letting go

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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Five steps to opening the heart to peace

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.

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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A Slow, True Path

This beautiful post came into my e-mail recently. It’s a wonderfully simple and clear exposition of the Buddhist view of life. Or maybe it just happens to coincide with my own. In any case, I thought I’d share it in the hope that might resonate for some of you as well.


A Slow, True Path
Pamela White affirms the beliefs of a Buddhist.

THIS I BELIEVE: That phenomena do not have any kind of demonstrable, intrinsic existence. That anything that is the composite sum of other parts is, logically, impermanent. That suffering is a given in any form of existence where confusion and ignorance are present. That when confusion and ignorance have been definitively eliminated, and goodness, caring, and wisdom have entirely taken their place, that is true happiness.

These four beliefs define me as a Buddhist and are the ground on which other beliefs are based. For example, I believe the teachings when they point to ego, to self-cherishing, to always being on the lookout for recognition, approval, comfort, and pleasure, as being so many hammers that fatally pound in the barbed nails of suffering. And I believed my teacher, the late great Tibetan master Gendun Rinpoche, when he answered my mother’s question saying, “Yes, if you attain enlightenment you’ll know it. How? Because suffering will have come to an end.”

The Buddhist teachers and teachings I’ve been taken with have encouraged me to honestly investigate, question, and delve. And time after time, I’ve had to concur: Trying to build happiness on a foundation of ego is like trying to build a tower on quicksand. But letting go—oh, letting go—is the simplest, most direct path to what I’m always scrambling to achieve with the most ineffectual, hackneyed methods— like crowing about being right, or trying to get something for nothing, or choosing the shortest line, or getting the biggest peanut butter cookie. . .

What do I train in letting go of? Not enthusiasm, or humor, or creativity, or curiosity. I train in letting go of selfimportance and its infinite ramifications. Not that it’s easy. I am the most important thing in my universe—take me out of it, what’s left?

How do I train?

I try to remember that every living being is also the center of its personal universe—from mite to mackerel to monkey. You are also the epicenter of your universe.

I try to take myself less seriously. I try to remember that every seed that is sown will sprout and ripen one day.

I try to imagine myself in the skin of others. And to love them for their qualities, and for the enlightened spark that underlies confusion. It’s hard going, appreciating instead of judging, but every now and then it simply happens, and when it does, I’m happy.

Sometimes I train through meditation, learning over and over again that the fullness and goodness of the present can only be recognized when I’m ready to will my mind to let go of the past and the future.

And sometimes I train by remembering and accepting the inevitability of impermanence and death, making the wonder of the present moment even more luminous.

I try to remember how lucky I am, and to be helpful, and to expect less. I try to understand the teachings of the Buddha, of enlightenment, and to put my understanding into practice. It’s a slow path, rarely an easy path, but it is a true path.

From “A Slow, True Path to Goodness,” © 2008 by Pamela White. Reprinted with permission from This I Believe, Inc., © 2006–2008.

[via Tricycle Magazine]
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Letting go, always letting go

martha and maryIn the first of a series of articles, The Rev. Canon Renée Miller explores Buddhist practice from the perspective of her own Christian faith.

The Dalai Lama says that meditation is the cure for every problem. That seems a bold claim to make. When we consider the various small and large problems in our lives, it doesn’t seem that meditation could resolve them. What can sitting in silence, counting our breaths do about the pain we feel in our bodies, or the fear we experience when we face death, or the lack of purpose we sometimes feel, or even the bread we baked that did not rise as it should have? How is meditation a solution for that?

Meditation actually applies to every problem, no matter how debilitating or simplistic we find the problem to be. These principles can be seen in stories of people that have lived them out. One story in the Christian tradition is about two sisters, Martha and Mary. We don’t know if either of the women was accustomed to meditating, but we do know that when Jesus arrived for dinner Mary was insistent on simply sitting at his feet. She didn’t seem to want to speak or attend to the details of the meal preparations. Martha, on the other hand, was so distracted, so worried about all that needed to be done, so consumed with the problems that loomed before her, that all she could do was complain – certainly not meditate!

 Meditation applies to every problem, no matter how debilitating we find the problem to be.  

Jesus’ response to Martha was that Mary had chosen the best part and it wouldn’t be taken from her. Jesus was saying what the Dalai Lama might have said to Martha — that meditation was the solution for every problem — even cleaning the house, getting the table set, seating the guests, being sure that all the dishes were prepared properly and that conversation flowed with ease.

We are accustomed to dealing with our problems by trying to find solutions to them, or by trying to escape them altogether. On the one hand, we stress, we worry, we plan and strategize, or we get more outside opinions. On the other hand, we turn on the television, take a drink, plan a party, shop, take a trip, surf the Internet. Even though neither approach seems to get us the results we hope for, we feel that we are at least doing something -– even if it’s just stressing about our problem.

I have found in my own tradition that there are two principles of meditation that make it the solution to every problem. First, we learn about letting go. Second, we give up our attachment to the result. The most important of these is the first -– learning to let go. It is counter-intuitive because we are so used to holding on, controlling, making something happen by our own will and action. Letting go takes us out of control, removes the drama around our problem, and leaves us with nothing to stress about or act upon. The good news of that is that it takes us out of control, removes the drama around our problem, and leaves us with nothing to stress about or act upon! In other words, when we sit in meditation and find issues, thoughts, and problems rising in our soul and we simply let them go, we are cutting them loose from us. Because we are no longer attached to them they cease to have power over us.

