Abandon Hope

Practice of the Week
Abandon Hope

Category: Slogans to Live By: Carry these reminders at all times. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time -- but they will slow you down a bit (and that's a good thing.) Resolve to get stronger at living by these maxims, day by day. Sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling.

Adapted from Norman Fischer, Training in Compassion, "Abandon Hope."

Abandon hope? This slogan seems shocking. You probably have some hope that mind training will help you be wiser, kinder, and more connected to others. Doesn't hope lie at the center of the whole proposition of mind training?

While hopefulness is preferable to despair or apathy, there's a downside to hope. Hope turns easily to discouragement when the anticipated results don’t seem to arrive. In this sense, hope is limiting and unhelpful.

Our character does change over time, we all know that. What we want to know is: are we improving or getting worse? But how would you know? If you are a mixed-up, unhappy person who wants to improve, whatever vision of improvement you have is the projection of a confused and unhappy person. Such a seriously distorted vision might be inherently unattainable. Worse, it might sabotage you. Your hope for improvement would therefore be entirely counterproductive.

Yes, we often imagine future possibilities, but never accurately. My thought of what it is going to be like when I arrive in Mexico is never the same as what it is actually like when I arrive in Mexico, even though I have been to Mexico many times.

I've been doing Zen practice for a long time, so when people are considering taking up the practice, they are likely to ask me what I've gained from it. How has my life changed? I always say, yes of course I am much different now from who I was forty years ago. But then again, when forty years goes by, anyone is different, Zen practice or no. How can I tell how much the differences of forty years have to do with my Zen practice? Who knows whether the changes that have occurred in my life are the consequences simply of forty years of life on earth among others?

Have the various changes been an improvement? Well, yes. I think I am more stable, more ethical, more empathic; maybe I am a little wiser, calmer; maybe I have a better sense of what my life is about than I did before. But also, no: in forty years' time many things have gotten worse. Forty years ago, I was younger; I had more physical endurance, more strength, a better memory, I was smarter, I could meditate better; I had more buoyancy. Improvement? Hard to say.

It really is impossible to say for certain whether or not we have improved, so it is better not to frustrate ourselves with such useless questions. Instead, abandon hope and keep going with the training in the faith that it is worthwhile for its own sake. Neither look for improvement nor imagine there is no improvement. Neither celebrate improvement if you think you detect it nor suppose you are getting worse.

This faith isn't religious faith in the usual sense. It is faith we find through our own experience over the time of our training. Somehow, as we continue, we come to the definite feeling that this training is simply the right thing to do. We know it. We don't have to convince ourselves or anyone else. We don't need evidence. We simply feel the rightness of the training in the middle of our lives. We are quite happy to do our best to maintain a joyful mind as we go on practicing right now. That becomes enough.

It’s true that many people who do the practice see all kinds of wonderful improvements in their lives. I have noticed that the sense of big improvement comes mostly at the beginning, in the first years (or decades). As you keep on going, you hardly notice improvements anymore. Improvements may be there, and others might appreciate them, but you yourself simply stop noticing particularly. For you, practice disappears as a vehicle for self-improvement, and the only thing important for you now is to live your life, which means to continue your mind training. Shunryu Suzuki called this “practice without a gaining idea.”

So abandon hope. When you are excited about your progress or discouraged about your lack of progress, let go of that silly thought. Abandon hope and go happily on.

Adapted from Judith Lief, "Abandon Any Hope of Fruition."

Don’t be attached to success or to failure. This doesn’t mean abandoning your projects and ambitions. Just go about things with a present focus rather than a fixation on results.

When we do anything, we usually do it for a purpose. We have some aim in mind and we hope to accomplish that aim. We hope to succeed rather than fail. That is fine. But what then happens is that our thoughts of success or failure begin to overpower the task at hand. Clinging to hopes of fruition can make us tight and impatient – and the fear of failure (corollary of hoping for success) can make us timid and unwilling to take risks.

Conventional thinking about how to motivate people is based on hope and fear. We learn to expect some kind of reward or confirmation any time we succeed and to expect some form of punishment when we do not. Better to abandon that whole approach. That way, when you act, there are no hidden agendas or ulterior motives.

Even the practice of developing loving-kindness through slogan practice could be tainted by this desire to be recognized and confirmed. To prove to ourselves that our efforts have been successful, we may try to force a reaction of appreciation or gratitude on those we are supposedly selflessly helping. There is more room for real kindness and compassion if let go of, or at least loosen, our attachment to results.


How is it possible to maintain your focus, to “keep your eyes on the prize,” without getting fixated on results? As you go about your activities, pay attention to the difference between having a goal and being taken over by your hopes, fears, and speculations.

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