In the last few months my med­i­ta­tion prac­tice has deep­ened con­sid­er­ably. In November, dur­ing a day-​​long at-​​home retreat I decided to stop pin­ing for a prac­tice group here in this lit­tle town I live in, and actu­ally inau­gu­rate one. The result, Sangha, has had mixed atten­dance. Some Sundays I have one or two peo­ple. Some Sundays I have none. (Those are what I call slow days.) Attendance is by peo­ple new to med­i­ta­tion, expe­ri­enced med­i­ta­tors with lit­tle or no Buddhist back­ground, and prac­tic­ing Buddhists.

Lately I’ve been ret­ro­spect­ing on my prac­tice, how it’s changed me, and what parts of it I accept now that I didn’t used to — and what parts I feel much more con­fi­dent about reject­ing. A big shift for me took place in about 2002, when I finally gave up on the notion of hav­ing a soul. That was sur­pris­ingly painful, given that I was an avowed athe­ist by then, and had been for half a decade or so. It was strange to see the illu­sion, the cling­ing to a notion, and to watch it evap­o­rate as I let it go.

It wasn’t that I felt I was slid­ing into a nihilis­tic point­less life; to the con­trary, I was find­ing all sorts of new ground to explore and expe­ri­ence. It was sim­ply the idea that I missed, a sense of los­ing some­thing I’d always taken to be there, a con­stant com­pan­ion. I felt much the same way when Carl Sagan died, and again with Douglas Adams, and even Jim Henson. These peo­ple had done things that mat­tered to me, and though I’d never met them I still felt I’d lost some­thing impor­tant when their minds were at last deliquesced.

Hope is a strange thing. We talk about it, we claim to have it, we put energy into it — but I don’t know how thor­oughly we actu­ally ana­lyze it. When some­one we know is sick, we say, “I hope you get well soon” — but do we, really? Or is it more likely that, thirty sec­onds later, I’ve for­got­ten all about Sylvia and her cold? How is this an expres­sion of hope for her recovery?

And is it really even much of a hope? Colds are not, by and large, fatal; gen­er­ally they’re lit­tle more than incon­ve­niences. (Though the two-​​week marathon rhi­novi­ral infec­tion I just got over, which included seven full days of full sinus con­cretiza­tion, seemed a hell of a lot more than that when I was in the mid­dle of it.) So when we express the “hope” that some­one will recover soon from a cold, what are we doing apart from spout­ing vain platitudes?

But that’s socially-​​normative hope, luke­warm hope, meh hope. There’s another kind that I think of as toxic hope, which to my mind is char­ac­ter­ized by cling­ing to a fan­tasy. Toxic hope is want­ing a result that I can’t pos­si­bly bring about, hop­ing for a change in cir­cum­stances that I can’t pos­si­bly affect, hop­ing for an out­come that is flatly impossible.

Toxic hope is rep­re­sented by play­ing black­jack all night long, los­ing con­sis­tently (but only in bits and pieces) the whole time, and nev­er­the­less going on in the for­lorn belief that a big win will off­set the losses. Toxic hope is rep­re­sented by spend­ing a hun­dred dol­lars a week on lotto tick­ets. Toxic hope is rep­re­sented by adher­ing to the advice or teach­ings of some­one who seems to offer an up mes­sage, want­ing that upness in our own lives, want­ing a quick fix to the deep, vast and silent range of prob­lems we all carry through suf­fer­ing, mis­un­der­stand­ing and ignorance.

At its best, toxic hope keeps us return­ing neu­rot­i­cally to “real­ity” tele­vi­sion in the vain attempt to find some­thing of value to watch; at its worst, toxic hope allows deluded young men to fly air­craft into build­ings or strap bombs to their bod­ies so they can spend eter­nity in par­adise under the dubi­ous delec­ta­tions of three­score and twelve virgins.

Even at its best, toxic hope drains us of our ener­gies, our time, our men­tal fire; even at its best, toxic hope is pretty god­damned bad.

Yet it’s this same kind of hope that we can’t seem to give up. It’s want­ing the world to fol­low our rules, to con­form to our wishes, to become as we desire it to be; it’s unre­al­is­tic and it’s a source of deep dis­sat­is­fac­tion, of suf­fer­ing, of mis­ery and heart­break. It is suf­fer­ing, the very engine and blood and breath of it, and it’s ped­dled glibly by mak­ers of body sprays, SUVs, beer and even cel­lu­lar tele­phones (one of the most geeky pos­si­ble per­sonal acces­sories I can imag­ine). It’s no won­der we keep buy­ing, con­sum­ing, want­ing: Every hope we invest in is doomed to fail us.

Giving up the illu­sion of hav­ing a soul forced me to re-​​evaluate my views, and forced me to look at hope, and hopes, and hope­less­ness. And to be hon­est, I’ve never felt more free nor at ease since I began liv­ing with­out hope.

As elec­tion sea­son truly ramps up, this might be worth remembering.

Actually, it’s prob­a­bly worth remem­ber­ing no mat­ter what time of year it is.

At least, I hope you think so.


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