When my house burned down I gained
an unobstructed view of the moonlit sky
Some years ago I went into a Thai monastery for a period of retreat. The first morning I took my seat in the meditation hall and waited for the teacher arrive with instructions on how to meditate. I waited and waited. On the third day I summoned the courage to ask the abbot, “What should I be doing when I sit on a cushion?”, expecting to receive a complex formula of meditation instructions.” He looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face before answering, “Sit down and let go.”
Is it possible that the heart of a meditative path can be so simple; to sit down and let go? Is it equally possible that this is the path to true simplicity, calmness and freedom in our lives; to live wholeheartedly and then let go? The lessons of simplicity teach us to love deeply and to let go; to savour each sound, taste, sight and smell and to let go; to cherish each moment as a precious gift and to let go; to appreciate with profound sensitivity each connection with others, every thought and feeling, every birth and death and to be a calm presence and a conscious participant in their natural unfoldment and passing. The path of simplicity is learning to live in harmony with the rhythms of life and each moment. It is a path of joy and freedom.
Hearing the word renunciation we may find our hearts quivering not with the anticipation of joy and freedom, but with fear and resistance. Images of ourselves homeless and bereft, deprived of comfort and drowning in loneliness pass through our minds.. Renunciation may be equated with vulnerability and loss, a life of passivity and meaninglessness. We are faced with one of our deepest anxieties of not knowing how we would define ourselves, live and find meaning in the absence of the vast array of possessions, opinions, beliefs, roles and achievements we call our own. A life of simplicity and a heart of peace have as their inseparable companion, a spirit of renunciation, a genuine willingness to let go. Culturally we are encouraged to believe that possession, attainment and achievement are the pathways to happiness. In the quest for simplicity we are invited to entertain another paradigm; that it is craving, holding and possessiveness that brings complexity, confusion and sorrow and renunciation that is the mother of joy, simplicity and freedom.
Complexity and entanglement have many sources in our lives. One of the primary causes lies in the fear of losing what we have and the deeply rooted anxiety of never having enough, a generator of immense complexity. Out of the fear of solitude and aloneness we fill our lives and minds with distraction and busyness. Personal productivity has become the mantra of our time, the idea of stillness and simplicity terrifying – a sign of worthlessness. In the rush to be endlessly occupied, the fear of being deprived of stimulation we neglect our relationships and ourselves, forget the simple joys of listening to the song of a bird, the laugh of a child and the richness of one step taken with complete attention. A Christian mystic once said, “Total, unmixed attention is the essence of prayer.” We may dream of a time when we could lay down beneath the night sky and do nothing but be present with its vastness with total attention but our dreams our sabotaged by the busyness generated by anxiety. Even boredom has come to be regarded as one of our greatest enemies that we feel we will avoid through generating endless complexity and busyness. Boredom may be no more than a surrender of sensitivity, yet rather than turning our hearts and minds to rediscover that lost sensitivity we thirst for ever more exciting experience, drama and intensity. In the search for calm simplicity it may be important for us to remember our dreams of intimacy, stillness and happiness, to value their discovery and to learn to let go.
Some time ago the keepers at the New York zoo became concerned when Gus the polar bear was observed swimming repetitively back and forth in his pool for hours on end. Animal psychologists and experts were called for consultation and the final conclusion was that Gus was bored. Not that Gus may been somewhat aggrieved at living in New York rather than bounding through snowdrifts or may have missed his freedom, boredom was the problem. The solution – fill his pool with toys and distraction. As one keeper stated “Hey, it works for us.”
The times when we fee most discontented in ourselves are the times our minds will flee most readily to the past and the future in an endless search for guarantees, control and safety. Inner complexity is not a difficult experience to identify – the mind swirls with a burden of thoughts, images, anxiety, speculation and obsession that we become lost in. The feeling of “I can’t let go” is a painful one. Seeking to end the pain we make confused and at times desperate choices that lead not to greater simplicity and clarity but to greater entanglement. Feeling adrift, fragmented and uneasy we search for happiness in the world of people, things and fantasy and find ourselves falling into familiar pits of frustration and discord.
