While I was meditating today, the thought came to me: “Give up hope.” Although that doesn’t sound very positive, it immediately made me feel a lot better. I’m tempted to say it even made me feel more hopeful, but obviously that wasn’t quite it. It was more that I relaxed – I stopped worrying about the future. And suddenly the present seemed to have much greater depth, into which my mind could expand. My sense of present potential became richer, and happier.
“Hope is the thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson says. It flies away. So let it go.
I’ve been teaching Buddhist philosophy over the last couple of weeks, in the context of a course on philosophy of mind. I started by looking at the five khandhas (often translated as ‘aggregate,’ the pali word khandha literally means pile, heap or bundle). On the Buddhist account, the five khandhas are what make up a person. They are:
1. form, or body
2. feeling, or sensation, including painful, pleasurable and neutral feeling
3. perception, which involves the recognition of objects
4. mental formations, including volitional states of mind, and emotions
5. consciousness, in the sense of awareness.
Bhante Sujato has a nice way of explaining the khandhas as a series. He compares it to the development of a child. In the womb you are mainly growing as a body, a living material form. Then as a baby, sensations of pain and pleasure and relatively unstructured impressions of the world predominate. A little later, you develop the ability to perceive objects as separate from you and begin to learn language which names these objects. The next stage of development involves more sophisticated ‘mental formations’ and emotional structures: you learn to reason, and develop a sense of moral responsibility for your intentions and actions. Finally, you develop a sense of awareness which allows you to observe all the other activities of the heart-mind. This is the kind of consciousness that is cultivated in meditation. It allows you, little by little (or more rarely, all of a sudden), to undo the powerful patterns of clinging to ‘me’ and ‘mine’ that develop along with the khandhas.
This way of explaining the khandhas gives a nice sense of their logic, and how they come together to form a person. However, it could give the impression that consciousness is a later or more complicated development than it actually is. A simple sensation – of colour, for example – already involves consciousness, that is the ‘sight-consciousness’ or simply ‘seeing’ that arises when the eye comes into contact with a visible object.
Similarly, mind-consciousness, or ‘thinking’ flares up when the mind comes into contact with a mental object. For Buddhists, the mind is one of six sense organs – it’s the one that perceives mental objects, just as the eye perceives visible objects. This is a striking difference between the Buddhist view and our usual Western way of thinking about the world and our interaction with it. Mental objects are treated as a part of the world, in the same way that visible, audible, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile objects are.
So when I said that the thought “Give up hope” came to me, from a Buddhist perspective I was being quite literal. It’s not that I thought this thought. It just arrived, and the organ of my mind took note of it, with the help of a little flash of consciousness. That’s certainly how it felt.
Where did this mental object come from? How did my mind find it? There’s a mystery here that I don’t plan to try and solve in this blogpost, but a bit of googling revealed that quite a few other people have come across this particular mental object, too. And some of them are very eloquent about it.
In his book, Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that although hope can help to get you through hardships, it can also be an obstacle to joy and to action. This is because it encourages you to look to a future that you simply ‘hope’ will be better, rather than focusing on the present. It’s only in the present that you have the power to act in a way that actually changes things for the better. And it's only in the present moment that you can find peace, joy, enlightenment, or appreciate what life is already offering you. In a sense, to hope is to reject all this. For this reason, Thich Nhat Hanh says that when he really looks into hope, he sees something tragic. I’d say that he sees hopelessness – hope seems to flip into hopelessness with alarming ease.
Environmental activist Derrick Jensen makes a very similar point in a beautiful article called “Beyond Hope.” There is a Buddhist saying, “Hope and fear chase each other’s tails.” Give up on hope and you give up on fear at the same time. For Jensen, this means he can agree that “We’re fucked” (universally the most common words spoken by one environmentalist to another) and still take enormous pleasure out of being in love with the world, and fighting to defend what he loves, such as coho salmon. Giving up hope means dying, in a certain sense, but it’s only the socially-constructed self, the self that makes you vulnerable to exploitation through hope and fear, that dies. The phoenix that rises from the ashes of that self is fearless, and much more fully alive.
One of my favourite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron, presents an even more challenging version of the message in her book, Start where you are: a guide to compassionate living. She teaches the Tibetan slogan “Abandon all hope of fruition.” As she puts it, ‘You could also say, "Give up all hope" or "Give up" or just "Give." The shorter the better.’
She tells a great story about one of the first Buddhist teachings she heard. The teacher said, "I don't know why you came here, but I want to tell you right now that the basis of this whole teaching is that you're never going to get everything together." Pema Chodron says she felt a little like he had just slapped her in the face or thrown cold water over her head. But she never forgot it.
"You're never going to get it all together."
Well, if the Buddha is right, and each of us is nothing more than an impermanent, constantly shifting, somewhat tenuous (but also amazing) collection of five aggregates, getting it all together was hardly a realistic option, anyway. Let the thing with feathers fly.