Autobio, Pain, Spirituality

The Insidiousness of Hope

art artistic black and white blank
Photo by Lynnelle Richardson on

This week, I let myself hope that my extended time on muscle relaxers and additional back pain was coming to an end. I let myself hope that last week, too, and it didn’t work out. But this week felt different. During the day on Monday I felt really good with only half a muscle relaxer the whole day.

And then I rolled over on the massage table my husband and I use for the daily massage he gives me. Something in my low back popped, painfully. A while later, in bed, the same thing happened and it woke me up in agony. It wasn’t the worst pain I’ve experienced, but it was up there. And it was helluva painful mentally. Because I let myself hope, and I was so disappointed when things didn’t go as I planned.

Pema Chödrön said in her wonderful book When Things Fall Apart, “As long as we’re addicted to hope, we feel that we can tone our experience down or liven it up or change it somehow, and we continue to suffer a lot.” She’s on to something here.

Later she says,

Rather than letting our negativity get the better of us, we could acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look. That’s the compassionate thing to do. That’s the brave thing to do.”

This second teaching sums up what I continually struggle with in relation to my illness (and a lot of other things I can’t control). But I am learning. Learning to look at each moment and see the good and painful. To see where I suffer. And then to see what I can do about it. I can control how I react to the arising of hope, fear, disappointment, anger, etc. I can’t control what my body does.

There are a lot of messages out there that I should be able to control what my body does. If I just do this exercise or take this pill or lose weight or try this treatment or whatever, my body will get better. The pain would go away or diminish to a more manageable level. But that is all illusion. I can do all those things and more and my body will do what it will. I might increase my odds of improving my pain level, but I know from experience that following a doctor’s advice can lead to the pain getting worse. So can anything else. Or it might not make any difference at all. That’s happened to me a lot too.

red and green tree leaves on a sunny day
Photo by le vy on

It doesn’t mean I give up on trying, but my relationship to an expected outcome has to move away from hope. No doctor or any other person can control how a body responds. We’re throwing darts in the dark, hoping something sticks. We’ll suffer a lot less is we aren’t attached to hitting the bullseye every time—or even ever.

A core teaching of Buddhism is groundlessness, the idea that the ground is always shifting. Everything is impermanent. Everything changes. We have no security, and the sooner we recognize that, the sooner our suffering will decrease because we will stop hoping for something that doesn’t exist. We will stop trying to control things we can’t control. We will stop hoping for things to be different or to stay just as they are and instead accept each present moment as it is, be the moment a piece of shit or a glorious rainbow.

So today I let go of hope a little more. Tomorrow, who knows what will happen. I may grasp hope more tightly and then learn from the ensuing suffering. I may let go even more. The destination matters less than living each moment.



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