hope for the wrong thing

Back to this demon, Hope.

Zen Peacemaker Bernie Glassman taught an entertaining and engaging retreat at Upaya on the Oneness of Life.  The entire two and a half days was an extravaganza of history, story telling and Zen Zingers interwoven with luminous descriptions of Indra’s Net and the beginning of the world as we not-know it.  I admit I’ve had some interesting preconceived notions of Glassman who has always struck me as the enfant terrible of the Zeniverse.  And thus he is – in part.  With a lot else.  Radical, no-nonsense and relatively intolerant of ego-centered questions – an interesting mix which seemed to elicit fascinating projections from the audience.

Things trundled along fairly well, as much as an experiential process does when lead by someone with half a century of practice, until Glassman offered his view of expectation and hope.  My notes are not illuminating but I recall his terminology got us all in a melee trying at once to convince him out of his definition and impress him with ours.  With no disrespect but it really is futile to fight delusion with delusion – which is what definitions end up being when we cling to them.  To give Glassman some credit though, his Socratic jiu-jitsu deftly threw us back onto ourselves and that in itself was a teaching.

However, not to be out-done by the moderately deluded, I entered the fray to prove how thoroughly deluded I can be.  Commenting on the process we seemed caught in drew a long blank stare from him.  Or maybe I had hit the pinnacle of Zen insight and he didn’t know what else to do with me.  It was worth the fleeting expanding of my ego before my anxiety kicked in and I blathered on about T.S. Eliot’s East Coker.

Glassman had defined “hope” as “being of the present,” as something he offered as “an expression of the love of all things.”  It only “makes sense when there is no self involved,” a “bearing witness which allows (him) to say it makes sense to make the four vows of the Bodhisattva.”  (I told you my notes don’t help!)

People in the audience leaped to re-define it as an aspiration, a desire, a wish – all of which he rejected with a twitch of an eyebrow.  I bravely suggested that his definition ran counter to Eliot’s lines in East Coker;  it was challenging me to re-think the idea of “Hope,” I opined.  In fact, I forged on in the throat-closing silence, his concept of hope seemed to be close kin to the Metta Sutta.

The what? he asked.

I gave up hope.

And maybe that was what he intended for all of us.  Stop messing with the concept and sit with not knowing what the heck it means.  And then see what arises as skillful means.

I don’t know.  Maybe.  Or not.  Only the Shadow knows when it comes to Zenmeisters.

Here’s T.S. Eliot’s take on it.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.


One of my favourite quotes is from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets – East Coker III:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing

We spent a number of days in Saranac Lake working at the site of what used to the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium begun by Garry Trudeau’s great-grandfather, Edward Livingston Trudeau, who was a physician; Trudeau, of course, is the creator of the comic strip, Doonesbury.  The elder Trudeau suffered from Tuberculosis and, believing he was about to die, came to Northern New York State hoping for a a quiet place to see out his last days.  Of course, he lived and founded the sanitarium in 1885 which continued to provide care to people suffering from TB until the discovery of antibiotics.  The sanitarium closed in 1954 and was sold to the American Management Association; I hear it was for “a dollar” and they are not about to sell it back to anyone even if inflation is taken into account!

Three generations of Trudeaus continued to live in Saranac Lake, working as physicians and researchers with their legacy continuing through the Trudeau Institute.  These days, Garry Trudeau, great-grandson of Edward Livingston, continues this history of community support with nudges at the US Administration’s approach (or lack thereof) to returning veterans through advocacy and his comic strip, Doonesbury.  Now, along with a number of other stakeholders, Trudeau is tagging Saranac Lake to be the home base for revolutionary treatments for PTSD and the other invisible wounds of war.  If “(h)ome is where one starts from,” he is arriving at his beginning; and, I sense, it is with the same hope that others can make that transition from dying to living.

Hope takes time and effort to fulfill itself.  And first, it needs to surrender to what is.

Be Still.

And then more.  To heal requires a precision, a willingness to be opened at the exact place of the woundedness.

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

East Coker, IV

And one more:  In the face of the enormity of suffering we must face, we can only meet it one person at a time, one moment at a time, one breath drawn deeply after letting go.  Eliot wrote of the potential of the English communities surviving World War II:

In a letter dated 9 February 1940, Eliot stated, “We can have very little hope of contributing to any immediate social change; and we are more disposed to see our hope in modest and local beginnings, than in transforming the whole world at once… We must keep alive aspirations which can remain valid throughout the longest and darkest period of universal calamity and degradation.”

The buildings on the grounds of the sanitarium are a mish-mash of architecture.  A stone chapel sporting Tiffany windows with an unidentified little dog in one corner gave rise to animated conversations over dinner one night.  The main lodging with its “cure” porch and cottages pierced with numerous windows now blindly stare into the sunshine.  I wondered about a real estate notice that described a nearby cottage for sale as having a Cure Porch.  It’s the enclosed wrap-around porch in which (on which?) patients sat to take in the healing air and scenery of the Adirondack Mountains.  The name lingers well after the death of the disease – a testament that legacies create their own survival and are non-preferential too.

So many things live on in some form, seemingly independent of our wills, wishes, and wanton desires.  I can’t resist my self-centeredness so will say we had a chance to share a meal with Garry Trudeau and his sweetly flamboyant step-mother at what is likely the only decent eatery in Saranac Lake, the Blue Moon Café.   Safe to say that after it was clear we were not about to become part of the great machinery to ply steel into the distempered parts of the Veterans’ Administration, I will not be living on as a character in Doonesbury any time soon!

It is, perhaps, a hope that is for the wrong thing.

Nevertheless, I learned something that evening about what animates history, belonging, and longing.