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15 And I Know I Should Let Go

Let go of the past.
Let go of the future.
Let go of the present.
With a heart that is free, cross over
to that shore which is beyond suffering.

Dhammapada, verse 348

Not rarely, people ask, regarding practice, ‘How do I let go?’ There is the perceived wish or need to let go, and yet regularly we feel unable actually to let go. We read the Buddha’s teaching, in which it is clearly and precisely pointed out that clinging is the cause of suffering. We do a little meditation practice and very soon get to see for ourselves that it really is the case that we have these habits of clinging that keep tripping us up all the time. So we get the feeling that we should ‘let go’.

This reminds me of a refrain from a beautiful song from the late sixties by The Mamas and the Papas called ‘Look Through My Window’. It goes, ‘… and I know I should let go.’ I was eighteen or nineteen when I first heard that song, and it was quite an inspiration for me. I was going through, if not an epiphany, a period of deep inquiry, and these words rang powerfully true. So this question that people ask, ‘How do I let go?’ has been with me for a long time.

We get stuck on memories, things that have clearly finished and gone. They may well be very painful. We think, ‘If only I could let go of this.’ We also get overly preoccupied with the future, imagining pleasant or unpleasant things that may happen. We might think, ‘Only one more week at work then I’m off to La Gomera! It will be so beautiful there. There’s that particular beach I know where it never rains – it will be so wonderful!’ The mind can be obsessed with beautiful things which we imagine are going to happen in the future, but meanwhile we are not here with what is happening now. This can create real problems for us.

If we are not fantasising, we are worrying about this imagined future. Parents with young children can worry themselves sick with all the horrible things that might befall them. While these beautiful, lovely creatures are having a marvellous time mum and dad are making themselves ill thinking, ‘What if this happens? What if that happens?’ They might be dedicated Buddhist mums and dads, who say to me, ‘I protect them the best I can but I am filled with worry, which I know doesn’t do any good. I know I should let go but I can’t.’

As adults we can be obsessed with our bodies. There is no doubt about it, our bodies are getting older and it is sensible to pay them due respect – to eat well, to sleep regularly and so on. But a few little things start going wrong, we get a little lump, and think, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve got cancer!’ We rush off to the doctor’s, but there’s nothing wrong. We come home, but we keep worrying about our bodies, and then feel ashamed about it. But what is it that makes the difference? What is it that enables letting go? Just saying we should let go doesn’t make it happen.

In my early years as a monk, I remember that Ajahn Chah would teach about letting go all the time. Some of his senior disciples used to copy him and whatever question you asked they would say, ‘Well, just let go. Let go. Just do it!’ – as if you could just let go as an act of will. As if we were purposefully hanging on to things.

It’s important to notice that idealising about how we should be is not necessarily helpful. We know how we should be, so that’s good enough. We can leave that aside and get on with looking a little deeper, feeling how I can bring this about, and asking, ‘Why am I hanging on? What is the experience of clinging anyway?’ This is the encouragement of right mindfulness. Mindfulness is not about speculating about how we should or shouldn’t be, but about cultivating a quality of attention that is in the moment, investigating the reality of our experience. One of the reasons we are clinging is because we don’t see that the clinging is making us suffer. The Buddha said there are two reasons why you stay stuck in this miserable affair of samsara: not seeing suffering, and not seeing the causes of suffering. For those two reasons alone, not for eighty-four thousand mysterious reasons. It’s not very complicated.

Taking Responsibility For Our Suffering

A lot of the time we try to avoid suffering, and pretend we’re not suffering when we are. On various levels, in subtle and gross ways, we are carrying different forms of suffering such as fear, anxiety, worry, doubt, regret and remorse. Even if we acknowledge that we are suffering, it is not so easy and straightforward to see what the cause is. Some of our habits are very deeply embedded. The habit of dwelling on resentment is an example. If we haven’t truly enquired into this domain of our life we can readily react to the feeling of unhappiness as if it were somebody else’s fault. Even though we know we have this tendency, it’s still very easy to fall into this particular pattern of reaction.

