The Art of Letting Go
Meditation and letting go: the antidotes to suffering
Is it possible that many of the difficulties in our lives come from our reluctance or our inability to let go? Whether we’re aware of it or not, our minds are constantly roaming and zeroing in on what we want to acquire and what we want to avoid. There’s a lot of wanting and needing and very little respite. We rehash the past—the traumas and conquests, irritations and pleasures and project into the future. Even though our habitual way of functioning is exhausting, we don’t seem to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. In truth, freedom is within our reach—it is present right here, right now. We can discover this freedom through meditation practices that ground us in the here and now, give us space to recognize our habitual grasping, and help us train in and master the art of letting go.
According to the Buddha’s teachings, clinging and attachment lead to suffering, whereas letting go of these leads to freedom. The Buddha talked a lot about suffering in terms of its nature, causes, and remedies. And though every living being wants to avoid it, fighting or rejecting suffering usually creates more of it. Some pain and discomfort can be alleviated, but not all of it. Discernment allows us to determine what we can avoid and what we can’t. Understanding this spares us a great deal of anguish because when we accept the things and situations we can’t escape, we stop struggling; when we accept the pain and discomfort—emotional, physical, spiritual that can’t be avoided, proactively, the mind can be at ease. This is letting go.
To help deal with the ups and downs of life, people often seek advice from psychologists and others who have an intellectual understanding of how the mind works. There is some benefit in this, but there may also be a tendency to look for a culprit to blame. It’s much easier to blame others. From a psychological perspective, it’s easy to point fingers at one’s parents for all of one’s woes. In ancient times, spirits and ghosts were the culprits; nowadays it’s the parents. In some ways, the process is similar: just different ways to blame rather than take responsibility for one’s own actions and state of mind.
The Buddha taught that suffering arises as a result of causes and conditions coming together in a certain way. Once the groundwork has been laid, certain results are inevitable. Plant an apple seed, given the right causes and conditions, one day it will become a tree and bear apples, not figs. This truth, the law of cause and effect, also means that we can plant the seeds of future happiness.
Of course, everyone wants to let go of pain and suffering, but letting go of their root cause—attachment—is another story. Why would we want to let go of attachment to pleasant things? Generally speaking, the desire for pleasant things is based either on the memory of something similar that we enjoyed and want to experience again or a projection of the pleasure we think a certain thing or situation will bring us. That’s our habitual functioning, and it’s difficult for us to recognize and distance ourselves from the usual reactions of clinging and rejecting. When we follow these tendencies, we’re somewhere in the past, a daydream or the future. We’re anywhere but in the present moment.
Can meditation help with letting go? Of course it can, and it does. Every time we choose not to follow and elaborate on a thought or an emotion when we practice, every time we choose to remain in the fullness and freedom of the present, we’re learning to let go. Meditation teaches us that letting go is possible, and not only is it possible, it is a great relief.
Letting go on the cushion when we meditate is a powerful practice. What about letting go when faced with potentially hurtful or harmful real-life situations? Of course, if there’s a potential for physical harm, we do our best to escape. But if the aggression is verbal or emotional, our very willingness to be hurt plays a big role and even if we don’t realize it, we may be helping our aggressors to make things even worse for us. If we decide not to allow others to hurt us, if we don’t give them that space, it takes away much of their power. This too is letting go—letting go of reactions and feelings that reinforce our discomfort.
Another choice we have concerns our expectations. When we choose to let go of certain expectations such as the ideal of a perfect life and accept that grieving, loss and disappointment are a natural part of every existence, it’s much easier to accept life’s inevitable challenges and difficulties. Life is a series of ups and downs; fully accepting this is a very powerful practice for reducing suffering. Accepting the truth is not passive or weak—it’s an active endeavor. It takes effort to simply be real and move on. Changing expectations is a key component of the practice of letting go. Perhaps we could start with letting go of our ideas of getting better at meditation.
Practically speaking, how do we go about this? We might start by identifying the gap between what we want and what is actually going on. This requires a willingness to bring hidden expectations and desires to light. When we meditate, whatever form of practice we choose, we give ourselves space to recognize what’s playing out in the mindstream without grasping or judging, and go back to the practice—simply observing the breath. This is how Buddhists train in letting go, and this is what prepares us for the real work of everyday life.
Based on oral teachings given by Trungram Gyalwa