On Aspiration and Hope

New Year’s Day, 2016

We realize that it’s our basic nature to be open, so there’s no need to be hopeful. We only find ourselves becoming hopeful when we are no longer in touch with our basic, awakened nature.

Basic Human Goodness

In the warrior tradition presented by Chögyam Trungpa, there is a fundamental teaching about the inherent, basic goodness of human beings. This basic goodness or basic healthiness is regarded as every human being’s birthright. It has three essential qualities: gentleness, fearlessness and intelligence.

According to this tradition, the focus of the warrior’s path is to uncover and connect with this unconditional goodness, to reveal the inherent sacredness of our existence. Basic goodness embodies all the qualities of warriorship: gentleness and compassion; fearlessness and bravery; and intelligence, wisdom and discernment. Apparently, we are all born with these powerful, enlightened qualities, free of egotism and struggle.

However, because our culture has lost touch with warriorship, and with basic goodness as an indestructible source of inspiration and wakefulness, all of us have had to deal with self-doubt, depression and confusion. Because we are not personally grounded in this fundamental wisdom, we search outside of ourselves for a facsimile of openness, a facsimile of fearlessness, and a facsimile of wisdom. These imitations of gentleness, fearlessness and intelligence bring only temporary satisfaction. Their ephemeral nature leaves us feeling empty and confused.

To be a warrior is to fully acknowledge things as they are in our world, both the confusion and the wisdom that is present. These two aspects of existence, confusion and sanity, co-exist moment to moment. However, confusion and wisdom are not separate, distinct energies; rather confusion is wisdom without self-awareness. The path of the warrior strives to bring self-awareness into confusion so that its inherent wisdom, compassion and bravery can be clearly seen and expressed.

Hope and Fear

Confusion includes the energies of passion, aggression and ignorance. Passion is relating to something that we are attracted to, want to possess or a specific hoped-for outcome. Aggression is relating to something that we feel threatened by, wish to reject or an outcome we fear. And ignorance is closing off all channels of communication, not caring one way or the other about something, just hunkering down and withdrawing. Another way of thinking about these three qualities, on the most mundane level, is like, dislike and couldn’t care less. At any given moment, it’s quite possible that we are temporarily caught in attraction, rejection or apathy – whether it concerns our cup of coffee, our marriage, our job…toward whatever situation, person, thought or memory that arises in the moment.

When our passion manifests in an inner narrative, a storyline, it becomes hope. Hope is a conditional sense of opening up to a situation. When our aggression or dislike solidifies into a narrative, it becomes fear. Fear is a conditional closing down to what we feel is a threatening situation. And when our deepening sense of disappointment manifests as a narrative, our ignorance solidifies into stupidity, temporarily giving up on both hope and fear by numbing out completely.

Simply put, it feels pleasurable to open (hope), painful to close (fear), and so blacking out (ignorance) offers an easy escape from the pain of disappointment and fear. But the darkness of ignorance is also painful. It’s basically depressing, numbing, lifeless and claustrophobic – an unpleasant hangover from the dramatic highs and lows of hope and fear. It doesn’t satisfy us to be there, so we give birth to a new hope to escape the claustrophobic, nihilistic staleness of ignorance, and then the full addictive cycle begins again.

Without self-awareness, the patterns of hope, fear and ignorance seem to cycle endlessly. This is true for individuals, groups, organizations, communities and nations. If we look closely at our own experiences, we can see how the seemingly attractive quality of hope creates the polarity necessary to spark the corresponding, challenging quality of fear – fearing that whatever we hoped for may not come to pass or not meet our expectations. When fear clearly outweighs hope, there follows a sense of loss, helplessness and victimhood. When we reach total self-victimhood, there is the numbing state of ignorance. We temporarily become “deaf, dumb and blind.” From this frozen state, we give birth to another cycle of wishful thinking and hope, then doubt, fear, victimhood and ignorance – a self-perpetuating, closed loop.


This is why there is such a strong emphasis on “hopelessness” as a positive ground for warriorship. Until the warrior gives up expectations and wishful thinking, and relates directly to things as they are, she or he is at the mercy of the addictive cycle of hope, fear and ignorance.

But then how can we walk the path of the warrior if we have no hope to improve ourselves, to become genuine warriors? What does it mean to go beyond hope and fear? This is where the importance of aspiration comes in. An aspiration is an unconditional longing, one that is not dependent upon a specific outcome. Aspiration involves commitment and action. It continues to focus on bringing benefit, whether or not the effort brings success. Aspiration is an expression of the warrior’s basic goodness, of her or his own life force, never giving up or giving in to cowardice and ignorance.

In fact, the more challenges and failures the warrior encounters, the stronger the aspiration manifests. Why? Because aspiration is unconditional, and its unconditioned essence is much easier to recognize when the seeming darkness of unfavorable conditions arise to provide a sharp contrast. Aspiration expresses our inherently open, brilliant, fearless and caring human nature – a nature that is always present. Closed-mindedness, arrogance, intimidation, cowardice and discouragement are easily discernable when contrasted with the wisdom, light and power of unconditional aspiration.

