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Abandon Hope and Enjoy the Present

At this time of year, hope takes center stage. Children draw up lists of presents they hope Santa will deliver. Everyone who lives north of a certain point hopes for a picturesque white Christmas -- enough snow to make it pretty but not enough to make travel dangerous or require strenuous

digging out. Family members hope that other family members will like their gifts, that the sweaters will fit, and everyone will behave themselves. Singles hope for an invitation.

Hope is all around.

Buddhism says the best gift you could give yourself is to give that up.

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron describes hope as an addiction to the idea that things would be better if they were somehow different. That keeps us from seeing and working with things as they are, which is the only way we actually can create change.

"Abandon hope" is one of the lojong, or mind training slogans.

“Abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning,” she writes. The hope we’re giving up, she says, is the idea that we could “be saved from being who we are.”

“Without giving up hope – that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be – we will never relax with who or where we are," she writes in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times.  When we do relax and look around without a judgmental eye, we begin to see what is there, to realize that we are sufficient and the world is not out to get us. Life becomes workable.

Abandoning hope relies on a foundation of impermanence. To give up the hope that things will change for the better, you need the refuge of knowing that things will change, whether you want them to or not. The bad news and the good news about impermanence are the same -- things will change.  If you look around at where you are and realize you don't want to be stuck there forever, you can be assured that it won't stay that way forever -- it's already changing. What you do in this moment influences what that change will be. 


Ani Pema notes that hope is the other side of fear, and that pairing is the root of our pain.

“In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt, and we keep looking for alternatives.” 

If instead we stay with the feeling of discomfort, get to know our true selves, we can find confidence in our basic nature and our ability to be ourselves in the world. We can identify the source of the discomfort, rather than escaping it or covering it over, and work with that. 

* * * * * * *

These were notes for a class I led Tuesday. It all sounded very clear and rational. Before class, I talked to a new person, who shared that she was working through the tragic death of a family member, and knowing that she was in a bad place, I felt icky about talking about abandoning hope. Another person in the class asked about terminally ill patients -- does abandoning hope help them? He told me after class that he had a personal connection to that. As we talked during class, everyone seemed to arrive at the idea that appreciating the present has more potential for comfort than pinning your hopes on a specific outcome. And to have an understanding of how hard it can be to do that.

This also was written before the latest grand jury decision failing to indite a white police officer in a black man's death. Would I tell the protesters to abandon hope? The thing is, abandoning hope/radical acceptance isn't about embracing apathy or giving up. Things will change. Being in the present, fully present, is how we influence that change rather than projecting our energy into a future that may not happen. We stop wishing for an outcome and start working toward it.

The practice of meditation is based not on how we would like things to be but on what is. We often do not have a proper understanding of what we are, of what we are actually doing.

—The Sanity We Are Born With: A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy by Chögyam Trungpa


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