By Mark Donovan
A Dharma Talk given in August, 2020
Note: This piece is primarily a synthesis of two talks on Dharma Seed with text borrowed directly: Spiritual Hope by Tara Brach and Hope, Hopelessness and Equanimity by Jill Shepherd.
I suppose I wanted to investigate hope to cheer myself up. I felt like I got clobbered over the head last month with a long bout of insomnia that threw me off balance. My mood was unstable with high anxiety related to lack of sleep, personal issues, and the background clamor of the pandemic and politics. I suffered. I was also aware that I wasn’t in this alone, that humanity as a whole is suffering at this time as the pandemic disrupts lives and livelihoods. And I appreciated the expressions from my doctor, and the director of the clinic where I work, who reminded me that many, many people are going through exactly what I was going through. Our suffering is universal.
This time of massive transformation and uncertainty is both scary, with many of our old moorings loosened or lost, and also cause for new hope that a more fair and just world will emerge. Rebecca Solnit, in her essay “The Impossible Has Already Happened: What Coronavirus Can Teach Us About Hope,” writes “I have found over and over that the proximity of death in shared calamity makes many people more urgently alive, less attached to the small things in life and more committed to the big ones, often including civil society or the common good.”
I imagine that some of you watched the televised funeral for John Lewis. Listening to stories from his life I felt great hopefulness. What a remarkable man, known for his “moral clarity,” a conscience backed by tireless action that for 60 years worked for equality and justice. A man who lived by his motto of “making good trouble,” civil disobedience, putting his body on the line as he led 600 people across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 for civil rights. He suffered a fractured skull, but that did not lead him to hate his attackers, but to continue making good trouble through non-violent means. Lewis said, “We must be bold, brave, courageous, and push and pull until we redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself, where no one will be left out because of race, color, or nationality.” He recently expressed pride as he watched his legacy in action: a new generation of activists fighting for equality. Lewis’ example of living into the promise of greater equality gives me inspiration and hope. Tara Brach would call this “spiritual hope”, this growing into a greater potential, the hope of what’s possible.
Brach shared this teaching story about spiritual hope:
In the clouds of the distant past there was a monastery that had fallen on difficult times: conflicts, power struggles between monks, disrespect and tension between monks and nuns. Due to a drought, the vegetable garden started going down and now there was no effort to revive it. The monks and nuns weren’t taking care of each other or the land. And many of the monks were elderly; it was really a dying order. So, very dispirited, the abbot went to seek guidance from a well-known sage, a wise woman, who practiced and lived in solitude in the deep woods, in nature. And he asked her what might save them, what might save the monastery. They meditated together. And she said, I don’t have any advice to give you, but what I can say, is that the bodhisattva lives amongst you. Bodhisattva is an awakened being, a being with an awakened heart, the awakened heart is called bodhicitta. A bodhisattva lives amongst you. So he returned and told the monks and nuns that there was no solution, but just to let them know what she had said, that the bodhisattva is amongst us. And interestingly, in the days and weeks that followed, they started pondering this and their spirits started lifting in a fresh hope. The way they were relating to each other changed. They wondered who in their midst might be the bodhisattva. Wow, maybe you’re the bodhisattva. They started treating each other differently.
Their spirits lifted and the way they related to one another became more respectful, caring and curious. Like maybe there’s something I can learn from you. And they started being more respectful and attentive to their own inner processes - like what if I’m the bodhisattva? And it extended into the world around them knowing that bodhissatvas take many forms: plants, animals, wildlife, the garden. And it became a thriving order. People coming by noticed the changed atmosphere and were drawn to the vibrancy and radiance, and wanted to join and be a part of it.
What happened? The sage had reminded them of something: of their own light and love and the potential for awakening in each of them, and that gave new meaning, it gave hope. That then led to the creation of a community that expressed light and love.
So, as individuals and society, some trust in our potential for love, and our potential for awakening is intrinsic, and intrinsic to transformation. The value of a spiritual figure like Jesus or Buddha, the sage in the story-- any authentic teacher and leader really points us back to our own potential and points us back to bodhicitta, this love, this light that lives in each of us. It’s here and now and it can be manifested. And the more we trust it, the more hope we have on our path. Spiritual leaders like Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther, they wouldn’t have generated movements for great societal change unless they had spiritual hope, this revolutionary vision, this dream of what’s possible. They had to trust our collective potential to start these movements. And we can sense the inspiration of that trust. John Lennon: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join me, and the world will live as one.” We kind of know what that we will do, when we really let it in. So hope in what’s possible inspires us.
There’s another side to hope, however, that is less wholesome. This is what Brach calls egoic hope. Egoic hope comes from the survival brain, comes from a sense of a separate self that needs something to go a certain way. We need things to work out ok for us, we’ll get the respect we want from others, the right job, things will go well for our children, we’ll get the partner we want, our body will change the way we want it to. What happens though is that sometimes things go our way and sometimes they don’t on the ego level. And so the more attached we are, the more we cling to egoic hope, the more we suffer.
