letting go

Dharma lessons I learned from my cat

I lost my beloved orange cat Rusty last June. There’s something about a relationship with a pet that’s so different from any with humans. Apart from his sister, Bella, I was Rusty’s entire world. He wanted nothing more than just to be with me. It’s like he took it on as his total life’s purpose to love me.

And he always looked so indescribably SAD whenever I had to close a door between us.

Meditating together

Very early in our time together, he figured out that the ring of my meditation timer bell meant a lap was available. Soon after the “bong”, I’d hear the gentle padding of paws approaching. Then I’d feel him hop up onto my lap. He’d circle a few times before settling in, but he always found the perfect position to melt his entire warm furry body onto mine. He showed me what complete and utter trust looked like. I dedicated a special yellow towel to put on my lap to make sure there was no gap for him to fall through.

Before long, we developed a daily routine of sharing a silent space together, just the two of us. It was our favorite time of day.

It’s now nearly a year since his passing, and I still put the yellow towel on my lap to meditate. I so miss him.

Dealing with pain and grief

I’ve read somewhere that the depth of one’s grief is equal to the depth of one’s love. Rusty really did touch into me in a way no human ever could. He broke my heart wide open – to his deep unconditional love, and now, the equally deep pain of his loss.

One of the Buddha’s fundamental teachings is to avoid clinging to the things of this world. Not because it’s bad or wrong. Using grief as an example, it’s because it’s too easy to let a natural and unavoidable pain balloon into self-created stories that worsen our suffering.

Worldly and unworldly pain

The Buddha also distinguished between “worldly” and “unworldly” pain. On the one hand, I could allow this hurting heart to pull me down into pining, sluggishness, loneliness, etc. This is “worldly” pain because it keeps me tied down to a limited (i.e. “worldly”) view of my feelings and thoughts.

But I could also use this pain as a doorway to a bigger “unworldly” perspective. The day after he died, I cleaned and packed away his food dish and litter box. I shampooed the rug he had vomited and pooped on during his long illness. I discarded his meds at the prescription drug disposal. By doing all these things, I slowly let it sink in that he was gone, never to return. He, like all things, is impermanent.

I also see in retrospect how he approached his dying process with such dignity. I’m pretty certain he knew he was dying. And he seemed so matter of fact about it. He was in a lot of pain, but he kept up his “job” of loving me for as long as he could muster. I knew it was time to take him to the vet for the last time when his attention seemed to shift to some faraway place. He seemed ready to go. No fear, no fighting, no clinging. Just total acceptance.

See also:

What Rusty taught me

When I adopted Rusty years ago, I had no idea that he would be such a great dharma teacher to me. Not only did he teach me what love looked like, he also showed me how to live gracefully with the truth of impermanence. And that the way to peace is through letting go of what we cannot control. He taught me how to be with painful things, and transform them from worldly pain to unworldly insight.

I am still grieving, and suspect I will for a long, long time. On the other hand, his sister Bella is still with me. And I think one big thing I can do to honor Rusty is to love his sister the way he loved me. But he also showed me what it looks like to simply be a loving presence for others. And that’s a gift that continues to unfold for me.

Rest in peace, Rusty. I’ll be forever grateful for everything you gave me.

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More thoughts on remembering to be happy

Three children jumping joyfully into a lake.

Recently I wrote a piece saying that I’m making a effort to remember to be happy. When I say that I need to remember to be happy, what I mean is that I need to pause, be mindful, and notice if there’s anything I’m doing that is inhibiting my well-being. Often I do this through asking the question, “Could I be happier right now?”

Often when I ask this question I find, in fact, that I’m being a bit willful and overly intense in the way I’m working. I get very focused on the thing I’m doing (writing an article, for example) and lose touch with how I’m feeling while I’m doing that task. Consequently I’m a little unhappy, or at least less happy than I could be.

When I become aware that there’s tension and unhappiness in my experience, I can relax my effort, allow myself to become more playful, allow the body to soften, and drop down to my heart, notice how I’m feeling, and be a bit kinder. Sometimes when there’s an uncomfortable feeling present I’ll just sit with it, allowing it to be there. Sometimes it shifts, and sometimes it doesn’t. Whether it does or not doesn’t matter.

The difficult thing is remembering to do this! When I’m very focused on getting stuff done, I can forget to broaden my awareness out and to become more mindful. Ideally I’d like to have the question: “Could I be happier right now?” pop into my mind at least a couple of times an hour during the course of the day. I’d prefer that this happened organically, rather than with the aid of a timer, but I don’t rule out the use of some kind of artificial aid like that.

For me, the word “happy” in the question “Could I be happier right now?” is just shorthand. I don’t literally expect to be full of joy all the time. For me the word happiness stands for a constellation of qualities, including calm, peace, an awareness of feelings, acceptance, and a sense of well-being. Actual happiness (joy, contentment, even bliss) may be a part of what arises when I allow myself to relax and be at ease, but it’s kind of like a delicious side-dish to a satisfying main course of well-being. It’s lovely to have it, but the meal is just fine without it.

