Hope vs Nope: The impact of faith and non-faith on body and mind

Guest article by Doctor, Acupuncturist, and Kadampa Buddhist, Hung Tran

4.5 mins read.

Precisely what faith is and exactly how it works are tricky enough questions for experienced meditators to answer. But accounting for the role of faith in spontaneous remissions is even more challenging.

As a Western-trained doctor, master practitioner of Classical Chinese Medicine, and Kadampa Buddhist, I’ve explored faith in many different settings. I’ve seen firsthand the impact of faith on the body, and I’ve felt firsthand the impact of faith on the mind.

In this article I’d like to explore the three types of faith Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso describes in How To Understand The Mind, and discuss their possible connection to a medical phenomenon known as the ‘placebo effect’.

The word faith comes from the Latin fides, meaning trust. In the West we tend to distinguish between faith and reason, but in a Dharma context both are just steps in the process of gaining certainty — or so-called “valid cognizers”.

Practically speaking, faith allows us to develop trust in something, and then through that to entrust ourselves to it. It’s an openness and receptivity that lets us step beyond our current situation and into something new.

Interestingly, in How To Understand The Mind, Geshe Kelsang says that to really understand what faith is we need to understand non-faith first. Perhaps this is because non-faith is something we’re all much more familiar with!

What is that ‘burnt seed’ of non-faith? I would argue that it’s primarily a feeling of being stuck, limited and shut down. In contrast to the upward momentum of ‘Hope’ it is the downward heaviness of ‘Nope’.

On that point, remember Barack Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope? Well, it turns out that our all-too-familiar feeling of Nope is actually far more audacious. Why? Well, audacity means ‘boldness of ambition’, and when we’re stuck in a Nope state, that experience of non-faith turns out to be astonishingly bold.

Because despite having a precious human life with all its freedoms and endowments, despite having access to the Dharma and a fully qualified Spiritual Guide, and despite the reality of subtle impermanence which means we’re changing moment by moment anyway, that feeling of Nope makes us utterly convinced that no positive change is possible — whatsoever.

I, for one, would call that pretty darn audacious!

Now, in my clinical experience as a Doctor I’ve seen again and again how illness and recovery are intimately related to an individual’s outlook and beliefs. In fact, the three types of non-faith that Venerable Geshe-la describes — ‘non-admiration’, ‘non-belief’, and ‘non-wishing’ — are easy to see in any medical setting.

Consider the following example. Imagine that you’re sick and you’ve sought out a doctor for help. If you aren’t sure about them, and doubt their credentials and experience, you’ll first develop non-admiration, which will hold them at a distance, and keep you rather closed. You’ll then develop non-belief which will doubt their diagnosis. And lastly you’ll develop non-wishing, which will prevent you from entrusting yourself fully to their course of treatment.

What will be the net result of these three types of non-faith? Essentially, no change whatsoever. You will remain exactly the same and, in fact, you may even come to feel worse as a consequence of identifying more strongly with your illness.

On the other hand, if you feel that the doctor is highly qualified and fully reliable, your experience will be the exact opposite. You’ll develop ‘admiring faith’ that makes you open and receptive, ‘believing faith’ that trusts what they’re saying, and ‘wishing faith’ that allows you to entrust yourself fully to their course of treatment.

The net effect here is essentially the basis of transformation itself. You’ll have a brand new way of relating to yourself and the situation, and a sense of being in a concrete relationship with recovery rather than sickness.

In the placebo effect, the ‘placebo’ is a pill or treatment with no actual medicinal properties. Its only power is to suggest the possibility of recovery to the patient. When faith in the placebo is present, it is that faith alone which facilitates a psychological shift from Nope to Hope, and thereby a corresponding physiological shift from illness to recovery.

To give an example, Parkinson’s disease arises from impaired dopamine release in a certain area of the brain. In one experiment, patients given a placebo and told it was a new anti-Parkinson’s drug were not only able to move better but brain scans revealed increased dopamine in the affected area.

As evidence within the medical literature grows, Fabrizio Benedetti, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Turin, has described the placebo effect as having evolved from “a nuisance in clinical pharmacological research to a biological phenomenon worthy of scientific investigation in its own right.”

To conclude, the placebo effect is a timely reminder of the power of both faith and non-faith. Countless studies show how illness and recovery are facilitated by our beliefs. Practically speaking, if we believe something, it is ‘true’ for us and has power in our life — whether or not that belief is an accurate description of our actual potential.

In reality then, faith — this inner process of ‘trusting’ and ‘entrusting’ — functions to change our setting. Not the external setting, but the inner setting — like a setting on a dial.

So the big question is this: is the inner dial of our mind set to Hope or Nope? Because either way, the consequences on our health, happiness and spiritual practice are very real and very far reaching.

Please leave your comments and questions for our guest author below!

Dr. Hung Tran is uniquely placed to address the intersection of medicine (both Western and Eastern) and Buddhism. You can find many more insights on his wonderful website: https://www.hungtran.co.uk


You’re never alone

5.5 mins read.

people walking in NYCThis was written this February, when human beings still bustled quaintly on this earth within inches of each other, no masks!, and no idea what was about to hit us. This article still works now, maybe more so, given that the entire world is full of the sorrows of this pandemic. We could probably all do with an effective way to feel less anxious and overwhelmed, more safe and in refuge.

