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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