Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
I grew up hearing how great and necessary hope is, which is why I was so shocked when I first heard about the notion to “abandon hope.”
Last year I participated in the tradition of choosing one word as a sort of theme for the year. My word for 2011 was Awaken. I chose Awaken because I wanted to pursue the practice of being fully present in the moment. In my efforts to learn more about being fully present I ran across the Buddhist idea of “abandoning hope.”
Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist nun, wrote, “One of our deepest habitual patterns is to feel that now is not good enough.” Chodron encourages us to abandon hope and put our energy into being where we are. She informs us that as long as we are putting our energy into the desire for something or someone to be different (which is what hope leads to) the present moment will be lost. When the present moment is lost we lose opportunities that can only be found by staying in the moment that hope wants to sweep us away from. When we are swept away from the present reality to a vision of an imagined future we lose answers and solutions and healing that we can only know when we stay and face our pain and our fears. If we are caught up in hoping for a future result we cannot embrace the present moment.
A famous Buddhist saying is “Hope and fear chase each other’s tails.” In other words, hope and fear are intrinsically connected – you hope because you are afraid of what is happening or not happening – without fear hope would not be needed. The present – which is demanding your attention here and now – may not look appealing and yet it may have something deeper to offer you than a hoped for future. The idea is that this method of befriending our present concern affords us a clarity of action that we can never gain while trying to avoid or rid ourselves of our pain and fears.
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t have a positive attitude. And there are certainly times when hope allows people to take that next step and behave “as if,” despite all evidence to the contrary. But abandoning hope isn’t really about being negative. Abandoning hope is more about detaching ones self from success or failure. It isn’t about giving up in a way that would make you stop working or striving. It is a kind of positive giving up that not only has the potential to reveal to you what it is that makes you more fully alive but at the same time affords you the ability to put even more effort and energy into whatever that is.
Thomas Merton, the late Christian mystic, advised a friend: “Do not depend on the hope of results … you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself…”
We typically have a purpose for everything that we do. We want to succeed at accomplishing our goal and not fail. That is fine. However, what happens so much of the time is our thoughts of success or failure begin to become more important than what we are doing and how we are doing it. The fear of failure causes us to become more rigid, less compassionate, more impatient, less creative, more cautious, less willing to take risks – all because we cling so desperately to a successful outcome.
WOW! This new way of thinking about hope was making sense to me. At least enough sense that I wanted to try to put some of this stuff into practice, so over the past year I have tried to merge what I was learning about hope with my pursuit to be more present in the moment.
Where did all of this new thinking about hope lead me?
Well, I still find myself hoping as a reaction to fear or worry. But at least I am usually aware of that happening and can stop and focus on remaining in the moment – letting myself experience the feelings more fully – being more aware of myself in the present moment (Buddhists call that being mindful or waking up).
And I still find myself performing a task or doing work with a goal in mind but at least I am getting better about the goal not overshadowing the action. As a result I feel less attached to outcomes and more interested in the value of what I am doing and how I am doing it. I don’t know if I am accomplishing as much but I think what I do is a higher quality, more enjoyable and unique.
My problems have not all disappeared because none of this stops life from happening. The hope and fear continue to return because the practice of letting go of hope and fear is hard to embrace. But I keep training and practicing and the more I train and practice the more I am able to lessen unnecessary suffering and worry. I believe that I am more present in the moment and that the more I wake up the more compassion I have towards myself and others, the more creative I feel, the more risks I am willing to take, the more discernment I seem to have about what I should spend my time and energy pursuing. It’s a process and honestly I feel like I could let all the progress slip away without much notice if I don’t remain vigilant but all in all I think I am discovering something better than hope. I think I am discovering now.