Hope is thought to be a good thing, a positive force. Its absence is associated with depression, pessimism, negativity. What would a life be without hope?
What a revelation: to discover the deep truth about hope, about its absence. As with so many discoveries in the spiritual life, hope is seen to be nothing like what was supposed – like what the larger culture teaches us.
The absence of hope turns out to be peaceful. People mostly spend their lives with attention on a wished-for future – when things will have turned out okay, when life will have finally delivered some fulfillment or relief.
Ceasing to live in a hoped-for future delivers us into the moment.
Meanwhile, something in us deeply longs to rest in what is true. The truth is this: we do not know how things will turn out, ever. Longing to be in control as we are, we do not find this a welcome truth. Even so, we know that we cannot determine the future. Coming to rest in not-knowing – because it is the truth – brings about a restful well-being.
And it locates us in the now. We come to comfortably dwell in things-as-they-are, without resistance or denial, without the wish to rush ahead to something better. Life itself — which is (only) the now — is no longer missed because of having the eyes perennially on something in the distance.
Hope keeps going the impression that the future is real, that time has an existence independent of the mind bringing into being a picture of another moment in life. It is in part because of the real-seemingness of time that profound peace eludes us.
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In addition to robbing us of present-moment awareness, hope is the enemy of radical surrender. It forces a distance between awareness and reality, and in that artificial space suffering has plenty of room to flower. All the while, something in us longs to be able to rest in things as they are, to sense aliveness as it can be felt by tuning in to the immediate circumstance, without regard for whether the outer condition is welcome.
The deeply wise knowing that is our nature intuits that only in momentary awareness are we really here – which is what we want, above all else: to sense ourselves existing, feeling our aliveness in the moment (however “imperfect” its particulars may be).
You are not, really, separate from life itself – from this moment, just as it is. To enforce a distance between self and the now is to drive a wedge into your very being. It’s to ask yourself to believe the lie that you are apart from what is happening – to nourish the ongoing delusion that momentary life is something that happens to you.
When hope for a certain outcome or development is felt to blossom in awareness, see if you can observe how it’s forging attachment, giving an exaggerated value to a mental picture. Once attachment has started up, a certain amount of living-in-the-future is inevitable. Momentary life becomes a step-along-the-way. And if the “right” outcome isn’t forthcoming, what else can a person do but become mired in resistance? Surrender hasn’t a chance in the environment of hope (or its miserable bedfellow, fear).
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Does the gradual unwinding of hope mean a person doesn’t want? Doesn’t have preferences? If you go for a lab test meant to detect cancer, do you prefer one outcome over the other? Of course you do. Does the absence of hope, of being invested in a picture of the future, mean you might not try to improve the present condition, as things continue on? It doesn’t mean that at all. You begin with acceptance of things-as-they-are, and with a deep knowing that you cannot predict or fully control what’s ahead. The effort to bring about desired change is then able to flower in a new now, a fresh awareness that’s free of the familiar attachment to a particular result – even as your effort is enlivened by a wish for change.
Allow yourself to imagine earnest effort undertaken in this spirit, without hope or expectation that the effort will result in the desired change. Feel your way into the beingness of fully allowing that the present situation is what it is. Non-acceptance of what-is breeds frustration, anger, and even hatred. By marked contrast, devoted work fueled by good will and creativity is much more likely to bear fruit, to feel life-affirming — regardless of how things turn out. This approach locates a person in the present (sans hope!), doing the thing that presently wants doing, without the crippling investment in outcome. As things unfold, spontaneity and insight — including insight into self — are able to come about. An environment of ferocious attachment and negativity is unlikely to foster these expressions of spaciousness.
If the wished-for outcome doesn’t come about, the ability to accept the unchanged (or maybe even worsened) circumstance is greatly enhanced by the absence of prior attachment, of hope. The next now is able to happen then, without the usual exhaustion of disappointment and deflation.
Of course preference is always there, even in an enduring peaceful state, where a person is truly in the moment-to-moment. I will share a personal story that made this vivid to me.
It occurred in the lead-up to a presidential election a few years ago. How I admired one of the candidates! I wanted him to be our next President. I had no trouble knowing where my vote would go. The morning the election took place, tears started up as I got out of the car and walked toward the polling place. The momentousness of such a man being a candidate for the highest office was deeply moving.
I noticed, with some curiosity, that I hadn’t felt myself want something that much in a long while.
The revelation occurred on the ride home, as I reflected on this atypical inner state. I asked myself, “What will it be like for me if he loses the election?” I invited my heart to fully go there, to that possible outcome – to feel what it would really be like. And found, somewhat to my amazement (given the force of wanting), that acceptance would in no way challenge or pain me, that it would take no more effort than accepting a particular day’s weather. It was like a light coming on, showing that heartfelt preference does not inevitably generate attachment (along with the set-up for resistance). I saw how for most of my life, I had experienced the forces as a singularity: to do so seemed to be human nature.
We’re used to thinking certain things go together. Wanting tends to be associated with investment in getting (and keeping). It’s hard to imagine having a preference without being disappointed if something different ends up happening. Disliking a life development seems to make resistance unavoidable. We accept all of this as a package deal, without ever examining the assumptions at play. Likewise, love is associated with fear. How could you love someone without fearing that something bad will happen to them? The shock is that when liberation comes, love breaks wide open, without fear or grasping in the picture. When you rest in not-knowing, in not being in control, love is able to flood all the cramped places long held captive by fear. But what a surprise!
It goes on and on. The revelations that come with growing consciousness invite us to look at long-held assumptions, to discover that things that have tended to co-exist are not inevitably all-of-a piece. Coming to see the assumptions we’ve wrongly made is like opening windows to fresh, revitalizing air. Life is ever-renewing. Nothing is what we supposed.
There is no end to the learning.
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The best part about allowing hope to blow away on the breeze (along with other human tendencies that breed suffering) is that savoring is given the space to take completely over. No longer living for a future, you are really here. You notice the bird song, even linger over it. Your mind falls quiet in the presence of the now. You’re attuned to the beating of your heart, a breath swelling your lungs. You revel in the vitality of the child playing nearby. The sounds of people’s voices, of traffic. It’s all simply delicious: life itself, being felt as it occurs. Each thing taken onto the tongue, like a delicious bite of food. Ordinary life is not missed.
Really being there for each thing, just as it is, gives you a kind of energy. Ironically, perhaps, it comes to feel like you have all the energy and time in the world. You discover how deeply drained you’ve been by resistance, attachment, and (yes) hope. What enormous energy these forces have required of your dear self!
Living in the now means it wouldn’t occur to you to hurry past anything, or to assume you have forever to appreciate something or someone. You make no assumptions about anything, ever. You’re able to rest in the knowing that nothing is going to last.
What a blessing to come to this. Ceasing to live in a hoped-for future (or a pined-for past) slows us down, makes us pay attention. Helps us not to waste precious life with things having minor importance. It reminds us not to delay what really matters.
Because while time isn’t real, we don’t have forever.