Over the next couple of weeks I would like to explore together the concept of letting go. Cultivating the attitude of letting go or non-attachment is fundamental to the practice of mindfulness.
Ajahn Chah who was Jack Kornfield’s teacher in the Thai forest tradition: “If you let go a little, you ‘ll have a little peace, if you let go a lot, you’ll find a lot of peace, if you let go completely you’ll find absolute peace and tranquillity”
But our conditioning is to hold on to things: we hold on to our experiences, the way things are supposed to be, beliefs, material goods, our ideas of what we think life is about, who we think is right (usually us)…. Life has to hold on, it is a basic characteristic for being alive. But that holding on and that protecting in organisms becomes suffering when it locks in and is no longer situation appropriate.
While we would like things to be a certain way, the reality is that change is happening all the time, and we tend to struggle with it.
James Baraz, Awakening Joy: “Circumstances change, we change, things change and letting go of what we’re holding on to can be a great relief. It is also the road to happiness”
But letting go is not easy, and sometimes we are asked to let go of more than we think we can bear – our homes, our jobs, our loved ones… Losing what we love is painful however, holding on to what is already gone only adds to our pain (second arrow). “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is not. Suffering arises from grasping. Release grasping and be free of suffering”.
Each one of us will go through significant changes several times during our lifetime, this is the way life is. And our meditation practice can help us to find composure and resilience in the midst of all the changes in our life. It helps us see that everything passes and that we can rest in the midst of change.
Ajahn Chah gave this profound teaching to local villagers about letting go: he reached for his ceramic cup and held it up. He said “You see this cup? It was given to me as a gift. It is pretty to look at. It holds my water. I enjoy it. If I can see this cup as already broken, I won’t cry when that happens. In this way, I can fully appreciate it while it’s here. Letting go like this is how I can truly be happy in a world where everything changes.”
When I read this teaching, it made me reflect on my experience living so far from my family in France. I realised that since I have been living in Australia, it has changed the way I relate with my parents and other elderly relatives in France. Every time I visit them, I enjoy my time with them in a deep way, knowing that I might not have many more opportunities to spend time with them. It has made me contemplate and accept the inevitability of their death, and cherish even more the times that we have together. When my grand-mother and my nanny passed away while I was here in Australia, I felt sad but I realised that I had already accepted their deaths, I had practiced saying good-bye to them for good, each time I had been saying good-bye to them after each visit over the years. It made me realise that it had been a practice in letting go.
The poet Mary Oliver : “To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and when the time comes, to let it go.”
In a deep way, what are we holding on to? Most fundamentally it is the illusion that we have control in a world of change. James Baraz “This attempt to control binds us in fear”. This is reinforced by the messages of our society, we spend a lot of money on creating security, making our homes safe, locking things up, making our technologies safe, in airports etc…Security is an illusion.
Ajahn Chah had a phrase that he liked to use a lot with his students when they came to him with questions about decisions they had to make in their life: “It’s uncertain, isn’t?” to teach them about the wisdom of insecurity, holding on to nothing.
In Zen Buddhism, students are encouraged to develop the “don’t know mind”. “What is love? Don’t know. What is consciousness? Don’t know. What is going to happen tomorrow? Don’t know. Who are you? Don’t know.” It is a deep invitation to open to the mystery of this life, to accept that things are uncertain, and to learn to rest in this fundamental uncertainty and insecurity.
Our practice helps us to realise that it is okay to rest in change. We don’t have to control our experience, resist it or try and change it, we can just open and relax and let it be.
When the American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron was a young woman, she turned to Buddhism because her life was in turmoil and she was going through a messy divorce. And she asked her teacher “I don’t know what to do, there are all these big changes happening in my life. What shall I do?” And he looked at her and said “They always happen, just relax.”
It’s like when we learn to swim, at the beginning we are so tense and scared of letting go in the water, we don’t know if we can float, and then we finally let go, we learn to relax and we float.
In the same way we learn to trust and relax and rest in loving awareness, trusting the process of life, and trusting the resilience that is built in us, through the generations of our ancestors who have survived storms, famines, diseases, wars…. When I think of my maternal grand-parents, who were Spanish refuges in France during the civil war in Spain, and arrived in France just before the second world war started, their story is a story of survival and resilience through great change and difficulty. And I am sure you all have your own stories of survival, strength and courage that run through your families, every family has them.
So you have that capacity in you to trust and to relax in the midst of change, to let go of the need to control.
And then you can become the loving awareness itself, become the witness of it all, of all the changes in your life.
Letting go during our practice
Mindfulness of body and mind teaches us to rest and relax in the midst of change– when we sit still and quiet our mind, we can watch our sensations in the body come and go, our feelings come and go, and our thoughts too, like bubbles, appearing and disappearing, without any substance.
We learn to be present with change.
Then we realise that there are certain inner experiences (sensations, emotions, thoughts) our mind wants to hold on to, and others that our mind wants to get rid of.
Our practice is to open and accept each experience, be it pleasant or unpleasant, without trying to grasp onto it or push it away. We are learning to let our experience be whatever it is. In this sense, letting go starts with letting things be, accepting the reality as it is.
As we practice, we might notice our mind grasping and pushing away, and we remind ourselves to let go of these impulses, and to see what happens.
When we notice that we are lost in a thought, maybe a judgment, or a thought about the past or the future, we practice letting go of the thought gently, pausing, and reconnecting with the reality of the present moment, resting in awareness itself.
And if we find ourselves holding on so strongly that we can’t let go, we can direct our attention to the holding on, clinging or grasping experience, noticing how it feels like in the body: contraction, tension, tightness. We notice how our attachments feel in our body, and the consequences of these attachments in our life. And when we eventually manage to let go, we can experience how letting go feels in our body and in our mind.
Jack Kornfield in A Path with Heart: “Letting go is a central theme in spiritual practice, as we see the preciousness and brevity of life. When letting go is called for, if we have not learned to do so, we suffer greatly, and when we get to the end of our life, we may have what is called a crash course. Sooner or later we have to learn to let go and allow the changing mystery of life to move through us without our fearing it, without holding and grasping.”
James Baraz, Awakening Joy
Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart
Jon Kabat Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living
Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance