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 tempests 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 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. Does face book or online gaming/shopping/gossip mags 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?!
Well, there are a few options. There is what we usually do–hold on and obsess. 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.
But in times of great challenge, it’s important to 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 prolong the healing that needs to take place? In these 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? 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 opportunities or really enjoying our lives.
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 the injustices. In that way, the knowledge of impermanence healed me, but the acceptance of my imperfections and the inevitable sufferings of life gave me a deep compassion for and understanding of others.
I have found that 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. But 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 and 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 more deeply wise, 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 and 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 wise way of living, which sees 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.
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. Fourteen 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… 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 to become a bitter victim.
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Photo 4: courtesy of David Gabriel Fischer Photography via Compfight cc