Tonight we’ll continue with our exploration of ideas in Shaila Catherine’s book Focused and Fearless: A Meditator’s Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm and Clarity. The fifth chapter is titled “The Wisdom of Letting Go,” and it opens with one of the Buddha’s teachings:
See how letting go of the world is peacefulness.
There is nothing that you need to hold on to
and nothing that you need to push away.
Last week, Mark and I saw the Disney movie Frozen, which features the Oscar-winning song Let it Go, composed by Bobby López, a former Yale University student who lived in Jonathan Edwards College, where Mark was his Dean. At the climax of the song, Idina Menzel expresses Princess Elsa’s assertion of freedom, after fleeing her family’s palace, where she had repressed her innate gifts:
…the fears that once controlled me
Can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do,
To test the limits and break through.
No right, no wrong, no rules for me,
Let it go, let it go.
I am one with the wind and sky.
Let it go, let it go.
Elsa uses the phrase to indicate both coming into the fullness of her being and moving beyond a sense of self to merge with the elements of nature.
Shaila writes, “Developing wisdom demands that we courageously abandon anything harmful and diligently cultivate wholesome states.” This mixture of development and relinquishment reminds me of a passage in Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy, which I’ve been reading for a course that Mark is teaching at The Jung Center. Huxley writes about the capacity of ordinary soldiers, in extreme conditions of combat, to become selfless, to put the welfare of their unit ahead of even their own survival. He then explains the difference between developing military and spiritual discipline: “the aim of spiritual training is to make people become selfless in every circumstance of life, while the aim of military training is to make them selfless only in certain special circumstances and in relation to only certain classes of human beings…. Spiritual training leads to a transcendence of personality, not merely in the special circumstances of battle, but in all circumstances and in relation to all creatures.” Referring to Buddhist adepts in particular, Huxley says that they do not recognize the existence of enemies, but treat “all sentient beings with the same compassion and disinterested good will.”
Ironically, spiritual stamina entails not striving but relinquishing, not striving with great effort to attain levels of deep concentration or absorption, but instead relinquishing attachments to cherished fantasies, destructive attitudes, assumptions, views, roles and beliefs. As the Buddha taught, “If you don’t want to suffer, don’t cling…. Nothing is worth adhering to.”
I like Shaila’s exercise of reflecting upon what the mind produces during the first moments after awakening in the morning. Before distracting ourselves with any input from a conversation, radio, newspaper, or television, it’s a good time to observe our habitual thought patterns. I notice that when my mind is not directed by the structure of a task, it tends to make plans: “I’ll write down my dream while the imagery is still clear, I want to phone my mother today about a poem she sent me, our dog needs a bath, it’s laundry day, my Dharma talk for tonight still needs editing, etc.” When I notice what patterns of thoughts dominate, “selfing” occurs frequently. From the moment that I’m conscious of my thoughts, they revolve around my identity and what I consider “mine.”
Have you tried to identify your habitual patterns of thinking? Do they tend to focus on memories, plans, hopes for success, complaints, worries, relationships, money, opinions, or self-image? Take a moment to reflect: What are your top ten thoughts?
Shaila says, “meditation is designed to solve a specific problem: attachment.” Through practice, we become aware of the pain of grasping, which we understand as the cause of our suffering. That understanding develops into the wisdom to know, “When you are being dragged, let go of the leash.”
The Buddha pinpointed four ways of handling thoughts of attachment that arise during meditation: he considered the first way of indulging distracting thoughts to be “fettered, bound, and not free.” The second approach of rejecting, denying, avoiding, or reacting against repetitive thoughts leads to the bind of aversion. The third way of quickly abandoning and removing thoughts allows a superficial reprieve from distractions, but does not prevent further thoughts from occurring. No matter how mindful or skillful, a meditator needs to practice until wisdom develops. The fourth approach involves understanding that the cause of obsessive thinking is attachment, so that the meditator lets go of the root of suffering. In the Buddha’s words, “Such a person, I call unfettered.”
Shaila reassures us that “as we discern the impermanent, conditioned character of all material and mental processes, we eliminate perceptions, sensory experience, and material things as fields for possession. On the surface, it seems as if we are asked to give up everything, but simultaneously comes the realization that there is actually nothing possessed and consequently nothing that can actually be given up.” When we abandon the concept of ownership, our relinquishment entails no loss. The recognition of impermanence leads to realizing the ungraspable nature of all things, so there’s no longer fear of losing what cannot be possessed.
On the first evening of my professional retreat in Mexico a few weeks ago, my music therapy colleagues seemed enthusiastic about my offer to lead a Qigong session before breakfast. The next morning I arrived early, geared up for my role as instructor. Eventually, one sleepy, jet-lagged English guy showed up to accompany me. I let go of my expectations and connected with the ancient practice, as my friend mirrored my slow, flowing movements. He enjoyed the process as much as I did, and it was liberating to shed any role that might have separated us during our shared experience.
It’s helpful to notice how we respond when we don’t get what we want. Now reflect upon a recent experience you’ve had of letting go. What feelings occurred in that moment of release? Are there any burdens in your life that you would be happier shedding?
As we develop concentration during meditation, we become aware that pleasant, unpleasant and neutral feeling tones are distinct from conceptual assumptions about what we like or dislike. Normally we try to prolong the pleasant, to avoid the unpleasant and to ignore what’s neutral. With mindful attention, we can investigate connections between pleasure and greed, pain and aversion, and neutrality and delusion. When we transcend the level of concepts and personal history to directly experience a quality of feeling, we have an opportunity to free ourselves from habits of desire and aversion.
For example, I used to assume that receiving a massage is a completely pleasurable experience. However, I’m aware of feeling uncomfortable lying on my belly with my cheekbones pressed into the face cradle. Although I sense a pleasant release of tension as the masseuse works on my stiff neck, I notice an unpleasant sensation as her massage oil sticks to my hair. When I attune my attention to the flow of feeling, I’m surprised about how often the affective tone shifts.
From my own experience, I know the truth in Shaila’s assertion that if we maintain focused awareness on the stream of changing feelings, we can break the link to craving long enough to suspend habitual reactions. I appreciate her advice to shift attention away from carefully noting the details of burning, stabbing, and pinching sensations that compose pain, while my mind is resisting the basic fact of pain. Instead, I can focus on the unpleasant feeling tone that is accompanying the pain. When I become mindful of the subtle feeling tone, “the specific perceptions and personal narratives that trigger unpleasant feeling” become relatively unimportant. Once I recognize pain as unpleasant, I relax into accepting the reality of the moment.
The same goes for unwanted sounds during meditation. What may feel unpleasant for me may be perfectly acceptable for someone else. One might assume that retreat centers should be perfectly quiet, but during springtime at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, it’s not uncommon to hear a chorus of frogs croaking noisily in a nearby stream, wild turkeys gobbling wildly during their mating dances, and crows cawing loudly outside the hall. In deep states of concentration, all these sounds simply arise and pass away in spaciousness.
According to Shaila, “Wherever clinging is perceived, that is the place to release. As [our] equanimity grows, it becomes easier to let go.” With increasing wisdom, we find courage to face the grief of loss, to understand it not only as a personal tragedy, but also as a manifestation of life’s inevitable suffering. And we learn to appreciate the daily blessings that abound when we are present in this very moment.