3 weeks ago

Despair and an uncommon response to it

I’m not optimistic. I’m not a “think positive” sort of guy.

Some people are built for it. They are good at envisioning a positive future.

I’m not.

Maybe you’re naturally skilled at positive thinking. Maybe you are good at whipping yourself up into a storm of positivity and hope.

But if you’re not and if you’ve tried and tried and tried…and failed…

It may be that you’re simply honest.

Honesty – I mean really radical honesty – is not popular. And for good reason.

Because it removes all hope.

I looked up the definition of despair. It means to have no hope.

So radical honesty equals despair.

There’s no way around it. When we tell the truth, there’s no hope.

I can’t escape into the hope of future salvation. It is obvious that future salvation does not exist. It will not happen like that.

In the mainstream world this is devastating. It is a complete disaster. The mainstream world depends 100% on hope. In 2008 the soon-to-be President of the United States ran a successful campaign with posters that had just one word: HOPE

We have been taught that hope is the way. We’ve been taught that hope is essential.

And so when faced with despair, our conditioned reaction is one of two things:

1. Depression, resignation

2. Working harder to overcome (i.e. building hope)

Now please understand that I am not telling you to try to become hopeless. Please don’t! It is very, very difficult. It is to be stripped bare. It is like being naked and without shelter on the North Pole.

If you have hope, please stop reading this now. I am not joking. Stop now. Please! Stop now.

Really, if you have hope, I can’t offer you anything in this message. If you have hope, you’ll just have to keep hoping until hope falls away on its own.

There is a natural pace at play here. Just as you cannot force a flower to blossom sooner than it is ready, you cannot force despair.

To try to force despair would be the same as trying to force the flower to blossom. It will only result in destruction, harm, death.

So please don’t think, “Despair is better than hope. I’ll force despair. I’ll forcibly cut away all hope!”

That would be a mistake. Don’t do that.

And anyway, I’m not saying that despair is best. There may be other ways. There may be gentler ways.

But if you already despair, if you already have little to no hope, then read on.

Let me validate your despair. It truly is hopeless. You’re not failing. It’s not your fault for not being more positive.

It truly is hopeless.

Hope says that in the future I’ll arrive at a permanent state in which nothing undesirable or difficult or scary ever happens. And it is clear that no such state is possible.

At least not for me. And I’m the one who wants to arrive there and achieve that state.

Isn’t that right? You and I want to arrive at this future state that matches with our idea of what should be.

But the you and I that want that cannot arrive there. The you and I that want that are vacillations. We have ups and downs. We are defined by contrast. What we want is defined by what we don’t want.

You and I will never be satisfied. We’ll never arrive at that fabled future state because like a mirage, it always moves just out of reach. No matter how much we achieve, the goal will be always ahead.

The world around us appears to be metaphorically burning. The promises from politicians and corporations are empty to those who despair.

You and I – those who despair – we can see clearly that the promise of a future colonizing Mars is empty. We can see that despite whatever conveniences Amazon.com will deliver to us by sanitized drones and Tesla vehicles, it will never be enough.

We can see that no amount of legislation and no amount of preaching and no amount of righteousness will fully remedy the selfishness, cruelty, and violence in our hearts.

Now, see what the conditioned responses are to this despair/honesty. As I previously suggested, there are two conditioned responses:

1. Depression/resignation

2. Trying harder

See how your conditioned mind reads into the words I write, trying to figure out which of these two strategies I am advocating. The conditioned mind wants to know, “Should I try harder or should I give up?”

But neither will satisfy. And at the same time, *rejecting* either will not satisfy. In fact, we – as vacillating phantoms of dualistic appearance – cannot successfully reject these. We ARE these. The one who is trying to reject cannot succeed because it is trying to reject itself. It is like a dog chasing its tail.

We cannot help but to do SOMETHING. And that something will be resignation or it will be trying harder. So stop trying to figure out which is better and reject the other. They are poles of the same phenomenon, which is you as you conceive of yourself.

The spiritually-overeducated among us think we know the answer. We think the answer is to kill the ego, get rid of the self, transcend. But that is just the spiritualized ego trying to get rid of itself. So just give up on that last-ditch hope too.

Here’s the alternative.: Look somewhere else. Look where you have not been looking. Rather than looking to hope – future salvation – or the lack thereof, look in a radically different way.

Look carefully and you’ll discover that all along the polarity of hope/hopelessness was only ever a tiny fraction of reality.

This plane or level or dimension of existence that we take to be the whole is only a tiny fraction.

So when we despair, when we are out of hope, beyond hope, hopeless…we have an opportunity we didn’t have before. That opportunity is to look beyond the limited paradigm of hope/hopelessness.

Before this moment of despair, we were entranced by the hope/hopeless paradigm. That is to say, we were entranced by the story of me and my way and my knowledge and my salavation.

I – as someone I can talk about, someone with a story, a person – am only looking at myself. I am like Narcissus. I can only see myself. Everywhere I look is only myself, my glory, my failures, my achievements, my disappointments, my efforts, my needs.

This is the bubble of me that I mistake for the whole.

Despair is this magical moment in which this bubble is exposed. I see its limitations. I see it’s powerlessness. I see how truly vulnerable I am.

In this moment I see how I cannot succeed. I see that all my efforts are secret or not-so-secret attempts at self-gain, self-protection. I am only seeking to preserve myself indefinitely. All the while, I am only struggling against myself. I love and hate myself only.