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There is in fact more than one type of happiness. In the Aristotelian tradition, there was hedonic happiness and eudaemonic happiness. Hedonic happiness arises from having pleasant experiences. For example you can find hedonic happiness through having a large and beautiful house, being surrounded by lovely objects, going out to bars and restaurants, partying, socializing, doing exciting sports, shopping, etc. Eudaemonic happiness, on the other hand, arises from a life lived well. It arises from living ethically, being honest, being kind, helping others, being patient,feeling that our life has purpose and meaning, etc. We don’t pursue eudaemonic happiness directly, because that would be self-defeating. Eudaemonic happiness is not a goal, but a side-effect of pursuing the goal of living a good life.

From the point of view of hedonism, spending time helping in a soup kitchen would make you unhappy, since you’re not just working, but also coming into contact with poor and probably unhealthy people. In fact, for the eudaemonist, this activity is deeply satisfying. Again, to the eudaemonist, bearing patiently with suffering is an activity that will lead, in the long term, to a sense of wellbeing. To the hedonist, suffering is simply to be avoided.

Although you might think that happiness is happiness, however it arises, hedonic and eudaemonic happiness even have different physiological effects. A 2013 study by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill showed that hedonists and eudaemonists who self-reported high levels of happiness had very different patterns of genetic expression. The hedonists showed high levels of expressions of genes related to inflammation (which is commonly used as a marker for general health), while the eudaemonists had much lower levels. In other words, doing good seems to be beneficial for your health in ways that merely feeling good can’t.

Buddhism is a eudaemonic tradition, and so when I talk about happiness I mean eudaemonic happiness. Perhaps my question should not be “Could I be happier right now?” but “Am I doing anything right now that is inhibiting my well-being, and can I let go of doing that?”

Bodhipaksa

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Settling the Mind: You Have Allies

Friends showing support for each other by placing their hands together.

Meditation means settling the mind, but if you try it you’ll quickly find that this is easier said than done. Our minds are often busy and like to keep thinking about the things that stimulate and interest them. So what are our allies in settling the mind?

 Preparation

Settling is a process. You can’t sit down after you have been rushing around and expect to be calm and quiet straight away. So, if it’s possible for you, take time to prepare for meditation. Make sure the place you are sitting is tidy and beautiful. Light a candle, perhaps. Then spend time carefully setting up your meditation posture. Notice how it feels to be making this transition.

The Present Moment

Many of the thoughts that distract us are connected with the past (things that we have been doing, memories, regrets), or the future (plans, worries, fantasies). Settling the mind means focusing our attention on things that are happening right now, in the present moment. This simply means noticing the sense experiences that are arising right now: your feet on the floor, your bottom on the seat. It can also mean noticing the thoughts and feelings you are experiencing right now without being carried away by them.

Checking In

Give yourself the space to recognise, as sensitively as you can, how you are feeling and what is going on in your experience. What thoughts are present? What is your overall state of mind? That helps us see what we need to do next in the practice.

 The Body

Meditation doesn’t mean thinking about our experience; it isn’t something that happens in our heads. Awareness of the body is direct and it’s a way to become aware of our emotions and our energy, which are often wrapped up in the body. That’s why it’s a key to meditation.

Finding a Focus

We settle the mind by paying attention to something in particular: the meditation ‘object’. In principle, you can use anything, but in mindfulness meditation we usually use the breath, which is always with us and usually has a calming influence. To start with, it’s a good idea to make the object as clear and specific as possible, noticing, in detail, a particular area of the body that is affected by the breath. Your attention, awareness and energy can gather around that.

The Breath

The breath is a powerful object of meditation because it’s naturally soothing and refreshing (unless you have breathing difficulties). We all know that taking a deep breath helps you calm down. The breath connects us to the body, the environment and to the most basic elements of being alive, so it’s a key ally when we want to settle our minds.

Letting Go

Becoming quiet and settled means letting go of the busy ‘doing mode’. Even when we sit quietly, our thoughts keep going because we are still in the same mode and our minds are drawn to the stimulation and urgency these thoughts bring. Letting them go means gradually disengaging from these thoughts and feelings and finding a way to settle into our experience without trying to change it.

Interest

Our minds usually find it easy to engage with plans, activities and worries. Engaging with meditation is subtler. We need to become interested in the process of settling the mind. That might mean noticing the detail in our experience of the breath and body and it might mean including our feelings and emotions.

Finding Your Key

As you become more experienced in meditation, you will get to know the things that help you become more calm, whole and settled. That might mean the breath or the sensations of the body, as I have suggested. Or it might be something that is quite personal to you: a word or a phrase; an image; a certain kind of breathing. Some people like to count the breaths, others contact a sense of kindness. So explore what will help you connect each time you sit down to meditate.

