Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Seduction of Hope

Over at the Mindful Moment, Dean has an excellent post about the illusions people have about hope. Whenever concerns about the future come up, I find hope to be like a bottle of quality microbrew after a long day. It's usually something that's nicely packaged, good tasting, and guaranteed to offer some short term relief from the pain. The problem is that hoping takes us away from what's present. And it also diverts us away from the deep source pool from which our future springs forth. To put stock in hope means to privilege an empty story over the wholeness that's inherent in each of us, if we only trusted it more. Dean writes:

In my experience and spiritual practice I've found hope is not a good thing. It's limits ones spiritual development. It isn't good because it in fact is a very subtle form of desire and control that makes us cling to our sense of self and our suffering, prolongs our suffering and keeps us suffering. It is an illusion of a sense of control that we don't actually have. Hope is nothing, it's not even a tangible 'anything', it's just a subtle desire for a future positive event or away from a future negative event.

I'd actually say that it isn't even about positive or negative. Spiteful politicians sometimes spend enormous amounts of energy hoping their political opponents are taken down, or even killed off. Greedy business leaders sometimes invest entire fortunes on schemes built on a hope that doing them will crush the competition. Seriously ill or seriously depressed people sometimes hope to die. Rebellious teenagers sometimes hope to fail exams, and flunk out of school. The common thread, whether the desired outcome is positive or negative in the relative sense, is that desire for control Dean speaks of. Control over what? Change.

I don't know about you, but I have never had any luck control changing. Certainly, I can plant seeds for the direction I'd like to go in, and shift my thoughts and behaviors to increase the possibility of that direction manifesting. And I can regulate my responses to whatever actually does occur. But controlling change itself? I don't think so.

The other thing I actually have come to see about hope is that it puts a lock on the doors of our life. Instead of having everything open and available in any given time, you only have a few doors open. The ones you hope for, and the ones you don't hope for.

That's the place you're operating from. I hope to get a job by the end of the month; I hope I don't go broke. Either one of the two "hopes" happen, or something entirely different occurs. With the former, the pattern of belief in hoping is reinforced. The latter often brings with it a surprise laced with confusion and even bewilderment. I didn't expect to inherit this money. What do I do now? Do I still get a job? Invest it? I don't know. I don't know.

In the end, when you give in to the seduction of hope, again and again, you loose the improvisation skills necessary to fully engage with life as it is.


NellaLou said...

I find that hope is directly driven by irrational fear. And that it is just a few steps away from desperation.

Ji Hyang said...

with due respect-
I will offer another possibility.
Yes, hope as denial is an ego-based distraction which takes us from the power of the present moment. This is the definition of dukkha... It is good to examine our relationship with it and see what truth we may be hoping against.

At the same time hope can also be a spiritual force which sustains us to reach the light of spring which follows the darkest night. Knowing the coordinates of here and now, I direct my focus and life force towards this possibility-- which I know can happen. There is a quality of acceptance and surrender-- and yet, with bodhissatva direction and try mind-- hope.

HHDL's poem makes me think of this:

Never give up; No matter what is going on Never give up. Develop the heart; Too much energy in your country Is spent developing the mind, Instead of the heart. Develop the heart. Be compassionate; Not just with your friends, But with everyone. Be compassionate. Work for peace; In your heart, And in the world. Work for peace. And I say again, Never give up. No matter what is going on around you, Never give up.

I wrote a post about hope, here:
In this post I wrote about how necessary hope is. In this one, we say hope as a big mistake. Which one is correct? KATZ!

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all...

SlowZen said...

Nice one Nathan, I say so because on the dry erase board in my office at work I wrote in large letters "Hope is not a method!"

Love the button, another good one I have heard is that hope is the mother of all disappointment.

Anonymous said...

Woah! Not to quick there, fellow Buddhists. Dissing hope in the context of the dharma may be sound practice, but tell this to someone whose loved-one is near death.

hospice worker

ps: this may be of interest: The Hope Foundation of Alberta, a research centre affiliated with the University of Alberta, is dedicated to understanding and enhancing hope in individuals, families, and institutions. Visit

Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...

Thanks Nathan for the reference to my blog. A really nicely laid out discussion yourself!

