The Two Faced Dragon of Hope and Fear
Updated: Jan 31
The Skin Of The Core
We are utterly fragile beings living with simultaneously primal and sophisticated body-minds. We are creatures unique in our awareness of actual vulnerability and fragility and our ability to dream up unlikely disasters as well as delicious and distant desirables. Because of this I’m going to argue that hope and fear are the primary emotions of our existence, a pervasive experience for all human beings, manifesting personally and therefore collectively. How could it be otherwise? Do animals live with the knowledge of mortality? Can they misuse imagination and worry about circumstances that may or may not come to pass? Does a fox know that its heart can stop beating at any time? Does a bird know that it could face a famine? We do live with this knowledge. At our best, in response to our vulnerability, we take care of ourselves and each other, being an utter interdependence, the well-being of each and all like the cone of sticks at the genesis of a campfire, held up only by each one leaning on the other, a co-enactment of trust. We, by survival necessity, feel fear and hope for conditions that protect us from the vast, cold, impersonal unknown to hold. We exist with the potential for undesirables and desirables to materialize always looming or flirting and the actualities of undesirables and desirables unstoppably coming and going, in perpetuity. You may be thinking I’m stating the painfully obvious but stay with me as I unfold this a bit more.
The Self-Sorcery of Disappointment
In the field of positive psychology they argue that hope is an essential ingredient in a healthy human soul- everyone needs hope. Let’s call it vision when it's healthy, a North Star, purpose, outcomes we put intention and energy towards. Yet very easily hope becomes a covert wish that reality will magically change patterns. A covert wish that the way things are will suddenly, fundamentally change, that a fish will become a dolphin, or a dolphin, a fish. Irrationally, we may hope people will overcome something in their character or change behavior in some marked way. What makes that irrational? We do know that education and transformation are possible. We have witnessed people with fairly rigid ways make change. What makes it irrational is the mistake of putting our eggs in the basket of hope, rather than taking the most intelligent actions to influence unfolding in the way that we want.
For example, say you hope your neighborhood will become friendlier. Maybe your thinking mind orbits that hope faithfully, animated by it’s anxious energy. But rather than concrete actions to create community, like talking to your neighbors or taking walks and connecting with people, there’s just the internal hoping and nothing more. Another irrational, magical leap we hope for is that something that is ripe with potential to happen, won't happen. Think about that, something is ripe with potential to happen and we simply hope it won't happen. For example, we have to envision staying healthy and not getting sick. It leads us to make good choices about exercise, what we eat and the medicine we take. But hoping we won't ever get sick, besides this kind of hope being a mental stress, is contrary to the structure of reality. The way of a living organism is to be a vector for disease. Culturally we may hope there won't be a future pandemic. I was listening to an audiobook of an epidemiologist and she was saying the problem with epidemics and pandemics is we hope they're not going to happen, are in denial of their immanent possibility so we under invest in prevention, under value the research our scientists offer, and then when the newest virus hits the scene, it arrives in a vulnerable and under resourced body politic.
Let’s define hope as an optimistic estimation of desired potentials to come to fruition and the feelings and behaviors that attend that optimistic estimation. Let’s define fear as having a negative outcome we estimate and wish to avoid and the feelings and behaviors that attend that cautious or negative estimation . You could make a good argument that people can't live without either. Fear keeps us alive, the emerged biological reason that we have our systems of adrenaline, our fight, flight or freeze system. It’s a factor in the human species making it this far. You could also make a good argument that hope keeps us innovating, contributing to a healthier and more secure future for other humans. I'm someone who loves to have something coming in the mail even if it's something trivial. It charges my day with the potential of the future, anticipation, in this case a kind of positive valence. We gravitate towards something to hope for. We have to hope our cultural structures will hold or that our relationships will be fulfilling or reciprocal with respect.
Truly Magical Thinking
These are healthy hopes. But what if hope simply keeps us hoping and is itself a pitfall, an orientation towards life that actually drains energy? What if fear just keeps us fearing more than it actually keeps us safe and prevents unfortunate things from happening? In a sense, contemplative practice is an invitation to this very investigation in our own body and mind. This begins with a more sober intimacy with life. We smoke out the magical thinking that we have through direct observation of the mind, ours and others. I used to think magical thinking was just something that teenagers and twenty-somethings had. But I'm middle aged, and I talk to other middle aged people, and we definitely still have magical thinking. We hope the interest charges on our credit cards will be erased by a benevolent money faerie that favors us or that we can continue treating our bodies the same ways we did in our twenties without consequence.
