These two phrases get used a great deal in this industry.
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Often in this industry we hear the phrase “letting go”. There is a great relationship between letting go and acceptance and I’d like to take a look at this area here.
What are we letting go? Well from a practical and probably fairly superficial level, this could relate to material possessions. Many of us have more than we actually need in this day and age and recognise that we need to declutter.
The zen master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said Renunciation is not giving up the things of the world, but accepting that they go away.
But I’d like to take this a little deeper here and move into the mental side of this discussion. The opposite of letting is holding on or grasping or indeed craving. Grasping is when we have something and we don’t want to let go of it. Craving is wanting more. It is this mental behaviour that causes a great deal of our suffering. Much of our suffering comes back to this and much of our unskilful behaviour is born out of it. This behaviour also hides itself well and can become ingrained habit. Even grasping or holding on to negative mental states. I have known people who have been depressed but have displayed a definite grasping nature to their depression. Not wanting to let it go! Certainly I’m sure we’ve all known people who have been generally angry. Often these people will actually fear letting go of their anger in case it somehow diminishes them.
Even spirituality can produce grasping and craving behaviours. There are plenty of examples in history where a religious leader imposes stringent rules on their followers to feed an ego, keeping the flock in check and aggressive behaviours are displayed when members of the spiritual community decide to leave. What was love, suddenly becomes anger and the person is potentially shunned.
But this isn’t an easy practice. We could give up our worldly goods, don a monk’s robes and live with a begging bowl. But if in our hearts we are still carrying the resentment for giving our lives up, we haven’t achieved anything. Conversely, it is entirely possible to live with all our wealth and material things around us and not be bound to them. To live without craving or grasping despite all these things. What matters, as always, is our mental response to our surroundings. Having said that, it is definitely simpler to practice with less of the clutter around us.
But we can take this a little deeper still. Many of us unfortunately suffer with physical illness. We are all getting older. Even those born yesterday have already started to age! Our physical being is another areas that we have a tendency to grasp on to. We face anxiety and even depression when our physical being is facing a long term problem. Some of us even worry over our physical bodies when they are in fine health. Michael Jackson’s mental health problems seem to have been born out of a desire to live forever. So we also need to practice with and explore our relationship with our bodies, to see where craving and grasping are creeping in. We see plenty of craving behaviours. The whole of the cosmetic surgery industry has been established around this one. It is clearly good to maintain a healthy body in order to achieve our fullest potential (spiritual or otherwise) in life. But, we will all age and we will all die so we do have to come to terms with this otherwise we will become mentally or physically ill as a result of the grasping and craving at some point.
Some of Buddhist practice sounds incredibly pessimistic and difficult but in actual fact it is immensely practical. After all, we do know that not one person in the entire history of mankind has avoided death. (Although of course the Christians amongst us may debate this)
Then there is our relationships with people. Here we are looking at the affect that the other person has on our life and the effect we have on theirs. Love is when you are thinking … “how can I make you happy?” Attachment is when you are thinking … “why aren’t you making me happy?” Whether we are talking close partners family or just friends, this still applies. We saw last week in our meditation on chaos how each and everyone of us is infinitely different but us humans tend to try to deny this and place expectations on each other based on our own ideas and preconceptions about how the other should be. Here we are grasping at our own judgments and not accepting the other person as they are.
Grasping and craving start at the superficial and run deep. Their opposites are accepting and letting go. By accepting, we acknowledge that nothing lasts for ever and everything changes. Nothing is static so we have to accept that we can’t keep it and we must let it go.
The last one to investigate here is the letting go of self. This is the most challenging area. We attach to the image of self, hard and fast. Buddhist practice, particularly the six element practice (which we will go through in more depth at some point) reveals to us directly, the lack of a permanent self. The strongest element is the conscious mind. But when we directly investigate the nature of the conscious mind we do not find self there. And we let go.
Our approach to studying this starts with meditation. I’ll say again, we practice on the cushion and we make progress when we get out in to the world.
The practice, whether we are on the cushion or not, is to actually take notice of our mental response to things and noticing when grasping and craving are creeping in. Then to look at how we offset that nature with acceptance and letting go. Every minute of every day we will get an opportunity to practice this so we will not be short of practice time!
I read a great quote recently by Polly Young-Eisendrath, a psychologist and meditation author.
The reason for learning… is not so that you can sit around and meditate. It’s like when you learn to drive a car in a parking lot. It’s not so you can drive that car in parking lots. You learn in the parking lot because it’s a restricted, safe area. When you [meditate] it’s like learning to drive in the parking lot. Then, in time, you take the car out onto the highway…. Practice is cultivated in order to get around in life….”
This is therefore how we practice in our meditation. We can explore our grasping and craving with our meditation. Noticing our desire for the noises from outside to go away as it may make us more concentrated, how we wish we could sit in perfect full lotus like the Tibetan masters we have seen on TV. Noticing our desires to keep our concentration focussed in a zen like state and never wavering. The magic is all in the noticing.