We find simplicity in our hearts and lives through paying attention to the roots of complexity and learning to let go. Albert Einstein wisely advised, ‘Out of clutter, find simplicity. From discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.’ Simplicity does not rely upon divorcing ourselves from the world or adopting a path of austerity but in carefully examining our relationship to all the acquisitions, opinions, objects, dreams that can so crowd our world and mind. Into this maze of complexity we bring a simple question – What is it that leads to happiness and what leads to complexity and confusion?
Baker Roshi, an American Zen master, once said that the definition of an enlightened person is that they always have what they need. Whether sitting alone on a mountain peak, or in the midst of a crowd there is never a sense of there being anything absent or lacking. Every moment, every situation and every encounter offers everything that is needed for deepening sensitivity, compassion, peace and understanding as long as we are paying attention. In letting go of the compelling urges to gain more of the pleasant experience and avoid the unpleasant that can so govern our lives there is found a profound contentment and simplicity. The mind calms, we step back a little from the powerful forces of craving and aversion and turn our attention to this moment, discovering our capacity to be delighted by all that is right before us.
We live in a culture that trains us to believe that we never truly have enough of anything and that we always need more than we have in order to be happy. It is a training in anxiety and complexity as we search the world to find a way to end the insatiable appetite generated by the feeling of insufficiency. In the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism there is depicted a realm of beings called ‘hungry ghosts’ who sadly inhabit bodies with enormous stomachs yet a throat that is as narrow as a needle. Unable to satisfy their insatiable appetite they roam the world desperately in search of gratification that can never be found. Trained in anxiety and complexity we come to believe that life is made meaningful by possessing more, gaining more, achieving more and protecting ourselves from loss and deprivation by holding as tightly as possible to all that we gain.
Every year my insurance salesman visits me to assess the various insurance policies I have on my house, car etc.. Of course his unspoken agenda is to convince me of the need to purchase more insurance cover. With a smile on his face he begins a long discourse on the unspeakable terrors and tragedies that may befall me in my life. What if you had no work? What if your partner or you became ill with a terminal illness? What if your children should be in an accident? The list of possible disasters seems endless. Listening to him my eyes grow wider and wider, yet I also glimpse the bottomless chasm of fear I could live in if I lived by the rules of “what if”. The choice seems simple; do I choose to make fear my companion in life or do I choose to live with trust and skilful means.
We tend to believe that there will always be a better and more perfect moment for us to find the simplicity and happiness we seek for, than the moment we are in. We cling tightly to all that we have and want as a means of relieving anxiety, not seeing that in our desperate holding and wanting we only generate greater depths of fear. Endless streams of thought and emotion are produced as we attempt to plot and strategize our way to happiness. We look upon the world as an enemy or thief intent upon depriving us of all we have accumulated and desperately want to protect. There the story of an elderly cantankerous man, miserly with everything including his love and trust, who awoke one night to find his house on fire. Climbing to the roof for safety he looked down to see his son below holding a blanket for him to jump into. “jump, father, jump, we’ll save you.” They called. He answered, “Why should I believe you? What do you want in return?” “Father, this is no time for arguments. Either jump or you’ll lose your life.” “I know you boys” he shouted. “lay the blanket on the ground and I’ll jump.”
We believe that it is difficult to let go but in truth there is much greater difficulty and pain involved in holding and protecting. Reflect upon anything in your lives you grasp hold of tightly; an opinion, a historical resentment, an ambition, an unfulfilled fantasy. Sense the tightness, fear, defensiveness and tumult of thought that surrounds that holding. It is a painful, anxious, experience of unhappiness. We do not let go in order to make ourselves impoverished, bereft or conflicted. We let go in order to discover happiness and peace. To grasp and hold serves only to perpetuate anxiety, defensiveness and turmoil. A Chinese master once said,
We accept the graceful falling
Of mountain cherry blossoms,
But it is much harder for us
To fall away from our own
Attachment to the world.