New York City is full of people. So full, perhaps, that you could find yourself sucked into dramas morning till night. Sometimes it is hard to see the wood for the trees. Given that there are so many people here, so many people in other cities, so many people in ant hills, so many people in samsara …  how on earth are we supposed to extricate ourselves, let alone everyone else?! It can all feel very solid and real – the sickness, the ageing, the death, the homelessness, the hunger, the cold, and so on. No wonder compassion fatigue is a thing.

It is true that there are infinite beings in the six realms of samsara, and our stories of pain and suffering, told since beginningless time, seem to show no signs of slowing down, much less stopping. Taken alone, getting us all out seems a daunting task. But when feeling besieged by samsaric narratives, it can be incredibly helpful to remember that although there may be countless samsaric beings, there are also countless enlightened beings.

To infinity and beyond

full moon surrounded by starsWhen we visualize Buddha Shakyamuni, for example, he is not appearing with only a few holy beings dotted around him, in our tiny NY room, hopelessly outnumbered by a gazillion sentient beings. Buddha is surrounded by infinite enlightened beings, “like the full moon surrounded by stars”, who stretch on and out forever and ever.

This is not just true for Buddhists. This is true for everyone. Holy omniscient beings, however or whoever we envisage them, pervade everywhere and everyone.

(Coincidentally, just as I was writing this, I heard Stevie Wonder sing: “When you feel your life’s too hard, just go have a talk with God.” 🙂 )

Countless beings, once just like us, have attained enlightenment and no longer belong in samsara. This means that although there are infinite beings in infinite galaxies, Buddhas and Buddha Lands equal, if not outnumber, them all.

Samsara is the product of hallucination. Enlightenment is reality. Pit samsaric worlds and beings against enlightened worlds and beings, and who, ultimately, is going to prevail?

What is faith?

With the practice of Dharma we get to start choosing whose company we want to keep and be influenced by. We can start to feel that we are in the company of enlightened beings whenever we want; and with Tantra we feel that we are already one of them.

This is faith, of course – but faith doesn’t have to be overly complicated or mysterious. We can believe in the existence of enlightened beings by observing our own minds and how we have been able to reduce our delusions and increase our love and patience, for example. Nothing is fixed about our thoughts, and everything depends upon our thoughts. Taking that to its logical conclusion, we can envisage ourselves free from all faults and suffering and pervaded by spontaneous wisdom and compassion.New York skyscrapers

Close your eyes for a moment and try it!

Did that work? If so, even being able to entertain a notion of being enlightened indicates our potential for enlightenment and therewith the fact that countless enlightened beings already exist – the only difference between us and them is that they have put in the effort.

Based on this so-called “believing faith”, we can develop admiration for their good qualities — they can be our role models and super heroes, we can feel happy about them. And because we have this so-called “admiring faith,” which includes that faith in our own potential, we have the wish to become just like them, which is called “wishing faith.”

As Geshe Kelsang says in the first edition of Transform Your Life:

Without faith, everything is mundane. We are blind to anything beyond the ordinary and imperfect world we normally inhabit, and we cannot even imagine that pure, faultless beings, worlds, or states of mind exist. Faith is like pure eyes that enable us to see a pure and perfect world beyond the suffering world of samsara.

The company we keep

countless BuddhasWhenever we think of Buddha, there he or she is. He is there even when we don’t think of him. Enlightenment is everywhere, always, because enlightenment is reality, always waiting to be revealed.

As Geshe Kelsang says in The New Eight Steps to Happiness:

Because a Buddha’s mind is mixed with the ultimate nature of all phenomena and is free from the obstructions to omniscience, it pervades all phenomena; and because his or her body and mind are the same nature, his body is also all-pervasive. From this we can understand that Buddhas are present everywhere and that there is no place where Buddha does not exist.

This means that enlightened beings and Buddha Lands are everywhere and always, including right here right now. Holy beings are just as close to us as all these samsaric beings popping up around us. Purify our minds and we will see these pure beings directly. In the meantime we can have faith that they’re here, and that, because they are always relating to our pure potential as opposed to our delusions and suffering, they love us unconditionally whatever we are up to.

We do have a choice. Even in the middle of a huge city, full of seemingly endless suffering samsaric beings, we don’t need to invest in every passing mirage, powerlessly pulled in every direction. With Dharma in general and Tantra in particular, we can start to enjoy ourselves and those around us as illusion-like appearances arising within the space of emptiness – not inherently suffering, potentially pure and enlightened. We are already in the living company of countless holy beings in a pure and beautiful world.

to infinity and beyondAs it continues in Eight Steps:

Buddhas are like the sun and our ignorance is like the clouds that obscure the sun. When clouds disperse we see that in reality the sun has been shining all along, and, in a similar way, when we remove the clouds of ignorance from our mind we will see that the Buddhas have always been present all around us.

Tuning into joy and purity like this, space opens up and discouragement goes away. I think there’s an enormous amount of love and support available all the time, more than enough to stop us from feeling overwrought. And, situated now on the side of the solution, we can always find the energy to help others. For if we are already in the Pure Land, what is there to worry about?

This is the highest and most empowering form of renunciation (seeking to be permanently free) and compassion (seeking to free others), which we can learn to feel all the time, wherever we are. After all, as Freddie Mercury just happens to sing in the movie I’ve been watching on this plane out of NYC:

We are the champions, my friends. And we’ll keep on fighting till the end.

Over to you. Comments welcome below!

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Enlightenment is right here, right now 

Blessings are not that mysterious 

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