Recently, I have been following the political scene more carefully than usual. This is because unusual and important events and processes are unfolding. A number of spiritual issues are raised. Two of these are (1) secrecy & deception, and (2) expectations & uncertainty. I spoke about the first in my weekly Dharma talk at Oasis.
The second issue, that of expectations, is illustrated by the current vacuum created by the UK not having an effective government right now. While leadership elections are taking place one can only guess what the new government will do. However, this is happening at a time when the electorate has created an expectation that a momentous change – leaving the European Union – is going to happen. Thus everybody is expecting something, but does not know what form it will take and is precluded, for the moment, from the task of getting on with creating the new situation. During this hiatus, however, the real world goes on and many people's jobs, money and security are undermined. Expectations and insecurity have consequences. The referendum vote was itself a consequence of earlier examples, some of which ultimately have their roots in the 2003 Iraq War that created the seedbed for the presernt civil war in Syria which has generated the refugee crisis that affected the Brexit vote and brought down the last UK prime minister. In ordinary life, it is incumbent upon people to try to get some control of their situation and circumstances. This historical sequence shows how difficult this is to achieve. Such control can only ever be partial and the greater part always remains out of one's reach. We make the judgements we do within a framework of expectations - expectations of what else is likely to be happening. Living with this reality is a spiritual challenge, often plunging people into hope, fear, triumph, dismay and other powerful emotions. One can adopt a thoroughly renunciant life and reach a supreme indifference in regard to all this, but even then one will be dependent upon food produced by those who remain enmeshed in it.
These two issues – secrecy and expectations – are ones that generate extremely powerful emotions in people and are at the root of many of the dramas of life. In all the great dramas of Shakespeare, for instance, one can see them at work. The dilemmas of Hamlet dramatise the matter brilliantly. In King Lear the consequences of deception, misunderstanding and conflicting expectations unfold like a myth of archetypal proportions. In both cases, there is both heroism and tragedy and the 'good' characters suffer just as much as the 'bad' ones. Such is life. Often ordinary life is not so vivid: it is more a case of 'living lives of quiet desperation'. How many of us have been in situations where the consequence of telling the whole truth would have a devastating effect on another party – probably all of us and often many times. We keep silent because of expectations. If we are to serve all sentient beings we cannot do so without having expectations of what is and what is not good for them.
In each case it is easy to take a simplistic view that seems to obliterate the problem. One can advocate openness and honesty in all situations and living in the moment without expectation. However, such views are really an avoidance rather than a solution and expression of them is often ingenuous. The people who advocate it, for the most part, have just as many expectations and are just as much involved in social niceties as the rest of us. When one calls together people for an event and invites initial sharing it is common for people to say that they 'have no expectations', but this is surely false. If they really had none they would not have come. They say so because they have an expectation that this statement will increase their stock with other people who may think them wise or balanced, or alternatively because they lack insight, but this is really (consciously or unconsciously) hypocrisy.Yet, how many of us have done as much - most, maybe all. Hypocrisy is normal.
Simplistic ideals distract us from facing the real drama and spiritual quality of existence. We live in a world of conditions. Those conditions do unfold over time and often in a confused or opaque manner. We have to reckon with this and doing so can be a titanic struggle of the soul. It is more real to acknowledge the great drama of life in a realistic way and appreciate the challenges of spirit that it involves than to try to sweep it all aside with idealistic generalisations. The people who smuggled Jews out of Nazi controlled territory did not practise open honesty and had to weigh expectations and uncertainties very carefully indeed. They did not practise naive simplicity, yet, surely, were great heroes who sometimes suffered terribly for their heroism. Leaders who have brought great benefits to humankind have wrestled with these issues just as intensely as have the villains of history and even the 'villains' have not been free from such struggles.
My plea, therefore, is for a more nuanced and realistic appraisal of the human situation and its dilemmas and it is a rejection of the kind of platitudinous nonsense that often passes for spiritual wisdom that by-passes all the real dilemmas of life by advocating an unattainable ideal divorced from the real world. A certain degree of disengagement from 'worldliness' is essential if one is to arrive at any degree of spiritual strength and stability, but total disengagement is simply an abdication of responsibility. We disengage in order to stand back so that we may see more clearly, not simply turn our backs and wash our hands of life.
Sometimes using slogans that are a bit trite is an acceptable way of conveying spiritual truth, especially in this age of 'tweets', but we should not be wholly taken in by them and should recognise that, they themselves are only half truths and that those who advance them only do so because of the expectations that they hold of how they are going to be received.
When Buddha spoke, even he did so because he had expectations of the effect his words might have. Even he, however, could not know for certain. Many people were enlightened by a conversation with him, but not all went away convinced. Some were too wrapped up in other problems.
The fact is that to have expectations and to try to refine them into better and more accurate ones is normal, human and an essential part of living a meaningful life, including one that can be described as religious or spiritual. Sometimes it is wise to have high expectations. Sometimes it is wiser to have low ones. The person who expects little is often pleasantly surprised, whereas the person who expects too much is in for disappointment, perhaps even bitterness. It is not a matter of having 'no' expectations, but of having wise ones, compassionate ones, loving ones.
Oh, super - do encourage him to join. He could maybe do an occasional daily teaching himself.