Let Go of Hope

Hope floats, the saying goes. This saying conjures popular notions of being buoyed up by hope, literally lifted from despair. It conveys lightness, as opposed to the heaviness of a life without hope. It’s also the title of a 1998 film starring Sandra Bullock.

I don’t find this saying very useful. I don’t have much time for a hope that drifts lightly along the breeze, naively expecting that things will work out. I’m not alone. The anonymous French author(s) known as the Invisible Committee, writing in their latest manifesto Now, deliver a powerful rebuke of this old saying. They write:

One has to know what to commit to and then commit to it. Even if it means making enemies. Or making friends. Once we know what we want, we’re no longer alone, the world repopulates. Everywhere there are allies, closenesses, and an infinite gradation of possible friendships. Nothing is close for someone who floats.”

This political rejection of a popular notion of hope is mirrored in my religious tradition. One purpose of the spiritual path in most schools of Buddhism is to recognize the world we live in for what it is. Dukkha and samsara; unsatisfactoriness, suffering, the cycle of birth and rebirth. It is only by touching reality, painful as reality might be, that we can begin to recognize our role in suffering and liberate ourselves from it.

In my tradition of Zen we attempt to recognize that there is no place that is fixed, no surface that is stable. We practice with what is called Great Doubt to forget all the ideas we have about everything, to even forget ourselves. Hope? There’s nothing to hope FOR in the present moment.

Don’t get me wrong. It is no bleak thing to give up on a hope that floats. Forgetting the self is not some form of potentially traumatic ego-death. We forget the self momentarily to be able to see and touch the awakened, liberated mind that is everything, the universe entire and even beyond. This experience of awakening places us into intimate solidarity with all beings. It enables us to recommit to the vow we make to liberate all beings from suffering.

Do I have hope? It’s a question I’ve asked a lot recently, listening to so many friends tell me about their hopelessness. I ultimately don’t think I have hope. I’m not sure I even want it. I want this overwhelming intimacy with all beings, I want to be together with my friends and comrades, I want to commit (to meditate, to organize, to protest, to love, to never, ever give up on liberation).

I may not have much in the way of hope (at least not an easy hope) to share with you. But I have faith. I have faith in the path I walk, the path countless buddhas and bodhisattvas have walked before. I have faith that all beings can and will be liberated. More than faith, I have the determination to plunge again and again into practice, on the meditation cushion and in the ways I show up in the world.

I cannot offer you hope for a perilous, hopeless time. What I can offer you is an invitation to live in the intimacy of the present moment. I invite you to make your own commitments and live them with determination. Most of all I invite you to draw-in close to those you love. After all, what was the first thing the Buddha did after leaving the site of his awakening? He went in search of his friends.

John Kernodle

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