I’m inspired to talk about hope by this brilliant essay by Quinn Norton that appeared recently on Empty Wheel:
Here is a sip of bitter tea from that essay:
Hope isn’t just looking at the positive things in this world, or expecting the best. That’s a fragile kind of cheerfulness, something that breaks under the weight of a normal human life. To practice hope is to face hard truths, harder truths than you can face without the practice of hope. You can’t navigate dark places without a light, and hope is that light for humanity’s dark places. Hope lets you study environmental destruction, war, genocide, exploitative relations between peoples. It lets you look into the darkest parts of human history, and even the callous entropy of a universe hell bent on heat death no matter what we do. When you are disciplined in hope, you can face these things because you have learned to put them in context, you have learned to swallow joy and grief together, and wait for peace.
Hope has gotten a bit of a bad rep from the dystopian crowd, with Guy McPherson regularly disparaging any views other than short-term human extinction as “hopium.” My response to Guy and that crowd is that they are drunk on “despairium,” which is nothing other than a despairing attachment to the worst possible outcome that can be projected. It’s like when someone is really afraid inside, but compensate by arming their cynicism in an appearance of bravado. Because outcomes are not certain on this living planet, because the Earth is not reducible to test-tube objectification, their professed certainty over the fate of the species rings hollow. It’s like the quantum activist Margaret Wheatley says:
Hopelelessness is not the opposite of hope. Fear is.
I consider myself to be a realist. Like Guy McPherson, I have a scientific background that permits me to make some sense of climatology. He comes from a forestry and range management background (if you are a science geek, you can find a cogent critique of Guy’s NTHE here), while I studied thermodynamics in college and have made a career out of explaining science to judges and policy makers. For the last several years now, I’ve been focused on the climate crisis for a very simple reason – it really is an existential crisis, and we are not facing it. The paradox of this untenable situation should concern every thinking human being on Earth, and as a dedicated dharma practitioner and lifelong eco-activist, I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try my damnedest to figure that riddle out.
There is no question whatsoever that we are facing a real shit-storm of our own making, and that our survival – as well as the survival of most life on the planet – hangs in the balance. Thanks to the physics of the climate, things will necessarily get much worse over the next 3-5 decades, and the actions we are or are not taking now will only have consequences in the decades, centuries and millennia after that. I call that the REAL “inconvenient truth.” Most people remain blissfully unaware of that little complication.
So I am often asked by people who are recently woke to the nature of the crisis we are facing “is there any hope?” What they are really asking me, I think, is “won’t we all live happily ever-after?” Because that’s the dream we’ve been sold all our life – that we are evolving into higher and higher states, that we are following an arc of progress, and that technology will solve all our problems and allow our children and their children to enjoy a better life than our own. And so, if that is what someone means by hope, then no – there is no hope.
But I have experience in hospice, too. It’s why I began this quest with a paper entitled Planetary Hospice. While that paper went viral, striking a chord with many people around the world, what often got lost in the discussion was the subtitle: Rebirthing Planet Earth. And so, after being repeatedly misrepresented on the world wide web as someone who had concluded that all life was coming to an end, when in fact I could not have been more clear in the paper that I was merely asserting the end of life as we know it, I was compelled to be more explicit in how hospice principles applied to our existential predicament.
Hospice is an amazing thing. Our entry point into hospice is actually the loss of hope. Once we accept that there is no more prospect of recovering from whatever it is that is killing us, based upon a terminal diagnosis from our doctors, only then are we admitted into hospice. And the first thing we are asked to do is to stop dwelling in hopelessness, an attachment to what will not be, and redefine what it is we hope for. And that is the answer I usually give to people who ask if there is any hope. Hope for what? Be more specific, please! Because there is always hope. Dying, as an example, is just a natural part of life, and only the body dies. So the hope of a dying person is usually that they will not experience much pain in the process, and that their mind will continue after their body dies.
The question for someone admitted into Planetary Hospice, therefor, is this: If life as we have always known it is ending, what is your hope for the future? And it is in sussing out the answers to this rather vexing question that the principles of hospice are so applicable and helpful in our continuing spiritual journey:
Caregiving Principle #1: Practice Don’t Know Mind
Uncertainty, when accepted, sheds a bright light on the power of intention. That is what you can count on: not the outcome, but the motivation you bring, the vision you hold, the compass setting you choose to follow.
~ Joanna Macy
It is understandable, and from a climate activist’s standpoint probably necessary, to jump into the abyss of uncertainty regarding the future consequences of our present destructive actions. However, the Planetary Hospice Movement is not another kind of political activism. It is instead a kind of spiritual activism that is concerned only with appropriate responses to the realities we face. It is enough to simply recognize and acknowledge what is unfolding all around us, the very real suffering associated with these cascading developments and the prevalent absence of psychological tools for dealing with all of this calamity, without speculating about the survival of the human species. Regarding future outcomes, there is wisdom in the practice of “don’t know” mind. This doesn’t mean we don’t acknowledge the whole range of unattractive possibilities. Rather, it means avoiding unnecessary fatalism regarding those future outcomes, and dealing instead with witnessing and accommodating what is unfolding in the present moment.