In the search for simplicity we are drawn to ask ourselves ‘What in this moment is truly lacking.’ Would more thoughts, possessions, experiences, sights or sounds actually have the power to liberate us from complexity and unhappiness or would they simply add more clutter to an already overcluttered life and heart. When we are lost in these states of want and need and all our obsessions about them contentment, simplicity and peace feel to be far away from us. We become fixated upon the next moment, the moment we arrive at the rainbows end, fulfilling our desires and gratifying our needs. Into the perfect moment, the next attainment, the ideal relationship, the more exciting experience is projected the promise of happiness and peace. Despite all of our experience in life that tells us of how easily we become dissatisfied, bored and disinterested with what we gain, we find ourselves continuing to invest our happiness and well being in this projected promise of happiness, always lying in the next moment. Pursuing our obsessions we forget that this acute sense of deprivation is rooted not in the world but in our own minds that are fixated upon getting and attaining. Simplicity is not concerned with resignation or passivity nor with surrendering vision and direction in our lives. It is concerned with surrendering our obsessions and addictions and all the anxiety and unhappiness they generate. Over and over we learn to ask ourselves, “What in this moment, is truly lacking?”
In my early years of meditation practice I had a great longing for stillness, believing that my progress was dependent upon finding the perfectly quiet mind. I found myself pursuing the perfectly quiet world believing it to be a precondition for the quiet mind. First I had a room in a tiny village but soon became dissatisfied. The occasional truck or sound of a market pedlar disturbed whatever quiet I managed to find. So I moved further up the mountain to a small house, convinced that here it would be perfect. Before long I was increasingly irritated with the sounds of passing herdsmen, the occasional barking of a dog so once more I moved further up the mountain to an isolated hut, far removed from any human contact. I covered the windows with blankets so even the sun wouldn’t distract and at last breathed a sigh of relief – perfect quiet. In that part of India lived tribes of large, silver haired monkeys who discovered the delight of my tin roof. One day, finding myself outside shouting and pouring abuse upon the monkeys it finally occurred to me that perfect calm was perhaps more a state of mind that a state of environment.
Fixated upon getting, possessing and arriving at the ‘perfect moment’ we overlook the reality that we have delegated to these objects and goals the authority to define our happiness and well-being that comes to depend upon the fulfilment of our desires and goals. We believe we will be happy when we have ordered the world to suit our desires, expectations and ambitions. Strangely this ‘perfect moment’ and promise of fulfilment never arrives as it is ceaselessly pushed over and over into the future as yet one more need or desire arises within us. One of the richest men in America, after finally reaching the goal of possessing three billion dollars, remarked to a friend, “You know, I really don’t feel all that secure. Maybe if I had four billion”. Peace and simplicity are truly not so complicated; they will be born not of having but of being. Each time we become lost in our obsessions and cravings we deprive ourselves of the simplicity, contentment and freedom that is to be found in ourselves and in moment that is embraced with attention and the willingness to be touched. An ancient Sufi saying tells us, ‘Within your own house swells the treasure of joy, so why do you go begging from door to door.’
One of my first teachers once told me, ‘Letting go is an act of compassion for yourself’. We drive ourselves into deep states of sorrow and anxiety in our quest for gratification and happiness outside of ourselves. Driven by what the Buddha described as two deepest fears of a human being, the fear of having nothing and being no-one, we try to grasp the ungraspable, preserve the changing, secure the unpredictable and guarantee the unknowable. It is an act of great kindness to learn how to let go in this life, to be with what us, to harmonize ourselves with life’s inevitable changes and to open to the mystery of the unknown. When we no longer live in fear of losing what we have we can begin to learn how to love and appreciate what is already with us. We learn to reclaim the inner authority to discover happiness within ourselves and within each moment when we no longer delegate happiness into what we do not have and the moment that has not yet arrived. Breaking free from the domination and oppression of wanting and craving we find the possibility of contentment and simplicity in each moment. In a path of renunciation all that we are truly letting go of is a world of unease and discontent. Coco Chanel once remarked, ‘How many care one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone’.
