Letting go is a big theme in Buddhism. It has also been a big theme in my own life. Change and the need to let go are issues we don’t mind hearing about in the context of other people’s lives, but one we don’t really like taking place in our own. But the fact is, sooner or later we all have to accept change, whether we want it or not.
Change, cycles of life and death, creation, expansion and decline are as natural as the seasons. Change can also be a liberating thing, and without it, life would be stale. Change is not always negative. It means we can grow and learn and expand. It means unpleasant situations can transform into more positive situations, but it can also mean we suffer. We can all appreciate the beauty and tempest of nature. We enjoy the blossoming flowers in spring and the new life that emerges from the earth, bringing renewal. We can also enjoy the graceful surrender of autumn as leaves fall and dark comes earlier. Life would be very dull if nothing ever changed. But being born, things must also die. Meeting, they must part and reaching their highest arch, they must also decline. This is a natural law. Somehow because we live separate from nature and mostly in our heads, we have lost sight of this natural law. We hide from old age, try to create permanent security and try to insulate ourselves from anything nasty that could disturb our comfort too much.
In some ways it’s understandable that we don’t wish to suffer unnecessarily, but in some ways we are just keeping some inevitable and important truths of life at bay. In cutting ourselves off from the unpredictability of life, we have also cut ourselves off from the vividness and mystery of what it means to be human. If we live in an artificial world in which we are socially isolated and only choose to allow in things we like, we are also living in a narrow way. If our comfort zone is never challenged, we are not seeing the greater picture of life. We become numb, apathetic and small hearted. It becomes easy to just pursue narcissistic entertainment, pleasure and distraction while corporations and millionaires take over the world, destroy the environment and make the poor poorer, all the while distracting with trivial entertainment and getting them to participate in a system of meaningless consumption that is unsustainable and in many ways unnecessary and toxic.
In truth, living in this way, we are more interested in playing on phones mined by children than we are in feeling that as the wealthiest nations in the world we have an individual and communal responsibility to help those children get an education. Do face book or online gaming/shopping/gossip magazines allow the overwhelming injustice of the world to touch us? Are we not just burying our head in the sand while the world is dying? Is it not the height of stupidity?!
Fortunately, life has a way of waking us up, even if we try to hide, life will challenge us, and shake us, and force us to open and be present to the rawness and aliveness and chaos of human existence. How do we practice when life is squeezing us? What do we do when all we love is torn away from us? How do we open to truly aliveness? There is what we usually do – hold on and obsess. This is so often a road we choose to go down – when a relationship has been ended by the other party and we are left with all the questions and pain and emotional baggage of “WHY?!” it can be very hard to let go. When one we love dies, or we lose a baby, or a job, or fail an exam or our parents’ divorce, it can make us feel we are adrift, alone or don’t even want to live anymore.
There is perhaps a path involving more wisdom; in times of great challenge, ask yourself. “What can I do to suffer less?” It is so tempting to jump into that ocean of pain, fear, regret, anger and self loathing. But does it help? Or does it just prevent the healing that needs to take place? In challenging times it’s good to try to be a bit sensible and restrained. I’m not talking about repressing feelings. So many things in life will get under our skin, grab hold of our heart and give it a great big yank… But what’s the best way of coping? Can we open up and learn from life, even when it is painful? Can we allow the genuine heart of tenderness to just be there, with all its vulnerability? Being calm and not escalating the emotions by creating a big obsessive storyline around the event might help. Story lines are the stories we repeat to ourselves that help us avoid the unbearable pain of actually just facing our broken heart. But story lines eventually become concrete. The stories and thoughts and opinions we hold onto can stop us from moving on and can make us bitter, paranoid and leave our painful issues unresolved. We may even start projecting our unresolved emotional issues onto new situations in our life and it can stop us from seeing new opportunities or really enjoying our lives and connecting with others.
Of course most Buddhist Teachers will tell you that letting go is a good thing and that Buddhists think attachment is not great. But how do most Buddhists with a 9-5 job really live? It’s not so easy to reconcile the teachings of a 2600 year old Sage who lived in a cave with the complexities of the modern world that requires us to pay mortgages, pay bills and negotiate a complicated technology-desire based society. And yet in some ways, society has not changed that much. People still felt jealous, depressed, and fell in love and fear 2600 years ago. Small countries invaded each other, leaders lusting after wealth and resources stole the wealth of other nations and thousands of young men still lost their lives to pay for the greed of these leaders.
We hear our meditation Teacher say ‘let go’, or ‘live in the now’ and maybe we agree. But how do we actually do it? When something painful rips our life apart, how do we pick up the pieces and find peace and clarity? There inevitably has to be a period of mourning and a bit of pain, that is part of the healing process. I have had a very tumultuous life. Sometimes when bad or unjust things happened to me, I felt angry. I also knew that it was not good to have anger, but I have come to take a much less black and white line on life. I have come to see that time has its own way of healing things and that sometimes the best thing we can do is just be present to the pain without obsessing too much, while knowing at the same time that things will not always be this way, that we will heal and feel better, that nothing lasts. Being compassionately present to yourself and the world can be very healing. We don’t run away, but we don’t obsess. We take refuge in the timeless element of peace that heals all, puts all things in perspective, but at the same time we don’t close our eyes to injustice. In that way, the knowledge of impermanence can heal us, but the acceptance of our imperfections and the inevitable sufferings of life can give us a deep compassion for and understanding of others.
