18 April 2020

Hope, When Things Are As They Are

Hope is a theme not often mentioned in mindfulness. In mindfulness, we observe experiences in the moment. We try to stay away from ruminating about what could have been or from daydreaming about a bright future. We try to acknowledge every experience, without judgment. Seeing every experience as it is, moment by moment. That realism is the power of mindfulness.

And yet, precisely, that is also an activity of hope!

A Shifted World

Now that the world around us has undeniably shifted, the question of who am I in this world has become more urgent than ever.

The shock reveals that I can no longer be who I thought I was going to be. My planned holiday will be canceled or turn our completely different.. At home, I am sometimes a different person than I had imagined myself to be, based on the habit patterns of my life. My circle of friends behaves differently, I deal differently with colleagues.

An intense shift of doing, feeling, and thinking. Who are we going to be together? And how is our living together shifting? Unusual sensations, feelings, and thoughts. Collectively, we’ve been thrown out of our ways.

Facing things as they are, that invitation of mindfulness, can make us experience our sadness, our pessimism, our powerlessness. And it is okay to be with these feelings for some time. Just let them be there. Now a little lighter, then a little heavier, sometimes uncomfortable. Just let them be there. Sitting with what is, as we call it in mindfulness training, without judgment, and with a friendly curiosity, seeing every experience from moment to moment.

Staying with experiences, both the pleasant and unpleasant ones, can be anchored in the movement of the breath. Enabling a fresh start when attention has strayed. Restarting observing experiences. Or finding the anchor point if our mood is heavy or uncomfortable.

This way, we get a view of a shifted world, externally and internally.

Touching Hope

Besides inviting us to be with what’s there, mindfulness invites us to something else, something that gets to the heart of hope: seeing new possibilities.

Mindfulness helps us to leave things as they were. To distance ourselves from old habits, from things that seemed to happen by themselves. And it helps us discover a space. For new behavior, for a recalibration of what we care about.

In paying attention mindfulness sheds light on the interplay between reality and hope. Of facing what is and sensing what is possible. On reality and potential of our common humanity.

Hope often goes with a negative undertone because it usually is connected with the – false – expectation that something will become a reality. We are clinging to hope. And we advise: “You shouldn’t give someone false hope.”

Hope has two dimensions; the one of seeing new possibilities, of opening up to new habits than the usual ones, of imagining a safer and more compassionate world, and the other dimension, of assessing the chance of realizing these possibilities and changes. Because hope does not, by definition, imply a certainty of a changed reality.

Our assessment of this later dimension is governed by our emotional life. It culminates in a certain optimism or pessimism, in which we need to seek a balance. Expectations, after all, can easily into unfounded optimism or morbid pessimism.

Mindfulness is vital in investigating both dimensions, the one of seeing new possibilities and the other of assessing expectation between reality and hope, two sides of the coin of attention. Of seeing things as they are and of sensing what is possible. Of opening up to our potential as human beings together.

Being with what is. Seeing what is possible

This hope, this trust in possibilities, is what we practice at every moment of meditation, being with what is, seeing what is possible.

By suspending our judgment, by no longer clinging to how things should be, a space opens up for what might be, and how we can shape things, how it could be different. And it is here that we can make a choice. By giving a conscious response.

We are living in a shifted world, amid a crisis of unprecedented proportions. “Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them by remembering what else the twenty-first century has brought. Including the movements, heroes, and shifts in consciousness that address these things now”, writes American essayist Rebecca Solnit in her book Hope in the Dark.

We have to face realities, both on a societal as on a personal level. By letting our attention be with every experience, letting go of the judgment, hope grows, and the opportunity arises to greet the new. This energy we can direct towards what we think and feel is essential for our collective future. For our safety, resilience, and sustainability, for our justice and solidarity.

In one fell swoop, the current crisis has brought down the curtain that drew reality from our eyes. We now are looking at a world we didn’t remember anymore. A world full of stashed away vulnerability, but also full of unseen beauty of nature and landscape and broadly present willingness to help others. A reality as surprising as clearly seeing the peaks of the Himalayas at 200 km distance again due to lesser air pollution in a slowed down economy.

Mindful observing of our day to day experiences shows us glimpses of possible futures. That’s hope.

Lessons in the Art of Living

This kind of hope is not false hope. This kind of hope is not idle but makes us realize that there will be more than enough causes to commit to in creating a better future. Even when the situation is still very uncertain, and we do not know how long it will last. By opening up to hope, we can start building new, resilient, and compassionate habits, now our old skin no longer provides long term protection.

And for this, mindfulness practice is an activity that generates hope, every day, every moment.

Practicing mindfulness becomes practicing the art of living, just like the title of this a poem by the Belgian poet Herman de Coninck:

Lesson in the art of living
Realizing dreams is not that difficult:
you just have to look out for
what you dream.

and have a philosophy of life.
and no longer observe life.
and be happy under the motto:
if you want to befriend life,
start with yourself.

and perhaps later, with a second person
– that’s enough.
and then you start a family
somewhat like you’re setting up an association.
after all, you’ve been to the scouts…

From: Gedichten 2, Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers, Amsterdam (1998)
(translation: Wibo Koole).