In his first discourse the Buddha stated simply that craving is the cause of sorrow and pain. The craving to gain that which we do not have; to craving to get rid of what we do not want, the craving for experience and identity are all manifestations of one energy that leads us to depart from the truth of what is in each moment. The Buddha went on to say so clearly that the cause of sorrow lies in our own hearts and minds; the cause of happiness lies in our own hearts and minds. Our immediate response may be to say this is too simplistic. There appear to be so many things that cause us sorrow – the job we dislike, the traffic jams we struggle with, the aches in our body, the unpleasant experiences or circumstances that are inflicted upon us – the list is endless. As we look more deeply we would ask, do any of these actually hold the power to lead us to be lost in sorrow, pain or confusion. Or is it instead the movements of our minds that dismiss, judge, reject and avoid that cause the greatest pain and sorrow. We can go through life with the mantras ‘This shouldn’t be happening, I want something else to happen. This should be different than it is.’ Pursuing what we do not have and want, trying to get rid of what we have and don’t want, losing interest in that which previously fascinated us are all the tentacles of a single energy of craving. It is a powerful energy that leads us to flee from the moment and ourselves, never content or happy. As our appetites become jaded we find ourselves needing ever more intense excitement and experience to interest us. The Buddha compared this energy of craving to a forest fire that consumes the very ground that sustains it. Our energy, time, well being and peace are consumed in the fires of craving. Renunciation, learning to let go gently and clearly in our lives is extinguishing the fire, the antidote to craving. It is one of the greatest of all skills that restores to us the possibility of profound happiness, simplicity and ease.
There is a sacred hunger rooted in our hearts – the yearning for freedom, happiness, connectedness and peace. It is a sacred hunger that prevents us from surrendering to despair and disconnection; that inspires us to continue searching for a way of being in this world where we feel truly intimate, at one with life, free from conflict and sorrow. Out of confusion this sacred hunger for peace and intimacy becomes distorted and diverted and turns into craving and the pursuit of projected promise that is invested in experience and things outside of ourselves. Projected promise is the belief that people, objects, experiences and circumstances have the power to provide us with the happiness and peace we feel powerless to offer to ourselves.
Renunciation is not a dismissal of the world. It does not involve surrendering the joy found in all the precious and delightful impressions and experiences that will visit us in this life. Through withdrawing the projected promise so easily invested in sensation, impression and experience we learn to find a sense of balance that equally embraces the pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experience. Appreciating the pleasant, steady in the midst of the unpleasant and sensitive to the neutral impression we discover the root of happiness lies not in what we are experiencing but how we are experiencing it. It is the withdrawal of projected promise and surrendering the fear of deprivation that enables a relationship to all of life that is rooted in sensitivity, compassion and intimacy rather than grasping and anxiety. Craving propels us outwardly, away from ourselves and this moment into an endless quest for certainty and identity that fails to offer any true refuge. Exploring the energy of craving, loosening its hold we are returned to ourselves, able to acknowledge the sacred hunger within us for intimacy and awakening. At ease within ourselves we discover a profound refuge and happiness rooted in our own capacities for awareness and balance.
The Buddha spoke about the distinction between an enlightened and an unenlightened person. Both the enlightened and the unenlightened experience feelings, sensations, sounds, sights and experiences that can be pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. When an unenlightened person encounters the unpleasant experience they grieve, lament, wail and become distraught and distracted. Two levels of sorrow are experienced, one in the actual experience and one in the reactions and story about it. It is as if a person crossing the pathway of an archer were to be shot by an arrow, whether enlightened or unenlightened both would experience pain. The difference lies in the level of both story and fear that are added to the experience. In seeing the archer prepare to shoot a second arrow the unenlightened person would already be anticipating its pain, building a story centered around living with a wounded leg and entertaining thoughts of anger towards the archer. In the heart of the unenlightened person layers of aversion, association with past and future lead them to depart from the reality of what is actually being experienced in that moment. The unpleasant experience is layered with aversion and resistance. We try to end the unpleasant experience through finding one that is more pleasant or by suppressing or avoiding it. In the midst of any of the unpleasant experiences that will come to us in this life we need to ask ourselves what is more painful – the actual experience or all of the stories, fear and resistance with which we surround it. Calm simplicity does not depend upon the annihilation or control of the unpleasant experience but if born of our willingness to let go of the layers of our stories.
