No Hope, No Fear

Hope.

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.

[I will continue with a second installment on this theme in a couple of days — I hope! :)]

[And I have! Hope rewarded! Next]

Branching out…

I am actively stepping out into a quest for a personally real path. My vague, desultory wandering for the past year (or two) is taking me nowhere.

These are some thoughts I just picked up that I want to build this post around, but I’m putting it out there in raw form so that I don’t vacillate or shrink from the challenge. I will edit this, well, fill in the gaps outlining what all this means and what I’m thinking, and then repost it with a better title.

My lojong/tonglen practice, weak as it has been, has been leading me in a tantric direction, essentially since I realized a year or so ago that a path based on renunciation does not and will not work for me.

These quotes and links are from my recent explorations into Vajrayana:

Chapman: “The Tantric attitude systematically reverses the attitude of mainstream Buddhism. If you are a non-Tantric Buddhist, and if the Tantric attitude seems attractive or obvious, you might want to wonder why you are practicing a religion based on its opposite.”

Sky Serpent:
“You can do magical practices without assuming anything about them. You can just do the practice, and see what happens. If you do those practices with naive expectations, like “I’m going to shoot fireballs out of my eyes”, you are most likely to get disappointed and not to pay attention to actual results. If you are too skeptical, you do not really go for it, and as such you do not do the actual practice. Ambiguity and playful attitude is the best position.”

Peter Snowdon:

“My hypothesis is, that ordinary people have always had such an ambivalent attitude towards the concrete power of healers, magicians, and other shamanic types, and that this is the natural and right attitude to have towards them. If you come from a materialist-scientific culture, then you are likely to fall into two, symmetrical two traps: total denial of these powers, on the grounds that they are incompatible with (i.e. challenge) your scientific world view, and supposing that people who make use of the services of such healers/magicians must believe in them in some straightforward, literal way, the way that you might believe in the force of gravity, and therefore need to be rescued from ignorance and illusion. Often, when we ascribe superstition to others, I think we are just back-projecting onto them our own superstitious confidence in science, and ignoring the complexity of thought that is natural to people who don’t read books or spend half their lives lost in ‘thought’, but who do have to deal daily with very real situations and who therefore assess methods and techniques not on the basis of their authority or theory, but by their results.”

Chapman: “For me, the heart of the Tantric path is not magical methods or esoteric concepts. It is an attitude; a stance; a way of being. It is the attitude of passionate and spacious engagement with this world. It is an ecstatic and agonizing love-affair with everyday reality.
…Any activity—mopping the floor, designing a web page—can be Tantric practice, if you approach it with whole-hearted, spacious passion. This open-endedness makes possible the constant creative innovation that marks much of Tantra’s history.”
Tantra: (from Arobuddhism.org)
“Tantric Buddhism employs the urgent energies of agony and ecstasy, lust and hatred, paranoia and greed to transform our confusion into enlightenment.

Tantra is radically positive insanity. Tantra is the hot blood of kindness. Tantra conjures with the electricity of being: the shimmering voltage that crackles ecstatically between emptiness and form. Tantra is the alchemy of transformation by which we re-create ourselves limitlessly according to the kaleidoscopic pattern of moments that comprises our experience.”

Lojong#15

Four practices are the best of methods:
Accumulating merit: … non-clinging.
Laying down evil deeds: Surrender to truth of your life.
Offering to the dons: Welcome attacks, difficulties that remind us our mindfulness has slipped.
Offering to the dharmapalas: Ask for things that will keep you on the path.

Know that our very lives are sacred in all their aspects.

This is a very deep practice, and will take you very deep into your own mind and heart. One must be clear, dedicated, and strong to undertake it. The benefits are beyond measure. True liberation, nothing less.

Lojong #15 Four practices…

Four practices are the best of methods.

The challenge here is remembering what the four practices are! They don’t have simple, easy identifiers, and they’re fairly complicated as well as involving a lot of Tibetan traditional ideas, so it’s difficult.

Practice one is accumulating merit: Trungpa emphasizes the sense of veneration of the practice, being grateful for whatever comes up, and learning to let go of possessiveness. It also includes the idea of ‘no hope, no fear’ so that we are just welcoming everything and not hoping to get something out of the practice or fearful of it not working out for us. This involves the very difficult notion of giving up our scheming to get pleasure and avoid pain.

Practice two is laying down evil deeds: this is done by looking deeply into your own life, seeing your mistakes clearly and surrendering to the truth of your life. “Evil deeds” is better understood as ‘neurotic crimes’ of a psychological nature.

Practice three is offering to the dons (feeding the ghosts): the idea of the dons is the source of all one’s misfortune, and the practice is to welcome these attacks because they show us that we have slipped from the path of mindfulness.

Practice four is offering to the dharmapalas (protectors of the teachings): this is asking for the things to happen that will remind us to stay on the path and show us when we’ve slipped.

Though these seem a bit obscure and complex, they are ideas that grow in one’s mind over time and help deal with difficult life situations. Understanding them, seeing them clearly, is not likely to happen quickly, but we just keep working with them and the truth of it seeps into our hearts so that when needed, the understanding arises.

 

Lojong #14 – Seeing confusion…

Lojong #14

Seeing confusion as the four kayas

Is unsurpassable shunyata protection.

