Monday, December 20, 2010

Buddhists Love Hope as Much as Anyone Apparently

(*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?


David said...

There is a certain element of semantics at play here. Words like “hope” and “control” and phrases like “never give up” have various shades of meaning. You say, “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” and to me that suggests that you are exercising some control over your thoughts and deeds. Yet, you obviously do not see it as control.

Since you and dean brought the subject up, perhaps you two should better define what you mean by hope. It seems to me that you both are discussing it from the ultimate side without considering how hope plays out in the relative world. You, Nathan, are informed enough to know the difference between the Two Truths . . . I hope.

I also think you guys have fallen prey to a tendency among many these days to disparage popular words and phrases or “sacred cows” while not allowing for the fact that they can be used in different contexts. Just because a word is overused that does necessarily negate the value of what the word conveys. It’s rather easy to pick apart words, and more difficult, I think, to see into the deeper meanings. Abandoning hope does not seem like a very rational or healthy thing to do.

Ji Hyang said...

For me, that energy of hope, within the body/mind is the same feeling I have doing phowa practice: a felt sense of releasing-and also a sense of well as a spark of curiosity: I wonder...

Sitting helps keep this real, so that I am seeing clearly, and so that the release is complete.

Thank you for bringing this conversation deeper. I truly enjoy the reflective nature of your posts.

Peter Clothier said...

Interesting to think about the distinction between "hope" and "desire." I think it's where hope borders on desire that it becomes unskillful. At the other end of the scale, it's a blessing. No harm in that.

Nathan said...


I think we just disagree. I'm well aware of those ultimate and relative distinctions - that's a main reason why I spoke of using words like "hope" as skillful means.

You assume I'm just out to take shots at sacred cows; if that were the case, I wouldn't have bothered to write this second post. It's not just the word - it's the entire process of hope that doesn't help us in my view.

Nathan said...


The link between hope and desire - yes, this is important. The thing is, I see hope as being all about desire. When you take out the desire for an outcome, it's something else. I've used "trust and confidence" or having great optimism in the goodness of the whole works - maybe some people are using the word hope to mean this.

However, I also suspect that others are just defending hope in general, and I just can't agree with that.


David said...

Sorry, I didn't mean to imply that you were only interested in shooting sacred cows. You usually have a pretty balanced point of view. At the same time I think there is a mind-set about these cows that people can slip into without being aware of it.

By the way, when shooting cows its best to bring them down with the first shot so they don't twitch or moan and spook the entire herd.

Seriously, I don't think hope is all about desire. There are many degrees and forms of hope.

dharmapiglet said...

I think that hope and optimism are both ways of imagining the future as we want it to be, and thinking that it could turn out that way.
That's fine, but limited by our own imaginations, and if we attach to our hopeful/optimistic ideas, it causes us suffering.
Perhaps it would be helpful to talk instead about "faith", or "trust". Faith that things are working out just the way they do. Regardless of my hopes or feelings (optimistic or pessimistic) about them. Your example of your mum seems to me to be an example of living with faith or trust, rather than hope or optimism.
Faith/trust are stronger than hope/optimism in my opinion, because they do not rely on things working out according to my expectations, they just acknowledge that things WILL work out the way they will, and I am choosing to be ok with that. Hence I am changing what I can change (myself, my attitudes) and not trying to change or control what I can't change or control (everything else).
Thanks for the great posts.

Nathan said...

"Faith/trust are stronger than hope/optimism in my opinion, because they do not rely on things working out according to my expectations, they just acknowledge that things WILL work out the way they will, and I am choosing to be ok with that."

I totally agree. This is really the direction I was working in with these posts. Thanks for the clear comment.