 Letting go removes the drama around our problems, and leaves us with nothing to stress about  

When we fully accept this, we move into the second principle of not being attached to the result. This is critical because we can separate ourselves from a problem for awhile, but still be seeking a certain resolution to it. When we fully let go of the result, we become as open as curious as children about how things will turn out. We’re no longer so afraid or uncertain. We may take action on our problem, but we are as surprised as anyone else about how it will all unfold.

Meditation helps us learn to let go and helps us practice letting go on a regular basis. It’s really only when we let go that we are able to be detached from what acts on our lives from outside. It’s only when we let go that we experience the freedom of detachment from results.

Letting go is not easy. It’s hard even during the midst of meditation, much less in the hard reality of everyday life. When we’re impatient waiting in line to check out at the grocery store, it’s not easy to let go. When our spouse has misinterpreted something we said, it’s not easy to let go. When our net worth drops yet again, it’s not easy to let go. When our computer doesn’t respond, it’s not easy to let go. When someone hurts us or betrays us, it’s not easy to let go. These are the hard, implacable areas of life – the ones where we tend simply to respond as we’ve always responded. Unfortunately, we continue to get the same results.

Imagine what would happen if we learned to let go. Imagine what would happen if we became detached from results. I believe we would begin to see our souls developing peace and fullness. I believe we would begin to see joy and hope slipping into everything we experienced – even those things that were less than desirable. I believe we would find ourselves becoming braver and bolder.

The divine truth is that the invitation to sit down and breathe is always there. And when we sit down and breathe we are surprised to find ourselves stilled and filled.

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A student asks: I want to learn how to control my anger, but it’s really hard. Any advice?

Students who take Wildmind’s online courses have the opportunity to talk about their practice and get personal feedback from the teacher. The following is a recent exchange from one of our meditation courses.

A student asks: I want to learn how to control my anger, but it’s really hard. Any advice?

Sunada replies:The thing about emotions, especially strong ones like anger, is that they seem to come up in an instant, leaving no room for us to do anything about them. So for example, we realize we snapped at someone only after we recognize that we’re angry. It seems impossible to do anything about them, doesn’t it?

But actually, emotions are habits we’ve taken on, and can be undone, believe it not. So there are ways we can learn to avoid those outbursts altogether. Buddhist sages who spent entire lifetimes studying the mind through meditation saw that our emotional responses come in two parts. The first is what’s called feelings – the initial sensation in our gut in reaction to something. Let’s say we hear a bird song. We immediately sense it as pleasant (e.g. we find it soothing to hear birds), unpleasant (e.g. we’re annoyed that it woke us up too early in the morning), or neutral (e.g. it just happens to be part of the sounds around us that we note, with no particular associations of pleasant or unpleasant). This is the part that comes up automatically and beyond our control.

What happens next, though, is the part that’s within the realm of our free will. In response to our pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feelings, we react with emotions, which are then quickly followed by thoughts and actions. For example, in response to the pleasant bird song, we feel happy and soothed, which them determines what we do next – like open the window wider and listen more closely. If the bird song is unpleasant, we might get annoyed and frustrated, and then maybe fantasize about getting out a shotgun and shooting the bird out of the tree! (I’ll skip the neutral example because it’s not very interesting in relation to what we’re talking about). Notice that the initial stimulus, the bird song, was the same in both cases, but our emotions, thoughts, and actions can go in very different directions based on our circumstances, associations, etc.

These emotions are actually conditioned, not automatic, responses. We’re like Pavlov’s dogs. We develop habits to respond in certain ways in reaction to those circumstances. There is a gap (often imperceptible I admit) between our initial feelings and our emotional responses. The trick is to become more aware of that gap, and notice our thoughts and choices while there. Then we can start to make changes that begin the process of undoing our longstanding habits, like a tendency toward anger.

Try this next time you meditate. Just sit and observe as you take in all the stimuli that comes in through your five senses. Note how you experience them as pleasant, unpleasant and neutral – but then also note how quickly your mind jumps to the next step. You don’t need to try to stop or change your reactions, just note them for now. It’s like making our thoughts go in slow motion. The more we practice in this way, the easier it will become to notice our reactions in the context of our everyday lives. We can ask ourselves – what happens, really, when we get angry? What was the triggering condition, assumption, thought, etc. that sent us in that direction? What choices did we make? Was there something we might have done differently? This is how we get to know our minds better and unravel the many strands of habits we’ve accumulated over our lives.

I know your question was about how to “let go” of anger. At first, you’ll probably find it really hard to do that, and that’s understandable. I have a hard time letting go when I get really angry, too. But we can start by using this process to let go of smaller annoyances – like maybe when someone cuts us off on the highway, for example. And work our way up gradually. Obviously it’s not as simple as “just letting go” to change a habit that we’ve had for years and years. Instead, I like to think of letting go as a lifelong learning process – where we gradually get to know ourselves better, and direct our minds to grow in more positive ways.


Editor’s note: The student with whom this exchange took place has granted permission to publish this journal entry, and will remain anonymous. Wildmind treats all student journals as strictly private, and never allows outside parties to read them without explicit permission from the student.

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