The answer? Hope.
People often find it strange that Buddhist teachings advise against hope. It’s such a positive sounding word. But think of it this way: When I was little I stated proudly that I could swim with an inner tube. How adorable that a little girl thinks she’s swimming when the inner tube is holding her afloat.
Just like that inner tube, hope makes us think we’re managing in life. But we cling to hope because we have no faith in our ability to navigate life. It buffers us but it also hinders us. We can’t dive deep and explore life in a natural way, learning from our experiences. And it’s dangerous because while we rely on it heavily, it’s not all that reliable. At any moment it could spring a leak and whoosh! Then what?
That’s why Buddhist teachings advise us to abandon hope. It may sound scary, but ultimately it is life-affirming and empowering. We can live much more fully without it!
I am sure you can think of many examples where hope seems useful. You hope that a loved one gets well, for example. But how pale and ineffectual that expressed hope is compared to the Buddhist practice of sending metta — infinite loving-kindness, with phrases like ‘May you be well’. This infinite loving kindness is not a far off dream but an almost palpable presence that permeates all being.*
When we rely on an inner tube instead of learning to swim, we are afraid of the water and know we are no match for it. Just so hope is an expression of fear. We fear the future so we hope things will get better. But here’s the thing about the future: It is in great part a product of whatever we are cultivating right now. If we are cultivating fear and anxiety, it’s useless to hope for anything different. When we actively cultivate spaciousness of mind, lovingkindness and compassion in this moment — and act accordingly — then we are creating a sustainable, even joyful future for ourselves and those around us. To the degree that we participate in the world by voting, volunteering, keeping ourselves informed, questioning our assumptions, speaking up when our words are truthful, kind and timely; and engaging in wise livelihood, that joyful quality of aliveness ripples out around the world.
Hope is a helpless stance, a bystander’s point of view. But none of us are bystanders in this life. So abandon hope! And dive right in!
*If metta is not something that speaks to you, then just think of it as a way of really centering in and being present and loving.