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May 2015

On Hope

When life is hard, we often turn to hope. 

Hope allows us to believe that our predicament is only temporary, that things will get better again. Having hope is usually considered a good thing. According to Psychology Today, “As long as a patient, individual or victim has hope, they can recover from anything and everything”.

“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear,” agrees Thich Nhat Hanh in Peace Is Every Step. “If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”

But, he continues, there’s a catch:

“But that is the most that hope can do for us - to make some hardship lighter. When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic…

Hope is for the future. It cannot help us discover joy, peace, or enlightenment in the present moment… I do not mean that you should not have hope, but that hope is not enough. Hope can create an obstacle for you, and if you dwell in the energy of hope, you will not bring yourself back entirely into the present moment. If you re-channel those energies into being aware of what is going on in the present moment, you will be able to make a breakthrough and discover joy and peace right in the present moment...”

Instead of hoping for things to get better in the future, we should learn to appreciate what we have right now.

His advice is echoed by Pema Chodron in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times:

“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...

Abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations…”

Give up hope? This advice may seem indefensibly defeatist.

Yet sometimes hope leads to more anxiety and stress, not less. We pay a price for hope: fear. If I am diagnosed with cancer, I hope I will be able to fight it off – but I fear that I will not. If I lose my job, I hope I will soon find another – but I fear that I will not. If my partner tells me they are unhappy in our marriage, I hope we can work together to save it – but I fear that we will fail.

Fear, not hopelessness, is the opposite of hope. In Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck writes

“…what happens with you when you begin to feel uneasy, unsettled, queasy? Notice the panic, notice when you instantly grab for something. That grabbing is based on hope. Not grabbing is called hopelessness...

A life lived with no hope is a peaceful, joyous, compassionate life.”

Hopelessness does not mean that we do not care about our situation. It does not mean that we should never strive for anything. We can have goals, and if we achieve them that is fine. However, if we fail to achieve them that is fine too. In the words of the Serenity Prayer, it's about having the serenity to accept the things that we recognise we cannot change. It does not excuse us from the need to find the courage to change the things we can.

David Whyte on Expectation, Gratitude and Unrequited Love

ConsolationsExpectation is the foundation of disappointment. Without a preconceived notion of how something should be, it is impossible for us to be unhappy.

When it comes to other people, we are often told to accept them for who they are. However, we should also be willing to accept them for what they are, for the particular kind of relationship we actually have with them rather than the relationship we wish we had. Instead of wishing that an acquaintance could be a close friend, we should appreciate them for simply being someone we can share a hobby with. Instead of wishing that a friend could be a lover, we should simply be content that they are our friend.

It's this kind of acceptance that poet David Whyte writes about, among other things, in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words:

"We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find ourselves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations."

Perhaps, says Whyte, "being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention". To be grateful for the particular relationship we have with another person, to appreciate its beauty, simply requires us to fully inhabit the present moment with that person, not some imaginary, wished-for future. "Beauty," says Whyte, "is the harvest of presence."

Perhaps the hardest kind of relationship to be grateful for is that of unrequited love. And yet, says Whyte, this is the most common form of love:

"What affection is ever returned over time in the same measure or quality with which it is given? Every man or woman loves differently and uniquely and each of us holds different dreams and hopes and falls in love or is the object of love at a very specific threshold in a very particular life where very, very particular qualities are needed for the next few years of our existence. What other human being could ever love us as we need to be loved? And whom could we know so well and so intimately through all the twists and turns of a given life that we could show them exactly, the continuous and appropriate form of affection they need?"

It is the expectation that love should be perfectly requited that so often leads to heartbreak:

"Requited love may happen, but it is a beautiful temporary, a seasonal blessing, the aligning of stars not too often in the same quarter of the heavens; an astonishing blessing, but it is a harvest coming only once every long cycle, and a burden to the mind and the imagination when we set that dynamic as the state to which we must always return to in order to feel ourselves in a true, consistent, loving relationship."

The key, again, is to let go of our expectations and simply be grateful for what is:

"Human beings live in disappointment and a self-appointed imprisonment when they refuse to love unless they are loved the selfsame way in return. It is the burden of marriage, the difficult invitation at the heart of parenting and the central difficulty in our relationship with any imagined, living future. The great discipline seems to be to give up wanting to control the manner in which we are requited, and to forgo the natural disappointment that flows from expecting an exact and measured reciprocation."

Stephen Fry on Depression

In 2006, a woman suffering from depression wrote to Stephen Fry, asking for help. His response brings to mind the analogy, sometimes referenced when teaching meditation, of serenity being like blue sky: always present, even if it is sometimes obscured by clouds.

"I've found that it's of some help to think of one's moods and feelings about the world as being similar to weather:

Here are some obvious things about the weather:

It's real.
You can't change it by wishing it away. 
If it's dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can't alter it. 
It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row.