Patience

Because settling is a process, it requires patience. When the sea is full of waves, you need to wait for the wind to die down before it will become calm. Gently, kindly, just keep bringing the mind back, again and again.

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Let go…

I’ve done a lot of rock climbing, so I know firsthand the importance sometimes of not letting go! This applies to other things as well: keeping hold of a child’s hand while crossing the street, staying true to your ethics in a tricky situation, or sustaining attention to your breath while meditating.

On the other hand, think of all the stuff – both physical and nonphysical – we cling to that creates problems for us and others: clutter in the home, “shoulds,” rigid opinions, resentments, regrets, status, guilt, resistance to the facts on the ground, needing to be one-up with others, the past, people who are gone, bad habits, hopeless guests, unrewarding relationships, and so on.

Letting go can mean several things: releasing pain; dropping thoughts, words, and deeds that cause suffering and harm; yielding rather than breaking; surrendering to the way it is, like it or not; allowing each moment to pass away without trying to hold on to it; accepting the permanently impermanent nature of existence; and relaxing the sense of self and opening out into the wider world.

Living in this way is relaxing, decreases hassles and conflicts, reduces stress, improves mood and well-being, and grounds you in reality as it is. And it’s a key element, if you like, of spiritual practice. To quote Ajahn Chah, a major Buddhist teacher who lived in Thailand:

If you let go a little, you will have a little happiness.
If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of happiness.
If you let go completely, you will be completely happy.

How?

Appreciate the wisdom of letting go, and notice any resistance to it: perhaps it seems weak to you, foolish, or against the culture of your gender or personal background. For example, I remember talking with my friend John years ago about a woman he’d been pursuing who’d made it clear she wasn’t interested, and he felt frustrated and hurt. I said maybe he should surrender and move on – to which John replied fiercely, “I don’t do surrender.” It took him a while to get past his belief that surrender – acceptance, letting go – meant you were wimping out. (All ended happily with us getting drunk together and him throwing up on my shoe – which I then had to surrender to!) It takes strength to let go, and fortitude, character, and insight. When you let go, you’re like a supple and resilient willow tree that bends before the storm, still here in the morning – rather than a stiff oak that ends up broken and toppled over.

Be aware of the letting go that happens naturally all day long such as, releasing objects from your hands, hanging up the phone, pushing send on an e-mail, moving from one thought or feeling to another in your mind, saying bye to a friend, shifting plans, using the bathroom, changing a TV channel, or emptying the trash. Notice that letting go is all right, that you keep on going, that it’s necessary and beneficial. Become more comfortable with letting go.

Consciously let go of tension in your body. Exhale long and slowly, activating the relaxing parasympathetic nervous system. Let go of holding in your belly, shoulders, jaws, and eyes.

Clear out possessions you don’t use or need. Let in how great it feels to finally have some room in your closet, drawers, or garage.

Pick a dumb idea you’ve held on to way too long – one for me would be that I have to do things perfectly or there’ll be a disaster. Practice dropping this idea and replacing it with better ones (like for me: “Nobody is perfect and that’s okay”).

Pick a grievance, grudge, or resentment – and resolve to move on. This does not necessarily mean letting other people off the moral hook, just that you are letting yourself off the hot plate of staying upset about whatever happened. If feelings such as hurt still come up about the issue, be aware of them, be kind to yourself about them, and then gently encourage them out the door.

Letting go of painful emotions is a big subject, with lots of resources for you in books such as Focusing, by Eugene Gendlin, or What We May Be, by Piero Ferrucci. Here’s a summary of methods I like: relax your body; imagine that the feelings are flowing out of you like water; vent in a letter you’ll never send, or out loud someplace appropriate; get things off your chest with a good friend; take in positive feelings to soothe and gradually replace the painful ones.
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In general, let things be pleasant without grasping after them; let things be unpleasant without resisting them; let things be neutral without prodding them to get pleasant. Letting go undoes the craving and clinging that lead to suffering and harm.

Let go of who you used to be. Let yourself learn, grow, and therefore change.

Let go of each moment as it disappears beneath your feet. It’s gone as soon as you’re aware of it, like a snowflake melting as soon as you see its shape. You can afford to abide as letting go because of the miracle – which no scientist fully understands – that the next moment continually emerges as the previous one vanishes, all within the infinitely tiny duration of Now.

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Beyond the “defended self”

During the years right after college, I was the director of a yoga studio at the ashram where I was living near Boston. One day, at a time when we were behind in promoting our major event of the year, which featured a number of well-known teachers, the head of our local community arrived late to our weekly staff meeting, visibly upset. I asked him what was wrong.

In a barely controlled voice, he thrust in front of me a flyer I’d created for the event. “Just take a look at this.” Immediately, I saw the typo in bold print—it was the wrong date. My heart sank: we’d just printed three thousand of them; I’d screwed up big time.

