By Saroj Dubey
Only when we give up the illusion of hope will we squarely come to terms with any situation, says Saroj Dubey
It was Shakespeare who observed, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” And indeed it is hope that we fall back upon in times of stress. Hence it came as a bit of a shock to me when I came across the suggestion “abandon all hope” in one of my favourite authors, Pema Chodron’s, book.
It is mostly in dark and troubled times that Buddhism wisdom appears most practical and sensible to me. I was struggling with a personal situation; its seeming hopelessness made me hunt desperately for a silver lining to guide me through the trying times. But there appeared to be no exit in sight. I felt trapped and caged. It was then that I chanced upon Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart.
In her book Pema tells us that hopelessness is the basic ground of existence; as long as hope exists, we will ceaselessly look for some form of security. Only if we are willing to give up hope, will this need for security leave us, because then we will have the courage to relax into the groundlessness of the situation. This is the first step on the path.
Whew! What a relief, I thought to myself. Here I was struggling with my despondency, striving to grasp any form of security, and her advice was not to look for any way out at all. Pema says that impermanence is a principle of harmony and when we don’t struggle against it, we are in harmony with reality. Suffering and wretchedness will confront us sooner or later; and we should be mindful and accept the situation and relax into the uncertainty, uneasiness and panic. Our normal instinct on feeling unsettled and uneasy is to latch on to something to cut the edge of discomfort or break the free fall. This grabbing is based on hope. Not grabbing is called hopelessness. We have to be willing to give up hope that this suffering and pain can be obliterated, then only can we summon the courage to relax with the groundlessness.
Fear of the unknown
What a contrast this teaching is to our normal instinctive response to crisis, be it a personal trauma like a failed marriage, financial disaster, or job loss. We normally try to find some stability, however fragile it may seem, and desperately cling to the proverbial straw. A very close friend of mine was stuck in an abusive and collapsing marriage. But she desperately wanted to save her marriage. She just couldn’t deal with the insecurity and consequences that would follow its termination. In short, she clung to the security of a disastrous but intact marriage as opposed to the uncertainty of a fresh start. I had often tried to gently counsel her to summon the courage but each time she would find some excuse to give it another try. Eventually it was only when she got completely fed up and hopeless that she gained the much-needed strength. Pema says that in Tibetan ‘ye tang che’ means totally fed up, completely surrendering hope, and she says that this is the most important step. Today, three years later, my friend is much happier and at peace with herself. As she reminisces now, she was so desperate to cling to her marriage that she couldn’t think beyond it. I realised how true this is. All of us cling to unfulfilling jobs and relationships because we fear the unknown. Hopelessness is fearlessly acknowledging impermanence and change, and accepting the uncertainty of the situation.
We will oppose reality and the possibility of living in alignment with it, if we continue to believe that there will be something to hold on to, and help is around the corner. Pema writes that to seek for a lasting security is a futile task. I realised from experience that until we try till death to get lasting security, we never realise that it’s just not possible. Our youth is spent in slogging for that plum job or lucrative career, and once we achieve it, we struggle to move up the corporate ladder. Just when we breathe a sigh of relief that we’ve finally made it, there’s some problem with the children, or you find that in pursuit of your career you’ve started developing differences with your spouse. When you deal with that you lose someone very dear to you, or someone has landed with a devastating illness. Welcome to life and insecurity!
Relax into the moment
Can we forget about that elusive security and just relax into the uncertainty and ambiguity of the present moment without hoping for anything to protect ourselves? As Pema says, to be fully alive, completely human and wide awake is to be continuously thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no man’s land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. Scrambling for security has never brought anything but momentary joy. We keep moving in circles in our effort to seek pleasure and comfort, and the satisfaction we get is fleeting and short-lived. Let us rather make friends with the situation, and embrace it wholeheartedly.
Hopelessness from a spiritual point of view can also be termed choicelessness,ie. having no other choice than to honour the present moment completely and gracefully. Each of us may have known of friends or acquaintances who, being exceptionally brilliant, have a problem of plenty when it comes to choosing their colleges after the competitive exams, because they happen to qualify in so many places. In fact, some of them end up being frustrated because no place seems to be good enough for them. The less intelligent, on the other hand, would comfortably settle down into their new colleges, for they had no other choice. Hence choicelessness is often a boon because we are left with no other option but to make the best of the situation, rather than wistfully wishing that one was somewhere else. As Eckhart Tolle describes in The Power of Now, “Waiting is a state of mind which makes you want the future, not the present. You don’t want what you have got, and what you have is what you don’t want. With every kind of waiting you create conflict between your here and now, where you don’t want to be and the projected future where you want to be. This greatly reduces the quality of your life making you lose the present.”
No exit route
So when we embrace hopelessness we cease to look for exit routes, and instead honour, acknowledge and accept the now as it is. We let go of our inner resistance and surrender to the moment with complete acceptance. In this context surrender is the inner transition from resistance to nonresistance, from ‘No’ to ‘Yes’. I now recognise that Pema’s advice to “abandon all hope of things improving’’ is not fatalistic or pessimistic, but rather an optimistic and clear portrayal of stark reality as it is. I understand the paradox of giving up hope to move ahead with life. Suffering and despair is part and parcel of life, and should be accepted as it is without labelling it good or bad. Rather than trying to beat a hasty retreat to the nearest exit door, one should confront the problem head-on like a spiritual warrior.
Hopelessness is not to be confused with self-pity and helplessness, for it requires tremendous courage. It is only when our attitude to fear becomes more open and welcoming, and we don’t sound the alarm bell the instant fear strikes us, that awakening takes place. We have to transcend the cycle of hope and fear where we keep looking for alternatives or means to break the fall, and begin to make friends with the situation. When we stop resisting the moment and accept it gracefully we are saying yes to life. And with acceptance and surrender we often notice that the situation changes for the better. The external situation may not change dramatically, but the change in our mental outlook makes the circumstances far more agreeable.
If hope and fear are two sides of a coin, so are hopelessness and confidence. In troubled times when we learn to renounce hope that alternative remedies or exit routes are available to us to escape, it is then that we notice a fundamental shift in our way of thinking and consciousness.
Bio: Saroj Dubey is a medical gastroenterologist practising in East Delhi and Noida. He is fascinated by the mind-body connection , holistic healing and spirituality
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