If you know anything about Buddhism then the phrase ‘letting go’ is nothing new to you. We all know that letting go can be hard, but sometimes we don’t even realise that we haven’t let go because we can’t recognise that we are holding on to something. We might think that we have no problems when in reality we are holding on to all kinds of unnecessary ideas that cause us no end of suffering.The mind is the most persuasive force in the world and can easily convince us that whatever we are doing or feeling is not only reasonable but justified too. It can obscure us from our own reality, and make us miss the obvious.
The practice requires us to let go of many things; our previous ways of seeing the world, our ways of behaving, our cravings, our desires. To give things up cold turkey is extremely hard work but fortunately the path is a gradual one and each step of the way we are given trainings to follow that make it easier to let go of our old ways. When we meditate and settle the mind and body we get the chance to see the things that we are clinging to with some breathing space.
Let’s start with thinking about the whole question of letting go, why is it such a big part of the practice? Well the shortest answer is from the Four Noble Truths: the Buddha tells us that the cause of suffering is clinging. How do you stop clinging? You let go. What is it that we are clinging to though? We are clinging to is our misunderstanding of the three characteristics of the conditioned world – anicca (impermanence), annata (not self), and dukkha (suffering). We believe that there are things in the world that are permanent and will never change, we believe there are things in the world that we can own or belong to us, and we believe that these things that are permanent or that belong to us will help us to avoid suffering. I won’t go into the three characteristics in any more detail here but what it means is that we misinterpret the world all the time, so we need to learn to see when we are making misinterpretations and then train ourselves to let go of that wrong understanding.
This misunderstanding of the world and our experiences causes us to suffer. If you think something belongs to you and it gets damaged or stolen then you suffer, you feel bad about it or angry, or regretful. If you have something in your possession but you don’t feel strongly that ‘this is mine, so I don’t want anything to happen to it’ then you don’t feel concerned if something does happen to it. If you think something is going to last forever – or could last forever if only you do the right things – and it ends, then you feel all kinds of bad. That dream job, that relationship, that house; nothing is static, everything is reliant on conditions and those conditions change all the time. But if you know that something will only last as long as the conditions it relies on last (regardless of what you can try to do about it) then when it ends then you won’t feel so bad about it. So what we are learning to let go of are these ideas we have that things belong to us, or define us – that anything is ‘I, me, or mine’ – and the idea that anything can last as it is forever without changing in any way.
Letting go feels liberating, and what it frees us from is suffering. We all know the feeling of relief when something that has bothered us for such a long time is gone and it doesn’t bother us any more. Like finding someone really annoying and then one day just deciding to not be annoyed by them; the feeling is cool and calm, a space in the heart and mind. As I said in my previous post Renuciation and Peace letting go isn’t about giving up though, letting go is the natural outcome of our practice so we don’t need to force it. In fact forcing it is very unlikely to create any kind of calm, so don’t!
But our biggest hurdle is often that we simply can’t see what it is that we’re not letting go of. Our practice of mindfulness and meditation is designed to give us the tools we need to open our eyes. By improving our ability to witness our experience in greater and greater detail we become aware of thoughts and sensations that had previously escaped our knowing. The calm of meditation also helps us by giving us enough strength to stay put when these sometimes difficult thoughts and feelings come up for us. Outside of meditation if anything causes us discomfort we act spontaneously to get away from it, but in meditation with our mind and body calm we have the resources to stay with it and to analyse it. But the rest of the time when we are not meditating we habitually wriggle away from anything uncomfortable, so how can we engage better with those moments? We can learn to read ourselves better.
So how do you know you are not letting go of something? Well the answer will be disruption in your mind, disturbance in your body, or both. Here’s a familiar scenario: you are sitting meditating and you become aware of feeling too warm. The thought proliferates as your mind begins to chatter about how warm you are. Your mood changes because of these thoughts, you were OK before but now you are grumpy and restless, you want the meditation session to end. Your body gets restless too, you start squirming around and you can’t sit still. You are now in a mess. You might not recognise this scenario as not letting go but it is exactly that. What did you not let go of? The discomfort that came up when you first felt too warm, and the desire to be cooler. If you had just accepted how warm you were as just how it is right now then the proliferation and all the subsequent disruption that caused wouldn’t have happened. You can’t do anything about sometimes feeling too warm but you can stop yourself from getting in a tizz about it and making it worse for yourself.
The Buddha described this as being like getting shot by two arrows – the first arrow you can’t do anything about, it will hurt; but the second arrow is one that you shoot yourself with when you get upset about the first arrow, and this is an injury that you can avoid inflicting on yourself. By wanting something to be different we create both a craving and an identity – ‘I’ am too warm and I want it to change, ‘I don’t like it’, ‘I want it to stop’. Both of these are the second arrow, they create an additional layer of suffering that didn’t need to be there.
Ajahn Sumedho’s most famous teaching is ‘It’s like this’, when we look at the world at any moment we should see that it is like this, this is how it is right now, to see the reality and to accept it. Not accepting it means not letting go off ideas that ‘while it might be like this, actually it should be like that’, and worse – holding onto the idea that we can somehow make it like that. The hardest part of the practice can sometimes be letting go of those underlying ideas that the world should be certain ways, but the more we practice eventually we see that it is not the world out there that causes our distress but our internal experience of the world and our desire to change things to be the way we want them.
This is resistance to life, always fighting against our experience, and this is tiring. Living life without resistance allows us to flow with what is happening, to sail on experience and keep the energy we would have used resisting the current to put to better use. Instead of always leaping to change our experience we can be allowing, we can be generous in accepting the world as it is in all its myriad expressions. And we can feel this resistance really easily, it manifests itself so clearly in our minds and bodies that it acts like an alarm going off. Understanding what we are holding onto and why can take some analysis, we don’t have the time to do that when we are out in the world in the middle of things, but that feeling of resistance is easily spotted in any moment and tells us that we are not letting go. Once we notice the resistance we don’t even need to know what is causing it, we can just realise we are doing it and stop. We can take a breath and say to ourselves ‘this is how it is right now’ and let go off any part of us that wants it to be different.
This doesn’t mean that we never change anything, that we would just sit there and meditate in 35°C until we passed out or got really ill. We wouldn’t resist the experience of heat and discomfort, and by doing so it would allow us to make an informed decision based on facts and not – as we usually do – based on just wanting things to be different. Our informed decision might be ‘yes its warm but I don’t feel any ill effects of it, so I’ll stay put’, or it might be ‘actually I am feeling a bit faint and I know I am quite prone to heatstroke so I will move to somewhere cooler’. We are practicing to develop wisdom, and sitting meditating until you get ill just because it is meditating time is clearly not a wise thing to do.
Mindfulness really is the key practice, employing mindfulness at all times and not just when we are meditating. Mindfulness will become second nature to you when you have been practicing it for a while. If you are new to mindfulness then don’t force it, don’t try to over concentrate to try and see every moment, that is incredibly hard work and very very tiring. Just allow your mindfulness ability to develop at its own pace, it will all come in time. All you ever need to do is to notice that you have stopped being mindful, then go back to being mindful.
Metta practice develops this allowing quality too, when we meet the world with love we don’t feel like it needs to change – things are just the way they are right now and we accept that. Metta has the quality of not resisting, we embrace our experience with kindness both to ourselves and to the situation. Through metta practice we open our heart to possibility and that gives us the ability to accept all the different possibilities of how the world could be right now.
Look for that feeling of resistance whenever it comes up and see if you can let it go, allow the moment to just be as it is, and notice how much better you feel when you stop fighting your experience and face each moment without resistance.