Although my mind scrambled to solve the problem, the weight of failure sat like a big stone in my chest. At the end of our meeting I began an apology: “This was my responsibility,” I said in a low monotone, “and I’m really sorry for messing up . . .” Then as I felt the others’ eyes on me, I felt a flash of anger and the words tumbled out: “But, you know, this has been a huge amount of work and I’ve been totally on my own.” I could feel my eyes burning, but I blinked back the tears. “It would have been nice if someone had been available to proofread . . . maybe this kind of thing wouldn’t have happened.”

For the rest of the week I was trapped in self-disgust. Hour after hour my mind replayed every recent incident that highlighted my flaws: I’d lied to get out of a social obligation, exaggerated the size of my yoga classes to another teacher, gossiped to feel more like an insider. Instead of generosity and selfless service, my focus was on my own spiritual progress. Once again I found myself facing what I most disliked about myself: insecurity and self-centeredness. I felt disconnected from everyone around me, stuck inside a self I didn’t want to be.

Because my self-doubts seemed so “unspiritual,” I didn’t talk about them with anyone. At work I was all business. I withdrew from the casual banter and playfulness at group meals, and when I did try to be sociable, I felt like an imposter. Several weeks later, the women in our ashram decided to form a sensitivity group where we could talk about personal challenges. I wondered whether this might be an opportunity for me to get more real.

At our opening meeting, as the other women talked about their stress at work, about children and health problems, I felt my anxiety build. Finally, when there was a pause in the conversation, my confession came pouring out. “I know I do a lot of yoga and teach a lot of classes, that it looks like I’m a helpful, caring person … That may be true in some ways, but it’s also a front. What I’m covering up, what I don’t want anyone to see, is how self-centered I am, how selfish and judgmental.” After pausing and glancing around at the solemn faces, I took the real plunge. “This is hard to say, but … I don’t trust that I’m a good person, and that makes it hard to really feel close with anyone.”

Directly after the meeting, I retreated quickly to my room, curled up in fetal position on my futon and cried. By naming my experience out loud, I had stripped away a layer of the small self’s protection. Feeling raw and exposed, I started mentally berating myself for having said anything. I told myself I should get up right that moment and do some yoga. Instead, I began trying to figure out what really had gone wrong, what was making me feel so bad about myself.

Suddenly I realized that this inner processing was yet more of the same. I was still trying to control things by figuring them out, by trying more practice, by trying to manage how others might see me. Recognizing these false refuges stopped me in my tracks—I didn’t want to stay stuck. An inner voice asked, “What would happen if, in this moment, I didn’t try to do anything, to make anything different?” I immediately felt the visceral grip of fear and then a familiar sinking hole of shame—the very feelings I had been trying to avoid for as long as I could remember. Then the same inner voice whispered very quietly, a familiar refrain: “Just let it be.”

I stretched out on my back, took a few full breaths, and felt the weight of my body supported by the futon. Again and again my mind tried to escape into reviewing what I’d said hours earlier, or rehearsing what else I could say to explain myself. Again and again the intention to “let it be” brought me back to the fear and shame I was experiencing. Sometime during the night, lying there alone in the darkness, these emotions gave way to grief. I was struck by how much of my life—my aliveness and loving—was lost when I was caught in feelings of unworthiness. I let myself open to that fully too, sobbing deeply, until the grief gradually subsided.

I got up, sat on my cushion in front of my small meditation altar, and continued to pay attention. My mind quieted naturally and I became increasingly aware of my own inner experience—a silent presence suffused with tenderness. This presence was a space of being that included everything—waves of sadness, the feeling of my drying tears, the sounds of crickets, the humid summer night.

In this open space thoughts again bubbled up —the memory of being defensive at the staff meeting and my subsequent attempts to offer a real apology; then a flash forward to me teaching the yoga class I’d scheduled for the following morning, trying to project a positive, confident energy. This time, as these scenes came into view, I felt like I was witnessing a character in a play. The character was continually trying to protect herself, but in the process, she was disconnecting more and more from herself, from authenticity, from the potential sustenance of feeling connected to others. And in each scene, I saw her perpetually “doing” in order to feel better about herself, “doing” in order to avoid pain, “doing” in order to avoid failure.

As I sat there watching this play, I had, for the first time, a compelling sense that this character wasn’t really “me.” Her feelings and reactions were certainly familiar, but they were just ripples on the surface of what I really was. In the same way, everything happening at that moment—the thoughts, the sensations of sitting cross-legged, the tenderness, the tiredness—were part of my being but could not define me. My heart opened. How sad to have been living in such a confined world; how sad to have felt so driven and so alone!

That night by my altar, an old sense of self was falling away. Who was I, then? In those moments I sensed that the truth of what I was couldn’t be contained in any idea or image of self. Rather, it was the space of presence itself—the silence, the wakeful openness—that felt like home. A feeling of gratitude and reverence filled me that has never entirely left.

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Let it go!

Most people, me included, are holding onto at least one thing way past its expiration date.

