Expectation: I Am That I Am

Rev. Kevin Tarsa
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains

A sermon delivered September 8, 2019


Of Beer and Balsamic

This morning I’d like to talk to you about…[hold up bottle]beer.

 [open, take swig]

Well, beer and…[hold up bottle]balsamic vinegar.

I don’t actually care for the taste of beer, it’s too bitter for me after a couple swallows, so this is root beer.

I don’t care for the taste of beer, but then I’ve never had it with balsamic vinegar in it.

Someone discovered that adding balsamic vinegar to beer improves the flavor of the beer for most people.

If you give a beer drinker two unidentified bottles, one plain beer, the other the exact same beer with balsamic vinegar added, and ask the person which tastes better, the vast majority of people prefer the beer with the vinegar in it.

Unless… you tell them ahead of time that the one bottle has vinegar in it. When you do that, most people prefer the plain beer and dislike the taste of the beer with the vinegar.

I learned this in a TEDx talk that was listed in our Soul Matters packet for this month’s theme of expectation, a talk by Dan Ariely of Duke University and his Center for Advanced Hindsight. In the wake of the beer experiments, Ariely wanted to know what was going on – why people clearly preferred the taste of the beer with vinegar when they didn’t know it was in there, but didn’t like the taste when they did know the vinegar was in there.

Was it simply a clash of incoming information? he asked – the brain hearing vinegar and thinking “YUCK!,” the mouth tasting vinegar and feeling “YUM!,”  with the conflicting results simply cancelling each other out? Or was there more going on?

To find out, he played with when the researchers told people about the vinegar.

As before, they told some people about the vinegar up front, then had them taste both beers, and then make their decision about which beer tasted better. This time however, they had some people taste the two beers first, and then they told them about the vinegar before the people made their decision about which tasted better.

If the issue was having two conflicting inputs – the brain saying “Yuck!” to vinegar, and the mouth saying “Yum!” – it shouldn’t matter whether you tell people about the vinegar before or after they taste it, the brain will still say “yuck” when it hears vinegar, and the Yum and the Yuck will cancel each other out.

But the people who tasted the vinegar beer first and were then told about the vinegar before they put in their vote, liked the vinegar beer just as much as people who were never told about the vinegar at all.

This implied that the people’s expectations about vinegar changed the way their taste perception worked, made tasting a different neuro-chemical experience, a different physical experience than if they hadn’t known about the vinegar.

Of Gray Water

In a related story:

This past week held the dates of my mom’s and my dad’s birthdays, as well as their wedding anniversary. One year, about this time, when I was quite young, my brothers and sisters and I decided we would make my parents a celebratory meal all by ourselves. And we decided that what would make that meal especially fun and festive (I think this was my idea) was to add food coloring to every dish of the meal.

I remember vividly the sickly green color of the cake we served for dessert, but my strongest memory of that meal is of the glasses of drinking water. Probably thinking fun rainbow colors, we added several different food coloring colors to the water, and as you might expect, in mixing several colors together we turned the water a dingy, opaque, gray/black.

I could not even get that glass to my lips without closing my eyes. As long as I couldn’t see it, it tasted fine, but still, after an initial sip, I could not drink that water without gagging.

So what?

So as we begin exploring this month’s theme of expectation, where is the spiritual message in the story of beer and balsamic vinegar and dingy dark gray drinking water?

For me, for today, the message is that the reality we experience is colored or flavored by our expectations. We know this already, but more than that, what is affected by our expectations is not merely our thoughts and feelings about an experience, but the very experience we experience. What we are able to experience in the first place, is affected by our expectations.

It’s not as simple as, “Does vinegared beer taste good to us or not?”

It’s “Will our expectations allow us to taste the goodness of vinegared beer?”

…or the goodness of the person next to us,

…or the goodness of our lives and the world,

…or the goodness of our selves?

Our expectations shape what we are able to experience. So, what does knowing that ask of us?

Now what?

Alice Walker suggests that we “Expect nothing. [And] Live frugally on surprise.”

I love the way she puts that: “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.”

Which is sort of where I’m going to end up in a moment, but let me get there with the help of Gil Fronsdal. I’ve been listening to Gil’s dharma talks online. He teaches at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, which makes transcripts and recordings of almost all their talks available at audiodharma.org. (I commend it to you.)

Gil teaches that it’s not realistic to have no expectations. It’s not really possible. Expectations help us predict and plan and survive.

But at the same time, because expectations are rooted in our past experience, not the now, they always risk causing us to miss or misperceive what is true and real in this moment.

