This is an edited version of an episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:
No Hope; No Fear
No hope; no fear. What does that mean? Well, we know that suffering arises when we want things to be other than they are. Where there is hope, there is fear, and where there is fear, there is hope. They're like two sides of the same coin. When we feel uneasy, when we get restless, when we want something to change, something to be different about ourselves or about others, we hope that things could be another way. With that in mind, the concept of having no hope can be a radical affirmation of acceptance. When you truly accept things as they are, you don't hope for them to be any different than they are.
Pema Chödrön says, "Hope and fear come from the feeling that we lack something. We hold onto hope, and hope robs us of the present moment." That is a really powerful statement. I get why the expression of no hope could, at the same time, feel really disheartening because, on the other side of it, you could be thinking, "Well, if there's no hope, if I don't have hope, then what's the point? What do I have if I don't have hope?"
I want to talk you through an experience I had not long ago with my family. We were on vacation. On the cruise ship, they had a giant chess game on the top deck. My son is learning to play chess, and he was really excited to see that, and he wanted to play. Every day, he wanted to go there and play, and he wanted me to play with him.
I know the basic rules of chess but I'm certainly not an expert at it. As we were playing, he was teaching me the strategies that he's learned. He's taken some classes, and he's learned that if, you start with this piece, then it should be countered with another one and, if they do that, then you do this. I wasn't intentionally trying to win the game. I certainly wasn't being too easy on him. But I was surprised that, once he got ahead of me, I could not figure out how to get past him. I made one terrible move with my queen, and didn't realise that it was a set up. He had set me up to get the queen out there so that he could take it, and he did.
As I was sitting there seeing the joy in his face I had this mini flashback to the stage of my life where I was treating life like a game of chess. I thought that I was a few steps ahead of everything in life, and life was going to go the way that I expected it to go, because I was influencing it to go that way. That led me to a point where life essentially gave me a piece that blindsided me, and I was very upset. I couldn't figure it out.
But as I was sitting there playing chess with my son, having this flashback, I had an intense moment of gratitude. I no longer see life like a game of chess but I felt gratitude for that piece. As painful as it was, as unpleasant as it was to experience it, all these beautiful things have come from it. It led to the need for change: to a new dynamic in my life, a new outlook, a new world view. It's led to this podcast. This would not have happened had that piece not presented itself. I feel gratitude, now, for what happened: gratitude for how it was; gratitude for how I handled it; gratitude for how others handled how I handled it. But there's no retrospective hope in there. There's no hope in the sense of me wanting it to have been any other than how it was. To have arrived at a place of so much contentment with how things are right now, I naturally have to accept how things were in the past, even the unpleasant things.
There's another quote I want to share with you. This is by Athenagoras the First of Constantinople, who was the head of the Greek Orthodox Church. He said, "I have waged this war against myself for many years. It was terrible, but now I am disarmed. I am no longer frightened of anything, because love banishes fear. I am disarmed of the need to be right and to justify myself by disqualifying others. I am no longer on the defensive, holding onto my riches. I just want to welcome and to share. I don't hold onto my ideas and projects. If someone shows me something better … No. I shouldn't say better, but good. I accept them without any regrets. I no longer seek to compare. What is good, true and real is always, for me, the best. That is why I have no fear."
I love that quote because that's how I feel in my life. I'm no longer armed against myself. I'm no longer at war, comparing the me of now with the me of the past, or the me that I think I need to become in the future. It was terrible to feel that. Going through that difficult stage of my life, the sense of hope that I had was of arming myself in that moment to become a person that would never have to go through that again. That's the sense of hope that I don't have anymore.
I could go through that whole ordeal again, and it would be painful, sure. It would be unpleasant, absolutely. It would be a lot of things, but I don't hope that I never have to feel that kind of discomfort again. I will, in many other forms: if my kids were to get sick, or my wife, or when my parents get old and their health starts to fail. So many things will cause that discomfort to come back in life but when I sit with that and I think about that, I don't have any hope in the sense of, "I hope I don't feel that again. I hope that nobody ever dies that I love." That's just not realistic. I don't have that kind of hope anymore. If anything, I just hope that I get to experience it all. I hope I get to feel it all. I hope I know what it is to love in a way that cannot be measured. I know what it is to hurt and feel pain in a way that can't be measured, to feel let down, to feel unwanted. All these negative emotions, but they make me feel alive.
In our society, hopelessness has a negative connotation. But think about it. What if hopelessness is actually the start of peace and contentment? We need to understand what our hopes are and why those are our hopes. Because, if I don't even know why I hope for the things that I hope for, well, there's no wisdom to be had in that. For me, in my darkest days, hope helped me. It helped me to wake up. It helped me to want to keep going. But I understand now that it wasn't hope in the sense of changing the situation or the circumstances. It was hope that one day there would be peace in my heart. The peace that I finally did achieve only took hold when I no longer wanted to have that peace. I opened up to the hurt and the pain and the frustration and the anger and the hatred and all those things that I had been pushing away for so long and it was the moment that I opened up and allowed those things to just be what they were that I realised I just wanted to be free: free to feel my pain, to embrace the hurt, to embrace the suffering. That was the very moment that became the start of the most intense peace and the most intense contentment that I had never experienced before.
There's a koan that comes from an old Zen master, in roughly 600 BCE, named Linji. It says, "There is nothing I dislike". I've thought about it, and I've worked with it, and I've asked myself, "Could I ever arrive at this expression?" I feel like I can. I feel like I have. To me, what it means is that there's nothing I dislike in terms of the experience I have of living. To me, that means that, when I'm having the experience or the emotion of disliking something like injustice in the world, I don't dislike that I dislike it. I hope that that makes sense.
I can say there is nothing I dislike. I like all of the feelings and thoughts and emotions that I have, even the unpleasant ones that stir me to want to take some kind of action against injustice. And my invitation to you is to ask what koans like this mean to you. What would it feel like for you to be able to say, "There is nothing I dislike". That's something that is really worth thinking about.
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to the full episode here.