there are limits to what we can know. Reason can extrapolate from current trends and our pattern matching ability can inform us about what is probable in our tomorrows by learning about what happened in our yesterdays. Still no one is able to predict the details of individual events of importance since they all include some degree of complexity: sensitivity to initial conditions beyond our ability to fully account for. Fixed predictions are folly, just the flip side of pretending no consequences can be predicted to follow from our current actions.

In my experience this is not a point of philosophy. The corrupting touch of the box of eco-crisis expectations has the distinctly noxious power to persuade one that the future is wholly horrifying and wholly determined. Once so persuaded it is not hard to convince oneself that the only escape from witnessing the death of millions is to die now and leave it all behind. There was a time I was driven half-crazy by the insanity of human beings actions on this planet. How I moved from there to here, where I am basically content and happy with life as it is, is the reason for my writing.

When I was six years old my Grandfather passed away. Among the items I received from him at that time was a Tarot deck. My Grandfather was a high ranking Mason and interested in the esoteric. It was a Rider Waite deck which I kept with me for the next fifteen years or so. The pictures were simply fascinating to my young mind; the Lovers, the Devil, the World and the Star with all those colors and symbols. It was an endless source of fascination. I don’t recall when I first started using them in readings but do recall that I knew from the beginning that they were also for teaching something important.

With a Tarot reading one is trying to use synchronicity to peek into the archetypal forces in play in one’s life and how those forces are constellated around whatever question the reading is about. The rational explanation anyway, ran along those lines for me. As an adolescent the desire to know whatever I could about the future was irresistible, particularly as the past had been quite pain filled.

The other use of the Tarot is said to be as a teaching medium. The cards are telling a symbolic story. A good example of how they can be read this way is found in Jung and the Tarot: An Archetypal Journey by Sallie Nichols. In her Jungian approach the cards illustrate the typical quests involved in growing up and growing wise. There are other readings of the symbolic story depending on which esoteric school is guiding the interpretation. Regardless of the framework, eventually the symbols work their way into the student’s dreaming mind and waken something there.

It is what I ultimately learned from the Tarot that makes this little autobiographical note relevant for this week’s discussion. What I learned is how to live without needing the crutch of Tarot readings. A lot of the wizard riddles are like this in my experience. The point of a system like Tarot, as I understand it, is to mature the student beyond the need to use the Tarot. Remember each time I threw the cards in a reading it was driven, at least in part, by discomfort in facing the future. To ask any of these divinatory systems about the future can be a humble openness to seek wisdom wherever it can be found or, and this is more typical than we want to admit, an expression of deep doubt about our ability to meet the events of life well, whatever they may be.This psychological position can equally apply to the mainstream techniques of creating science based scenarios. An obsessive preoccupation with the future can represent a lack of trust in both one’s own resources and the nature of the universe we find ourselves in.

Basically I learned to “lighten” up.

Humor teaches us not to take ourselves too seriously. When you are looking into your box of expectations about human life in the future is there a place for humor? Do you include the ridiculous and the playful? Can you allow the breezes of choice and freedom to blow through the box of your expectations, even perhaps turning over the whole apple cart? And have you learned when the whole edifice of expectations crumbles to laugh at our folly? I think that is a skill that will serve us all very well in the future, however it actually unfolds.

Chinese Finger TrapThe box of expectations can devolve into what I call the three lock box. This is a box that cannot be opened by oneself alone from the outside or the inside, a puzzle box metaphor. Be on guard against the three lock box, the one created by the evil trinity of I – Me – Mine. There is no escape from this box; given the premises which forged these shackles, only a suffocating claustrophobia awaits those suffering in its prison. Like the Chinese Finger Trap, the more you struggle to escape from this hellish box the more tightly it immobilizes you in its grip.

The key is to open the third lock, the one that is not wholly inside nor wholly outside nor do you alone have the key. The work is similar to what is needed to escape the Chinese Finger Trap – to relax. The key is that the locks that seem so real and solid are in fact nothing more than delusions born from our disordered desires. They are what appear when we are ignorant of our interdependence, the true role of relationships in our lives. They are not ultimately real.

This unholy trinity represents the ego in isolation. This I knows no Thou, this Me knows no You, this Mine cannot countenance Yours.

