My introduction to Buddhism came at one of the most painful points in my life. I was secretly harboring doubts about my marriage and — to my surprise — pregnant with our daughter. Being pregnant meant many things, but two facts hit hardest: I was forever bound to my husband, and I couldn’t drink.
The forced sobriety shored up levels of pain I’d never felt before. I spent long stretches of those nine months in bed, earbuds in my ears, listening to Pema Chodron
’s voice and teachings, while streams of tears ran from the corners of my eyes to my pillow. Many mornings I woke to the early blue light of dawn illuminating our bedroom and, without moving a muscle, I’d peer across the horizon of my pillow to the big window that overlooked our street and wish, with a single, slow blink, to be taken back to the underworld of sleep. Please
, I’d think. Not today
It wasn’t just that I was unsure about my marriage, it was that I felt so goddamn guilty for my ambivalence. It was that I frequently felt despair about the future at a time when I wanted and expected to feel joy. What kind of person wants to leave a very good life with a very good man? What kind of person wishes away a baby with their relatively new husband?
What I’d been chasing with him since the day we met — more connectedness, more time, more shared space, more commitment, more us
— had suddenly become an affront. I inwardly, and sometimes outwardly, rejected indications of intimacy or a future together. When he noticed my rejections, I winced. It hurt so badly to hurt him.
I didn’t share my struggle with anyone because I couldn’t even palate it myself, and I also didn’t trust how I felt. My desire to escape came upon me so fast I knew it would need to be examined for much longer than I would prefer — I owed all of us that much — but oh, how I wanted to just pull the ripcord and run.
One of the things I heard Pema talk about was "abandoning hope." She says: "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."
This was a new idea to me, and a disturbing one. Abandon hope? What’s wrong with hope? What do we have, if not hope?
And yet, somewhere inside me, it struck as true.
+ + +
A few months before I got pregnant, I started seeing a therapist. It was my first experience in therapy, save a single session my mom booked for me while I was home for college one summer, wherein I burst into tears in the first five minutes when the therapist asked about my dad, and vowed to never do that
This therapist was near my office in downtown Boston, on the third floor of an old building, in a miniature room with painted white brick walls. She was a petite brunette with severe facial features, but soft brown eyes. In our first session, she asked me why I was there. I was wound so tight then, I had no idea how or where to begin.
Hopelessness means staying in reality instead of trying to escape it.
“I just... I feel like I always want to be somewhere else,” I said, looking down at my bobbing knees.
She nodded. “That’s a really painful way to live, huh?”
+ + +
The fact that there was a little girl growing in my belly didn’t have to stop me from anything — drinking, leaving my marriage — but it did. It forced me to stay in my life, despite myself. Something in me knew this was a gift, even as I fought it.
At times, in those months, tides of depression hit me so hard I felt like I was passing out. It was a real physical sensation, a washing over and clearing, like I was actually being emptied out. When I tried to meditate my entire body shook. When I took our dog for walks, my legs would suddenly go numb, forcing me to sit down in the middle of the sidewalk, or on the dry, scratchy grass in the park behind our house. One time, I sat right on a fresh pile of dog shit and I just stayed there, breathing and retching from the smell, until I could steady myself enough to stand back up.
Looking back, I see it was the first time in my life I’d had to stay — to really, really stay — in emotional pain.
+ + +
So, abandoning hope.
What Pema meant, and what was delivered to me drop by drop in that time, was the notion of staying. Of not hoping for a different reality than the one I was in — not because I found reality acceptable, but because fighting it became futile. Fighting it was causing me to suffer. Immensely. The pain itself was neutral. The pain was energy. The pain was fear and grief and guilt and shame and anger moving through me. The suffering was the story I put on top of it: that I was trapped forever, that I was in the wrong marriage, that I equally loved him and wanted to leave him, that this wasn’t okay, that I would never be okay, that we would never be okay, that I was unforgivable, that something had to be different.
Pema says, “Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, not to run away, to return to the bare bones, no matter what’s going on.”
That’s what was happening to me then. And that's what it means to abandon hope, I think. Hopelessness is not to be confused with despair or helplessness. Hopelessness means staying in reality instead of trying to escape it.
This time also brought into question my faith. I think most of us confuse faith and hope — I know I did. To me, faith means trusting that it is already so — that I am already held, guided, and that all that I’m experiencing is for me, not against me. Hope, in this context anyway, is wishing for something better that what is so.
Hope is arguing with reality. Hope is what creates the suffering.
+ + +
Some of this is semantics. Call it faith, hope, wishful thinking, spirituality. The crux of it is that when we cannot accept reality, we suffer. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t dream. We should dream and we should aspire, and we should wish grand, beautiful, unreasonable things for ourselves. But unless we can be at peace with what is — with a reality that includes both beauty and horror — we will forever be grasping at a ground that doesn’t exist.
In 2009, if my instinct to run would’ve won out, I have no doubt I’d have landed myself in the exact same situation with someone else. It wasn’t that I was in the wrong marriage; I was in exactly the right relationship for the growth that we both needed. I knew how to run. I needed to learn how to stay. Eventually, when we did separate years later, it was under different circumstances.
The same concept played out for me in motherhood, and certainly, later, in getting sober. There was no reality I fought harder than the reality that told me I couldn’t drink. I fought it until I almost died. I hoped against hope for something else, but it was never going to be so. In that way, hope was not my friend.
John Ptacek writes of finding meaning through hopelessness after his wife's terminal cancer diagnosis: "Time spent hoping for happier days is time spent turning away from life.”
This is the message in abandoning hope: choosing to turn toward life, not away. In other words: to get free, learn how to stay.
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is the author of We Are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life
. She is a former public relations executive who has become recognized as a fresh voice in the recovery movement. Beloved for her soulful and irreverent writing, she leads sold-out yoga-based retreats and other courses that teach people how to say yes to a bigger life. Visit her online at https://www.lauramckowen.com
This excerpt is based on the book We Are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life. Copyright © 2020 by Laura McKowen.