It could be a belief, perhaps that your hair is falling out and you are ugly and unlovable as a result; that you can’t say what you really feel in an intimate relationship; or that you must lose ten pounds to be attractive. It could be a desire, such as wishing someone would treat you better, pushing to make a project be successful, yearning for a certain kind of partner, or wanting to cure an illness. It could be a feeling, like a fear, grudge, resentment, longtime grief, or sense of low worth. It could be a behavior, like such as jogging with aging knees, playing video games, or buying clothes. It could be something you insist others do, such as make their beds, drive a certain way when you’re in the car, or meet particular goals at work.

Some of the things we’re attached to are obviously problematic – and usually we know it, or could know it with a little reflection – such as self-critical thoughts, obsessions or compulsions, defensiveness about your issues, or drinking too much. These things are relatively straightforward to deal with, even though it could be difficult.

The hard things are the ones that make sense, that have good things about them, that would be good for you and likely others if they could work out – like longing for love from someone, or wishing more people would come to your store, or hoping that you’re free of cancer – but, alas, are either not worth the price or it’s sadly clear that you just can’t make them happen.

You’ve watered the tree, fertilized it, protected it, even danced around it at midnight under a full moon . . . and it’s still not bearing any fruit.

Now what do you do?

Sometimes you just have to let it go.

For starters, take a clear look at yourself. For example, I’m a churner, a plugger. It’s tough for me to accept that my efforts are not producing the results I want. But to keep trying to grow corn in the Sahara – pick your own metaphor – when there’s little or no pay-off either present or in sight means that you are stressing yourself and probably others for little gain, plus wasting time, attention, and other resources that could be better invested elsewhere.

Step back from your situation, from whatever it is that you’re attached to, and try to hold it in a larger perspective. Get some distance from it, as if you’re sitting comfortably on a sunny mountain looking down on a valley that contains this thing you’ve been holding onto. Exhale and relax and listen to your heart: What’s it telling you about this attachment? Are the conditions truly present to have it come true? Is it worth its costs? Is it simply out of your hands, so that your own striving – however well-intended, skillful, and honorable – just can’t make it so? You get to decide whether it’s best to keep trying, or time to let it go. Be with these reflections – perhaps sitting quietly with a cup of tea, or in some place that is beautiful or sacred to you – and let their answers sink in.

You can help yourself let something go by making it concrete. For example, put a small stone or other object in your hand and imagine that it is the thing you’ve been attached to. Hold onto it hard; let your desires and thoughts about it flow through awareness; feel the costs related to it; and when you’re ready, open your hand and drop it – and open as well to any sense of relief, freedom, ease, or insight. You could do a similar practice by writing a note about this attachment, and then tearing it up and letting its pieces fall away. Or you could talk with a trusted being – perhaps a friend or therapist, or in your own kind of prayer – and explore the attachment, communicate your intentions to move on, and let it go.

You might still have the wish that something work out, but you no longer feel driven, compelled, intense, fixed, caught up, identified, or strongly desirous about it. You have accepted the way it is. You have surrendered; in a healthy sense, you have given up. Make space for the disappointment or grieving that’s natural when you let go of something that’s been important for you. It’s normal to feel sad about a loss. Then after a while, it occupies your mind less and less, and you move on to more fruitful things.

Let good things come into the space that’s been opened up by whatever you’ve let go. These could be more time, freedom, energy, peace, creativity, or love. Of course, there are many things worth pursuing, including the next breath, but you can make wholesome efforts while simultaneously letting go of attachment to their results. Let yourself be surprised – both by what might replace what you’ve released, and by the power of letting go in general. As the great Thai Buddhist teacher, Ajahn Chah, once said:

If you let go a little, you will have a little happiness.
If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of happiness.
If you let go completely, you will be completely happy.

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The dance of allowing

woman dancing, surrounded by flames

There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt, containing a tornado.
Dam a stream and it will create a new channel.
Resist, and the tide will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry you to higher ground…

I recently discovered this wonderful poem by Danna Faulds (which is an excerpt — the full poem is here.) It has really struck me because the themes of letting go and allowing have been coming up everywhere for me.

My unconventional life, where I’m earning a living as a dharma practitioner and teacher, is full of uncertainty. There are no clear paths for me to follow, and the ups and downs can be pretty wild. Teaching and coaching also demand a constant dropping of my facades of self-protection. That’s because the more open and vulnerable I am, the better I’m able to connect, heart to heart, with another person. And I’ve written in this blog before about my health issues – my chronic fatigue, depression, and injured wrists. They constantly demand that I change plans, do things differently, and shift expectations. These are just a sampling of the ways I feel surrounded by constant demands to let go, let go, let go.

When I mentioned in a recent personal newsletter about my health issues, I received many emails of sympathy and support. And believe me, I really appreciated them! But I also wanted to express that living this way doesn’t mean I’m just stoically enduring my suffering. It’s becoming something different – quite positive really — and I’ve been grasping for words and metaphors to describe it.