The pleasant experience evokes a different response and different story line. We want more, we don’t want it to end, we strategize the ways to defend it – it is layered with craving and grasping. We have a moment of calm in meditation and find ourselves rehearsing our debut as the next world teacher. A smile from a colleague and we are already in our minds embroiled in the romance of the century. Once more our stories divorce us from the simplicity of the moment and we are puzzled and disappointed when our stories are frustrated. Pleasant experiences are hijacked by craving and wanting and once more we live not in the simplicity of this moment but in the dramas of our minds that make us feel alive. In the midst of the pleasant experience, here too we can learn to let go of our stories, projections and fantasies. We can learn to love what is.
The countless neutral experiences, sounds, sights, sensations we meet in our lives become layered with voices of confusion that tell us that something is missing and needs to be added. If the things of this world neither delight nor threaten us they are often dismissed, ignored or simply missed. The tree outside our window, made familiar by time no longer appears to offer anything to entice our attention. We fail to notice the texture of its leaves, its changing colours, its growing and ageing, the way the sun reflects on its leaves. We believe we need something more stimulating and exciting for it to be worthy of our attention. In learning to stay present we discover that it is actually the power of our attention that makes all things worthy.
The enlightened person is not exempted from any form of feeling, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, but is not bound to any of them. The arrow will hurt, but the pain of the body will not be matched by sorrow in the mind. Surrendering the story is not a dismissal of the wounded leg but is actually an empowerment – releasing the capacity to care for what needs to be cared for with compassion and responsiveness and to let go of all the extra layers of fear and speculation.
There are experiences of pain that are inevitable in this life, rooted in our bodies as they age or are ill. Loss, separation, contact with those who threaten us, we will all meet these experiences in our lives. There are levels of sorrow and pain that are optional, rooted in fear, aversion and grasping. Learning to let go, with understanding, of the stories that carry our fears and wanting we learn to see life, ourselves, others, as they actually are. Simplicity is always available. Learning to let go of the extra layers of our stories and craving, learning to let go of our craving for the pleasant and our aversion for the unpleasant is the discovery of peace.
In the Tao it is said “In the pursuit of knowledge, every day something is gained. In the pursuit of freedom, every day something is let go of. We easily tend to hold grandiose ideas of renunciation, regarding it as some spiritually heroic task or breakthrough experience in our path that will happen at some future time. A spiritual life asks us to hold onto nothing – not our opinions, beliefs, judgements, past or dreams of the future. It seems a formidable task but we are not asked to do it all at once. Life is a journey of 10,000 renunciations, sometimes in a single day. We are not asked to be an expert, but always a beginner. The only moment we can let go is the moment we are present in.
As we reflect upon the nature of life and ourselves we discover that there is also an innate naturalness to letting go. The nature of all life is to change; winter lets go its hold to release spring. For summer to emerge spring must fall away; this season can only last for a time before it fades into autumn which in turn lets go for winter to emerge once more. Our infancy was let go of to release our childhood. Every stage of our own growth relies upon the letting go of what went before. No matter how strenuous our own efforts we cannot make one single thing last. No matter how much we delight in a pleasant thought, experience or connection we cannot force it to stay. No matter how much we dislike or fear any experience or impression, it is already in the process of changing into something else. There is a remarkable simplicity discovered as we harmonize our own life with the natural story of all life, which is change. From the moment of our birth our life has been teaching us about letting go. There is remarkable complexity in seeking to bend and mould life’s story to support our personal agendas of craving and aversion. We are not separate in any way from this process of change, not just a detached observer. We are part of this life with all of its seasons and movements.