It will be sunny one day.
It isn't under one's control as to when the sun comes out, but come out it will. 
One day.

It really is the same with one's moods, I think. The wrong approach is to believe that they are illusions. They are real. Depression, anxiety, listlessness - these are as real as the weather - AND EQUALLY NOT UNDER ONE'S CONTROL. Not one's fault. 


They will pass: they really will.

In the same way that one has to accept the weather, so one has to accept how one feels about life sometimes. "Today's a crap day," is a perfectly realistic approach. It's all about finding a kind of mental umbrella. "Hey-ho, it's raining inside: it isn't my fault and there's nothing I can do about it, but sit it out. But the sun may well come out tomorrow and when it does, I shall take full advantage.""

The Art of Loving

TheArtOfLovingMany believe that love is a feeling, which comes and goes as a result of forces that are mostly outside our control. In The Art of Loving, philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm asserts that love is an art and just like any other art - music, painting, carpentry - requires knowledge and effort to be successful.

Fromm attributes our scepticism of the need to learn about love to three misconceptions.

First, that we are mostly concerned with how to be loved, how to be lovable. We focus on how to make other people like us and give little thought to what love requires of us.

Second, that we believe the difficulty of love lies primarily in finding the right object to love or be loved by. Our culture has conditioned us to think of ourselves as a commodity. We trade ourselves not only in the job market, but in the love market too. "Two persons thus fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values," as Fromm puts it.

Third, we confuse the initial experience of falling in love with the state of being in love. We are misled into believing that love should be easy because of the ease with which we fall in love, that exhilarating but temporary time when the boundaries between ourselves and another are first falling away.

Once the initial euphoria has worn off, however, love isn't easy and it's not about making ourselves attractive to another. It's about knowing another person deeply enough that we can support them effectively (recognising what they really need), respect them (understanding who they really are), and care for them.

"I may know, for instance, that a person is angry, even if he does not show it overtly; but I may know him more deeply than that; then I know that he is anxious, and worried; that he feels lonely, that he feels guilty. Then I know that his anger is only the manifestation of something deeper, and I see him as anxious and embarrassed, that is, as the suffering person, rather than as the angry one."

This is the art of loving. It requires discipline, mindfulness and patience. It is primarily giving, not receiving.

"What does one person give to another? He gives of himself, of the most precious he has, he gives of his life. This does not necessarily mean that he sacrifices his life for the other— but that he gives him of that which is alive in him; he gives him of his joy, of his interest, of his understanding, of his knowledge, of his humor, of his sadness— of all expressions and manifestations of that which is alive in him."

"Giving" does not mean "giving up". Fromm argues that love does not necessarily require us to sacrifice or be deprived of something. The misconception that giving means impoverishment causes some not to give at all, some to only give in the expectation of getting something in return, and others to trumpet their willingness to sacrifice as a virtue. Fromm has little patience with the latter:

"They feel that just because it is painful to give, one should give; the virtue of giving to them lies in the very act of acceptance of the sacrifice. For them, the norm that it is better to give than to receive means that it is better to suffer deprivation than to experience joy."

Instead, Fromm argues that we should give because by offering our talents to another person we get to feel alive:

"Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness."

When we give we are able to think of ourselves as a person who has something valuable to offer. It provides us with a positive self-image:

"Whoever is capable of giving of himself is rich. He experiences himself as one who can confer of himself to others."

Nevertheless, the reason man loves at all is "to leave the prison of his aloneness". Thus, while giving offers its own benefits, it must stimulate love in return. Fromm quotes Marx:

"If you love without calling forth love, that is, if your love as such does not produce love, if by means of an expression of life as a loving person you do not make of yourself a loved person, then your love is impotent, a misfortune."

Perhaps, argues Fromm, this is our greatest fear about love:

"While one is consciously afraid of not being loved, the real, though usually unconscious fear is that of loving. To love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person."

And if we fail?

"The absolute failure to achieve this aim means insanity, because the panic of complete isolation can be overcome only by such a radical withdrawal from the world outside that the feeling of separation disappears— because the world outside, from which one is separated, has disappeared."

See also:

Why Good Women Leave Good Men

It's tempting to believe that a marriage only fails when something goes spectacularly wrong. Drug abuse. Alcohol abuse. Verbal abuse. Physical abuse. Cheating. That it requires one or both partners to be significantly defective in some way. Even if a marriage could be blown towards the rocks by less cataclysmic events, we reassure ourselves that we would have sufficient warning to correct course before it foundered.

It's sobering to learn that neither of these things is true. We may see ourselves as a good person, we may try our hardest, we may think that our marriage is healthy. Yet one day, without warning, our partner may leave us anyway.