The insidious corruption of this monster extends its tentacles of suffering over numerous aspects of life in the modern world. The obvious manifestations are found wherever propaganda is used to deny the humanity of anyone you want to destroy, exploit or abuse. Examples of the form at its most crude include the Native Americans who were said to be no more than wild beasts, the Jews who the Nazis likened to rats, and today the towel heads and the great satan vying loudly to dehumanize each other. A little less crude are all those messages incessantly propagated in hyper-capitalist cultures about success defined as getting all the material wealth you deserve while crushing your competition. This is the basic premise of most ‘reality TV’, an oxymoron if there ever was one. The same heart of darkness is seen in the ubiquitous disregard for the poor and weak. The ease with which we forget the suffering of those in third world factories toiling to manufacture our consumer goods is one way we cut ourselves off from the reality of our interdependence. The list goes on to include our cold, heartless relationships with women, children and animals, all of whom are considered less than fully human by those who are less than fully human themselves.

From the inside of this three lock box everything on the outside is seen as dead objects. Descartes stated it clearly when he recognized value in his own thoughts while doubting everything and everyone else. It is too bad he was not making love when executing his soul searching, a less sterile certainty may well have come to him than ‘I think therefore I am.’ I tried to get to the heart of this with some word pictures.

When I – Me – Mine rules our perceptions, cognitions and emotions, the whole world, both within and without, is reduced to objects, food basically. The first awareness’s of anything are colored by the thought that darkens the doors of perception, “what can this do for me?” From within the three lock box, as Derrick Jensen put it, “It is easier to kill a number than an individual, whether we’re talking about so many tons of fish, so many board feet of timber, or so many boxcars of untermenschen.”

This hunger for objects which the denizens of the three lock box suffer from is never satisfied for long, regardless of its meal. Eat a boat and you want a yacht, eat an apartment and you want a sky scraper, and on and on it goes wherever the pied-pipers of Madison Avenue wish to lead you.

See the problem is that in creating this prison we think we are building ourselves a throne. Looking out for number one, we assure ourselves we will get what we deserve, all that we are due. A life of ease and happiness will finally be ours if we can just get X, where X is whatever our latest obsession happens to be. It’s almost amusing how such obvious ignorance manages to perpetuate itself even as one X after another fails to deliver, month after month, year after year. Something similar happened with the Tarot cards as year after year what I was asking from them they were not delivering. Eventually this alienation from the living flows of life only touched by trust can wake us up to the fact that we are feeding on the swill of swines, as it were. Consumerism as religion in whichever form it takes is a dead end road.

By setting ourselves apart from the whole of the earth, from the larger flow of life as it unfolds across generations, we find we have put ourselves into a psychologically untenable position. A terrifying fear of death is inescapable inside the three lock box. Haunted by this specter we find it easy to justify our acts of cold-hearted desperation. From this point of view it is as if we are on a sinking life boat and running out of food.

Isn’t that about how it feels to be ecologically aware in our time?

The first skill for dealing well with the phenomenon of the three lock box is to learn the characteristics by which we can recognize it is influencing us. In all its forms – perceptual, cognitive and emotional – it brings a sense of restriction. Its touch removes a sense of openness, spaciousness, and freedom.

Perception: We see the world in the same old way; Grey world devoid of wonder and beauty, nothing tantalizing, nothing tempting us to take out our hand lens and take a closer look. (You are carrying a hand lens right?)

Cognition: We tire of our studies and feel our minds are already over full with more knowledge than we will ever be able to use (note knowledge is only given value if it can get us something). There is nothing more of great importance for us to learn.

Emotional: Tomorrow will be just like today, endlessly, and today is bland, painful, boring, and meaningless. Or, equally extreme, today we are king of the world sitting in our new car / boat / house and sure tomorrow will continue to feel the same way.

Life outside the three lock box is one that does not suffer from these blinders on the doors of perception, cognition and emotion. It is open to whatever comes. It is naked before the happiness found in a single breath, aware of the preciousness of awareness itself beyond the lesser judgements of pleasant and unpleasant. Life outside the three lock box or the box of our expectations, is one characterized by relationships. The lonely isolation of the ego against the world is a mistaken perception of the value of human life and thereby all of life. This throne of character armor we are building to protect us from the fate of all mortal things is not a moat, not a palace. It is a prison.

Identify with life first, ‘your’ life second. Do this and then you are aligned with the indestructible force that has withstood cosmic calamities we can barely imagine; multiple mass extinctions, massive earthquakes and tsunamis, global ice ages and meteoric bombardment. Through it all the green strength persists. Identify first with mind’s naked awareness, with an open heart, and the locks on the box dissolve. Holding expectations with a light touch you find joy in your exquisite uniqueness as it unfolds moment by moment.

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