Radical Optimism

Rev. Joan Halifax
386 words, 8K views, 18 comments

Radical optimism is a big view of the moment that does not include outcome. Another way of saying this is that the radical optimist is not undertaking an investment plan. Rather he or she is involved in a plan free of design.

Bearing witness in Auschwitz or on the streets of the Bowery is just bearing witness. Only a radical optimist can bear witness; if there is a thought to outcome, then one cannot be with the truth of what is actually happening.

Why are so many of us looking for the big spiritual payoff? We will all be dead soon enough. So what’s the big deal? Are we hoping to have a good death? Is that what drives us? Or do we want to make it in the spiritual big-time here and now?

Trungpa Rinpoche, when he used the phrase “spiritual materialism,” was not just referring to the material adornments of the spiritual path, the material bells and whistles of practice. He was directly addressing our desire to “get enlightenment,” the big bell and whistle. In our lives, there are endless truth events; each moment is one. If practice is self serving and a means to a so-called greater end, then practice becomes an investment where you expect a profit. How can we be at one with a particular moment if we are expecting something?

Practice not entered for the goal of enlightenment is simply being in life. When thoughts of outcome guide our actions, then we are caught in the great dilemma of dualism. Being with no gaining idea is the practice of radical optimism, an optimism free of time and space, object and subject, yet embedded in the very stuff of our daily lives. It is an optimism that arises from what Bernie Glassman calls not knowing, or what Vimalakirti called the inconceivable.

Dogen reminds us that to raise the mind of compassionate awakening is none other than the whole of daily activity with no concern for one’s self, no thought of outcome, no sense of self-gratification. This is radical optimism. It means that whatever is, is the best that there is at this moment. Just this, wholey this, only this.


Rev. Joan Halifax is a teacher, anthropologist, ecologist, civil rights activist, hospice caregiver, and the author of several books. Excerpted from here.