(*Our Good Buddy Manjushri, and his sword of wisdom that cuts through illusions. Always a good presence to have in discussions about things like hope. May we all awaken our "inner" Manjushri.)
Ahhhhh, hope. It seems like a sacred cow, an untouchable almost. The general view is that people have to have hope, or else they're lost.
Well, you'll have to forgive me, but I've always been one to question whatever is generally accepted as true. Gets me in trouble sometimes. I irritate people sometimes. I'm frequently misunderstood. But that's how it goes.
Yesterday's post, as well as Dean's recent post,have generated some valuable discussion in my opinion. One of the reasons why I have used this blog to question things like hope is that it helps people, including myself, clarify what we actually mean. Instead of just saying "hope is good" or "desire is bad" and then moving on, there's an opportunity to pause and consider what we mean, and how things actually play out in our lives.
Dean's post, and perhaps mine, inspired another blogger, David, to write a counterpost that includes the following:
Hope contributes to a positive outlook on life and if that sounds too “new age” or something that’s too bad. Unless you have some sense of optimism for the future, life can be very bleak. It is through pessimism and negative thinking that we create a lot of our suffering. Hope is a necessary ingredient for a satisfied, peaceful life, and it’s sad to me that there are some Buddhists who want to twist it around into something to avoid.
The Buddha way is the Middle Way. The balance between extremes. There’s no question that too much hope can be harmful. Living for the future excessively is not healthy. But to abandon hope and live only in the present is not the way to go either. Hope reinforces the ego only if you let it. The idea that it represents some form of control that we don’t actually have is wrong. The whole point of Buddhism is to train our minds so that we can control our thoughts, words and deeds and gravitate to wholesome states of mind and not dwell in unwholesome states. We want control and if that is just an illusion then there’s no sense in practicing Buddhism.
There's a lot here I could comment on. One somewhat tangential, but I think related point is that Buddhism is NOT about control. The longer I practice, the less I believe in having control, and that's been quite helpful. I'm less uptight, less angry, less rigid, and more responsive to my life than I was in the past. Acts of controlling destructive thoughts and actions can be skillful means at times, but do not represent the fruition of an awakened life.
I still have to control angry commentaries about certain political issues, for example, but that's because I continue to be working with attachments around those views, as well as insecurities about having political views that are outside the norm.
Back to hope, though. Given that many of us live in places where hope narratives are really strong, I think that using the word "hope" can be a skillful means. Telling someone "I hope you feel better soon" can be skillfully supporting them, as can offering optimistic views of the future. However, in both cases, we can come from a place of offering that is open, and not caught up in the futurizing of hope. I can imagine hospice workers and chaplains have to work with such language all the time, and must consider the people before them and what is most skillful in the given situation. But I think there are ways to work with really difficult situations like families facing terminal illnesses that are both realistic in the now, but also optimistic about life as a whole.
Optimism is different from hope in my opinion. Although it tends to be linked with hope, I think optimism is grounded in confidence and a trust in the boundlessness of the world.
My mother is a pretty optimistic person. And although she gets caught up in misleading hope narratives like the rest of us, what I tend to see from her is a great trust that things will unfold in the way they need to unfold. The other day, her car broke down on a freeway ramp. She was initially irritated about it, and worried about having to get a new car. However, within a few hours, she had shifted all of this. With a friend of hers, she'd considered some of the possible outcomes, and then let it go to the mechanics to deal with. And although she had a hunch that it wouldn't be too bad (which it wasn't), what I mostly saw was that she trusted that what needed to happen would happen.
Optimism also, in my view, is seeing everything as an opportunity to learn, to become more fully yourself. That whatever comes, there's a way to integrate it into the whole of your life. I don't see hope doing that. Hope is usually about a desired outcome or set of outcomes. And a rejection or avoidance of other outcomes.
As a final thought, I'd like to ask people who feel hope is essential a few questions. When you say hope, what exactly do you mean? How does it actually function in your body and mind when you hope for something? And what happens in your body and mind when you don't get what you hope for?