Why Abandoning Hope May Be The Best Thing You Can Do
By Licensed Psychologist Lesley Huff
One may wonder how an article titled “Abandon Hope” fits into Samaritan Counseling’s mission of hope and resilience. Well, it depends on what we mean by “abandon” and what we mean by “hope.”
It is first helpful to acknowledge that we are living in a time where the reality of life’s uncertainty is painfully being brought to our attention. In the face of uncertainty, our natural response is to grasp for things that will help us feel better.
This often involves a hope for things to be less stressful, clearer, more prosperous, less dangerous, etc. Very few of us would argue with a reality that might reflect those elements!
At the same time, our longing for those things can create a tension and a resistance to what is.
In mindfulness and contemplative practices, we often discuss the path toward acceptance and surrender. Perhaps I am being a bit provocative by choosing to add “abandon” to this list as well.
We Want Things To ‘Work’
Abandoning hope is a key message in Pema Chrodron’s book “When Things Fall Apart.” She reminds us that when we give up hope it “is the beginning of the beginning. Without giving up hope — that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be — we will never relax with where we are or who we are.”
As I teach and guide participants through the Change Through Compassion program, I frequently check in with the participants at the midway point – aka the “muddy middle” — to reflect on how they are doing. We discuss the three stages of progress and where they find themselves.
As with most budding relationships, some participants may find themselves feeling that the practices are “working,” and they are noticing less suffering in their lives. Others may be reflecting on earlier success (or lack of success) with the practices, and are now experiencing a level of disillusionment because they are no longer “working.”
When asked what it means for the practices to be “working,” however, the response is typically the same. Participants say they have been able to alter/change/manipulate whatever it was that they were experiencing and shift it toward something more preferable.
Letting Go of Striving In Mindfulness
This use of mindfulness to resist whatever is our reality is referred to as “striving.” When we engage in striving, we feel tremendous suffering because we want reality to be miraculously different than it is.
So if we abandon hope and the striving that we will be able to make things better, then could this possibly just lead to hopelessness?
In a recent discussion of Chrodron’s book for “On Being,” Krista Tippett stated: “Hope is a muscle; hope is a choice, and hope isn’t like optimism, which is wishful thinking.”
The type of hope she suggests that you consider abandoning is the wishful-thinking kind. Chodron goes on to explain why it is so important to step back from this kind of hope that is really the pursuit of an illusion.
“Hope and fear is a feeling with two sides. As long as there’s one, there’s always the other … In the world of hope and fear, we always have to change the channel, change the temperature, change the music, because something is getting uneasy, something is getting restless, something is beginning to hurt. … We keep looking for alternatives.”
The Desire To Avoid Pain
We are naturally wired to turn away from pain and move toward things that bring safety, comfort, and pleasure. In fact, we have whole industries based on providing us with pleasurable distractions!
This has been true throughout history. Thousands of years ago, Cicero stated, “The evil was not in bread and circuses, per se, but in the willingness of the people to sell their rights as free men for full bellies and the excitement of the games which would serve to distract them from the other human hungers which bread and circuses can never appease.”
Another method of distraction is to project our pain by blaming either others or ourselves for what is happening. Although blaming may seem like an ineffective way to reduce painful feelings, it is useful in tying up loose ends and reducing uncertainty (albeit not accurately).
When I find myself slipping into this blaming behavior, I remind myself of the question posed by meditation teacher and psychologist Tara Brach: “What feelings would I have to sit with if I didn’t look for someone to blame?”
Turning Toward Uncomfortable Feelings
So what if we consider turning toward the pain and abandoning the wishful-thinking hope? It may be helpful to consider Richard Rohr’s declaration: “No one lives on this earth without [pain]. It is the great teacher, although none of us want to admit it.”
He then goes on to invite us to consider that all great spirituality is about what we do with our pain. In order to open our hearts and minds to this invitation, we must first set down our wishful-thinking hope for things to be different. We must turn toward our reality.
In her book, “Real Love,” meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg states, “Don’t pick a fight with reality!” This is my go-to self-reminder whenever I realize I am spinning my wheels.
When I drop the fight and sit in the midst of my reality, it can feel too much to bear. This is when the compassion practices become so important. Replaying our stories or interpretations of what is happening is often the gasoline on the fire of our pain.
So the first step in self-compassion is to drop out of the story and see where the painful emotions are rising in my body. Tightness in my chest? Ache in my belly? Headache?
I tune into where the pain is and become curious about its nature. Is it cold? Does it feel empty? Does it feel fluttery? Does it stay steady or change?
Mindfulness Offers A New Way Forward
This gives my mind a new place to focus, and a physical place where I can rest a hand and offer myself some soothing.
Now I ask myself, “What am I feeling?” while continuing to stay out of the story. I label whatever feelings arise, trying my best to harness the same voice I would use if I were validating the experience of a dear friend.
Getting to the accurate — even if painful — feeling is helpful since it then supports me in answering the question, “Given this, what do I need?” — with the answer being what is in my control, of course.
Perhaps I need some more rest, to take on one less project, to speak up and let someone know how I am feeling, or to create a boundary in an unhealthy relationship.
The more we practice these steps and find that we are effective in navigating our circumstances, the more we start to trust ourselves. And trusting ourselves is an important aspect of resilience.
Where Mindfulness Leads
I once listened to an incredibly loving parent who realized that she was trying to do the impossible: Help her children become resilient while shielding them from any pain.
I encouraged her to not only allow her children to struggle but also to help them understand that struggle is a part of life.
Richard Rohr referenced his teacher Gerald May on the topic of willingness and willfulness. May states, “Willingness implies a surrendering of one’s self-separateness, an entering-into, an immersion in the deepest processes of life itself. It is a realization that one already is a part of some ultimate cosmic process and it is a commitment to participation in that process. In contrast, willfulness is a setting of oneself apart from the fundamental essence of life in an attempt to master, direct, control, or otherwise manipulate existence.”
Many of my clients and students often joke that the “booby-prize” of engaging in mindfulness and compassion practices is that you are more fully present with all of what life brings us. Given that we are naturally inclined to turn away from pain, it seems a bit ridiculous to open up to it.
At the same time, they have begun to realize the amount of complicated and exhausting maneuvers we all engage in with our willfulness in the end usually creates more and extended periods of pain.
So, if the practice is really about abandoning hope that pain will no longer be a part of life, then what is the point?
My answer to that is “space.”
The Space Offered By Mindfulness
These practices help us to create space in our minds, in our hearts and in our souls so that we can better understand what our options are and learn to sit with the questions rather than rushing into the answers.
Rainer Maria Rilke urges us to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart. “Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything.”
Perhaps in living everything, we might begin to be grateful for all of the adventures, lessons, and growth that even the hardest of circumstances offer us.
I am sure that you can think of an experience in your life that part of you would rather have not navigated, while another part of you sees how it helped you to become wiser in ways you might not have without the experience.
By abandoning wishful-thinking hope, you can open yourself to all that life has to offer and continue to acknowledge ways in which you are able to show up for yourself. This is the journey towards true resilience.
About the Author
Lesley Huff is a licensed psychologist and certified teacher in mindful self-compassion practices. She leads the Change Through Compassion program. She received her instruction through the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion and UCSD Center for Mindfulness. Lesley started the Change Through Compassion Seminar Series in 2013 and has practiced mindfulness personally for many years. Mindfulness and compassion are also key components to Lesley’s work with clients in individual and couples’ therapy.