Hope, Hopelessness and No Hope
By John Beasley
In the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.
Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torments of man.
To be without hope has long been considered the most awful of fates. “Land of Hope and Glory” is more popular than “God Save the Queen” as a possible national anthem in the UK, and you can buy online a “Hope of the hopeless” ringtone for your mobile phone. St. Paul eulogises “faith, hope and love” in a reading often used at weddings.
But what is so great about hope? Why is hope celebrated so broadly in both religion and secular society?
I will argue that hope emerges as one of the keys to understanding the subtle differences between religion and spirituality. Religion peddles hope, whether that hope is in an afterlife, or salvation, or in God’s desire to make us prosper.
While many thoughtful people are somewhat uncomfortable when this is taken to extremes, as in the current fad for a prosperity gospel, hope itself is still viewed as a good thing. Indeed, given the choice between hope and hopelessness, who wouldn’t choose hope?
But is there really only a choice between hope and hopelessness? Or is there a third option? Nietzsche’s quote above points to a critique of hope that resembles Marx’s view that religion is “the opiate of the masses”. Both hope and religion can be unrealistic in their expectations, leading to inevitable disappointment. Marx saw that hope for a reward in a future existence could well act to undermine present action to challenge injustice. Yet the dictatorship of the proletariat is itself a creation of hope. How does spirituality regard hope?
The spirituality that is emerging as an alternative to religion in the modern world is not interested in hope. A. H. Almaas, whose Diamond Approach represents a fusion of traditional mystic insights with modern psychological understanding, has a chapter in his book “The Freedom to Be” entitled ‘The Teaching of No Hope’.
He states that the simplest and most basic truth about our mind is “as long as you desire freedom, as long as you desire happiness, they will elude you”. Desire and hope create a division between what is, in the moment, and “a part that says, ‘I want something other than what is’”. Hope and rejection go hand in hand. He continues “There is no happiness in trying to attain happiness, because that very attitude of hope and rejection is itself the cause of the misery”. There are echoes here of the Buddha, who saw that it was the desire to seek happiness and avoid pain that was the fundamental cause of suffering.
Spirituality is interested in the truth of what exists in each moment. It is this aspect of spirituality that leads some commentators to suggest that spirituality is closer to science than to religion.
Some would go further and suggest that spirituality embraces all truth, which includes science but transcends it. In this view, the success of science in exploring the outer world was dependant on maintaining a distance from our inner hopes and expectations. This distance was necessary to prevent our subjectivity (our hopes, desires and beliefs) from warping the observation and experimentation upon which the scientific edifice is founded. The ideal of scientific objectivity has emerged from this separation.
The tragedy of the success of the scientific project has been that the inner world, which is no less real to each of us than the outer world, has been neglected, or relegated to a separate ‘magisterium’ (Stephen Jay Gould’s term) where different rules apply. Religious faith is thus defined out of the sphere of science, even if it is granted its own value. But spirituality challenges this comfortable division.
‘What is’ includes both inner and outer. Truth is not to be defined differently for the scientific study of the outer world, and the religious understanding of the inner world. A modern spirituality asserts that ultimately we live in a unified world, in which the inner and outer are complementary.
Mystics throughout history have insisted on the ultimate indivisibility of experience. Today modern psychology offers us a tool to understand the inner world and to clarify how the creation of each individual self has come at the cost of separation from a fundamental inner reality that is just as real as the ‘objective’ world of science.
This creates a paradox for the would-be spiritual seeker. The self which seeks enlightenment is the same warped self that emerged out of the loss of essence in childhood. The mind seeks always to hope or to reject. The hoping and the concomitant rejection create the very discord that the hope seeks to transcend. It is a real Catch 22 situation. Almaas says “If you love truth for its own sake, the truth will free you. But if you hope the truth will free you, you cannot be free.
You must love the truth for its own sake, without hope.” And this is truly a hopeless quest. It doesn’t work to just escape, go camping or sit in front of the TV. That’s just avoiding the issue. But joining a spiritual group is bound to be accompanied by hope for a new reality, enlightenment, or whatever. That too doesn’t work. The best that can happen is that the teacher supports awareness, awareness of this paradoxical situation included.
With awareness comes understanding, and ultimately that can lead to transformation. It is not easy, nor fast, but it is possible, even if it may increase suffering in the short term.
Almaas summarises this process when he says “Personality is the point of view that there is something we need to get, somewhere we need to go.
Enlightenment or freedom or reality is a point of view, that ‘what is’ is what is.” Further, ‘what is’ is very much in the present. Tolle, in “The Power of Now”, has written a very accessible book which stresses the centrality of the present to living authentically.
Hope is of its nature focussed on the future, and therefore denies the present reality, judging it unacceptable. Hope thrives on rejection of what actually is.
This is the core of its deceptive promise. We don’t live in heaven, or nirvana. We live now, at this very moment, or not at all. In rejecting this moment, focussed on some currently unattainable hope, we may believe we can escape what we judge to be unacceptable in our lives. We do this by projecting a fantasy that seeks to replace the life we reject. But life cannot be ignored in this way. All vitality, joy and wonder are to be found in the present.
Small children attract and fascinate us for their ability to be truly present with whatever arises in their lives. We have lost this as adults. We feel that loss keenly, though we may not understand our situation with any clarity. Our hopes are built on our experiences as children, but they lead us further from reality, further from what we truly crave.
The spiritual path is not easy; nor for the faint-hearted. Exploring our reality exposes great hurt. Yet there is no option if we are to reclaim our essential nature. It is found through present experience, not in spite of it.