Friday, June 22, 2012

Hope Isn't Really a Buddhist Teaching

Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.

By Thich Nhat Hanh

I disagree with this statement. It panders too much to the stickiness that lies behind hope. The longing for a future that may not come. The desire for something comfortable and stable to rely on. The fear that things will "get worse." I have written on this blog before, and continue to believe, that hope is mostly a hindrance. Thus my disagreement.

Given that many of us live in places where hope narratives are really strong, 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. That's where comments like Thich Nhat Hanh's above might be pointing us in a useful direction, but you have to reflect on where that might be.

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.

Now, even the word optimism is tied to a binary: pessimism. It feels a little clunky to me as I write this, but I'll opt to use it anyway.

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?


ZenDotStudio said...

Words can be so tricky. You ask a good question when you say what do you mean by hope? But can we ever really pin it down?

I always remember Pema Chodron's comment that "we bounce back and forth between hope and fear" And in this context hope is not a helpful thing.

And yet, and yet, I do believe it depends on the circumstances. If hope can somehow fortify people to take positive action or keep them from falling into a numbing despair, then in these circumstances it is helpful in my mind.

My Zen teacher used to say we need to look at each situation, not make generalizations. So perhaps hope is like this, sometimes helpful and wholesome and sometimes simply plunging us deeper into delusion.

Jeanne Desy said...

Hope can "help" us endure our suffering rather than seeing and feeling it clearly, and changing.

Robyn said...

I think hope is a kind of skillful means. I see it as similar to forgiveness. If we are really looking at the true nature of things, then I think there hope and forgiveness don't even really make sense - they are too limited and small and, ultimately, dualistic. But to consider this is very hard work and I think a lot of people are not ready to take that on. So we have hope and forgiveness, which can be very good things in certain situations.

I am surprised to see that quote from TNH, however!

Nathan said...

I agree with all of you that hope can be a skillful means in certain situations.

I can recall, for example, times when I have refrained from, or delayed, saying or doing something because it felt cruel to deflate someone's hope at the time.

David said...

Hi Nathan,

I think we had this discussion several years ago, and once again, I have to disagree with you. I can respect your feeling about the word “hope.” But I feel that hope is the very essence of the Four Noble Truths, for without the possibility of understanding the cause of suffering, and then having the confidence that suffering can be overcome, life would just be a long, painful austerity. So I think TNH’s comment is perfectly reasonable.

I’m not too interested in analyzing the word. For me, hope is a matter of life and death. When I go through periods of hopelessness, that’s when my cancer is getting the better of me, and hope is the most powerful tool that I, myself, have to combat the disease. If I didn’t have hope that I can receive a liver transplant and that afterwards, I will feel much better, then I might not have the inner strength, the strong and peaceful mind, to survive the surgery. Hope is a way to steel ourselves against the onslaught of suffering.

Maybe you don’t need hope. Perhaps someday you will. I certainly do, and I need it now. Shantideva said, “May those weak with sorrow find joy. May the forlorn find hope.” Sounds like a Buddhist teaching to me.

Nathan said...

David, I sincerely wish you all the best. Cancer has taken close family members from me. I don't know what I would need to make it through something like that, but odds are hope would be part of it.

Still, I stand behind my words above. It's often been when I have given up hope for a different reality and fully accepted what is, that something shifts. This isn't the same as hopelessness. Nor is it being doomed to some austere existence. Nor is it even a prohibition against, for example, visualizing being healthy and strong during meditation. It's about equanimity. And even experiencing a certain kind of joy, regardless of what conditions are.

Max said...

I really like how you distinguish hope from optimism. I've always considered myself to be optimistic and that sometimes seems like a bad thing (as in not realistic). When optimism (or clinging to unrealistic hope) is just a way bolstering delusion it's hard to see anything good in it. The awareness of 'boundless opportunity' however, is a great way of finding strength in adversity. As long as it's not blinding you to what is, it seems entirely worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

Hopelessness is my favorite topic :)

About two years ago, my teacher passed this on to me:

"I’m not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it. "

Here's the rest:

Derrick Jensen: Beyond Hope

Anonymous said...

I was watching a documentary on deserts and mirages and it got me wondering that hope doesn't seem to fit in with my beliefs about Buddhism or my life. hope seems to me a set up for a disappointment. if you accept your life and live each moment as best, kind and as compassionate as you can be then why hope for anything else. life will unfold regardless and if you can flow with kindness and understanding then you should be happy with yourself and not need to hope for anything. this is my thoughts but I am still learning and life may convince me otherwise

IJ Fi said...

A very interesting discussion which I came across looking for a new way to greet someone semi formally in writing.

I used to use a combination of 'I hope you are well' or 'I hope you are doing good'

I'm wondering if there is a better way to greet someone without using the word hope. I've begun to use 'I trust you are doing good' but it sounds a bit too official. Any suggestions?

Nathan said...

I still use the "I hope..." construction a lot of the time because people are familiar with it. If anyone has a replacement that works well, I'd also love to hear it.

Ivã said...

Hi Nathan,

For myself, there's a 'good' hope and a 'bad' hope. What are they?

Good hope is sometimes called confidence. Its' like using 'hope' as verb but without objects - I hope. Period.

Bad hope is using this word as a verb plus complements. "I hope this" or "I hope that". That's bad because it's false. And it's false because of the impermanence principle. I can't say that 'this' or 'that' will really happen. I just say "I hope this" or "I hope that" to cope with bad feelings, like fear and anxiety and lack of agency when faced with your own's or other's demise, that are in our minds in the present moment.