15 March, 2013

On Expectation and Hope

N.B. This post is from a talk I gave to a group of Zen students in Germany via Skype.

I would like to thank you for inviting me to speak with you; unfortunately, I cannot join you in person for this talk. Before we get to the topic for this morning's talk, or rather this evening's talk for those of you listening, allow me to briefly explain the Thomasine Church to you. The Thomasine Church is a modern contemplative body inspired by the Gospel of Thomas, which was found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. We preach no dogma and do not tend to concern ourselves with religious speculation; rather, we focus on liberation from suffering caused by attachment and desire. I became a bishop in 2006 and was appointed Exarch and Apokrisarios later that same year. Our teachers are ordained into one of the three traditional roles of the ancient Church: that of bishop, priest, and deacon. Our clergy teach the Thomasine method of inquiry and officiate at certain public and private rites and ceremonies.

There were a few questions, which I am going to omit for the sake of brevity.

I would like to talk about expectation and also about hope.In both of our traditions we are taught that we should focus on what is; we should focus on right now and be fully present in this very moment. We all know what a struggle that can be sometimes. Our minds wander. We think about our aging parents or stress at work, or we think about schoolwork that's been left undone. Our attention is diverted from the present moment, and we begin to think about things that might happen. As we begin to fantasize about what might be, about whether we're going to be reprimanded at work, whether or not we're going to fail an exam, whether our significant other still loves us, or whether or not that attractive man or woman we met the other night is going to get back to us on Facebook, something begins to happen.

Our minds create these scenarios to help us cope with the unknown; naturally, we're somewhat suspicious of the unknown. We start to assume, after a while, that elements of our fantasy are actually true. This isn't necessarily a conscious thing. In the parlance of the Thomasine Church we call this a machination of the Fictitious Mind. Your mind likes to take a few details and occurrences and create these enormous fictions out of them. You can create whole scenarios based on something innocuous. You think your boss gave you a dirty look or that guy or girl you met the other night is taking a few days to message you back, so you start to imagine why that might be.

There's some laughter and nodding at this point.

So, we have these ideas about what might happen, and we begin to act as if these things actually will happen. For us, these things become reality. They haven't actually happened. Our boss hasn't reprimanded us. We haven't failed an exam; that man or woman we met the other night hasn't told us we only had their contact information because we were being pests, but we begin to act as if our expectations are really what is happening. We begin to feel stress, we begin to feel fear, maybe we begin to doubt ourselves. This happens all on the basis of what we tell ourselves about situations; it happens because we're not here in the present moment, but rather we're lost in the labyrinth of our own mind.

We do this also with hope; I like to think of hope and expectation as two peas in a pod, and that is to say that I like to think of them as very closely related. I apologize, I am not sure how well the agricultural metaphor translates.

When we have hope about something it is something that we would like to occur or something that we would like not to occur. It can be as simple as "I hope to see you again soon" or "I hope you feel better soon." In other situations, like someone being gravely ill hope takes on another undertone. We begin to hope that someone will recover, that a last ditch treatment will work to reverse the course of a disease. Maybe we begin to hope that we will get a big promotion and that hope breeds expectations about what life will be like.

Well? What happens when that hope doesn't come to pass? We've gone and become attached to the narrative we've created around this hope with its attendant expectations about how  things will be, and it hasn't happened or when it did happen our expectations weren't met. So, we begin to suffer.

It's a little much to expect that we will never have hopes or expectations; sometimes those can actually be helpful. But, we don't want to suffer because of them. So what do we do? We pay attention, right? I'm sure none of your own teachers have ever told you this.


We cultivate an awareness of our minds. We do that in various ways; I teach my students to visualize themselves sitting in a tree watching themselves walk beneath it. We say to ourselves "This is my experience, but I don't have to react to that experience." We sit quietly in meditation with our own minds; we let thoughts come and go like waves crashing onto the shore. We pay attention to what they are, to where they came from. We pick them up and use them when we want to, but we aren't obligated to do that.

I am happy to answer any questions and to discuss your own thoughts about my talk this evening, so please feel free to speak.

I unfortunately didn't record the Q&A, either. 

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