So we smoke out the magical thinking we have, observing the observable patterns of bodies, minds, societies, companies, pleasures and pains so that when we do hope, it's not entirely a phantastic wish, our hope is sobered up a bit. We don't necessarily try and extinguish our vision or someone else's, we bring to it some humility. We put our hands in the soil and have some sense of what can grow and thrive in who and what we're actually working with. We can sense an ungrounded visionary, a person with their head in the clouds, somebody who's overly tilted on the side of hope. We sense that they need more intimacy with the ingredients that are in the cupboard at this time and what's already cooking. So they can plan a meal that's in accord with the real. I'm simply talking about realistic hope here. Practice helps us lean into realistic hope and because of that, we have less disappointment in our life. We practice disappointment by our misplaced and unconscious hopes. Disappointment is like a miniature heartbreak every time it happens. Especially with people, we have so much hope, and often magical hope, for how people will be that we get disappointed and break our own hearts.
Potential Under the Skin
To more deeply understand hope and fear, let’s go deep into potential. We’re on the horizon of being, both on the edge and as the dawning of the formless moment, always. Things are always happening. We are always happening. Something will always happen. Always we are living in the knowledge that something has happened and something will happen. It never gets settled, it never comes to rest, you never get to exit or transcend this condition. Therefore we can never and have never touched a stable world or lasting certainty and we never will. We can be still and feel into this inhering potential as the vibrancy of presence. It's an energetically charged, pregnant state. Here and now we are, and, something will happen, inevitably. Something will happen and I have no true certainty of what it will be. Though we observe patterns, what will happen tomorrow, or 10 years from now, to myself or my children or my cat or my culture is unknowable in its specificity. Yes, there’s some predictability. Sure, there are patterns. And there are happenings that seem not preceded or predictable by pattern, spontaneous arisings and unpatterned unfoldings. All happenings come out of this potential, this vibrancy of presence, happenings being the dawning of this formless moment.
‘Abandon hope and fear all ye’ who enter here.’ Versions of his phrase are at the entrance of places of contemplative practice. What does it mean to abandon hope and fear? It means we begin to be guided by presence. Presence doesn't mean existing in a little sliver of time, between the indefinite past and the unknowable, and always unknowable future. When we talk about presence, we're not reductively talking about something in between these things that we want to avoid: the future and the past. True presence contains past and future. True presence is an awareness of inhering in potential. Presence is not amnesia. Abiding in presence, inhering in potential, the past whispers in your ear, and its winds are felt against your back. Inhering in presence, the future’s face flirts with you. Impossible but actual, it touches you as the not-yet, potential echoes of the likely to be reverberating as foresight. Those echoes of the likely to be shape your response to the present moment. Given that abiding in potential has the energy and wisdom from the past and the future and the wisdom from the past and the future subtly flowing into it, it’s not naiveté to let go of hoping and fearing. It's not unsophisticated, not a withdrawal, not a regressive innocence. It's a different orientation towards life. It's a heart seeing that what needs to be seen and known and what can be seen and known is read here and now. And this seeing and reading is the safest and most intuitive way to navigate life. Because life is now and life is always abiding in potential, encompassing and in connection with past and future. Awareness of impermanence and non-opposition to impermanence, a key part of letting go of magical thinking, is said to be the father of wisdom. Things do change, they never have and never will arrive in stability thus there is room for transformation, always. Always. It's a double edged sword. Because that which we want to change, we see it has the potential to change. And that which we don't want to change, we see it always has the potential to change. Seeing this, we hope and we fear less.
The Gods of Betrayal
This depth of of letting go, coming to a more sobered relationship with hope and fear, may require betrayal. Betrayal may be the only initiation into the ultimate futility of hoping and fearing. Being let down, being profoundly disappointed is the natural and in-woven rite of life that wakes us up and ultimately empowers us. In this light, the betrayer is performing an awakening function. This is the Goddesses and Gods of Destruction and Illusion. Kali, Shiva, Perses, Mars, the rug pullers and the status quo disturbers performing a divine function, betraying us our of naivete about the way reality is, liberating us out of illusion. There is the danger of cynicism, that we feel we are betrayed by the Universe, an ideal or a person, a movement or an organization, and then we withdraw all trust. Many people feel this way. They feel they've been betrayed by their parents, their partners, their country, they've been betrayed by God. If that betrayal, that rug-pulling of divine potential, instead of blooming wisdom, brings cynicism, then the unfortunate consequence of that is living in fear, the absence of trust, not inhering in presence’s potential. But when one is lucky, or perhaps luck bolstered by acceptance of impermanence, the disappointment ushers us into a more mature dance with life.