Aitken Roshi, a much beloved Western Zen master, once said, “Renunciation is not getting rid of the things of this world, but accepting that they pass away.” A deep understanding of impermanence is an insight that has the power to radically transform our lives. Understanding the nature of change on a cellular level loosens the hold of craving and aversion bringing calmness and great simplicity. To study life is to study impermanence. The insight into impermanence is not a breakthrough experience but an ongoing exploration of what is true. Take a walk through the rooms of your home – can you find one single thing that is eternal, that is not already in a process of change. Explore your body – it speaks to us of the inevitable process of ageing and change. Walk through the rooms of your mind with its cascade of thoughts, plans, anxieties, memories and images. Can you hold on to any of them? Can you decide only to have pleasant thoughts or ideas, only pleasant feelings or sensations? Neither sorrow or complexity is born of this changing world; it is born of our grasping and aversion and our desire to seek the unchanging in anything that is essentially changing. As you take those walks through the rooms of your life and mind ask yourself whether anything you encounter truly holds the power to dictate your own happiness or sorrow or is it more true that the source of happiness and sorrow lies within our own heart and mind.
When we hear the word impermanence we tend to nod our heads wisely in agreement – it is an obvious truth. Yet when caught in either craving or aversion we suffer bouts of amnesia, convinced that everything is impermanent except this experience, feeling or thought. Life continues to be our greatest teacher, penetrating these moments of forgetfulness, if we are willing to listen and pay attention. In truth there is no choice in letting go, the nature of impermanence and life tells us that no matter how desperately we hold onto anything at all, by nature it is already in the process of change and leaving us. Our choice is whether we suffer or not in meeting the inevitable arrivals and departures, the beginnings and endings held in every moment of our lives. Each time we are lost in craving or aversion we open the door to a flood of thoughts, stories, strategies and images. Each time we learn to let go, we open the door to peace and simplicity, to joy and appreciation.
Renunciation is not a spiritual destination we arrive at nor a heroic experience dependent upon great striving and will. Renunciation is a practice of kindness and compassion undertaken in the midst of all of the small details and intense experiences of our lives. It is the heart of meditation practice. We learn to sit down and let go. Each time we return our attention to the breath or to the moment we are in we are practising renunciation. We have in that moment let go of the pathways of stories, speculation about what is happening and turning our attention to what is actual and true in each moment. The practice of renunciation is essentially a dedication to what is true in each moment and a celebration of simplicity.
A group of businessmen, somewhat renowned for their dishonesty went to visit a great Indian saint, intent on earning the merit they hoped would balance their unskilful actions. Sitting down they proceeded to sing her praises, extolling her great virtues of wisdom, renunciation and simplicity. After listening some minutes her face creased into a smile and she began to laugh. Disconcerted the group asked what was so amusing to her. Answering she said, “It is not I who is the great renunciate, it is you, because you are living in a way that you have renounced the truth.”
Letting go is a present moment practice. We learn to sit down and let go. We love deeply and let go. We embrace wholeheartedly the laughter and joy of our lives and let go. We meet the challenging, disturbing and unpleasant and let go. We are always beginners in the practice of renunciation. Each moment we begin we are following the pathways of freedom rather than the pathways of sorrow.
Studying life we see the truth of the process of change from which nothing is exempt. Understanding this deeply we live in accord with its truth and we live peacefully and simply. We liberate the world, other people, ourselves to unfold and change according to their own rhythms, withdrawing our personal agendas rooted in craving and aversion. Letting go we liberate ourselves from the burden of unfulfilled or frustrated desire. We learn to rest in ourselves and in each moment. Reflecting on impermanence we begin to deeply appreciation the futility and unnecessary sorrow of being lost in craving or resistance.
Renunciation comes effortlessly to us in times of calm and ease. Nothing stops; sounds, sights, thoughts, feelings all continue to arise and pass – seen and appreciated wholeheartedly. Yet none of them find a foothold in our mind and heart, our inner balance and well being is undisturbed, there is a natural letting go. We also meet times in our lives when calm and balance seem only to be a distant dream as we find ourselves lost in turmoil, struggle or distress. In those moments we remember the freedom of being able to let go yet the intensity of our struggle overwhelms our capacity to let go. In those moments the first step towards peace is to recognise that we are lost. In those moments it is not more thinking, analysing or struggle that is asked for, we are invited to look for simplicity. In these moments of complexity letting go asks for investigation, effort and dedication – not born of aversion but of recognizing the sorrow of being entangled.