Caregiving Principle #2: Be Integral in Your Approach
Perhaps the noblest private act is the unheralded effort to return: to open our hearts once they’ve closed, to open our souls once they’ve shied away, to soften our minds once they’ve been hardened by the storms of our day.
~ Mark Nepo
If we are holistic beings, then nature’s wounds are our own. In fact, they are what unites us. Our weakness in the face of climate catastrophe can actually be a source of strength — but only if we have the courage to acknowledge it. Integrity walks hand-in-hand with humility. It requires us to integrate our strengths and weaknesses into our increasingly whole self. The only way we can really be open-hearted, after all, is if our heart has been broken open.
Caregiving Principle #3: Resistance is Futile!
Though you hold fast, you cannot stay What benefit is there
In being frightened and scared
of what is unalterable?
At its core, hospice is about learning what it means to bear witness to situations that we naturally, or at least reflexively, resist. In order to develop the kind of presence that allows us to bear witness in a most powerful, healing way, we are called upon to reach deep inside and find the courage and wisdom to not just accept, but actually welcome distasteful truths.
All of our aversions are the product of conditioning. To the extent we allow these conditioned responses to hold sway over us without deeply questioning their premises, we are not able to bear witness. Our presence becomes disempowered. We feel powerless. Despair is not far behind.
The challenge of our time is to take a really long-term view, and welcome the wholeexperience as some kind of necessary (admittedly difficult) transition from the spiritual vacuity of the industrial age to the spiritual vibrancy of a post-industrial, non-exploitive human society.
By accepting reality and acknowledging our deepest fears, those very fears can be transformed into a source of fierce intelligence and wise power, liberating us in a way that releases us into service. By contrast, our reflexive contraction around a wounded sense of self, or around an unnecessary despair over the fact that we now are facing a difficult, even dark, age will only layer added suffering onto the pain of rebirth.
Caregiver Principle #4: Don’t Hesitate
May we realize that there is no time to waste, Death being definite but the time of death indefinite. What has gathered will separate, what has been accumulated will be consumed without residue, At the end of a rising comes descent,
the finality of birth is death.
~ Losi Chokyi Gyeltsen (Panchen Lama)
As the Dalai Lama points out, everything and everyone arises containing the seeds of their own destruction. Were it otherwise, life would not be the miracle that it is.
Once we see this, we appreciate the miracle, and we love out of a sense of awe and wonder rather than from a fixed and rather cramped psychological space of projection and expectation. Only then are we free to advocate for life while embracing the dying, to love humanity and the world while at the same time lamenting the banality of our collective malignity and the terrible loss of biodiversity.
And we are just at the start of this immense mystery of life and death! Those who hesitate will be left behind by the exigencies of circumstance. They will feel lost and bereft, bitter and remorseful. Those who engage at whatever levels and in whatever ways feel appropriate to the exigencies of the moment, with courage and open-heartedness and creativity and awe, will find themselves being called in exactly the direction the Earth needs them to go.
Caregiver Principle #5: Carving Out Sacred Space
Awakening is neither far nor near, and neither does it come nor go. It’s whether it is seen or not – right in the midst of our afflictions…
Life teaches us that if we want to live a spiritual life, a life of meaning, then we must learn to carve sacred space out of the wicked turmoil of the profane world we find ourselves immersed in. We can’t always wait to go home and sit on our cushion, or take solace from our loved ones, or retreat into the wilderness to find refuge from the storms in our turbulent lives. The whole point of developing a spiritual practice, including meditation, in the peace and quiet of our tidy home or temple is so that we can stabilize the peaceful ground that always lies within, learning how to access it at a moment’s notice, and bring it to bear on the most difficult situations we encounter.
The Earth may well be our witness, but she is calling us to be hers. To witness what is disfiguring her without turning away. To dress her wounds with love, and care for her children without regard for how naughty they have been. She is, after all, our mother. It is because of her nurturing bosom that we live. It is because of us, alone among species, that she has fallen ill. It is therefore up to us to nurse her back to health.
We and our mother, this sacred, living and dying planet, are both here as wounded ones, each searching for healing, for wholeness, and in this reaching out and reaching in we become wounded healers to self as we are wounded healers to other.
Allow me to conclude as I began, with a quote from the Sermon on Hope:
We can improve on mere comprehension of our problems. We can love in the face of intransigence, and endure in our hope. We can learn to use humor in the face of tragedy, staying alive and vital when it might otherwise seem impossible. We can laugh at the ridiculousness of the situations that make our grief. Perspective feeds the soul every bit as much as sleep. We can write blog posts about the way it ought to be, and argue the nuances of a thousand utopias as we do the work of improving this imperfect world.