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Beyond Hope and Fear

Updated: Jul 12, 2022

My root spiritual teacher, the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, was a renowned Tibetan meditation master who first came to the U.S. in the 1970s and founded both Naropa University and the global Shambhala community. He loved to teach about the innate human capacity to transcend hope and fear. Hope, fear, and all the range of emotions are normal and common experiences. They are a natural expression of who we are--what makes us human. Our human predicament, however, leads us to react to these emotions in ways that engender more pain, causing us to cycle endlessly through what is referred to in the Buddhist tradition as the extremes of eternalism and nihilism.

THE EXTREMES OF ETERNALISM AND NIHILISM Eternalism is the idea of attempting to maintain some situation we're happy about, to keep it going endlessly.

We may be stuck in a difficult situation and getting the same results again and again and again, but we keep believing that next time, it's going to be different. We hope that situations will work out to our advantage. We want life to be just the way we want it, and assume, or at least wish, it will remain that way.

On the other hand, nihilism is the belief that nothing means anything, that there's no hope, and that everything is meaningless. As humans, we all have a tendency to cycle back and forth between these two extremes.

HOPE AND FEAR Fear is intelligent. It is reasonable to experience fear. It is the instinctual reaction that prevents us from putting our hand on a hot stove. Fear protects us and keeps us alive. Fear can also hinder our ability to open up to people and life situations and keep us in a perpetual state of wariness, hesitation and anxiety.

Hope also could be considered reasonable and even helpful. Hope is intimately related to a sense of moving forward, having a positive vision for our life. It may also lead us to expect particular, specific outcomes, setting ourselves up for more disappointment, frustration and suffering.

Hope and fear have their reasonable manifestations and their intelligent aspects. They also have their neurotic and confused expressions. This cycle of hope and fear will keep us from engaging with life as it is. Have you ever wondered: What is this continuous cycle of hope and fear really based on?

THE DICTATORSHIP OF THE PHENOMENAL WORLD Trungpa Rinpoche named this cycle the “dictatorship of the phenomenal world.” The world is what it is. However reasonable or unreasonable, just or unjust, it is what it is, at any given moment. We can either live in a constant state of reactivity, resenting that it is not the way we want it to be, and dwelling on fantasies about how we wish it would be or we can be curious about how things actually are.

With an open and inquisitive mind, we can begin to work with things as they are in a more creative way. We can work to help influence situations in positive ways, which will contribute to our growth and evolution and to the improvement of society. Hope and fear are based on our conditioning and preferential mind. We would all like to think that we're autonomous, free-thinking adults. If only that were true, wouldn't it be wonderful?


Whether we like it or not, we are fairly mechanical beings. We are all highly programmed and highly conditioned. To explain how our brain--the most complex system in the known universe--works, we can use the image of a two-part brain: the bottom-up and the top-down brain. This is somewhat of an oversimplification, used by some scientists and authors, but it is nonetheless helpful here.

The bottom-up brain could be compared to a super-computer, while the top-down brain is the part of our brain that can consciously make decisions. The bottom-up brain is highly programmed and, for example, allows us to walk and talk without having to think about it. Some of the programming in our brain is less than beneficial and gets in our way. That programming is where the preferential mind abides--all our likes and dislikes, and how we would like things to be. Our identity is tied up around these preferences, which create resentments and drama. We operate mostly from our bottom-up brain.

That preferential mind, that conditioning, keeps us stuck in the cycle of hope and fear--constantly hoping that things will work out the way we want, and then, crashing into disappointment when they don't.

THE THREE TENETS OF THE ZEN PEACEMAKER ORDER If we really want to grow and evolve in our life, we have to step out of that cycle. It comes down to relating to reality simply, as it is. One of the frameworks that I have found incredibly helpful is the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemaker Order, a tradition I've been involved with for a long time. It’s a framework for social action, social change, and how to lead our life, developed by Bernie Glassman, his late wife, Sandra Jishu Holmes, and others from the Zen Peacemaker movement. The first of the three tenets is not knowing, letting go of fixed ideas, opinions, and assumptions about ourselves and others. The goal is to get out of the conditioned mind and into direct experience. Not knowing doesn't mean being ignorant or stupid. It means letting go of our concepts and fixed ideas about reality.

The second tenet is bearing witness, which means being with reality as it is, allowing ourselves to actually be touched by the joy and suffering of the world, without the protection of our “knowing.” The practice involves letting go of any filter and allowing ourselves to actually experience the world as it is. The third tenet is loving action or the actions that arise from the practice of bearing witness from the mind of not knowing. It has been the experience of peacemakers and contemplatives from many traditions across time that bearing witness with the mind or spirit of not knowing leads to compassionate and effective actions, rather than coming from anyone’s agenda or preconceived ideas.

THE WISDOM OF WHAT IS When we bear witness to things as they are and open our hearts and minds, what arises is wisdom, the wisdom of reality. Our actions become a natural response from our innate, basic goodness, grounded in being in relationship with our own vulnerability and the present moment. The world is relentlessly and ruthlessly what it is. We may all be dedicated to working towards positive change and societal evolution. Nonetheless, things are what they are. Instead of feeling miserable and getting caught up in cycles of hope and fear, we can allow ourselves to feel each moment with openness and curiosity.

UNWILLINGNESS TO FEEL One of the problems of today’s society is that we're unwilling to feel. It has become a cultural plague. We are bombarded by media messaging from the pharmaceutical industry, seducing us into not feeling pain. Because we're unwilling to feel and relate to things as they are, we live in a fantasy world, numbed out by constant entertainment, drug addiction and alcoholism, and personal dramas. We lose ourselves in our gadgets--anything to avoid feeling and being with things as they are. The pathway to aliveness as a human being is to be willing to relate to life as it is, to feel it completely even when it’s painful.

A MAGICAL QUESTION: WHAT CAN I DO? By being willing to feel and cultivating an open and curious mindset, we can reflect on any situation, no matter how difficult, challenging or painful, and ask ourselves one simple question: “What can I do?” This immediately shifts me into the mindset of possibility and solution-based thinking. What's the most creative way I can respond to this situation in order to move my life ahead and meet my needs and those of others? It all starts with being willing to feel in the moment, and that frees us from the cycle of hope and fear.

THE MIDDLE WAY In the Buddhist tradition, transcending hope and fear is also referred to as the middle way. Before becoming enlightened, the Buddha spent several years practicing extreme asceticism. He eventually realized that it wasn't going to lead him to full awakenment. He let go of the severe ascetic lifestyle in favor of a more balanced discipline and attained enlightenment. The Buddha’s way is neither hedonism nor asceticism. It’s the middle way between hope and fear. Living beyond hope and fear is about approaching life fearlessly with our hearts open, and stepping into our ultimate destiny as human beings.

By leaning into the less comfortable and more painful dimensions of life, whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, we can awaken to a conscious life and claim our essential dignity as human beings. Knowing that experience continuously arises as pleasant, neutral and unpleasant and that life includes both pleasure and pain, joy and suffering, we can make the conscious choice to embrace it all.

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