This program will be offered as a Zoom Meeting from (7:00 – 8:45 pm, Eastern US time):
Dear Still Water Friends,
As physical distancing continues in Maryland, and with the media full of stories of illness, death, and extreme hardship brought about by the coronavirus, I was drawn this week to understand more about nourishing hope during challenging times. My exploration took me to the writing of Buddhaghosa, a 6th century Sri Lankan Buddhist monk. In The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga), he clarified the essence of the Four Brahmavaharas (loving kindness, compassion, gladness, and equanimity) by pointing out their far enemies and their near enemies. The far enemy of loving-kindness, for example, is ill-will, it is at the opposite end of the spectrum or dimension. The near enemy of loving-kindness is greed. Like loving-kindness, greed sees something attractive or likeable in the object of attention. But true loving-kindness is not greedy.
It is possible to take that same approach with other virtues. In a blog entry Rezzan Huseyin points out that the far enemy of hope is hopelessness or depression, the near enemy is excessive optimism.
Rebecca Solnit, a contemporary writer and activist, explains in Hope in the Dark that the difference between hope and excessive optimism lies in involvement and action.
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and knowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone.
Similarly, Thich Nhat Hanh, reflecting on his efforts to reduce suffering during the Vietnam war, counsels that the way to nourish hope during a challenging time is to nourish peace in ourselves and help others:
There were moments during the Vietnam War when we were very close to despair. The war was dragging on and we did not see any sign that it would end. Every day, every night, people died, and the country was being destroyed by bombs and chemicals. The young people came to me and asked, “Thay, is there any hope that the war will end soon?” At that moment, we did not see any hope. We were very close to despair, because the war went on and on for a long time. So when people ask you a question like that, you need to breathe in and out several times. After having breathed in and out several times, I told the young people, “The Buddha told us that things are impermanent. The war is also impermanent. It has to end some time.”
But the problem is: Are we doing anything to help end the war? If we allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the feeling of despair or anger, we can’t help. We can even fuel the war and make it intensify or last longer. So the question is whether we can do something for peace, whether we can be something for peace.
When you produce a thought of compassion, of loving kindness, of understanding, that is peace. When you do something to help the victims of war, the children and adults, to suffer, less, and when you bring food for refugee children, these are the kinds of action that can help relieve a situation of suffering. So in a difficult situation, it’s crucial for you to find a way to practice peace. Even if you can only do it in a very restricted manner, it will help you survive. It will help you nourish hope. So I think it’s very important not to allow ourselves to be carried away by the feeling of despair. We should learn how to bring peace into our bodies and our minds, so we’re able to give rise to thoughts of compassion, words of compassion, and acts of compassion in our daily lives. That will inspire many people, and it will help them not to be drowned in the ocean of despair.
Playwright and author Václav Havel spent decades leading a popular movement against totalitarian rule in Czechoslovakia. In the middle of that struggle, just after completing a four year prison term in 1985, Havel explained in an interview that the deepest sort of hope is an orientation of the heart that urges us to do what is right, even under difficult circumstances. (The democratic movement Havel was part of did succeed, and he eventually became the President of Czechoslovakia, and then the President of the Czech Republic.)
The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.
Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but, rather, an ability to work for something that is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper the hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem hopeless as ours do, here and now.
During our evening program this Thursday and Friday, we will explore the difference between hope and optimism, its near enemy. What can we learn from Rebecca Solnit, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Václav Havel? What helps us to keep hope alive during this challenging time?
You are invited to join us. A related excerpt by Thich Nhat Hanh about “The Sunshine Behind the Clouds” is below.
“The Sunshine Behind the Clouds”
from Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by Thich Nhat Hanh
When it is raining, we think that there is no sunshine. But if we fly high in an airplane and go through the clouds, we rediscover the sunshine again. We see that the sunshine is always there. In a time of anger or despair, our love is still there also. Our capacity to communicate, to forgive, to be compassionate is still there. You have to believe this. We are more than our anger, we are more than our suffering. We must recognize that we do have within us the capacity to love, to understand, to be compassionate. If you know this, then when it rains you won’t be desperate. You know that the rain is there, but the sunshine is still there somewhere. Soon the rain will stop, and the sun will shine again. Have hope. If you can remind yourself that the positive elements are still present within you and the other person, you will know that it is possible to break through, so that the best things in both of you can come up and manifest again.
The practice is there for that. The practice will help you touch the sunshine, touch the Buddha, the goodness within you so that you can transform the situation. You can call this goodness anything you want to, whatever is familiar to you from your own spiritual tradition.
Deep down you must know that you are capable of being peace. Develop the conviction that the energy of the Buddha is in you. The only thing you need to do is to call on it for help. You can do this by practicing mindful breathing, mindful walking, and mindful sitting.