“Let Go, A Buddhist Guide to Breaking Free of Habits,” by Martine Batchelor
In “Let Go” author and former Buddhist nun Martine Batchelor guides us through a wide range of circumstances where meditation can be helpful.
The book begins by pointing out the ways we are limited by our patterns and habits. Its premise is that if we can break free of habits we will be able to live more creatively, responsively, and with the ability to choose which patterns of behavior we wish to cultivate. The author observes “how much people suffer from persistent habits of behavior that dominate their mental, physical, and emotional lives, and from which they feel powerless to escape.” Yet with Buddhist meditation it is possible to free ourselves from habit. In “Let Go” Batchelor’s kind and sympathetic voice leads us towards realizing our potential for a creative, wise and compassionate life.
When I read the introduction to Batchelor’s slim volume I was doubtful if she could cover the many topics outlined. The list of areas she touches on includes: the basis of our mental habits, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression, the inner language we use that holds our habits in place, the Ten Perfections of Buddhism, love and relationships, compassion and ethics, and finally the Ten Ox-herding pictures of Zen Buddhism. Amazingly, these diverse areas are all illuminated in a meaningful way.
Every section of the book concludes with an exercise, meditation or reflection. Each of these is beautifully worded and offers enough information to act upon but will not restrict the meditator from exploring the theme in his or her own experience.
Batchelor introduces meditation as having two aspects: concentration and inquiry. This is consistent with the approach of her earlier book “Meditation for Life” (Wisdom, 2001). She is skilled in describing both the focus and the openness that characterize meditation, and she offers a variety of forms to try out. I believe this is one of the reasons this book succeeds in covering its ambitious scope. It is not suggested that one simple way of meditation will “fix” every possible human difficulty. Rather, the reader may gain an understanding that a meditative life will have many aspects and will use many methods as we work through our inner layers of habit. Some of the meditations in the book will be familiar, such as Loving-kindness and Meditation on the Breath. Others will be less so, such as the Reflections for an Ethical Life, Creativity, or the Five Transformations as a way to work past addiction.
“Let Go” conveys an atmosphere of intimacy and ease, rather like having an afternoon tea with the author in a comfortable living room, perhaps one decorated with interesting objects from around the world and flowers from the garden in a vase. The intimate atmosphere is largely created by the many personal anecdotes and stories from her students that Batchelor shares. The stories do not all have tidy resolutions or endings where everything is sorted out, but show a compassionate acceptance and appreciation of the way life is, how challenging life can sometimes be, and how our efforts can make a difference.
My attention was captured by the imagery in the book’s final chapter on the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures. These classic scenes from the Zen tradition illustrate stages in our life and meditation. The brief commentary on each one is clear and evokes an instantaneous recognition of where we are in our progress toward freedom. A broad view of the path is developed in the preceding chapters, culminating in this encouraging picture of creative awakening and in an appreciation of “walking of the path itself.”
I would recommend this book for anyone starting out who is tempted by the notion that meditation practice has direct relevance to our lives, and that creativity, ease and compassion are within our capacity to realize.
Amala is the director of Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, NH, where she teaches meditation.
Amala has an interest in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and has completed the MBSR practicum at UMass Medical Center.