Example: I want safety. The more I struggle to gain safety, the more I discover just how unsafe I am. So I struggle harder to become safer. Which only exposes how unsafe I am.

As long as I spin around in this, I suffer. I am caught in a bind. Here’s the bind: I want safety, but I have come to identify as the sense of insecurity. Therefore, to actually find safety is the death of myself. So I both love and hate myself. I love myself in the sense that I want to preserve myself. I hate myself because what I truly identify as is what I struggle to get away from. I fear myself as I have come to conceive of myself.

When I reach the moment of despair, I see this. And as I have already stated, at this moment of despair there are two common responses. Both are ends of a polarity. As such, either serves to maintain the same core problem.

The conditioned reactions are either resignation or trying harder.

Both assume that the paradigm that I have blindly accepted is the truth.

The only genuine alternative is outside that paradigm. Outside the paradigm of me, myself, and I. Outside the paradigm of succeeding, winning, achieving, protecting.

As I stated earlier, this is an unpopular perspective. It is unpopular because it exposes everything we have tried so hard to avoid.

It exposes my helplessness. It exposes my self-centeredness. It exposes my arrogance. It exposes my ignorance. It exposes my viciousness. It exposes rage. It exposes terror.

And it exposes the desperate grasping for something, anything, to help save me. To help protect me. To help me gain a foothold. To help me get my balance. To help me get some control, some power.

And even worse, it exposes that every time I have succeeded in anything, it has only made things worse. It made the day of reckoning so much more painful. It made the fall further, harder.

And still worse, it exposes my complete inability to stop the grasping.

This sounds like the worst possible news from the mainstream perspective. It *is* the worst possible news from that perspective. It completely undoes that whole paradigm. It leaves us with nothing.

Nothing to grasp. Nothing to believe in. Nothing to hope for. Nothing to fix.

And furthermore, no hope of controlling or gaining power over our habits of grasping, believing, hoping, fixing.

What it DOES offer is an opening to what is beyond that paradigm.

What is beyond that paradigm does not include me.

This is so, so, so challenging to truly see. I discover this more deeply every moment. I have never arrived at pure and perfect seeing. I cannot rest on my laurels and say, “I’ve won. I’ve arrived. I’ve succeeded. I’ve attained.”

Which is good news in truth. But since you and I – as people, as identities, as stories – cannot help but want to win, to protect ourselves…we habitually fall into the trap of fighting with this even though the truth of not arriving is in fact such good news! It is our teacher. Impermanence is our great teacher.

So we can’t do anything to help ourselves. But having said that, there is something we can do. It’s just that it’s not a doing in the usual sense.

What we can do is bow to our teacher. Our teacher impermanence is everything and everyone we encounter, including our thoughts, our feelings, our neighbors, our spouses, our children, our parents, our world.

We can bow to this teacher.

Bowing to the teacher is to look elsewhere – not to look to the same false paradigm we have habitually looked to for salvation.

Bowing to the teacher shifts us from our chronic focus on this plane of me, myself, and I.

What do I mean by bowing to the teacher? Well, what I’m going to say is going to rub some people the wrong way. Those who want a pure and perfect teaching they can intellectually perfect (but that does not challenge suffering) will object to this. They’ll claim it’s dualistic and therefore not pure enough.

When I say to bow to the teacher, I mean this: I pause and see my conditioned reaction. I see the arrogance of this. I see how it is based upon the assumption that I know what should be. And I simply watch all the layers of reactivity bubbling.

I don’t try to disconnect or disown the experience. I don’t try to fix it. I don’t try to stop it. And neither do I try to act it out. I don’t try to solve it. And neither do I try not to solve it. I see the reactive attempts to solve. And I see the layers of arrogance, greed, terror, rage, hatred, destructiveness, etc. I see the layers of reactivity and judgment to the arrogance, greed, terror, etc.

And furthermore, I see the teasing apart of myself. I see the fear of losing control. I see the fear of dying. I see the fear of being judged. I see the fear of uselessness. I see the fear of impotence. I see the endless fear.

At each step, the door of freedom is wide open. But at each step we must walk through it by bowing to the teacher.

The teacher knows the way. We do not.

The only thing we can know is that our way is not the way we truly want. We can know that because we can be honest. We can tell the truth that our way has only led to suffering. And so we can then accept that and humble ourselves enough to bow to the teacher.

Bowing to the teacher, I am stepping through the door. The door of freedom is only now. We must be stepping through it now. And the way is to bow to the teacher.

This is the most difficult thing because it offers nothing for me. From the paradigm of me, myself, and I this is death. This is to be avoided at all costs.

But in this magical moment of despair we might unexplainably choose what is beyond ourselves. We might finally admit the truth that my way is hell. And we might risk everything by bowing to the teacher of this present moment exactly as it is – which is completely unprotectable, completely unknowable.

If you truly despair, you know in your heart that what I am saying is true. But you will surely still find it difficult to heed this advice. Which is why telling the truth is so important.

Just keep telling the truth. That means to look sincerely always now to see what is true. And this looking is the bowing. It is the seeing of what is.

It is the most difficult thing. Watching everything I have tried to avoid is difficult.

I mean that. So please hear it. You will want to kick, scream, run, murder. And that’s not an exaggeration.

Freedom takes EVERYTHING.

Joey Lott

Joey Lott is the author of numerous books, including The Best Thing That Never Happened and The Little Book of Big Healing. He lives in southern Vermont with his wife and children.

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