Ji Hyang - I think you are confusing hope with faith, which I write about on my blog post. The "never give up" mentality is a problem however beyond a certain point in ones practice. We have to give up at some point otherwise the self just continues to cling. At some point we even have to drop faith in the light of enlightenment. Why continue with faith if you have actualised what you were having faith in?

Peter - while I completely agree that compassion is required in these situations, hope however doesn't change the inevitability of the outcome ... death. While we fear it, it happens to all of us, and no that doesn't make it a nice. But that is the truth. Does giving the loved ones hope change the outcome? No, it just allows them to cling to a false reality and a false sense of control for a future outcome that may or may not eventuate. If the person doesn't die, they feel great, but if they do did the hope help? Not really. It's a false form of coping mechanism. I think some truthfulness and sense of proper understanding about life and death serves a greater purpose. In some sense giving them hope just makes us feel better because we know in our hearts really there is nothing we can do.

Two years ago I had my step nephew (who I was really close to) go through a most horrendous and horrific life critical situation and he clung onto life and eventually died after a month on life support. He was only 17. He got a super bug that essentially ate and liquefied his lungs. I watched myself, my brother and his wife, and the rest of our entire family go through hope for a month. My brother described it like watching a month long Wes Craven movie. While it was incredibly painful for me and them I think my understanding from insight into meditation allowed me to be at peace at the same time with what was happening. I know it's a hard subject, but my experience has taught me that hope isn't that fruitful. There are better ways of coping.

Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb

Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb said...

Peter, I should have added that obviously this is based on my experience in life and also experience through meditation. Being a hospice worker you may have more references where hope is beneficial so I'd be interested to hear those and discuss them.

Dean 'Jagaro' Crabb

Brikoleur said...

Another of those cultural things, perhaps? We're not that big on hope here in Finland; the default assumption is that if anything totally doesn't suck now, it soon will, so you better brace for it. We also tend to bitch a lot.

I think there are cultural imperatives pushing you to see things one way rather than another. The dominant narrative in America has been one of opportunity, possibility, faith, and hope. The flip side of that is that it makes it that much more difficult to face up to constraints, obstacles, doubts, and fears, which then bubbles up in all kinds of not always rational ways.

The Finnish cultural problem is the opposite, of course, with its own set of neuroses. There's gotta be a middle ground there somewhere...

Ji Hyang said...

Thanks, Dean.

The distinction you draw between hope and faith is indeed interesting.

I am exploring a distinction between false hope and true hope. True hope is grounded in present time, and it is preceded by an act of surrender. It recognizes the gifts of the present moment including the segues, the possible trajectories of outcome-- and collaborates with these gifts of the moment through practice or prayer.

This is the active practice of hope, imho for the seriously ill-- as well as all of us living in these challenging times...

Nathan said...

Hi All,

Well, this sparked a totally interesting discussion. Excellent!

I have to say I really think Petteri's insights into the "American psyche" on this issue are pretty accurate. It's something I've explored for a long time because I often feel like an outsider-insider, if that makes sense. Hope feels like a game we play to avoid our lives, and it's almost expected of us socially. Claiming to have "abandoned hope" about something here almost always leads to questions about your sanity, and fears about your mental state.

Peter brings up the dying, or gravely ill. This is a huge trouble point for many of us. Just taken from a pure economic standpoint, the most money spent in the U.S. health care system is spent on the last few weeks of life. The individuals are basically gone, but either they can't let go, their family can't let go, or both. How might people better approach the final days of life, either their own or their loved ones? How might those of us writing and talking about Buddhist practice support a more enlightened way of being with death?

I remember with my grandfather, who had Alzheimers for several years. The first four or five years, I hoped he would get better, or stay ok at least. Then as he disappeared, and was mostly just a helpless childlike person who barely recognized his family, I started to hope he would go quickly. None of that happened. It took a long time for him to really slide, and then another two-three years of being on the edge of death several times, but not going, before he finally died. One gift in the long amount of time the end of his life took was that most of us, including my grandmother, really burned through the hopes we had, and just ended up having to be with not knowing for sure.

What Ji Hyang describes, and labels "true hope," feels a lot like radical trusting to me. That we can learn to assess what's happening as much as we can, consider possibilities, and then ground whatever actions we take in a trust in buddhanature, or our source energy. That things will unfold as they need to.

When I do this, I can feel the difference. It's not resignation, or a passive faith that something will take care of you. And it's not the aggressive, overactive mode of believing you have to step into every situation and do something.