[I’m reposting this because it’s very relevant to what I’ve been going through recently, and I may address it in the next few posts. I’ve recently been re-reading When Things Fall Apart, and it’s been very helpful.]
We all need hope.
Or so we think, and so we are told by everyone from politicians and salesmen to preachers.
But Buddhist teachers, notably Chogyam Trungpa and his student Pema Chodron, say that hope steals from us the only thing we really ever have: the present moment.
Hope is almost universally regarded as a positive idea, indeed as essential to our happiness and mental health, and its opposite, hopelessness — being ‘without hope’ or ‘beyond hope’ as it is often encoded in our language — is considered the realm of despair and fear, the sign of depression and despair, utter psychological desolation. In most popular psychological literature, the work of self-help gurus, and other widely read and highly regarded sources on the subject (not to mention TV melodrama, which thrives on the ‘hopes and dreams’ genre), hope is offered as the solution to depression, a remedy for feelings of worthlessness or frustration, the drug of choice for conditions of poverty and oppression, the ultimate ‘feel-good’ answer.
Hope, however, is highly overrated.
I say this often to folks, and without fail I get disbelief and scoffing, confusion or anger in response.
I’m usually unable to explain in a satisfactory way why I think hope is not what it’s cracked up to be, so I’ve been going back into the writings of Pema Chodron and the pithy slogans of the Lojong — that wonderful group of teachings from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition related in Chogyam Trungpa’s book Training the Mind — to try to sort out for myself, and perhaps explain for whoever might occasionally read this blog, why “no hope/no fear” is the better part of wisdom.
First, a simple statement of the essential thing here: hope is always based on the idea that things, oneself, conditions, should be other than they are. This assumption clouds our ability to see that true happiness, joy, and contentment come through acceptance.
It is critical at this point to make clear that, at least as far as I understand it, I’m speaking of this on the personal level, not the social level. As a socialist/anarcho/syndicalist, I’m committed to the idea of social betterment, working and planning to make the social conditions that prevail in our world better for everyone on the material plane. I don’t advocate accepting how things are organized in a world that is clearly run on the principal of violent domination and oppression of others as the path to material success. I have hope that this condition in the world can be changed, as a rational approach seems to require that we believe in the possibility of change for the better. This is ‘hope’ simply defined as seeing that something is possible and thus being willing to make efforts toward it.
The ‘hope’ that I consider to be highly overrated, and in fact a detriment to happiness, is that hope which posits that one’s personal happiness is dependent on the external conditions in which one finds oneself, and thus concludes that the only path to joy and peace is for things to change in our surroundings. I’m certainly not saying that one should not work to improve the conditions of one’s life, I’m simply saying that to conclude that such improvements are the necessary and sufficient path to joy and happiness is an error of strategy and a path to perpetual dissatisfaction.
Once we decide that things being better in our external conditions will make us happy, we will always find things that need to be ‘better’ in order to maximize our happiness.
As Janis Joplin sang in “Work Me Lord”, “The worst you can say about me is that I’m never satisfied!”
For most of us, that’s the essential problem. We never have enough of whatever it is we think we need to be happy.
So the true solution, the true path to happiness, is not hoping that things will get better, or even working to make them better because we ‘haven’t lost hope.’
No, the true path to happiness, or better, joy and contentment, is learning to see that what we have is really enough. What we need is the clarity of mind to accept ourselves as we are, without that nagging feeling that we’re just not good enough, just not strong enough, just not whatever-it-is-that’s-lacking-this-moment enough — and that as soon as we get that, we’ll be fine.
A basic teaching on this comes in Lojong #15, “Four practices are the best of methods.” One of those ‘best practices’ is, as Trungpa says, just let it be without scheming to get pleasure and avoid pain. There is much in these teachings about flipping the normal human proclivity to seek pleasure, avoid pain. It’s built into our program by the evolutionary journey, so it’s not a “wrong” thing, it’s just that it doesn’t work very well when it comes to developing into a spiritually mature, compassionate person. If we were still out there on the edge of the forest scrabbling with the little beasts for carrion, it would make sense. In our world, it’s counter-productive. In fact, it’s precisely the program that has produced this world of violence and oppression, so there’s probably a very good argument to be made that giving up hope and fear is the best way to elevate society to a more humane, fair and compassionate state.
