Every religion has some version of hell. It’s where you might go in the afterlife if you don’t do as you should in this life. As such, it is a means for enforcing morality. The Buddha talked about hell, too. Although I don’t think that he meant it literally. Whether he did or did not, it can be fruitful to regard hell as a metaphor – as one of the states you might find yourself in any given moment.
Indeed, there is the wheel of life that contains six such states represented by different forms – human, animal, gods, demons, semi-gods, and hungry ghosts. Interestingly, heaven is not the ultimate destination. In the heavenly state, we are drunk on bliss and not particularly self-aware.
The human realm is the only place where self-awareness can take place and where we can grow, evolve, and transform ourselves and have the opportunity to get relief from suffering (How can heaven involve suffering, you might be wondering? In heaven we are consumed with desire; a state of wanting more and a subtle underlying anxiety that the pleasure won’t last).
Hell for us in the privileged world can be summed up in a word – desire. It is our wanting of things and our attachment to outcomes that creates a hell on earth in the present moment. I want the things that I want and I don’t want the things that I don’t want. I want the things that I want to last forever and I am afraid the things I don’t want will last forever. Things need to go my way or else there may be something wrong with me. Desire, then, and our well-being contingent on that desire being met is a recipe for suffering.
This desire is not just big-ticket items – cars, relationships, promotions; desire is active in every moment of existence. Subtle desires are present and each one is undergirded by anxiety – the fear that I won’t get what I want or that I will lose what I have.
Hell is also relational. A common teaching metaphor for differentiating heaven and hell is a group of beings sitting around a large pot of dinner stew. In both heaven and hell the participants have long spoons, so long that they cannot hold the end of the spoon and reach their own mouths. In hell, the beings go hungry because they can’t reach their own mouths. In heaven, they cooperate, feeding each other.
Preoccupation with desire makes us self-preoccupied because all desire is relevant to our individual perspective (even if this desire involves other people). The way beyond desire and thereby the way out of hell is to transcend ourselves and embrace selfless concern for others. If we can put ourselves in a larger context, there is less preoccupation with “me” and its incessant desires.
We can also look directly at desire and see if we can let it go, or at least let go of the conjunction of our well-being with achieving particular outcomes. There is certainly nothing wrong with wanting things, having things, or wanting to avoid pain. If we had no wanting we’d never have any motivation to meditate, become awakened, or help others. It’s our relationship to desire is key. Kiss it as it goes by; don’t grasp it. Allow things to unfold without the pressure to satisfy every desire. Allow a space for disappointment that is local (that is, having nothing to do with how we are or who we are as people) and brief (that is, no big deal).