Egoic hope denies the truth of impermanence. Jill Shepherd invites us to look at how and where we try to fix things -both ourselves and others. Fix as in to repair and to make static or frozen. Fixing is a common strategy to navigate flux, but when applied unconsciously is maladaptive. “Pinning our hope on something” is an expression about how hope can be used to fix, make static/permanent. A way of asserting our will on the world instead of opening up to the reality of change. Egoic hope fueled by the primitive brain really wants what it wants, and the more it grasps after it, has to have things a certain way or has aversion and fear when things don’t work out. We get caught in a roller coaster of hopes and fears. This is why many spiritual teachers warn against hope. TS Eliott wrote, “I told my heart to be still. And wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.”
Insight meditation is designed to show us where and how we hold on, resist, avoid, deny, and cling to delusion. It shows us so that we can resist the grip of that clinging and instead experience ease, happiness, peace and freedom. In Buddhist teachings, our aspirations, intentions, and actions are grounded in the truth of change and that we don’t have nearly as much control over things as we’d like to think we do. And perhaps in line with this, the Buddha’s teachings put more emphasis on equanimity, which has the capacity to move beyond duality and binaries and to appreciate the whole spectrum of life.
Unless we have mindfulness training, most people tend to default into wanting one small part of life and not wanting the rest. The Buddha recognized this tendency to cling and resist in reference to our life circumstances in a list known as the Eight Worldly Winds. These are areas we commonly get stuck and reactive: pleasure-pain, gain-loss, praise-blame, fame-infamy. In experiencing the whole spectrum of life, we all experience both sides of this equation. None of us are immune. Practicing equanimity is a powerful antidote that can keep us from grasping to get to one side of the equation. It’s a wisdom training, because when we see clearly, we see the truth of impermanence, and we see that these eight winds are constantly swirling.
This Zen poem by Shin Jin Ming expresses the benefits of balanced acceptance:
Trust in Mind
The great way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences
when love and hate are both absent
Everything becomes clear and undisguised
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like, against what you dislike
is the dis-ease of the mind.
We can think of equanimity as the antidote to the dis-ease. And equanimity as a support to help us stay steady with the truth of impermanence. And also for staying steady with the truth of unsatisfactoriness. The fact that nothing in conditioned reality is capable of giving us lasting satisfaction. Understanding this on deeper and deeper levels is the key to freedom.
This following quote by Pema Chodron from “When Things Fall Apart” talks about the flip side of hope as fear, and the flip side of hopelessness as confidence. Chodron uses the idea of hopelessness as an antidote to egoic hope and grasping. She suggests that joy is to be found in the way we relate to impermanence, groundlessness, and death.
Turning your mind towards the dharma does not bring security or confirmation. Turning your mind towards the dharma does not bring any ground to stand on. In fact, when your mind turns toward the dharma, you fearlessly acknowledge impermanence and change and begin to get the knack of hopelessness.
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. You could even put “Abandon Hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Everyday in every way, I’m getting better and better.” We hold onto hope and it robs us of the present moment. If hope and fear are two different sides of the same coin, so are hopelessness and confidence. If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation.
Death can be explained as not only the endings in life but all of the things in life that we don’t want. Our marriage isn’t working; our job isn’t coming together. Death and hopelessness provide proper motivation for living an insightful, compassionate life. But most of the time warding off death is our biggest motivation. Warding off any sense of problem, trying to deny that change is a natural occurrence, that sand is slipping through our fingers. Time is passing and its as natural as the seasons changing. But getting old, sick, losing love – we don’t see those events as natural. We want to ward them off, no matter what.
When we talk about hopelessness and death, we’re talking about facing facts. No escapism. Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, not to run away, to return to the bare bones, no matter whats going on. If we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.
I feel the truth and wisdom of Pema’s words. And in some way I feel shocked, like I’m hearing the message with fresh eyes, as if for the first time. As Nita said, “Life is joyous participation in the sorrows of life.” This practice requires fearlessness and courage. Through our meditation training we learn to hold our experiences and the phenomena of life with more spaciousness, calm and ease. Cultivating equanimity is an antidote to the dis-ease of the mind that comes from setting up like against dislike, grasping against aversion, and trying to fix life and make it static for fear of change.
And, back to where we started, spiritual hope reminds us that light and love are intrinsic to our nature, seeds in the storehouse of consciousness, that the oak tree grows from the acorn, and that our potential to manifest light and love is transformational on individual, societal and global levels.
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Detail of the Great Hall Mural
Courtesy Spirit Rock Meditation Center
Used with permission