Letting Go

Renunciation is not giving up the things of the world, but accepting that they go away. — Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Meditation is practice in letting go.  In meditation the ten thousand things arise, and we let them be.  A kaleidoscopic cacophony of sensations, thoughts, and reveries arise and vanish — fleeting specters in the Cartesian Theater of the mind.  We have hopes and expectations for what each moment of meditation will be like:  “I will stay alert, focused, calm, and peaceful.”  “My meditation space will be quiet and comfortable.”  “I will learn something… make progress… taste Enlightenment.”  Our practice is to continually let go of these hopes and expectations and let the ten thousand things be as they are.  We effortlessly open to each moment, accepting each moment as it is, embracing it, experiencing it fully.

Why practice letting go?  Polly Young-Eisendrath recently made the following point about practicing mindfulness, but it applies to letting go as well:

“The reason for learning… is not so that you can sit around and meditate. It’s like when you learn to drive a car in a parking lot. It’s not so you can drive that car in parking lots. You learn in the parking lot because it’s a restricted, safe area. When you [meditate] it’s like learning to drive in the parking lot. Then, in time, you take the car out onto the highway…. Practice is cultivated in order to get around in life….”

We meditate in order to learn how to let go in our daily lives.  We need to learn how to let go because trying to hold onto anything is like trying to nail jello to a wall:  Nothing sticks, nothing stays.  When David Chadwick [1] asked Suzuki Roshi to express the heart of Buddhism in just a few words, Roshi replied “Everything changes.” (If David had asked him another time, would he have gotten a different answer?)  We can’t hold onto a world that’s constantly changing and transforming — we can’t make the world stop being the world.

“Clinging” is another word for “holding on.”  The Buddha taught that clinging was the ninth link in the chain of Dependent Origination.  In that chain, craving led to clinging, and clinging to “becoming” (bhava), i.e., to continued stuckness in cyclical existence.  There are two places where the chain of dependent origination can be broken: at the point where a pleasant feeling turns to craving, and at the point where craving leads to clinging.  We can break the link of craving through awareness of its dangers and insight into where it will lead us.  We can break the link of clinging by simply letting go.

Sometimes the Buddhist message about craving, clinging, and attachment is misunderstood.  People misinterpret it to mean that we should be free from desire and interpersonal relationships.  In Buddhism there are good desires — the desire to help others, to be happy, and to become enlightened are prominent examples.  The desire to be a good parent or a good spouse are others.

Another way of saying this is that aspiration is all right, but craving is not.  Cravings are intense desires that are fixated on a particular object or experience.  There is a tightness, rigidity, stereotypy, or “must-ness” about them — like the addict craving a fix; the overeater, a binge; the miser, more wealth.  Satisfying a craving leads to transitory pleasure, but as the pleasure fades, more craving ensues.    Cravings have a way of taking over our lives and enslaving us.

Similarly, in Buddhism attachment is not the same thing as relationship. The Buddha never intended to discourage relationships.  Affection, love, care, and concern are the very essence of enlightened life.  Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche explained the difference between love and attachment this way in a recent tweet:

Love is when you are thinking ... "how can I make you happy?" Attachment is when you are thinking ... "why aren't you making me happy?"
@ponlop
Dzogchen Ponlop R.

In Buddhism attachment refers to a rigid, tight clinging and holding on to something, as if it were an existential life-raft.  Think, for example, of a person clinging to a relationship that’s already dead and unable to move on.  He keeps returning to a dry well, hoping for water, stuck in recurrent despair.  He may even resort to stalking and violence, hoping against hope to control the other person who wants nothing more of or from him.

Similarly, nothing kills relationship as quickly and thoroughly as clinging — clinging stifles and suffocates the loved one, dragging the loved one down into the swamp of the clinger’s neediness and efforts to exert control.

We can cling to other things besides relationships.  We can become stuck in an unrewarding job, or stuck on a goal that’s beyond our talents (or a poor match for what could really make us happy).  We can become attached to money, possessions, popularity, and status.  We can believe we’re promised or owed these things by life, and become resentful when they’re not delivered, thinking life has given us a raw deal.

We can become attached to all kinds of beliefs about how life is supposed to be.  “Life is supposed to be easy!”  “Life is supposed to be fair!”  “Bad things are not supposed to happen to me!”  “I should be further ahead in life!” “I’m not supposed to be ill, sick, handicapped, or dependent!”  “Raising children (or working for a living, or marriage) shouldn’t be this hard!”  “Other people should appreciate me more!” “I should be better, smarter, braver, more loving, more perfect!”  Psychologist Albert Ellis used to jest that whenever we placed demands on how life “must” be, we were engaging in “must-erbation.”  We are happier when we let go of our demands on life, and accept life as it is, and ourselves as we are.  That doesn’t mean we cease making efforts to improve ourselves and our circumstances – it’s just that we don’t demand that our efforts always succeed.  We understand that when we want to make God laugh (as Anne Lamott[2] so aptly wrote) we tell Her our plans.  We understand that there is no such thing as perfection.  There is just life as it is.

So we sit in meditation, practicing letting go.  Breath by breath.  Moment by moment.  Again and again.  We observe the places where we get caught, where we get stuck, the places where we get tight, the places where we separate ourselves from the moment with thoughts about how the moment ought to be.  And we breathe.  And we let go, loosen, and unfold.