When a certain pattern persists, over and over again, it’s clear to me there’s a message behind it. I need to get closer to it to hear what it has to say. I know it’s a sign that I’ve gotten into the mistaken habit of going against the grain of the world, and it’s my resistance that’s causing the friction. I can also tell there’s freedom on the other side. I can smell it.

An image that came to me recently is of dancing. Dancing with an unpredictable partner in a 100% committed, full-bodied embrace. My life, with all its demands to let go, is my dance partner – a very powerful, lifelong partner who is pointing me in the direction of freedom.

His presence feels to me like a stream, a force, a current — something that carries me along. I’m learning to lean into him, so close that our movements and energies are completely merged as one. When I’m that close, I know immediately and intuitively when he’s going to move or turn, so we move together as one. And I can’t predict very far in advance what he’ll do – it’s only a moment-to-moment thing, communicated through the touch of the present. He leads, and I move along with him. When I find my way to flow and add my energies to his, our combined creative power moves in amazing ways.

There are also times when that current takes me to some scary and difficult places. But I know it’s where I need to go, so I try not to resist or hold back. It demands a lot of courage to allow the current to flow just as freely, regardless of how I feel about it.

See also:

And let me be clear that I’ve NOT become a totally passive follower. I still have to take responsibility for myself, do my own part. I have to make sure I stay healthy, rested and alert, so I am able to dance, for example. I also need to keep my conventional life as a member of American society intact – for example, maintain a home and financial means to stay alive and present in this body, functioning in this world. My dance partner won’t just give those to me on a platter. That’s what I mean by doing my part.

And there are times when he gives me the space to dance alone. Sometimes he steps back and waits for me to make my own choice, move in a new direction, take a leap. He doesn’t encourage me in any particular direction, because it’s a true fork in the road. It really is up to me to decide what to do. And then once I make a choice, he comes over and rejoins me wherever I happen to be at the moment I decide. We create a new flow from that point forward.

I also know that he would never, ever harm me. And I know there are no “wrong” turns. No, I don’t mean that I’ll never make mistakes, get hurt or feel pain. They’re too much a part of the fabric of life. I understand that if I try to wall myself off from those unpleasant things, I’m also walling off all the good things. And I can’t learn without making mistakes. I can’t selectively shut out the parts of life I don’t want. It’s a short-sighted strategy that really doesn’t work. No, that’s not what I want.

When I say my partner would never harm me, I mean that he is always pointing me, guiding me, to higher ground. And it’s only by letting go and allowing him to show me that I can find my way there, to real freedom. He is the most challenging, no-nonsense, uncompromising partner I’ve ever had. But without question, he is also the best teacher I’ve ever had.

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How “letting go” helps us get things done

Woman in a colorful dress, caught in mid-jump, looking like she's hovering restfully over the ocean

Joe, a student in my online class, was worried that meditation would hurt his career. He works in a very competitive business where everyone is single-mindedly pushing and driving hard all the time. The whole idea of “letting go” seemed absurd in that context. But at the same time his stress and anxiety levels were sky high. He knew this wasn’t a sustainable way to live.

Yes it’s true that in meditation, we’re told to drop everything and let go. But that doesn’t mean becoming passive and ineffectual. There’s more to this instruction than meets the eye.

There’s an image that comes to mind for me to illustrate what letting go is like. Imagine we’re kayaking down a river. One way we could do it is to paddle like hell, trying to force our way around, fighting the currents, insisting that the kayak go exactly where I want it to go. And doing it how I want to do it.

Or, we could survey the terrain and current before jumping in. Then we ride the current and let it take us most of the way to where we want to go. We steer to make sure we don’t get dashed against rocks or end up heading down the wrong side of the river. We could also use a calmer bend in the river to stop and look ahead to plan our next stretch. We can steer our course without using nearly as much effort this way, adjusting our path as we go along.

Life can be the same way. We don’t have make all the effort ourselves to make things happen from beginning to end. If we expand our view beyond our self-absorbed need to reach our goal, there’s a whole universe of structures and currents out there that can help us.

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At work for example, if we find people who have common goals and interests as we do, our combined energies can often accomplish more than the sum of us individually could. Involving our boss in our plans sometimes results in him clearing a path in front of us, getting us resources, additional help, budgets, etc. Tagging onto existing workflows and procedures means we don’t have to create everything ourselves.

Letting go can help us in our inner world, too. Have you noticed how creative ideas often pop up when you’re taking a shower or walking the dog? In other words, when you’re not really trying? Recent neuroscientific research suggests that making less effort is what helps. When we become effortful in problem solving, it generally means we’re pushing our way through our old, familiar ways of doing things. And often, those are exactly the ways that haven’t worked, but we keep pounding at them anyway. When we keep repeating the same thing over and over, we become blind to other possibilities. So to be “not effortful” means to inhibit the thoughts that don’t work in order to leave room for something else to emerge.