Most of the talks in Pema’s book When Things Fall Apart are permeated with the notion of ‘no hope/no fear’, and her book The Wisdom of No Escape is specifically dedicated to this idea. It’s important to understand that in all of this, there’s no sense of this being what one “should” do. It’s rather offered in the spirit that if one finds one’s mind turning to the dharma, turning to the path of compassion, here is some heart advice on how to make that happen in your life.
So if you don’t like the idea of giving up hope and fear, truck on down that road. When life turns you around, perhaps you’ll come back to these teachings with a new openness, a new willingness to see how it plays out in your life.
In a chapter in WTFA titled “Hopelessness and Death”, Pema says:
To undo our very ancient and very stuck habitual patterns of mind requires that we begin to turn around some of our most basic assumptions. Believing in a solid, separate self, continuing to seek pleasure and avoid pain, thinking that someone “out there” is to blame for our pain — one has to get totally fed up with these ways of thinking. One has to give up hope that this way of thinking will bring us satisfaction. Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.
A little further on in the book, she says:
Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment.
[This was originally a separate post, but I’m combining the two here for simplicity.]
In the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa, and the presentations on those teachings that we have from his student Pema Chodron, one of the great themes is that an essential element in walking the ‘spiritual’ path, the path of radical compassion, radical acceptance, as it has come down to us through the centuries from those who have followed and interpreted the teachings of Gotama the Buddha, is that there is no escape.
The first noble truth of classical Buddhist teachings is “Life is suffering.” Though this idea is widely misunderstood by most of the Western translators and interpreters of the Buddha’s teachings – the sense of the original is better translated as “All clinging to life involves or creates suffering” – it is essentially just an observation about the reality of human experience: we can’t escape these feelings of dissatisfaction, this sense of lack that permeates our lives.
This is the “hopelessness” that Pema holds out as a positive thing, much to the dismay and confusion of most of us. The reactions I get to suggestions that hope is not something to cling to range from shock to outright anger:
What? Give up hope? Never! Hope is all we have! Never give up! Believe in the ultimate wonderfulness that we can achieve and never stop hoping for better, more, never abandon the quest for perfection.
That may be overstated, but it catches up much of what passes for wisdom in popular self-help psychology. And it sells. For some, it seems to work, at least temporarily. But it misses some really profound understandings of our human situation.
What we tend to do when things get tough, when things aren’t going the way we should like them to, is look for some escape from this unpleasantness. Much of what fills the world today, materiality, activity, religion, philosophy – any realm really – is nothing but some highly refined and developed effort to escape from reality, to fill that void with something.
We seek sensual and intellectual pleasures to escape that gnawing sense of dread, and we find all manner of sophisticated means to avoid the pain that comes from too much reality.
But in the end, there is no escape.
Whatever we do, it always ends. There’s always something happening that we wish would go away, or something we wish would happen that just won’t. And when we get something we want, we know that it could be lost in a heartbeat.
This is the truth of life that the Buddhist teachers speak of as “impermanence” or “emptiness”. The Buddhist path involves, at heart, being willing to bang into that truth over and over again until it comes clear to one that this is the nature of our life. “Sampajanna” is the Sanskrit term, which means something like ‘constant and thorough understanding of the truth of impermanence.’ Everything changes. It’s an obvious truth that we spend most of our energy denying.
It is this sense of no escape that is intended in the teachings of hopelessness, in the idea that our only salvation lies in giving up hope. Radical acceptance. Coming to terms with reality.
There’s nothing wrong with the hope that lets us undertake a new journey toward a goal that is clearly and simply a way to get beyond some thing in one’s life, or in society at large, that is problematic. When you see a problem, you address that problem in clear-eyed ways, and the ‘hope’ needed there is simply to see that yes, it is possible that I can do this. It’s not some unrealistic goal, and there aren’t insurmountable obstacles to realizing it. It’s possible. That’s a positive, human kind of hope.
It is when hope is used as an escape from the reality of our lives that it becomes a block to development of contentment and joy. It is when hope becomes an unrealistic quest for lasting, permanent security and grounding that it leads us down a dead end road.
Impermanence is a fact of life. It is as unavoidable as death itself. Finding any kind of contentment in this life necessarily involves acceptance of that truth, else we go from disappointment to disappointment, careening along leaving a trail of disasters, and never find peace.