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 12 Drive all blames into one

Ahhh… we resisted moving on to this one. It’s a bit demanding…. but so rewarding when penetrated deeply.

In everything problematic in one’s life, realize that all the blame starts with you… your uptightness, your ego-fixation… your tendency to protect this fragile ‘self’ that has arisen in your mind. Accepting the blame for what goes wrong in your life is the only way to enter the bodhisattva path. Then it may be possible to realize the truth of our own self- reification.

Accepting the blame on yourself can also defuse a tense situation, can open it up so that others are not defensive, thus communication is possible… then others may be able to accept and acknowledge their own errors.

This is Poison as Medicine again – by absorbing the poison in a situation, we make the rest of the situation medicine. This works at the personal level, and is also key to solving the great social ills, moving toward realizing an enlightened society.

J. Kongtrul says: No one else is to blame; this self-cherishing attitude is to blame. I shall do whatever I can to subdue it.

Lojong #11 When the world is filled with evil…

... transform all mishaps into the path of Bodhi.

[POINT 3, TRANSFORMATION OF BAD CIRCUMSTANCES INTO THE PATH – BUILDING THE PARAMITAS OF PATIENCE & GENEROSITY….]

(This is maybe my favorite – at least my favorite simple, straightforward one.)

Whatever occurs in your life can be transformed into a part of your wakefulness. The way to do this is to incorporate the obstacles, the distractions, the difficulties… make them the substance of your practice. Whatever is hardest for you is the thing from which you can benefit most…

This little slogan has gotten me through some difficult times… like the latter part of my teaching career and a lot of other challenging situations, as well as helping me deal with the whole course of the world descending into chaos in the past 25 years, which at times has seemed to me like evil.

Of course, we can’t get too hung up on the word ‘evil’ here, else we distort the teaching. Truly, there is no such thing as evil, and it isn’t meant in that dualistic, good/bad way at all. It’s referring to our human tendency to identify anything that’s a problem in our own lives as ‘evil’ – projecting the source of it out there somewhere, some malevolent force.

Trungpa says we should realize our own richness and not be mired in a ‘poverty mentality’, not be concerned with loss and gain or competitiveness. Then we can find generosity, which is the way to awakening, or Bodhi.

Pema Chodron, one of Trungpa’s students, has some wonderful teachings on “Poison as Medicine” that are related to this slogan. It’s based on the idea that the challenges are what allow one to practice, because without obstacles and difficulties, there’s nothing to practice with, so we just be grateful for these problems. It’s challenging, but an interesting way to approach life’s nastiness.

Lojong #12: Drive all blames into one

All the blame starts with ourselves… our uptightness, our ego-fixation… our tendency to protect this fragile ‘self’ that has arisen in our minds. Accepting the blame for what goes wrong in your life is the only way to enter the bodhisattva path. Then it may be possible to realize the truth of our own self- reification.

This can also defuse a tense situation, can open it up so that others are not defensive, thus communication is possible… then others may be able to accept and acknowledge their own errors.

This is Poison as Medicine again – by absorbing the poison in a situation, we make the rest of the situation medicine. This works at the personal level, and is also key to solving the great social ills, moving toward realizing an enlightened society.

J. Kongtrul says, no one else is to blame; this self-cherishing attitude is to blame. I shall do whatever I can to subdue it.

Lojong #11: When the world is filled with evil, transform all mishaps into the path of bodhi

[POINT 3, TRANSFORMATION OF BAD CIRCUMSTANCES INTO THE PATH – BUILDING THE PARAMITAS OF PATIENCE & GENEROSITY….]

Whatever occurs in your life can be transformed into a part of your wakefulness. The way to do this is to incorporate the obstacles, the distractions, the difficulties… make them the substance of your practice. Whatever is hardest for you is the thing from which you can benefit most…

This little slogan has gotten me through some difficult times… like the latter part of my teaching career and a lot of other challenging situations, as well as helping me deal with the whole course of the world descending into chaos in the past 25 years. The world is truly filled with evil, but we can transform it.

This is part of the whole “Poison as Medicine” teaching that Pema Chodron does. It’s based on the idea that the challenges are what allow one to practice. More about that later.

Lojong #7 Sending and taking should be practiced alternately…

… These two should ride the breath.

[HERE BEGINS POINT 2B: RELATIVE BODHICHITTA TRAINING:]

This is a simple description of the very advanced practice of tonglen, which is the main practice in developing relative Bodhichitta, awakened heart. Extensive practice in basic meditation, beginning with awareness of breath (anapana in Pali, shamatha in Tibetan), is essential before attempting this practice. A solid background in Metta practice, the practice of sending loving-kindness and compassion out to all the world, is also very helpful, as tonglen can be very dark and overwhelming otherwise.

The practice involves taking into oneself with each inhalation all the bad in one’s surroundings (eventually the world) and sending out with each exhalation all the good one has, actually transforming the bad in the environment into good and giving it away.

This turns the natural tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain on its head, and generally seems absurd to the conventional consciousness. After some years of meditation and observation of the practice, one will usually come to an understanding of its wisdom and transformational power.

Pema Chodron writes about tonglen in her wonderful book The Wisdom of No Escape.

I’m not suggesting that anyone try this, but if you do please read what Trungpa and Pema have to say about it. I’m introducing it here because this is a foundational notion in much of the lojong practice: the idea that one can take negative energies or situations and transform them, simply by one’s willingness to do so – not thru any kind of occult powers or anything. It’s a powerful idea.