When this happens, understanding what went wrong may be extremely difficult. Even if we ask our partner why she is leaving, the reasons she gives us may be little more than post hoc justifications of a decision she has already made, not the fundamental reasons that caused her to make it. If she feels guilt or doubt over her decision to walk out, if she dare not admit the true reasons to herself, or herself does not fully understand them, those rationalisations may be essential to allow her to preserve her self-respect. But in an attempt to learn the truth, they may be largely useless.

For the one who has been left, the realisation that they may never understand what went wrong can be as devastating as the loss of the relationship itself. In the absence of a plausible explanation, the tidal forces of cognitive dissonance may threaten to pull them apart. They may feel as if they did nothing to warrant such a betrayal, that they are a fundamentally a good person, yet find it impossible to avoid the conclusion that, having been abandoned, they must be in some way defective. They may instinctively judge the one who left as having acted callously, unforgivably, yet struggle to reconcile this with the kind, thoughtful woman walking out the door, still loved by her friends.

However, while the specifics may remain elusive, there are general templates that may fit such an apparently inexplicable ending.

Perhaps it was a gradual accretion of resentment due to an inability to communicate:

"I have a friend who is going through a divorce right now and “we fell out of love” is her explanation... In this particular relationship, nothing really bad happened. My guess is just that the two of them got on a bad path of non-communication and instead of talking things through, one or both harbored resentment for years. When one of them started talking divorce, they probably went to marriage counseling, but at that point it was just too late. There could have been years when one or both felt lonely and sad and that their marital situation was hopeless."

Perhaps it was a lack of presence:

"Women leave because their man is not present. He’s working, golfing, gaming, watching TV, fishing… the list is long. These aren’t bad men. They’re good men. They’re good fathers. They support their family. They’re nice, likeable. But they take their wife for granted. They’re not present."

Or perhaps it was a lack of passion:

"She wants to feel your passion. Can you feel your passion? Can you show her? Not just your passion for her or for sex; your passion for being alive. Do you have it? It’s the most attractive thing you possess. If you’ve lost it, why? Where did it go? Find out. Find it. If you never discovered it you are living on borrowed time."

However unfathomable it may be, a reason still exists. No-one walks out on a whim.

Our desire for understanding may be driven by a need for closure, or a fear that, without it, our next relationship may founder on the same rocks. But closure is elusive and the circumstances that doomed one relationship are unlikely to play out in exactly the same way in another. Perhaps the best we can do is accept that people change, and two good people, who once fit together well, may not always remain well-matched.

Marriage guarantees nothing. 


One technique to help prevent our Thinking Mind fusing with our emotions is "noting".

Andy Puddicombe of Headspace.com describes the use of noting in the context of meditation:

"Noting is applying a note or a label to a thought or a feeling that arises in the mind. So usually, in everyday life, we're so caught up in our thoughts and our feelings that we don't have any clarity, we don't have any awareness, so we tend to feel very overwhelmed.  But when we're able to see it clearly, to apply a note or a label to it, it gives this feeling of space. We don't identify so strongly with it, so it doesn't feel quite so heavy, quite so serious, it feels a little bit lighter.

But we need to apply noting in the right kind of way. To begin with, it's tempting to think that you have to try and catch every single thought... But it's not like that. It's only when you realise that the mind has actually wandered off, that you got completely distracted, and then it's like, "oh OK, oh that's thinking" or "oh, that's feeling" and then gently coming back to the object of focus.

When I was taught this I was always told to imagine that I had a crystal glass in one hand and a feather in the other. It's as though you just want to gently brush the glass with the feather... it's really, really gentle: "Oh OK, that's anxiety" and back to the object of focus."

Noting isn't easy, especially when strong emotion is involved. Meditation is one way we can practice it. But it's valuable because it offers a way to help us deal with our emotions that doesn't require us to attempt to suppress or avoid them. Noting helps us to acknowledge what we feel, while refusing to engage with it.

Erich Fromm on Conditional Love

TheArtOfLovingApart from the love of our parents, most of the love we receive as adults is conditional. Moreover, in our meritocratic society, we are taught to believe that this is fair, that to expect to receive anything other than what we deserve would be presumptuous.

However, in The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm argues that such love can be debilitating:

"To be loved because of one’s merit, because one deserves it, always leaves doubt; maybe I did not please the person whom I want to love me, maybe this, or that— there is always a fear that love could disappear."

Not only does conditional love breed fear in the loved one, it can lead to resentment:

"Furthermore, “deserved” love easily leaves a bitter feeling that one is not loved for oneself, that one is loved only because one pleases, that one is, in the last analysis, not loved at all but used."

Conditional love suggests a lack of respect:

"If I love the other person, I feel one with him or her, but with him as he is, not as I need him to be as an object for my use.

See also: