Lately I've been thinking a lot about hope and fear. In Chogyam Trungpa's teachings, again interpreted from very old and deeply studied Tibetan Buddhist wisdom, hope and fear are actually very closely related. Not even two sides of the same coin, they both basically contain wisdom and neurosis. Hope is not better than fear, fear is not worse than hope. Generally, we give hope big applause, mixing it in with optimism, expectation, and setting goals. And we avoid fear like the plague (avoiding fear itself is a plague of suffering), conflating it with dread, failure, and death.
Being in a pretty groundless state lately (can you tell? I haven't posted to this blog in over a month!), I've been watching as I use hope to avoid fear. When I get afraid, I can see hope wagging her tail like an eager puppy. I've also been watching the edge of hope and when it turns into fantasy. None of this feels any more comfortable than being afraid, but it feels like at least I am DOING something. At least I am not getting caught in fear and sinking, right? Not really.
All following quote from When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron:
We’re all addicted to hope—hope that the doubt and mystery will go away. This addiction has a painful effect on society: a society based on lots of people addicted to getting ground under their feet is not a very compassionate place.
Hope, especially hope in the form of unrealistic fantasy, is just another form of escape. I don't mean to be nihilistic - it's good to have realistic goals, and even to dream outside of what is possible. But I think we all know the difference - the felt difference in our body - between escape and connection. When my hopes keep me connected to my life, I am still subject to fear, still subject to not feeling certain. If I feel 100% certain about something to the point of excluding any whiff of doubt, and having zero anxiety, I get suspicious about it.
Pema points out this particular insight on hope and suffering, which I love. It quickly clarifies why Buddhist teachings are actually really empowering and optimistic in a real way, rather than dour:
The first noble truth of the Buddha is that when we feel suffering, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong. What a relief. Finally somebody told the truth. Suffering is part of life, and we don’t have to feel it’s happening because we personally made the wrong move. In reality, however, when we feel suffering, we think that something is wrong. As long as we’re addicted to hope, we feel that we can tone our experience down or liven it up or change it somehow, and we continue to suffer a lot.Later, she makes this incredible direct statement:
We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment.So if we don't have hope, what do we have? Caring. This little/big transmission I got from a friend who gave our weekly dharma gathering talk at the Madison Shambhala Center a week ago. Caring. The middle ground between hope and fear. If we spend our whole time being terrified we won't get help, or frozen so we can't help others, we aren't actually caring. If we are caught up in an empty hope, we aren't caring. We are checked out.
The real thing that we renounce is the tenacious hope that we could be saved from being who we are.Caring takes risk, it takes being present, it takes compassion (with+feeling). In order for us to be helpful, we have to be ourselves. Not someone else. Not some ideal other self. Us. Right now. Full of faults. Drop the improvement plan and help someone right now in some small way you know you can do. That will give you the hope you need to take the next step, and the one after that, and the one after that.
Fantasy doesn't empower any of us. Fear only drains our energy. While it's natural to have some hope and some fear, not feeding them is essential. Find where you care, where your heart is invested but not too much (co-dependence isn't compassion) and go for it. Make mistakes. Try again.