Sunday, April 14, 2013

Hope Is an Obstacle

It was almost five years ago that I first picked up a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh's Peace Is Every Step. I remember loving the book then and I pick it from time to time now to leaf through it, re-reading passages I'd marked off lightly in pencil. I've been a margin-scribbler since I first learned to read closely. It was in that post, though, that I'd highlighted a passage which had resonated particularly strongly with me.
Hope is important, because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. But that is the most that hope can do for us - to make some hardship lighter. When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic. Since we cling to our hope in the future, we do not focus our energies and capabilities on the present moment. We use hope to believe something better will happen in the future, that we will arrive at peace, or the Kingdom of God. Hope becomes a kind of obstacle. If you can refrain from hoping, you can bring yourself entirely into the present moment and discover the joy that is already here.


Western civilization places so much emphasis on the idea of hope that we sacrifice the present moment. Hope is for the future. It cannot help us discover joy, peace, or enlightenment in the present moment. Many religions are based on the notion of hope, and this teaching about refraining from hope may create a strong reaction. But the shock can bring about something important. I do not mean that you should not have hope, but that hope is not enough. Hope can create an obstacle for you, and if you dwell in the energy of hope, you will not bring yourself back entirely into the present moment. If you re-channel those energies into being aware of what is going on in the present moment, you will be able to make a breakthrough and discover joy and peace right in the present moment, inside of yourself and all around you.
I've spent a lot of time revisiting that passage over the years, mostly when it's been most useful -- sometimes necessary -- for me to do so. Sticking close to its words, I understand and appreciate the intended message, in and of itself. However, I do see hope as forming an obstacle in so many other ways beyond its leading to one's overlooking being in the moment and recognizing the joy and possibilities right at our feet.

I wonder if it goes back to when I was a kid. I remember one year getting my heart set on having an Atari game console. My best friend Julie and her brothers had one and I was always over at their house playing with it. It made my hand-held Blip seem primitive and I had become a Pac Man addict. "Ask Santa and we'll see what happens." So I crossed my fingers and waited. I hoped. Good things come to those who wait, and all that jazz, right? I was convinced that if I kept up with my routine and stayed out of trouble that Santa would deliver. I could have tried to save my allowance. I could have tried to find ways to drum up a few extra dollars, but instead I balanced out the desire I had with the sort of pleasant and soothing feeling that comes from imagining that somewhere off in the distance, this thing that brought me happiness would eventually fall into my lap. I went on with my routine and didn't think to focus on other goals -- little bursts of happiness, they may have provided -- but just waited for the Atari. And yes, five months later Santa delivered. But then again, Santa always managed to somehow deliver.

As an adult, I've found myself going through dips, some more steep than others. Life's road is pothole-filled, but every once in a while you hit one that feels like a sinkhole. You catch a glimmer of something and haul yourself out and head towards what you spied. Sometimes you move towards it as much as you can and imagine what it will be like when you reach it, weaving your anticipation into future possibilities and as you do so, your road feels a little smoother. At least you don't notice the usual bumps as much as you would have before. They seem almost irrelevant, your eye fixed on that source of happiness up ahead that you've managed to let yourself think would be attainable. You trust in it. It's human nature to want to trust in something good. Then you find you've done as much as you possibly can to reach it. Closing the distance is left in the hands of others and, as far as you've been able to suss out, you've no influence on its being closed, you wait. You hope. By this point, your obtaining the goal has become such a source of comfort. You just know that the sinkholes are far behind you and that soon all will be right. You're so set on it that the possibility of that last gap's not being closed isn't even a consideration. You've already woven attaining it into your reality and so you sit back in a sort of pleasant and positive haze and wait. And wait.

The problem arises when in sitting back and continuing to weave your anticipation into an imagined reality, you become oblivious to the fact that the gap's not, in fact, being closed. In the back of your head, this little voice reassures you that you've done everything you could have done -- that you've done everything right edging closer and closer to it -- so that it's just a matter of everything else falling into place. But it's in this sense that hope becomes your biggest obstacle. It distracts you from considering the possibility that the gap's there for good and that it's time to retrace your steps, to ease yourself back to a more productive place. To look for other glimmers in the dark and to deal with the little bumps you've ignored while striving to reach your goal. Hope may make us feel better, but past a certain point, it can become blinding, paralyzing.

When you finally do clue in that the gap is permanent, you're left with the double-whammy of realizing that your goal is lost and that your hope was all for naught, that it obstructed your visions and muddled your senses. In hoping, you let yourself get caught up in a rush that left you not bothering to leave markers along the way. You find yourself lost and unprepared to find a way to retrace your steps, the path you followed suddenly unfamiliar to you. And hope? It's discarded as a deceit. I think that in some ways Thich Nhat Hanh is more charitable concerning it. Me? Not so much. Best to keep your eyes on the road while moving forward, to leave markers, to second-guess and to be prepared. Hope is a distraction. Hope is indeed an obstacle.

But then you find your feet and start over, aware.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful post. A mentor of mine gave me that book.