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Fighting Anxiety with Hopelessness

Handling negative emotions

Pema Chödrön

Buddhism is a rich source of insights about emotions and emotional states. While I don’t know that we can fairly call the centuries-old Buddhist tradition of investigation into the human mind a strictly scientific approach, it really is a rigorous tradition that builds its conclusions on direct experience. So I offer today’s post, based in Buddhist teachings, as food for thought.

American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, in her book When Things Fall Apart, offers an unusual route to living a happy life: embracing hopelessness. My initial reaction to this idea was extreme doubt, but hearing her point of view, I began to see the value of the idea.

To get a sense of what she means, let me give the example of my fear that everything will go to hell in a handbasket. Being interested in how things fit together–societies, supply networks, and so on–I often think about how easily something I’m used to having could be cut off. For instance, this past winter during a storm, we lost power at my house. This should not have been a big problem, especially since we have gas heat. Except that I found out that the gas heat system is dependent on electricity to run, so we had no heat or power. And the water is dependent on an electric pump, so we had no heat, power, or water. And our phone is through a VOIP service, so since we had no Internet due to having no power, we also had no phone. And of course with the refrigerator not working, I was concerned about most of our food going bad.

The power came back on after not too many hours, and my son and I had other places we could go if the outage went too long–and since it was winter, at worst I could put our perishable food outside. Still, it’s a little sobering to realize that one break in a cable can mean losing Internet, power, phone, heat, water, light, food, and more. And for years I’ve been a little bit concerned. What would happen if there were a really bad economic situation, or a plague, or a war, or something else that interrupted some of the ways that food, power, water, and other necessities get to us? How would I keep myself and the people who are important to me safe, sheltered, and fed?

Hopelessness doesn’t solve this concern, but interestingly, practicing it made things better. You can’t make anything completely safe, hopelessness says. Stop hoping that you can prevent every bad thing from happening if you just scramble hard enough. Bad things will eventually happen. Eventually, too, we’ll all die.

If you’re not feeling happier yet, I don’t blame you–but when we think about it, giving up the idea that everything will ever be perfect or absolutely safe allows us to let go of a lot of unneeded anxiety. “Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself,” says  Chödrön, “to make friends with yourself, to not run away from yourself, to return to the bare bones, no matter what’s going on … if we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.”

Stress and anxiety are a result of struggling with fears and things we want to avoid. If we don’t struggle, if we accept that bad things will sometimes happen, then the stress and anxiety lessen or disappear, because all we have to deal with is the moment right in front of us, and the moment in front of us usually isn’t so bad. Think of your situation right now, for instance. You probably have things you need to do, things you’re worried about, things you can think of that might cause trouble. But if you focus on how things are with you, right in at this moment, you may find it surprisingly easy to feel that everything’s fine. You are probably not in any great amount of pain. You’re alive. You have the ability to think about things that make you happy. Things could be worse.

There’s a limit to all this, though, at least if you ask me. I see value–real, lasting value–in moving toward our goals, in making progress, in striving for things. Hopelessness is absolutely not about striving: it’s about letting go. There is even value in negative emotions: see my article The Benefits of Feeling Bad. But striving for things is living in the future, and by my reckoning, there are times to live in the future, times to live in the past, and times to live in the present. When we need to come back to center, to marshall ourselves, to let go of things long enough to get our bearings again, then hopelessness and living just in the present moment can be just what we need.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. ed  •  Sep 1, 2010 @7:42 pm

    For me, “accepting hopelessness” doesn’t work. I can make my peace with the reality that I’m going to lose my house, for instance, but I can’t make peace with the knowledge that it’s happening because of something that I did, or failed to do, anf that it’s an outcome that will hurt others (likr my family) as well. It’s the guilt that hurts, not the loss.

  2. Luc  •  Sep 3, 2010 @9:12 am

    You make a good point, Ed: I think guilt is a major question to deal with separately. It seems to me that guilt does have a purpose (see “The Benefits of Feeling Bad” at http://www.willpowerengine.com/?p=1437 ) but that it tends to hold us back more than it moves us forward (see “Does Guilt Help or Hurt Motivation?” at http://www.willpowerengine.com/?p=1804 ). To put it another way, my experience is that feeling bad about something helps me notice that something needs to be done but tends to make it much harder to actually do it!

  3. de  •  Nov 10, 2014 @9:14 am

    Hi ed, I do see your point. But what I think is that while guilt can tremendously affect a person, it is still only a ‘relative’ phenomenon, an emotion that depends on the psyche of the subject. While you can say that a bad act would lead to guilt, it is not actually the bad act itself that actively causes guilt, but rather the subject’s own psyche and thoughts that actively causes guilt. Knowing that, guilt becomes almost like a psychological trick, an ‘unreal’ phenomenon (in the same way hallucinations are) which one should not be bothered about. But of course, many can’t help but to be bothered by guilt, and that is where meditation comes in, to allow us to transcend such trivialities.

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