Special thanks to L. J. Kopf ([email protected]) for permission to use Metaphysical Phunnies in this post.

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  1. [1] D. Chadwick (1999).  Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki. New York: Broadway.
  2. [2] A. LaMott (1995).  Bird by Bird.  New York: Anchor.

The Five Practices

Buddhism has a thing for numbered lists:  Two Truths.  Three Marks of Existence.   Four Foundations of Mindfulness.  Five Precepts.  Six Paramitas.  Seven Factors of Enlightenment.   The Eightfold Noble Path. Twelve links of Dependent Origination. Thirty-two Marks of the Buddha. Fifty-one Mental Factors.  Fifty-two Stages of the Bodhisattva Path.  There’s a lot of stuff to remember and the lists are mnemonic devices that help keep everything straight.

Buddhist practice can be endlessly complicated.  Some people like things with more details, more rules, more rituals, more practices, complex visualizations.  If you are one of them, there is a Buddhism that is just right for you.  There are 84,000 different Dharma doors.

Not me.  I like things simple.  My favorite ice cream is plain vanilla.

My practice is very simple.  My numbered list contains only Five Practices:

  1. Be Present
  2. Be Open-Hearted
  3. Show Respect
  4. Have Courage
  5. Let Go

Five is as much as I can wrap my head around.  If I stick with these five there is more than enough to keep me busy.

1) Being Present — The practice of Being Present involves mindfulness, both in dedicated sitting practice and in daily life.  It also involves a commitment to whole-heartedness — if you are going to do something, do it all the way with your whole being.  It also means showing up — be there to do what is needed — don’t evade responsibility for doing what has to be decided or done.

2) Be Open-Hearted — Open-Heartedness is the practice of commitment to the way of compassion, lovingkindness, empathy, tolerance and forgiveness.  It is the practice of accepting people the way they are, no matter how different or deficient they may be.  That doesn’t mean that you accept or approve of everything others do, and it doesn’t mean you don’t protect yourself from the harmful action of others.  It just means that you keep them in the category of “one of us.”  All beings are “one of us,”  no matter how much they might seem otherwise.  We say, in the metta chant, sabe satta, “whatever beings there are.”  We wish them happiness and freedom from suffering.  Compassion and kindness are not just emotions to be cultivated as mental states.  They involve our compassionate and loving activity in the world.

3) Show Respect — All things are interconnected.  Who we are, our very life and existence, is dependent on the interdependent cooperation of all things.  Can we show appreciation, gratitude, and respect for all things?  This means not only bowing to and respecting all beings, including animals and plants.  It means appreciating and caring for all things that come into our little circle of life. It means keeping air and water clear and unpolluted.  It means appreciating and respecting the earth, and being a good steward.  It means raising animals humanely and growing crops without toxins.  It means keeping our living space orderly and clean.  It means taking care of the things we own.  It means respecting and caring for other people’s belongings.  We bow deeply to all.

4) Have Courage —  Don’t live your life out of fear, but live your life out of your convictions.  Don’t be afraid to take a stand, to express a conviction.  Don’t be afraid to love.  Don’t be afraid to do what wisdom tells you needs to be done.  This doesn’t mean that you should be in other people’s faces or take foolhardy risks.  It just means that your existence should be life-affirming, not fear-based and avoidant.

5) Let Go — No one died and left you in charge of things.  The world is not yours to control.  Our practice is one of mindfulness, open-heartedness, respectfulness and courage.  That doesn’t mean that everything we do turns out right, the way we had hoped and expected.  It doesn’t mean that others always reward us or appreciate us for what we do.  It doesn’t mean we get what we want.  We still get old, and sick, and die.  All relationships, even the one’s we care about most, even the good ones, all end eventually.  If all goes well they end with our death or theirs, if all doesn’t go well, they end in acrimony.  Nothing we like and want to hold onto remains constant.  Change, entropy, habituation, and cycles of decline, transformation, and rebirth govern the multiverse.  Our practice is a continual one of letting go, non-clinging, and acceptance, over and over.  Just like when we do our sitting practice, the practice is one of continual letting go moment by moment.  Letting go of our demands on the moment — how this moment ought to be — and accepting it just the way it is.

Do I personally embody these practices in my own life?  No.  They are horizons to be aimed at, not accomplishments to be attained.  The practice-life never ends.  We have to recommit to it moment by moment.  We continually fall short of our practice goals, notice when we have fallen short, and recommit again, until we forget again.  This is our human life.

Will these practices make you Enlightened?  They haven’t made me Enlightened.  But engaging in these practices is enlightened activity.  When we engage in these practices all things express Buddha nature through us.

“Grass, trees, and lands are all embraced by this activity and together are radiant and endlessly express the inconceivable, profound Dharma. Grass, trees, fences, and walls bring forth the Teachings for all beings, usual people as well as sages. And they in accord extend this Dharma for the sake of grass, trees, fences, and walls. Thus, the realm of self-Awakening and Awakening others is fundamentally endowed with realization lacking nothing, and realization itself is actualized ceaselessly.”  — from Dogen’s Bendowa [1]

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  1. [1] translated by Anzan Hoshin Roshi and Yasuda Joshu Dainen Roshi