Thursday, 2 February 2017

Abandon All Hope

Photo © Kusuma Dawn Hart

Having been through some seriously testing years with the certainty that there are more to follow I realise now it is time to abandon all hope. At first it sounds a little drastic, possibly even depressing! What do you mean abandon all hope? Is that Kusuma giving up, lying down and saying she has had enough? Definitely not. It finally means I have grasped the connection between my fears and hopes. I have the words of Pema Chödrön to thank for this discovery having recently read her book ‘When Things Fall Apart’.  She writes ‘ 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’.

Since my life was turned upside down in June 2010 many good people have tried offering a cheery word or too, even using the term ‘there is always hope’ but I could never quite grasp that idea. Hope to me seems empty; every time I have tried to be hopeful about a situation I have almost immediately found myself spiralling down in to a ball of fear. I get a knot in my stomach, and the ‘What if’s’ start to whirl around in my head. I can’t shut them off and then I start imagining life in five years time or twenty years time. This process means I am on seriously shallow ground, I am not in anyway present with what is happening now in each and every hour of the day. Every time I worry about what the future holds for my family I am not present with the beautiful moments of today.

The more I experience the teachings of The Buddha the more I question my whole life as it was and as it is now. I am starting to finally get my head around the idea of impermanence; and letting go of even shallow ground beneath your feet can be scary. Why do we grasp on so tightly to hope? In hope we think there will always be somewhere better to be, that we will become a better person, and that the people we love will get better. In hope there is no time to stand still, no time to be present with what you have today. How do we know that hope will bring better? We don’t and that is when fear and anxiety find their way in to our minds. When we live our lives hoping, we live in a constant state of seeking pleasure to avoid the pain. Chödrön points out that while we might have found a thousand ways to hold everything together, the ground will just keep moving. She says that if we want to dissolve our suffering then we need to ‘Abandon all Hope’ and move in to a state of ‘Hopelessness’.

In hope we delegate responsibility to someone or something outside of ourselves. Even if we believe The Buddha to be our saviour through the dharma teachings, we are wrong. Chödrön suggests that we have to experience the teachings without hope or we will just fall in to the trap of grasping on to them. 

When we experience suffering in our lives our reaction is to feel that something is wrong. However the First Noble Truth tell us that we all experience suffering, which means this is ‘normal’, there is nothing wrong with this experience. Once we accept that suffering is part of life we can stop apportioning blame on others and ourselves. We make our mistake by thinking that the suffering can be transformed by having hope, but what really happens is that the hope only gives rise to fear and fear draws us in to avoiding our suffering. As long as there is hope there is always fear, as Chödrön explains ‘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, and we keep looking for alternatives’.

I have found ‘When Things Fall Apart’ to be a very supportive book for someone like myself who is living with so many uncertainties. My son had a stroke at some point in the womb. No one could explain exactly what happened and I remember thinking there must be someone to blame, the doctors, even myself, had I done something in my pregnancy to cause this suffering. It took me along time to accept that ‘shit just happens’. The day after he was born a softly spoken consultant broke the bad news. ‘He may not walk, he may not talk, he might be blind, we just don’t know’ she said. At that point I think the only thing that got me through was hope that they might be wrong. But that hope brought with it an immense amount of anxiety. As he grew I would worry if I thought he wasn’t looking at me, and I worried that his right arm didn’t move as much as the left. We hoped he would speak and he did, he walked and he could see. Wow! Isn’t hope great, I thought. But I was also aware of my constant agitation and concern for the future. I think in the first three years of his life I spent more time worrying about what could be wrong rather than celebrating what was right. Of course I have now reached the stage of ‘Abandoning All Hope’ thanks to this book. I have to. If I don’t then I won’t get through the years ahead because you see hope is fragile, it lies and cheats you out of the present moment.
My son’s brain damage is for life, nothing will change that, and although he has reached many milestones there are neurological symptoms now starting to appear. If I carry on hoping they will go away then I am simply opening my self up to more disappointment, more grief, and more pain. If I give up on hope and embrace hopelessness then I will accept that things are always changing and out of my control. There’s a whole load of fear just transformed right there. If I don’t give it energy then it won’t spoil the beauty of the moment I have right now. So I am just going to watch my little boy grow, spend each day captivated by his beautiful smile, and accept that change is inevitable and with change there will be some suffering, but there will also be love and an appreciation of the life we have. We can’t grasp on to what isn’t there.

Chödrön points out that once we find hopelessness we also find confidence. This gives us the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. To be in the present moment, to be mindful of everything we do, brings us to a place of great friendship with ourselves.  If we do this we can learn not to run away when times are hard and have the courage to face the impermanence that is there everyday of our lives.  

When Things Fall Apart is a practical, honest look at life when things feel out of our control. It offers many insights from a Buddhist perspective on how to transform your feelings. Chödrön suggests posting on your fridge the words ‘Abandon All Hope’ an alternative to some of the more new age affirmations that support the self. Fridge magnets and coloured marker pens at the ready I am off to put that suggestion in to practice. Anyone else want to give it a try?

‘When Things Fall Apart’ by  Pema Chödrön is published by Harper Collins.
BOOK ISBN: 9780007183517. Or E-BOOK : 9780007370085.
Paperback edition available on Amazon Priced £9.48 (Feb 2017)
A Kindle edition is also available (£5.74)

(I originally wrote this article in 2015).