Abandon Hope

Dear Laura,

What do you think about "hope?" Pema says to abandon it, Deepak and Oprah embrace it. I have leaned heavily on hope throughout my life - getting a plan in place (whether it is a doctor appt or a meditation program, whatever) gives me great comfort. Are hope and trust and faith all the same thing? Don't know why I am stuck on this, but I am. Quit reading Pema, didn't continue with 21-day meditation, been trying to figure it a way to talk to others about this. Would love to hear what you think. 

-Hopeful


Dear Hopeful,

My introduction to Buddhism came at one of the most painful points in my life. I was secretly harboring doubts about my marriage and, to our surprise, pregnant with our daughter. Being pregnant meant many things, but two in particular: I was forever bound to my husband, and I couldn’t drink. The forced sobriety shored up levels of pain I’d never felt before. I would spend long stretches of those nine months in bed, earbuds in my ears, listening to Pema Chodron’s voice and teachings, while single streams of tears ran from the corners of my eyes to the pillow. Many mornings I woke to the early blue light of dawn illuminating our bedroom and, without moving a muscle, I’d peer across the horizon of my pillow to the big window that overlooked our street and wish, with a single, slow blink, to be taken back to the underworld of sleep. Please, I’d think. Not today.

It wasn’t just that I was unsure about my marriage, it was that I felt so goddamn guilty for my ambivalence. It was that I frequently felt despair about the future at a time when I wanted, and expected, to feel joy. What kind of asshole wants to leave a very good life with a very good man? What kind of person wishes away a baby with their relatively new husband? What I’d been chasing with him since the day we met—more connectedness, more time, more shared space, more commitment, more us—had suddenly become an affront. I inwardly, and sometimes outwardly, rejected indications of intimacy or a future together. When he noticed this, I winced. It hurt so badly to hurt him.

I didn’t share my struggle with anyone because I couldn’t even palate it myself, and I also didn’t trust how I felt. My desire to escape came upon me so fast I knew it would need to be examined for much longer than I would prefer—I owed all of us that much—but oh, how I wanted to just pull the ripcord and run.

One of the things Pema talked about was ‘abandoning hope.’

She says:

As long as we’re addicted to hope, we feel that we can tone our experience down or liven it up or change it somehow, and we continue to suffer a lot.
You could even put “Abandon Hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations like “Everyday in every way, I’m getting better and better.” We hold onto hope and it robs us of the present moment. If hope and fear are two different sides of the same coin, so are hopelessness and confidence. If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation.

This was a profoundly new idea to me, and a disturbing one. Abandon hope? What’s wrong with hope? What do we have, if not hope? 

And yet, somewhere inside me, it struck as true. I kept listening.

***

A few months before I got pregnant, I started seeing a therapist. It was my first experience in therapy, save a single session my mom booked for me while I was home for college one summer, wherein I burst into tears in the first five minutes when the therapist asked about my dad, and vowed to never do that again. This therapist was about 100 feet from my downtown Boston office, on the 3rd floor of an old building, in a miniature room with painted white brick walls and no air conditioning. She was a petite brunette with severe facial features, but soft brown eyes. In our first session, she asked me why I was there. I was wound so tight then—I’d never told the truth about what was going on inside me. I didn’t know how or where to begin, so I stuttered out what I could. 

“I just…I feel like I always want to be somewhere else,” I said, looking down at my bobbing knees.

She nodded. “That’s a really painful way to live, huh?”

***

The little girl growing in my belly didn’t have to stop me from anything—drinking, leaving, cheating—but it did. It forced me to stay in my life, despite myself. Something in me knew this was a blessing, even as I fought it ferociously. Sometimes I thought I might pass out or just spin off the earth when the tides of pain hit. It was a real physical sensation, a washing over and clearing out like I was actually being burned to death from the inside. I would try and meditate and my entire body would shake. I would go to take our dog for a walk and my legs would go numb suddenly, forcing me to sit down in the middle of the sidewalk, or on the dry, scratchy grass in the park behind our house. One time I sat right on a fresh pile of dog shit and I just stayed there, breathing and retching, until I could steady myself enough to stand back up.

Looking back, I see it was the first time in my life I’d had to stay—to really, really stay, in discomfort. 

I wrote this piece (on a different blog then) as a futile attempt to express myself, and I could think as I was writing it was, I will never really be able to write because nobody can know my truth.

***

So, abandoning hope. What Pema meant, and what was delivered to me drop by painful drop in that time, was the notion of staying. Of not hoping for a different reality than the one I was in—not because I found reality acceptable, but because fighting it became futile. Fighting it was causing me to suffer. Immensely. The pain itself was neutral. The pain was energy. The pain was fear and grief and guilt and shame and anger moving through me. The suffering was the story I put on top of it: that I was trapped forever, that I was in the wrong marriage, that I equally loved him and wanted to leave him, that this wan’t okay, that I would never be okay, that we would never be okay, that I was unforgivable, that something had to be different.

Pema says: 

When we talk about hopelessness and death, we’re talking about facing facts. No escapism. Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, not to run away, to return to the bare bones, no matter whats going on.

That’s what was happening to me. And that's what it means to abandon hope, I think. Hopelessness is not to be confused with despair or helplessness. Hopelessness means staying in reality instead of trying to escape it.

***

This time also brought into question my faith. I think most of us confuse faith and hope—I know I did. I didn’t really know what faith was until I was forced to abandon my hope, and I wonder, Hopeful, if that’s what you’re grappling with too?

To me, faith means trusting that it is already so—that I am already held, guided, and that all that I’m experiencing is for me, not against me. Hope, in this context anyway, is wishing for something better that what is so. Hope is arguing with reality. Hope is what creates the suffering.

***

I think some of this is semantics. Call it faith, hope, wishful thinking, spirituality. The crux of it is that when we cannot accept reality, we suffer. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t dream. We should dream and we should aspire and we should wish grand, beautiful, unreasonable things for ourselves. But unless we can be at peace with what is—with a reality that includes both beauty and terror—we will forever be grasping at a ground that doesn’t exist.

In 2009, if my instinct to run would’ve won out, I have no doubt I’d have landed myself in the exact same situation with someone else. It wasn’t that I was in the wrong marriage; I was in exactly the right relationship for the growth that we both needed. I knew how to run. I needed to learn how to stay.

The same concept played out for me in motherhood, and certainly in getting sober. There was no reality I fought harder than the reality that told me I couldn’t drink. I fought it until I almost died. I hoped against hope for something else, but it was never going to be so. In that way, hope was not my friend. And perhaps in your life, you can find ways that hope doesn’t serve you? Maybe you can reframe it as faith? You never have to let go of your faith.

John Ptacek, a US author, writes of finding meaning through hopelessness after his wife's terminal cancer diagnosis: "Time spent hoping for happier days is time spent turning away from life.”

I think that’s what we’re talking about here, Hopeful: choosing to turn toward life, and not away from it.

 

Love,
Laura


Laura McKowen

Laura McKowen, PO Box 315 , Swampscott, MA, 01907