The trouble with hope

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Sometimes students ask me, “What about hope? Is there no room for hope? We have to have hope.” 

I get that. Not only do I get it, but I find I use the word all the time. But I’m making a concerted effort now to eradicate the word from my vocabulary. Why? That sounds so sad!

Not to worry. It’s quite the opposite. If we look at the word ‘hope’ and how we use it, we discover it isn’t very helpful. Oh, it tries to be helpful. But it’s helpless, and I might add hopeless at helping us. Check it out:

When we use the word, we are hoping for things to be different than they are right now. We are hoping for a specific outcome in the future.

Hope used this way is like throwing a ball for a dog who instinctively goes on a chase, not seeing anything else but the trajectory of that ball. He might race right past things that would be more beneficial to engage in, or he might get himself into a dangerous situation without being aware of it. 

Whatever we hope for is a single point on a non-existent horizon that draws our attention away from where we need to be. Right here. Right now. If that sounds dreary, a little nose-to-the-grindstone, it’s quite the opposite. It’s an invitation to look around, use all the senses, and discover all of what is right here and now.

Hope only allows for one acceptable outcome. Very likely there’s something we can’t see from this perspective that is unfolding beneficially. Our little hope that a specific thing happens blinds us to seeing what unfolds. It’s not what we had hoped.

When you hope for a specific present, finding something different when you unwrap it will be a disappointment, even if what is there is also something you would like. Hope turns into expectation, and that sets us up for disappointment. We get entangled in craving and aversion, and we live with the delusion that hope is helpful.

Think about a situation where we would be inclined to use the word ‘hope’. We might be visiting a sick friend and say “I hope you get better.” That’s nice. It is nice. But how nice is it, really? Is it just a throw-away thing we say when we mean “I am uncomfortable right now with this situation you are in and I want it to change.” Well, your friend is sick right now. Can you be with her in the state she is in without encouraging her to not be present with her experience? 

Being present with the experience itself is a gift. Pain pushed away is more painful than sensations attended with compassionate awareness and gentle investigation into the more subtle sensations arising, changing, and falling away. Stuck in impatience for this whole sorry experience to be over creates much more pain than simply being present, noticing. So as a friend, instead of hoping, maybe there’s something you could do to make this moment a little easier for her. Listen and respond to any needs expressed in a useful way. Depending on how close you are, it might be appropriate to anticipate needs. What is she not able to do for herself right now? What would she be comfortable with you doing?

As you can see from this example, one difference between hoping and being present is that hope is passive. It not only acknowledges the fact that it’s not all up to us, it takes no responsibility whatsoever. If I hope for a beneficial outcome, I better do something to make it so. I can set a life-affirming intention, exert wise effort, stay mindful, and engage in the world with awareness and compassion. Wise action sets off beneficial reactions in ongoing ripples. If I get caught up in hope and expectation, then I fall out of the intrinsic understanding of the nature of being that allows me to bloom where I am as I am.

Am I giving hope a bum rap? After all, the word ‘hopelessness’ equals depression, an abandonment of any sense of meaning or purpose in life. When I meditate regularly, study the dharma, and hang out with people who do the same, I actively live each moment with a sense of purpose and meaning. I don’t need feeble hope to get by. The sense of optimism that arises doesn’t have to do with specific outcomes. It’s a change in brain chemistry, a fresh way of seeing that is less myopic.

If you’re not ready to abandon hope, at least notice how you use the word and what it means to you. See if it can be active and open-eyed instead of mindless, passive, and focused on a single point.

That is the kind of hope that a Buddhist can live with. It is imbued with wisdom to recognize that our wishes will not all be granted and that we have a very limited view of what is possible. Narrowly defining what we hope for limits us further. Acknowledging that even in difficult times all sorts of beneficial outcomes beyond our ability to imagine are just as likely to arise as painful ones.

When you look at the photo I have chosen for this dharma post—a child making a wish upon a dandelion—it is possible to see the activity itself as metta, cultivating and sharing infinite-lovingkindness. With her breath, she is scattering the seeds of good will, compassion and kindness. May we focus on our breath to create fertile soil so those seeds will grow within us, and in all hearts everywhere.


  1. Great article. Hope keeps us future focused, wanting things to be other than what they are. But it also has the flavour of optimism, sort of a paradox. i suppose a useful rewording for me would be “I would prefer…..” rather than “I hope….”, Thank you for the material to ponder.

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