Not being effortful also means your mind is quieter and more conducive to new ideas. A creative thought is one that brings up a long-forgotten memory or combines some of them in a new way. Neurologically speaking, they involve connections between far fewer neurons than your front-of-mind thoughts. So the signals they emit are much weaker, and generally get drowned out by your much louder, effortful thoughts. To give those quieter thoughts a fighting chance to be noticed, it helps to have a quiet mind. One that has “let go” of jangly discursive thinking.

So letting go doesn’t mean letting go of everything — just the stuff that gets in our way. In this context, it means letting go of our obsessive focus on results, and our inflexible views of how to get there. It doesn’t mean dropping all thoughts about the future, but finding a more open and flexible relationship with them.

The larger perspective of the teaching on “letting go” is an acknowledgment that I am a part of a highly interconnected world. Every time I get hyper-focused on my own little view of the world, I am being blind to the way things really are. To think that I can do things exclusively my way is to be foolish and ignorant. And it’s bound to get me into trouble, or at least cause me a lot of stress.

But at the same time, I’m not a helpless victim either. I am the agent of my own free will, and can use it to steer my path through life. With mindfulness, we can skillfully navigate our way through all these forces to get to a better outcome. And it’s not just me that benefits — because everything I do ultimately benefits everyone.

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Five steps to opening the heart to peace

Overhead shot of woman doing seated yoga pose

For many years I co-led a yoga and meditation retreat with a friend.  The retreat was called Open Heart, Quiet Mind and it was offered  at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. My friend taught yoga and I led guided meditations on the metta bhavana, the meditation on the development of loving-kindness.

The retreats initially began on Friday evening and ended on Sunday afternoon. They were so popular the next retreat was fully booked at the end of each retreat. After sensing the rhythm of the retreats for several years, we decided to extend the timing of them and so we started Thursday evenings and ended Sunday afternoons so that we would have an extra full day to meditate and practice yoga.

With the combination of yoga and meditation, participants relaxed and looked inward and a community was established. Throughout the retreat we thought about an intention, something we wanted to consider during and after the retreat. The intentions came as a result of the yoga, meditation, silence, cooking together and having spaciousness from the usual routine of daily life.

Towards the end of the retreat we shared our intentions, with each person listening quietly as individuals described their intentions. The intentions spanned a range of topics from exercise, meditation, diet, communication, music practice to making amends with estranged friends and family members. Although each person’s intention was different, the common thread was that they came from the heart.

Although we did not lead people to make intentions based on ethical disciplines of yoga, most of them did fall into five ethical categories.  So, eventually, when leading meditation at the yoga retreats, I spoke about these steps to freedom.

Just as the practice of yoga releases tension in the body, these five steps will release blocks to the flow of the heart and release unconditional love.  When we love, we are free from the restrictions of ill will.

Here is a list of five ways to open the heart:

1. Ahimsa – nonharm – the practice of compassion and unconditional love for ourselves, for all human beings and all sentient beings

We can practice ahimsa with each word we speak, each action we take and each thought we think. Ahimsa is the foundation for vegetarianism.

Of course we don’t always reach our ideals so an important aspect of this practice is to be gentle and accepting of ourselves when our practice falls short of the ideal.

As a way of practicing ahimsa we might ponder the following queries:

  • In what ways am I critical of myself and others?
  • Recall a time when I blamed myself for an outcome of an action. What could I have done differently, if anything?
  • In what ways have I allowed others to be critical, cruel, unloving to me? What will I do to become free from this situation?
  • How can I be more loving and accepting of myself and others?

2. Satya – truth – the practice of being true in our thoughts, words and actions

To practice satya, we are fearless in understanding the truth and this is reflected in what we think, how we communicate and how we behave. We are also fearless when listening to others, to understand their truth. We recognize that the foundation of truth is ahimsa.

As a way of practicing satya, we might ponder the following:

  • In what ways am I true to myself?
  • When do my actions conflict with honoring the truth?
  • With whom am I truthful and which people “not so much”?
  • Reflect on relationships that are not based on truth and consider whether it is time to communicate with the person in an honest and kind way.
  • How can I be more true to myself and to others?

3. Asteya – not stealing – being free from desiring what belongs to others

Desire and craving what we do not have means that we feel insufficient, as though we lack something. This practice means that we respect the property of others, return what we borrow, act in a courteous way with others (respecting their energy and time) and to be at peace within ourselves.

We might practice asteya by reflecting on the following:

  • With whom do I feel “lesser than” or jealous? What is beneath this feeling and how can I change this sense of lack?
  • What material things of others do I desire?
  • When do I feel at ease and grateful for how things are? How can I develop this sense of ease?
  • How does generosity fit with asteya?

4. Aparigraha – letting go – freedom from collecting possessions

We desire to possess many things including material objects, thoughts and ideas, and even people. We cling to things – homes, cars, technological toys, books, adventures, partners, travel and pets. We feel secure when we have our “stuff”.