Breath meditation is a great way to become aware of yourself. When you have self awareness, you naturally start to see some of the thought processes and emotions that are unskillful. With the peace that accompanies meditation, you also become aware that your mind is a lot bigger than you thought, that you are more than just your thoughts and you have a basic wholeness and purity that is bigger than time and space and the small ups and downs of life. That basic goodness is Buddha nature. Uncovering that original purity in yourself and others is the purpose of life. But that state is not permanent or separate like a ‘soul’ or ‘heaven’, it is just the thread understanding it is part of the greater weaving, the emptiness in the fullness, or the peace that is there when the small conceptual mind shuts up for a while.
It’s not that this deeper understanding of interconnectedness and letting go of self grasping makes us some kind of ineffective, self absorbed blob…. This understanding should free us from narcissism and negative emotions and make us wiser. We become more compassionate, happy and effective in helping ourselves and the world, because we are skillful in following mind states and actions that lead to wholesome states and we let go of thoughts/emotions and actions that lead to confusion, un-awareness, harm or suffering. That self awareness, or mindfulness, when combined with altruism and compassion is a powerful way to overcome suffering and open up to a greater, more infinite and profound way of living. We start to see that what we do to others, we do to ourselves. From this more concern and practical actions to benefit others naturally arise.
I think love and relationships are the other great obsession or drug of our time. I certainly notice the absence of many Dharma practitioners from the Centre when they fall in love! I call it the 30s vortex. People enter it, get married, and usually don’t show up at the centre again until they are 50 or divorced! People are always asking advice from me about relationships and love, which is pretty ironic, considering I’m a celibate Buddhist nun.. But I think living in monastic communities and dealing with students is not that different to dealing with the ups and downs of any other kind of relationship.
How do we know when we need to let go, and if we need to hold on? First we need to ask ourselves what we are holding onto and if it will bring us long term happiness or not. We can hold onto ideas, opinions, dreams and people. Some of us hold onto ideas about what a good life is or what we need. I see people working themselves sick 50 hours a week to pay for a huge home in the suburbs, because that’s what they think they need to be happy. Many of those people hate their jobs and would rather spend more time practicing or being with their family. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, how much do we really need to be happy? What is real happiness? And what is the difference between want and need? I live near an Indian slum, and I know that people can actually survive on very little. Half the world lives on $1.25 a day. Just because we have more money, does not mean we are more fulfilled. Sometimes less is more, sometimes if you reduce your needs, live in a smaller house, find more inner clarity and fulfillment, you actually find you need a whole lot less than you thought you did and you start to value people and community more than things and distractions. That has certainly been the case with me. It is mostly because our lives are toxic that we need distractions to be absent from them. When I had a job at a big insurance company I made 3 times as much money as I do now, but I felt what I was doing was meaningless. This is not to say that everyone should quit their jobs and move to a slum… but it is possible to simplify life, this is a natural process that comes about through building up inner clarity. You find you have more time to give others and become less interested in self obsessing or doing unwholesome things.
Just because you let go of holding onto things (because you know everything is impermanent and conditioned) doesn’t mean that you don’t love or you can’t have meaningful relationships. In fact, if we recollect impermanence we don’t sweat the little things and we don’t take our relationships for granted. We know each day is precious and we don’t hold a grudge. We want to give the best of ourselves to the ones we love, and we cherish them more, as we know they are not ours forever. To live with the knowledge of impermanence and letting go can set us free and bring make us feel truly and joyfully alive. I have some friends who say they didn’t start truly living until they were diagnosed with some life threatening disease. It would be sad if this had to happen to us before we put down our mobile phones and started to actually live life fully, have real quality time with people and turn within.
Like everyone, I bear the scars of the wounds life has inflicted on me. I lost my father to cancer at 14, which woke me up and made me want to live fully whatever short time I have in this world, and also set me on the spiritual path. I lost partners I loved, my foster daughter died, jobs, communities and situations fell apart. 14 years ago I ordained and hoped I would found a community for nuns of my tradition; I hoped that Buddhists would support Australian Monastics to study and practice, but pretty much everyone I ordained with has disrobed due to lack of support. I am still homeless. Perhaps life does not always give us what we think we want. But sometimes, we may find we have learnt a great deal along the way. Letting go is not a cold detachment to life, it simply means we choose to live in the now, to bravely move forward and learn from our disappointments and losses. Rather than become bitter victims, our wounds are our teachers, our imperfections are the compost from which the wondrous flowers of insight spring. The poison, if taken skillfully, can become the medicine.