It’s very important that we learn to distinguish between hope and aspiration, and that we know how to work with them both. All of us likely have conditional hope or passion as a motivation for accomplishing much of what we do. After all, this is a big part of our cultural and religious inheritance.

The key here is self-awareness. When we see hope arise, we can recognize its storyline or narrative, the underlying qualities of expectation and wishful thinking. We can then opt to abandon the hoped-for outcomes on the spot, and place our small-minded hope within the larger space of aspiration. In other words, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to make the world a better place or wishing to become a warrior. These are genuine aspirations. But investing our wellbeing and sanity in a specific, hoped-for outcome is a self-limiting, shortsighted approach, likely to end in disappointment and a loss of vision, energy and motivation.

Conditional vs. Unconditional

Because hope is conditional, we can see that it has victimhood built right into its fabric, and we can choose to step out of the closed loop of hope, fear and ignorance. By “conditional” I mean, a positive quality that is subject to circumstances, either internal or external or both. When conditions permit, we feel open. When they become challenging, we close down. In the Buddhist teachings, these conditional circumstances are taught as four pairs of opposites. They include:

  • hope for happiness and fear of suffering
  • hope for fame and fear of insignificance
  • hope for praise and fear of blame
  • hope for gain and fear of loss

We are choosing unconditional opening vs. conditional opening by consciously aligning ourselves with our aspirations rather than with our hopes. Our unconditional opening is inquisitive and aware, not booby-trapped by the need for confirmation or success. In a sense, we are simply open “for the hell of it,” rather than for specific reasons or because external conditions permit it. We realize that it’s our basic nature to be open, so there’s no need to be hopeful. We only find ourselves becoming hopeful when we are no longer in touch with our basic, awakened nature. Hope is a manufactured openness. Aspiration is a natural expression of openness. It can manifest in a powerful way when we can truly follow our heart because we know ourselves so well.

Not only do we need to liberate hope from its conventional context and see its value without conditions; likewise, we need to liberate fear from this cyclical pattern, and see its value, as there are many legitimate issues we need to be concerned about. And we also need to liberate ignorance from its role as an enabler of hope and fear, by shining the light of self-awareness and discernment into our dense states of mind.

Mindfulness meditation is key

The core practice for cultivating self-awareness is mindfulness meditation. The practice provides the necessary open space, perspective and strength to begin to see our hope/passion, fear/aggression and ignorance/stupidity clearly, without judgment or reaction. With this perspective and practice, we can liberate the energies of confusion into the wisdom of unconditional human goodness.

It may be helpful to reflect on the difference between aspiration – a powerful, visionary, forwarding-moving force in our lives, not dependent upon outcomes, vs. hope rooted in expectations, assumptions and wishful thinking. Perhaps we might ask ourselves:

  • Can I do my work without needing to see the results I hope for?
  • Can I embark on the path of warriorship without guarantees of success?
  • Can I work directly and compassionately with my own addictive cycles of hope, fear and ignorance, without feeling burdened, resentful or overwhelmed?

Since our path of warriorship includes working directly with fear, stupidity and wishful thinking, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the answer to these three questions is likely to be, “Not yet.” If that is the case, please don’t feel discouraged. Seeing our own confusion is the beginning of seeing things as they are. As Chögyam Trungpa said, “If you have a headache, celebrate! You have a head!”

Perhaps, instead of making another New Year’s resolution based on conditional hope, we might consider contemplating a New Year’s aspiration that transcends the limits of time and space, success and failure, that expresses our warrior-heart’s longing and courage, and that brings us joy right now, free of hope, fear and ignorance.


© 2016 Alan Sloan Consulting and Facilitation

Please do not duplicate without permission of the author

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8 thoughts on “On Aspiration and Hope

  1. Judi Fisher

    Hi Alan – could you send this to me in a PDF so I can print it?

  2. Jan Gunnarsson

    The article made me see hope from a different and valuable perspective. Thanks.

  3. Thank you, Alan. I was reminded of Stephen Jenkinson’s comments on our culture’s frequent response to news of our impending death and then its treatment by ourselves and sometimes the medical profession: “hope, cope and dope”. (Not sure if this is explicitly contained in his recent book, Die Wise). You make the case for aspiration as a better response.

  4. John O'Brien

    Thank you for the care that went into writing this. The clear and concise presentation of aspiration here is especially helpful to me.

  5. Helene Branch

    Love your work, Alan. Thank you!

  6. Rita Wuebbeler

    What a beautifully written and thought out piece, Alan. Thank you so much for creating this and clarifying these confusing concepts for us. Very grateful.

  7. Cynthia Clark

    In my beginning journey on the Warrior’s Path, I will grapple with the conditionality of hope in mindfulness meditation. Thank-you for the thoughtful clarity of unconditional aspiration.

  8. Ron Bartelstein

    I will aspire to break the cycle of hope, fear and ignorance this year. In my practice, I have found that hope is often disguised as aspiration. The questions in the last section of the article is a great way to differentiate between hope and aspiration. Thank for this wonderful article!

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