My intention in writing these blogs is to suggest alternative ways of looking at where we find ourselves when our world is going through such a momentous transition. Our old life is being stripped away and we’re being initiated into a strange new world. This is a time of extraordinary losses, and sorrow and grief keep company with us. Like the AIDS virus that paired the most pleasurable erotic experience with death, now it is our natural yearning to connect with loved ones that is associated with possible contagion, debilitating illness and death.
We live in an unnatural atmosphere of potential threat. This global pandemic intersects with a score of other crises—ecological, political, economic, ethical, and the threat of nuclear war. Equally pernicious is the Babel of disinformation being spewed from cable networks and online websites. We live in an era when our country is in the precarious situation of not being able to agree on a common set of facts, when people feel empowered to have their own alternative “facts”. We seem to be making a passage through a kind of underworld, and we’re being challenged to muster both courage and compassion during this difficult time.
As with the other converging crises, COVID is more than an external threat. Its most lethal manifestation is its mutation within us, transforming our state of mind into one of fear, worry and inhibition. Many of us seem to alternate between denial and despair, as we either lose ourselves in the distracting business of everyday life, or we feel increasing threat and varying degrees of hopelessness. And yet in view of this global pandemic that is radically changing the way we live our lives, hope springs eternal, as many of us manage to get through another week, and find ways to appreciate the loving relationships we do have, and do the things that we can do. Hope and hopelessness weave in and out of our lives.
Hopelessness has many faces, and it’s important to name them, to call them out from invisibility into the light of awareness. It can spring from the false belief that we must go at it alone and not depend on anyone or anything. Hopelessness is often experienced as the existential sense of no exit, impossibility, endless repetition, being trapped by our circumstances. The forces of life feel too enormous and too powerful to be influenced or moved. The most dreadful aspect of hopelessness is the feeling of having lost the thread that connects the chapters of our life, that would give us the reassuring feeling of our life's continuity and coherence. It could suddenly feel as if we've become rudderless, having fallen off the edge of our known world. Hopelessness can lead to the death of wishing, when we can no longer imagine beyond the limits of where we are presently stuck. We may have stopped feeling that our life is an evolving life journey, and so we stand still.
On the other hand, genuine hope springs from the deepest place within us as we yearn to feel whole once again. It is the heartfelt desire to connect with our own depths, our longing for meaning, to be part of something larger than the habitual routines that stitch together the events of our daily life. This kind of hope could feel as if something beyond our everyday comings and goings wishes to make itself known through us.
As humans, we have an inner sense that we’re held by something larger than us. When our mind, body, and heart are synchronized, when all of us is there at once, a sense of presence dawns. This energized atmosphere is often the occasion of sudden shifts in perception or a serendipitous turn of events that we weren't counting on. If we’re willing to be intimate with our life, gifts might spontaneously appear where we’d least expect to find them—a patron passing us in the market flashes an admiring smile at us that brightens the day and dispels our preoccupation; a pause in the rain invites us to step outdoors to notice a rosebush bedazzled with translucent raindrops, while the fragrance of the damp earth draws us downwards to our organic roots, returning us to our animal body.
The virtue of mature hope is the enduring trust that Life itself lives through us, rather than feeling as though we are struggling organisms in a Darwinian jungle trying to grab whatever happiness we can get hold of before we’re snuffed out. The virtue of hope is the realization that we're not just pushed from behind by our social conditioning, or shaped by external circumstances, but that we're also pulled forward by who we are yet to become— like the potential oak exerting it's magnetic pull on the chestnut. This is the benevolent pull of our Buddha or awakened nature that inspires us to trust in our life as an evolutionary journey, where we find ourselves genuinely curious about what is unfolding for us right now.
The secret of mature hope is found in the intimate and meaningful connection between ourselves and the life situation in which we find ourselves. My eyes and the rosebush before me, meet through the medium of light—and the experience of vision magically emerges. In Buddhism this is referred to as auspicious coincidence. The world has fashioned us so that we and the natural world actually meet, so that we can integrate the swirling chaos of sight and sound, smell and taste, as well as our feelings, and make sense of it all. Eyes, ears, tongue, nose and our skin encapsulated bodies are “sympathetically” shaped by the natural world, allowing our human life to unfold through continuous experience.
In spite of our challenging circumstances, we could still live life by being willing to enter the moment wherever we find ourselves by being willing to come in close. We don't have to endure or try to escape unpleasant occasions, but it may be good enough to be in them, to appreciate being here, wherever we happen to be at any point in our day.
The secret passage through COVID is discovered in our willingness to experience hopelessness, doubt, despair, grief, anxiety, confusion and all the rest of our shadowy feelings. We don't have to resist what's already here. Our compassionate and creative handling of these “dark” states transforms them by allowing them psychic space so that they may express themselves. Although they are a part of us, they do not have to contaminate our capacity for genuine hope as long as we give them a voice.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Hopelessness, doubt, grief and despair have their own story to tell and their own reasons for coming into being. But to hear their story we must be willing to drop our defenses and make time to truly listen. By giving these darker emotions our attention and dialoguing with them, we metabolize their problematic aspect, so that we tread lighter on our path.
Genuine hope grows when we bring the power of our trusting presence to our world. That very trust evokes the quality of presence from the world, which is its sacred or enchanted aspect. Consequently, we’re able to wait patiently through difficult circumstances because we realize that we’re not alone, but in intimate relationship with that which is beyond words. During this COVID era we are being challenged to open to our own light, trusting that the basic goodness of our undefended heart is already connected to the primordial goodness of the world.