This is the fourth of twelve posts in the Exploring Mindfulness blog series, a reflection on the book When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön. This post addresses chapter seven. Participants are encouraged to practice mindful meditation daily throughout the twelve weeks, even if for five minutes. (6 min read)
This chapter is the most challenging in the book, and I suspect it is where some people stop reading. Since this blog series is a companion to the book, I make a case for hopelessness here simply to encourage you to continue to read.
For those of us in the Western world, especially those who grew up in the Christian tradition, there is probably a visceral rejection of the statement “Abandon hope.” Therefore, before making a case for hopelessness, I want to acknowledge the genuine reasons for our aversion to abandoning hope. For one, in Western psychological research hopelessness correlates with depression and an increased risk of suicide. Secondly, the American psyche leans towards optimism to the degree that it is an inherent national value. Thirdly, in Western Christian culture, the words “Abandon Hope” are most associated with the inscription on the gates of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. Hopelessness is the antithesis of one of the three essences of Christianity—faith, hope, and love.* At the core of our deep-seated aversion is our terror of despair. Many of us, at least at times, feel like we live on the edge. Hope may feel like the thin thread that keeps us from tumbling into the abyss. We don’t want to risk any shift in thought that may sever the thread.
How then do we approach this formidable teaching? First, practice “beginner’s mind”: Imagine, for a moment, that you have no religious or cultural associations with the word “hopelessness” so you can ask as innocently as a small child asks her mother, “What does hopelessness mean”? Secondly, think of abandoning hope as just a practice, albeit an advanced one. It is just one instruction of the dharma. Simply defined, the dharma is reality as grasped by the Buddha and the body of teachings that follow. Pema explains,
The dharma isn’t a belief; it isn’t dogma. It is total appreciation of impermanence and change. The teachings disintegrate when we try to grasp them.
Thirdly, mindfulness is nondualistic, and from a nondualistic perspective, despair is not the opposite of hope. One can be hopeless without despair. Think of it this way; hopelessness means giving up our attachment to a positive outcome. Despair means to be attached to a negative outcome. As such, one can conceivably abandon hope yet not experience despair. Pema explains that abandoning hope is important because we think we need to seek pleasure and avoid pain but instead,
One has to give up hope that this way of thinking will bring us satisfaction. Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.
Pema introduces us to the Tibetan phrase “ye tang che”(yā tang chā) meaning “totally tired out, completely giving up.” If you have ever experienced addiction and participated in a twelve-step program, you are familiar with the experience of “hitting bottom.” You’ve sunk lower than you ever imagined and have the realization that nothing you do will work. You completely lose hope that seeking pleasure and avoiding pain will work and admit you are powerless over your addiction. This hopelessness is the beginning of your recovery. As I pointed out in the last post, from a Buddhist perspective, we are all addicts, though not with the same degree of self-destructiveness. That’s why Pema says that ye tang che is “the beginning of the beginning,” like the addict who loses hope is at the beginning of recovery. Pema also explains that hope has unintended consequences.
Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold onto hope, and hope robs us of the present moment. We feel that someone else knows what’s going on, but that there’s something missing in us, and therefore something is lacking in our world.
Secondly, when we hope for a life without uncertainty or doubt, without pain and loss, we are hoping for things that do not exist, and tend to blame ourselves for not having them. Even people who blame others are most likely privately blaming themselves. She writes,
The first noble truth of the Buddha is that when we feel suffering, it does not mean that something is wrong. What a relief. Finally, somebody told the truth. Suffering is part of life, and we don’t feel it’s happening because we personally made the wrong move.
We begin by cultivating “beginners mind” with the exercise from the first post in the series.
- Begin in a seated position. Close your eyes or, alternatively, lower your eyes but keep them open with a soft gaze several feet out. Be aware that you are sitting and lightly aware of your surroundings. Then slowly scan each of your senses: feeling, hearing, seeing; for smelling and tasting, you may want to recall a smell or taste if one is not immediately available. Slowly and one-by-one, try to imagine each of the five senses as if you were experiencing it for the first time. For example, hear the sound of a car driving past, a dog barking, or a door shutting as if you didn’t know what they were. Hear them only as vibrations without thinking about how they were made. Don’t worry if you are unable to succeed in freeing your sensations from their associations. Just realize, then, how strong the associations are.
- Now shift your attention to your breath for a few moments. It may help to feel the rise and fall of your abdomen or the sensation of air passing through your nostrils. Imagine, for a moment, that you have no religious or cultural associations with the word “hopelessness” so you can ask as innocently as a small child asks her mother, “What does hopelessness mean”? Stay with this a few moments.
Now choose a small hope—something like the hope that you will meet a deadline at work or be able to gather with your family this summer. A more serious hope like hoping your best friend survives advanced cancer is too intense for our purpose here.
Sit with your hope for a moment. What does hope feel like emotionally? How does it feel in your body? Where do you feel hope in your body? Imagine that things do not work out. How does that feel? Now experiment with letting go of hope, remembering that what will be will be. Don’t judge yourself or the teaching if you do not succeed in letting go of hope. Just realize, then, how strong your orientation toward hope is.
Thanks for participating!
ॐ I bow to you,
*I think that everyone can benefit from mindfulness practices regardless of their religious beliefs. I generally teach them in a very secular way to make them palatable to people from varying religions. I do, however, worry sometimes there is a risk that mindfulness may become overly Westernized so I prefer books and instructions that I know are rooted in the teachings and practices that have developed for over two millennia. As such, I’ve read a lot on Buddhism and chosen this book partly because Pema is a Buddhist teacher. Because this chapter may seem to challenge some Christian tenets, I will briefly compare and contrast Christianity and Buddhism. Keep in mind that what I say in a mere paragraph here is better told in books by those more skillful and knowledgeable than myself.
In Christianity, one starts with the Big Picture—faith in God and through that eternal life. These infuse the small daily practices of prayer, community (church), and love with meaning because of faith in the Big Picture. In Buddhism, one begins with the small daily practices of mindfulness meditation, community (Sangha), and mindful acts of loving-kindness. One acquires the Big Picture, not through faith but practice. In Buddhism, the Big Picture is Enlightenment, but one is cautioned not to desire Enlightenment because one reaches Enlightenment through the cessation of desire. In Christianity, God is typically personified, so they talk about a relationship with God. In Buddhism, God is not personified; instead, they speak in terms of the experience of the present moment. Unity is at the heart of Christianity and Buddhism. For Christianity, unity with God includes unity with others. For Buddhism, unity is experienced by shedding the illusion of separateness.
If you are a Christian who has a concern that the Buddhist roots of mindfulness may be incompatible with your religion here are two resources to help you sort this out—one written by a Buddhist and the other by a Christian:
Living Buddha, Living Christ is a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk. Double belonging: Buddhism and Christian faith is an interview with Paul Knitter, a Catholic theologian who is a Christian and sometimes refers to himself as a Buddhist Christian.
Next Post: 5/31/20 and will focus on chapters 8-9.
To find out more about the series or to participate in the discussion, go to Welcome to the Exploring Mindfulness Series