So, if someone was rude to us yesterday, and we expect that to be true the next time as well, we limit our ability to see them and may not be able to taste the kindness that they are offering today. Or if someone treated us well yesterday, and we expect the same for the future, but today they have a headache and are a little short with us, our expectation will make that shortness a much bigger deal than it otherwise might have been, causing us grief and suffering.

Gil points out that when we are “living through the lens of expectation . . . it’s like having blinders on.” It limits our ability to see what is true. Everything gets measured through the narrow window of what we think is going to happen or think is supposed to be happening.

We then miss all kinds of beautiful and wonderful – and dangerous things, too – unfolding around us, because we limited by looking for what we expect to see.

Being Present to What Is

The goal of mindfulness practices like meditation is to help us be fully aware of and present to what is – not to what was or will be or might be or what we want it to be….but to what is. And that includes, very importantly, being fully present to ourselves as we are – not as we will be or might be or want to be or think we should be – but as we already are right now.

Coming to terms with who we really are  – our authentic, true, unarmored and unadorned self – is key to our ability to see and respond to other people’s authentic, true selves, key to our ability to taste their inherent goodness, vinegar and all.

“…Be very careful with expectations and your attachment to them,” advises Gil Fronsdal, “because sometimes expectations can really derail us.” An understatement, right?

For me personally, it’s my expectations about myself that are the biggest de-railers, expectations that come from a lifetime of internalizing other people’s expectations, sure  – expectations for boys, for Catholics, for gay people, for Americans, for musicians, for white people, for ministers, for eldest sons, for people with gray hair – but I have learned to generate plenty of unrealistic self-expectations of my own. I’m really good at it! No, I am great at it!!

Much of my spiritual work these days involves learning to notice my unhelpful self-expectations and my attachment to them so that I can learn to open myself up to seeing what is real and true in me rather than getting stuck in what I think ought to be true.

Whether your de-railing expectations are primarily about yourself, or about people in your life, or about your journey, or about the state of the world  – Gil Fronsdal suggests that the path is not to live without expectations, but to become aware of your expectations, to notice them and how they are operating, to recognize whether and how you are attached to them,

…and then, not to live without expectations, but to expect anything.

I like it, it’s the glass half full approach.

Expect Anything

“Have expectations” Gil teaches, “but expect anything. Expect the unexpected to happen.”

As Gretchen Haley put it in our opening words:

         Make space in your heart 
to be surprised
Make room in your soul
For a new story to take shape
Let astonishment be possible

“Have expectations, but expect anything.”

Gil Fronsdal invites us to have a simple response always at the ready. I invite you to try it this week and see if it makes a difference for you. The ready response is: “Of course!”

So, if on your way home you have a flat tire or you stub your toe, “Of course!”

If this afternoon a neighbor stops by with a wonderful and completely unexpected gift, say to yourself, “Of course!”

If you get a sore throat tomorrow, think to yourself, “Of course!” (Oh, the unpleasant one’s are more difficult, aren’t they?

If you win the lotto this week, whisper, “Of course!”

If the politics in our nation all of a sudden sort themselves out next Saturday afternoon, and everyone decides to live by your ideals and values from now on, shout, “Of course!”

Now, it’s important to say that responding “Of course!” does not mean ignoring and accepting harmful behavior or dangerous circumstances. It means seeing them clearly for what they are by not getting caught up in our expectations around them. Then we can respond most honestly and skillfully.

Expect anything, Gil says, and though you won’t get everything you want, you’ll travel through the world more safely.

It’s an echo of the William Blake poem from which I often quote in the Joys and Sorrows ritual, words of one of our UU hymns which speak of joy and woe being woven together through our lives – always:

“It is right we should be so, we were made for joy and woe, and when this we rightly know, safely through the world we go.”

Of course!

[grab beer bottle]      And perhaps more tastily through the world we’ll go, too.

[take a swig]

May it be so.

Sources/Resources Cited

Ariely, Dan. When Expectations Override our Senses. TedxTunali.

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTTBruF21Fk


Fronsdal, Gil. Dharmette: Expectations.

Transcribed and edited from a short talk on July 6, 2016.

Audio:   https://www.audiodharma.org/talks/audio_player/6836.html

Transcript: http://media.audiodharma.org/documents/20160706_Gil_Fronsdal_IMC_Dharmette_Expectations.pdf


Haley, Gretchen. Let Them Go.


Walker, Alice. Expect Nothing.  https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/expect-nothing/