Optimism & Hope: A Few Thoughts

My article on the myth of progress in spirituality which ran yesterday on People of Shambhala was, happily, met with mostly positive reception. A friendly acquaintance of mine did take me to task, however, on one point which he sees as a critical oversight: hope.

To summarize, the article itself is intended to briefly debunk the notion of a “new golden age” and its attendant assumptions of a global awakening or collective enlightenment. My friend took this to be a pessimistic position, and asked where hope comes into the picture. I will take my departure here, for this is an important topic.

The Buddha taught that hope is just a pleasant delusion. As with many of the Buddha’s teachings, its simplicity needs to be unpacked. Merriam-Webster defines hope thus: “to want something to happen or be true and think that it could happen or be true”. There are two clauses here, if either one of which is reduced we have lost hope. We must not only want a thing to be, we must also believe that it could be. Hope is a marriage of desire and belief. Those of us with much experience in mysticism or magic of any genuine sort must take both elements quite seriously and be on our guard about them.

Desire is powerful. There is nothing inherently wrong with desire, of course. Without it, we would not even have the basic impulse toward life, let alone spiritual life. If we had no desire at all, we could at best be automatons which continue to exist merely as a matter of course. But we live because we desire. We feel impelled to thus and so, whether it be food and drink to keep our bodies in working order, or the deepest states of experiential knowledge, desire is that impulse. Some may prefer to call it “will”, and that word certainly applies, but only once we have achieved a degree of conscious awareness and control over our desires. In whatever form, desire is there.

This very power to press us on toward liberation is what makes desire dangerous. In certain phases of development, often referred to as “involutionary”, our desires are entirely outside of our conscious control. They compel rather than impel. But once we have achieved a degree of self-awareness, which some identify as the point of taking human birth, we are on the upward swing of our parabola which is the “evolutionary” side of life. If we fail, however, to make the transition from involution to evolution, usually by a lack of the self-awareness from which self-control grows, our desires remain sub- or semi-conscious and will subvert our budding will at every turn.

The second variable in our definition of hope is belief. Belief, at base, is thinking and feeling that a thing is so. It is less basic than perception, but more basic than knowledge. Belief, we could say, is the mental lense through which perceptions must pass the reach the conscious mind. Like desire, belief is an essential tool for living life. We cannot go without expectations or presumptions of any sort. The trick is, again, to have the self-awareness to develop more accurate and robust belief systems which permit the freer flow of perceived or experienced data and, so, the more reliable formation of knowledge. (For simplicity, we can define knowledge as “justified belief”, or a belief (a) which one holds, (b) which one is justified by evidence or experience in holding, and (c) which corresponds more or less with reality.) From this brief exploration alone, it is plain to see how belief can be necessary, but also how it can go awry. When you thus put belief and desire together, the combination can be likened to an explosive strapped to one’s chest—and may well result in strapping explosives to one’s chest in a tragically more literal sense.

On a prosaic level, there is nothing at all wrong with hope. I have both the desire for, and belief in the strong possibility of, a visit with my family on Christmas day. My desire may be frustrated if the plan is short-circuited by unavoidable difficulties, or my beliefs may be disappointed if I believe Christmas to be on a Friday rather than a Thursday, but there’s certainly little enough harm in harboring that particular hope. Even if we outsized one or the other of these two elements, the whole structure might remain more or less harmless on its own. Perhaps I believe that extraterrestrials are waiting, cloaked of course, just outside of our atmosphere in order to save us from ourselves once things on Earth become too bad; I’m almost certainly wrong, of course, and not justified in this belief in any case, but it’s really not so big a problem if I am only lukewarm on the prospect (say, because I think we could still well save ourselves, so things may never need to get bad enough for my alien friends to intervene). Or, to reverse the equation, maybe I’m quite passionate about my love for the idea of extraterrestrials, but I’m not at all convinced that they exist or that we would ever come into contact with them if they did. This desire-without-belief could be as simple as Star Trek enthusiasm. Again, relatively harmless.

But if the scale of both the desire and the belief increase significantly, we have another story entirely. The Heaven’s Gate cult, famous for their mass suicide in 1997, is a good example of what might happen with an overabundance of hope in extraterrestrials, where human desire and belief came together with a punishing strength.

This all ties in very directly with notion of a “global consciousness shift”, “mass awakening”, or what have you. A desire that this should occur is fine; it just means that I’ve got human sympathy and would be quite happy to see everything suddenly improve across the globe. A belief that this is impending, however, is not justified. So it is a nice thought, and that is all. If I allow my belief in such a possibility to get beyond its own limitations, the whole structure becomes an obstacle for me. I may begin to focus more upon “the shift” than upon the dirty grind of increasing my self-awareness, improving my self-discipline, and generally using them to become a better, more illuminated individual.

If I feel any firm hope in anything at all, then, it is in the basic capacity of the individual: that one may learn and grow and become better, whether or not the whole mass of other individuals follow suit or not. My belief is justified, as I have experienced it happening in myself and seen it in some of those around me. And my desire is strong, because the whole world needs each one of us to take responsibility for it, for one another, and for ourselves.