The Buddha spoke of wise avoidance, a word that may carry for us associations of denial or suppression. There is a difference between wise avoidance and suppression. Suppression is the unwillingness to see, wise avoidance is born of the willingness to see but the unwillingness to engage in pathways of suffering. Some of our mostly deeply rooted patterns of holding are habitual. We have made familiar dwelling places in patterns of judgement, fantasy, aversion and greed. In these moment renunciation is made possible through undoing the habit, turning our attention away from those familiar places to connect with something that is tangible and accessible to us in that moment. A sight, a sound, a sensation in our body are all gates we can enter that help us to recover simplicity. It is an effort in the service of calmness and happiness. We turn our attention to the fostering of calm and balance. Bringing our attention into our body, to listening, to touching, to breathing to learn to loosen the grip of struggle and confusion. We can begin to breathe out and let go.
Investigation and the cultivation of understanding are important ingredients both in ripening our capacity to let go and nurturing simplicity. Gripped by an intense moment of grasping, whether it is wanting something from the person before us or obsessing about a familiar wound from the past, it is not so helpful just to tell ourselves to let go. It might be more skilful to ask ourselves “why am I holding on?” “What is it that I truly want from this person, memory or image?” “what is the effect on myself of this holding?” Wisdom helps us to let go, to live more freely, to find simplicity.
It is easy to let go when there is nothing that we particularly crave or resist. Yet is in the midst of our deepest obsessions and resistances that renunciation holds the power to transform our heart and world. Our capacity to let go is often clouded by ambivalence and reluctance. We know we suffer through overeating but the second plate of food really does taste so good. We know that our anger towards another person makes us suffer, but if we were to let it go they may get away with the suffering they inflicted. We know that fantasy is a substitute for happiness but its flavour is pleasurable. We know we may suffer through exaggerated ambitiousness but the feelings of pride when we attain our goals feels worth the pain. Pleasure and happiness are too often equated with being the same; in reality they are very different. Pleasure comes. It also goes. The unpleasant comes. It also goes. They are the flavour and content of many of the impressions we encounter in our lives. Happiness has not so much to do with the content of our experiences or impression but with our capacity to find balance and peace amidst all the myriad impressions of our lives. Treasuring happiness and freedom we learn to live our lives with openness and serenity. Not enslaved to the pleasant sensation, we no longer fear the unpleasant. We love, laugh and delight and hold onto nothing. We also cry and grieve and hold onto nothing.
The appetite of craving arises from the pain of disconnection. The painfulness of believing to be incomplete, lacking drives us outwardly in the search for gratification. This painfulness of disconnection is not always acute, we at times describe it as boredom, forgetting the boredom is never a description of reality but a description of a state of mind that is superimposed upon reality. Boredom is often a surrender of sensitivity, clouding our capacity to see, listen to and touch each moment as if we have never encountered it before. The antidote to boredom is not more sounds, sensations or experiences but recovering our capacity to see anew in each moment. The world we think we know, the people we think we know, the sounds and experiences we have encountered countless times before – come alive to us in new ways each moment we give them our wholehearted attention. Our house of image, association, history and concept is burned down in the light of compassionate, full attention.
Renunciation is not the territory of the saints or ascetics; it is the territory of each one of us who treasure freedom. Each moment we let go we embody freedom and follow the pathway of happiness. A present moment practise, every moment is the right moment to learn how to let go.
Take a moment to sit quietly, relax your body, close your eyes and breathe out. Reflect for a moment upon the places in your mind and heart you visit the most often, yet feel to be the places of greatest sorrow. A failed relationship, a childhood hurt, a tension with another person, a frustrated hope. Be aware of the stickiness and tightness of these places, felt in your body, mind and heart. What is need for you to be able to let go, to make a new beginning, to find peace. Is it forgiveness, compassion for yourself or another, tolerance or understanding? How could you find simplicity in this moment? Take a moment to reflect upon the times of greatest happiness in your life – found in intimacy with another, moments of true appreciation and sensitivity in nature, moments when you have felt that this moment is complete. Be aware of what it is that opens those doors of appreciation, connection and calm. The laying down of expectation, fear, wanting and distractedness. Take a moment to hold in your heart the question, “What in this moment is lacking?”