To practice letting go:

  • Consider times when you released your attachment to something or someone.
  • Consider what you cling to. In what, who and where is your sense of security based?
  • Which possessions are you most tied to? Which can you easily let go?
  • Make a list of your possessions and consider a giving away 10%- 25% of them! What is your felt sense as you consider this idea?

5. Santosha – contentment – being at peace no matter what our situation is

We may be in a partnership or single, live in an apartment or a home, drive a Subaru or a Lamborghini, work in a cubicle or the corner office with the view, we may be twenty or seventy, have a high school education or a Doctorate, healthy or ill, intellectual or not, artistic or not – whatever our circumstances, we are content and at peace.

Being at peace means that when we work with, or know, or hear of someone who seems to “have it all” or “have it easy”, we are centered and at peace with the understanding that we lack nothing.

Some ideas to ponder when working with santosha include:

  • When I find myself feeling jealous of someone’s conditions, how do I feel in my body and what emotions arise?
  • Consider a time you were filled with negativity, how did you react? How could you respond to move towards contentment?

Patanjali (150 BCE) is the compiler of the Yoga Sutras, an important collection of aphorisms on yoga practice based on reflection, meditation and ethics.

He wrote: “Peace can be reached through meditation on the knowledge which dreams give. Peace can also be reached through concentration upon that which is dearest to the heart.”

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Meditating on anxiety

One of my clients — I’ll call him Mark — took up meditation to help with his lifelong anxiety. He was all too aware of his tendency to over-analyze and worry about everything. He’d been meditating on and off for two years, gone on retreats, read tons of dharma books, done everything he could think of.

But he felt like there was no progress at all. He told me that every sit still featured that same old frenzied monkey mind swinging from tree to tree. It was nothing but frustration.

I have to say, I empathize. I bet you’ve been in a similar place, too. We all take up meditation with some kind of goal in mind. And we really do put in our best efforts. But what do we do when it doesn’t work?

We’ve all been told since childhood that if we want something to happen, we have to MAKE it happen. This is true, up to a point.

But for Mark, this was creating the exact opposite of what he wanted. The harder he tried, the more it stirred up his mind. The more it emphasized how far he was from where he wanted to be. Which brought on more anxiety and self-criticism. The more he pushed himself, the more another part of him rebelled. He’d get into battles with himself.

Ugh! Stop!

For one, I thought his mindfulness practice was doing just fine. It was going so well that he was seeing himself – and his overactive mind – face to face, as it really was. Congratulations, I told him. Your meditation IS working for you. Just because you don’t like what you see doesn’t make it wrong.

When we’re dealing with lifelong habits and tendencies, taking up meditation won’t make them just go away. It’s not like a pill we take to get rid of the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. It’s more like a very accurate mirror. It reflects us back in great intimate detail, so we can see clearly and start working with ourselves better. This is when things can really start happening.

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Sure it sounds unpleasant. But which would you prefer — to stick with the same old familiar habits that aren’t working, or venture into new territory that points to freedom from those habits?

And so how do we point toward freedom?

I think the answer is to give up. I’m serious.

I don’t mean give up meditation. I mean give up the fight. I suggested to Mark that he stop all the effort and obsessing. Just sit and be with what is. Everything changes in every moment. Just observe the organic ebb and flow.

What? How does that help?

Obviously we can’t change what’s already happened. Anxiety, frustration, worry – whatever is there is there, for better or worse. It does no good to get upset about it. All we can do is change the way we RESPOND to what’s there.

So rather than meeting it with more judgment and frenzy, we meet it with acceptance, calm, and kindness. We’re practicing being the sort of person we want to be, RIGHT NOW. We stop perpetuating the same old cycle. If we can’t muster a calm and kind response, even just taking a breath and acknowledging what’s happening is a change in the right direction. ANY tiny step in the direction of less frenzy is great. That’s all it takes.

Mark wondered how he’d know if he’s making any progress. It feels so … well … passive.

I suggested that he drop worrying about that as well. Really, we can’t know what “progress” will look like. We’ll know it when we see it, but we can’t predict what it’ll be in advance — in the same way that we can’t predict what a particular oak tree will look like when holding it in acorn form.

But we DO know that acorns grow upward toward the sun. If we keep our intentions pointed upward in the same way (not grasping or worrying, but just facing upward and keeping a open, positive attitude), progress is inevitable.

As the Buddha said,

“If one speaks or acts with a pure mind, happiness follows like a shadow that never departs.”

Note he said “happiness follows.” Not “we make happiness happen.”

With each small moment of awareness, it’s like we’re watering and fertilizing the seeds of peace in the soil of our consciousness. We can’t MAKE them sprout and bloom. But if we do our part, we can surrender the rest to a natural process that will always come through for us.

I’ve really grown to trust that this is the way things are.

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