We can see that fear and hope are two sides of a coin. Pema Chodron says “The word in Tibetan for hope is rewa; the word for fear is dokpa. More commonly, the word re-dok is used, which combines the two. Hope and fear is a feeling with two sides. As long as there’s one, there’s always the other. This re-dok is the root of our pain…” We could see them as two faces of desire, the same face seen from different angles or looking in different directions. Perhaps when you're letting go of hope and fear you’re simply not looking anywhere.
Hope and fear being one face is interesting to explore. For example, you could find yourself thinking or saying a version of ‘I hope, x will be there.. ‘ Sometimes I hope a particular kind of peanut butter will be on the shelf at Natural Grocers. I only like one kind- all the rest are overpriced and the oil separates in a way I find a hassle. So I think ‘I hope Santa Cruz peanut butter will be there.’ Is it different to say ‘I'm afraid Santa Cruz peanut butter won't be there?’ Think about that in your life. ‘I hope such and such will be there.’ vs. ‘I am afraid it won't be there.’ Does it have the same effect in your body, heart and mind? If we hope it will, we fear it won’t and if we hope it won't, we fear it will, the two faced dragon of hope and fear. This dragon is a life's study.
Transmuting the Dragon
I recognize how complex we are and how much knowledge food the human mind craves, and perhaps for some, requires. Yet freedom of the spirit could be boiled down very simply. Understanding and transmuting the energy of the hope-fear dragon. There's a time to slay it and revel in the glittering treasure of inhering potential’s presence. There's a time to mount this dragon and and use it’s power for aspiration and transformative force. Like all universals, there's a dark and a light side. We can use them and we can be used. The light side of hope is aspiration or vision and the dark side is naivete and self-victimization. The light side of fear is discernment or appropriate carefulness and the dark side is paranoia or mind-made fear.
Like all universals, we can use them and we can be used by them. One of the great Chinese Zen Masters, Yunmen, was asked by a student “What's the difference between me and you?” Meaning, what's the difference between you as an enlightened teacher and me as a learner? Zen Master Yunmen said, “You are used by the 24 hours, and I use the 24 hours…” ‘You are used by hope and fear all day long and I use hope and fear, all day long.’ Which one will it be for us? Every moment presents this question.
When you are a tenderly enfleshed, mortal being, limited to one point in the vastness of time and space and thus with a limited scope of consciousness, it takes training to not have the viscerally felt energy of inhering potential, something can happen, something will happen, take on a valence of hope or fear. What’s the alternative? The alternative is to rest into, to relax into being potential energy, without too much of that energy flowing into thoughts, conscious or not, of hope or fear. In Tantric Buddhism, hope and fear are called the demons of hope and fear. Practitioners are encouraged to transcend both hope and fear, making your abiding basis more expansive than the ego, the hope-fear dynamic of self-referential thinking and feeling. I’ve used the image of Dragon from the West’s mythology- something ferocious and destructive yet also full of wisdom and guarding treasure. Think of it as a twin-faced dragon. You cut off the head and they’re both cut off. You discover presence as a mode of being that can engage life without hope or fear, and as that mode of being, tend kindly to the hopes and fears of the ego and ego(s) with understanding. In essence, we slay, ride or transmute the dragon of hope and fear simply by having perspective on it and intimacy with it. This is what all the hullabaloo about mindfulness and meditation is about, truly a new possibility of being emerges from their consistent practice.
So here we are in the pregnant potential we call now, on the horizon of being with something always about to dawn. This moment will give birth to hope or fear or it will flow into more generative directions. For the love of life and respect of our death, it’s not a dilemma that we can turn away from. Consciously inhering in presence, this dragon’s blood can circulate as a golden, emboldening elixir, it’s breath as a fire that cooks the actual ingredients at hand and can feed hungry souls and it’s body a vehicle to be carried by toward our north star.