This is among the Lojong slogans that I love most. It carries deep and profound meaning and can be a powerful key to awakening, but it is also one of the most obscure of the slogans.

The clarifying insight – the message – of this Lojong is at the heart of why we are practicing. Its essential teaching is that observing the process of the mind in response to life’s challenges is one of the best ways to experience the liberating insight into the wisdom that everything is empty of separate, abiding existence.

To explain how that comes out of these few words requires some translation and background.

The four kayas are the four ‘bodies of emptiness’: dharmakaya, sambogakaya, nirmankaya, and svabhavikakaya. Without going into the theory of these too much, suffice it to say that they describe four states of mind that one goes through in the process of perception. They are simply translated as confusion, clarity, relating the two, and seeing the whole.

Careful observation of the mental processes reveals this process. When one is confronted with something new, confusion and bewilderment reign. After some experience, clarity about what is being perceived begins to dawn. Then one relates the new understanding to the original confusion, and finally one’s comprehension begins to see the totality of the whole, ‘total panoramic experience’, as Chogyam Trungpa says.

Watching this happen often enough finally leads to the perfect understanding that whatever happens, this is the process. We are not stuck at any stage, not stuck with our thoughts, not stuck with our selves. Trungpa explains that in svabhavikakaya, one has transcended the notions of the birth, subsiding and dwelling of thoughts. The idea of protection is that this understanding can free one from clinging to the self and its thoughts; indeed, when one realizes the truth of no self, it becomes clear that there’s nothing to protect!

We all are suspended in shunyata, suspended in the emptiness of the phenomenal play. When the deep implications of this are internalized, it is very freeing.

Trungpa says that this liberation comes from

understanding your mind by studying and watching yourself and by practicing shamatha and vipashyana. By practicing those disciplines, you being to realize that the essence of your mind is empty… That realization can only come about when you are sitting on the cushion. Only on the cushion can you see that your mind has no origin.

(Shamatha is basic mindfulness/concentration meditation, the first stage in the meditation process. Vipashyana (or vipassana in Pali) is meditation aimed at insight into the true nature of reality. By ‘on the cushion’ he means during meditation practice.)

Mind and thoughts and all of the phenomena we experience have no origin; they are unborn, as we saw in Lojong #3. This means we can be free of much of the worry and stress and driven behavior that plague our lives. It can all be seen in a very playful, relaxed way because we understand that we are always engaged in continual awakening.

 

 

Lojong # 13 Be Grateful to Everyone!

Wonderful wonderful Lojong here!

“Be Grateful to Everyone” is such a positive admonition. Kongtrul, in his older version of these slogans, renders it as “Contemplate the great kindness of all.”

This is part of the ‘poison as medicine’ theme, or Transformation of Bad Circumstances as it’s called in Trungpa’s rendering. In this theme, the idea is that all the people and events of our lives are things to be thankful for because they are what provide us with the opportunity to practice, to follow the path, which means the opportunity to get beyond self.

Without all these apparent ‘obstacles’ in our lives, there is no path, no way to proceed on the project of developing patience and compassion, ways to transcend our normal ego-centered, reactive approach to everything. The contemplation of just how indebted we are to the others around us becomes a major part of each meditation, as well as an important piece of the mindfulness that helps us to get through the day without stressing ourselves and the others around us.

Becoming able to actually feel gratitude to someone who has hurt you or caused difficulty for you, intentionally or not, is a great transition in life. It’s not easy and it doesn’t happen in a short time, but with patience, it will come. It just takes ‘practice!’

This Lojong slogan is very close to the Christian idea of “Praise God in all things” as well as the Chinese notion of ‘disaster as opportunity’.

Shame vs. love

“I think we will be much more powerful as activists if we can create conditions for the perpetrators of injustice to feel safe in seeing the truth Rather than taking an attitude of, “You are an ignorant and morally inferior person who needs to be shamed and corrected,” we could take an attitude of, “I know you, like I, are a caring and intelligent person. Here is some information to help you act more deeply on that care.”

–Charles Eisenstein

Charles Eisenstein tells a personal story with some interesting & insightful implications in a recent blog post. He was confronted by the police for taking his kids out onto a frozen river and charged with “disorderly conduct.” He points out the social meaning of this charge as part of the whole process of intimidating us into following social norms, and describes the process of humiliation and shaming that goes on in much of our society’s normative behavior, from child-rearing and schooling to punishment of criminals.

He says this shaming is really counter-productive, because it can drive people to express negative feelings in even more harmful ways as well as force them into defensive ideologies that justify their negative attitudes and behaviors. A much more effective approach is to establish commonality with people and help them to acknowledge their mistakes, as suggested in quote (above) from the article.

This reminds me of the truth embedded in Lojong #12, “Drive all blames into one,” which recommends that one accept the blame for anything that happens, because by accepting the blame on yourself, you open up space for the other persons involved to see and admit to their own culpability in the situation.

Charles says further, “…if we believe in the fundamental dignity of all people – then the problem is not only that we use the tools of shame, humiliation, and punishment for the wrong ends; the means itself is wrong, and it is inseparable from the end of domination and control.”

Discarding shame and punishment in favor of acceptance and true communication is the action of love. It can only come when we discover within ourselves that deep connection with the other that arises with dissolving the boundaries of self.