One of the reasons it’s easy to dwell in resentment is because it’s so difficult to admit that we are doing it. So we keep on with this habit of thinking it’s somebody else’s fault. We think, ‘It’s got to be something out there that’s causing this misery because it’s so painful, and because I’m not such a bad person. Only a bad person would make me suffer like this. It can’t be me.’ Well, bad news, I’m afraid. You don’t have to be a bad person to make yourself suffer. All you have to do is be a little unaware.

So one of the reasons why we find it difficult to let go – why letting go doesn’t happen – is this unfortunate habit of unawareness or ignorance. When we feel resentful towards other people we don’t see that we’re doing this form of clinging. We don’t see that it’s something we’re actively performing. We live our lives thinking that somebody else is doing it to us. In truth we are the authors of our experience.

Added to this is the accumulated momentum of our habits. If we have been hanging on to something for a long time, avoiding letting go by indulging in some particular habit, a momentum will have built up in this holding on. When we begin to counter our habits of denial or avoidance by taking up meditation, it is this very momentum of our habits that we experience as suffering. Even if we see through it and know, ‘Oh, yes that’s what I do!’, the force of that habitual pattern, built up over a period of time, means that our insight into the reality of what is going on may not immediately seem to help change the situation. Indeed, it is at this point that some people turn away from the path. This contemplation is an encouragement, therefore, to resist the inclination to believe in the disappointment that inevitably comes with finding that there is nobody else to do our house cleaning. We should instead take heart from the example of those who have done their work and are enjoying the benefits. The inspiration of the Buddha’s teachings and the wisdom of those who have practised them, can help to encounter this disappointment. The strength that comes from such inspiration gives us the courage to take a fresh and creative approach to the forces of unawareness that we feel are driving us in familiar patterns of behaviour that we would like to stop but do not seem to know how to.

When we do eventually get around to opening up to ourselves, it’s like opening a door to a room we haven’t been in for a very long time. And it can smell really bad – I mean really bad. We just don’t want to go in there. But, you know, it’s a room in our house and it’s only a matter of time before some guest comes along and decides to take a look. Then we will have a problem. The reality is that we already have a problem – we are just not aware of it. Although it smells bad, we’ve got to trust that the only reason it does so is because it has not been aired out for a long time.

When we first open up the doors and windows and see the filth and the mess, it looks like a huge task that we’ve got ahead of us. It can feel like it’s just too much. The reason it feels that way is that we’ve put so much energy into avoiding something for a long time. So we have to be very careful not to assume that the way it looks is how it really is. It can be daunting when we start to open up some of these rooms and get to discover dimensions of ourselves that we were not expecting to find.

As meditation deepens, we start to see aspects of ourselves that we never even suspected were there. Or sometimes just with getting a little older or being under some kind of pressure, external pressures or pressures of health, we get in touch with things we vaguely sensed were there, but never really saw the extent of. We think, ‘My goodness! How am I going to deal with this?’ Again, we need to consider that the reason it seems so much is that we’ve put so much energy into avoiding it.

Under such circumstances it is necessary to be very patient because sometimes we have to endure a lot for a long time before some of this momentum can be worn out. The momentum of clinging has created the apparent reality of ‘This is too much. I can’t cope with this,’ and ‘I won’t ever be able to let go of this.’ Well, don’t be too sure. Letting go will happen. Try to consider that letting go is something that happens; it is not something that we do.

What is called for in practice is a willingness to bear with things, to be honest with ourselves, and to wait until these things start to fall away of their own accord. We don’t have to get rid of these things. These things will fall away when we see the reality; when we see that we’re doing the suffering. When we see that we’re the ones that are actually creating this pain then automatically we will stop doing it. But before we get to that point of seeing it we sometimes have to bear with suffering for quite a long while and wear out – literally wear out or burn out – the momentum of avoidance or denial, or the habit of indulgence. Whatever the accumulated momentum is, we have got to endure it until one day, much to our surprise, we’re still doing the same old practice that we’ve been doing for goodness knows how long, but when up comes the trigger we see it differently. When some sort of temptation to get angry, greedy or afraid arises, suddenly we see it in a way whereby it doesn’t get us. We aren’t fooled by it. It’s as though we have acquired a new ability. It is not that we’ve done anything different to make it appear differently. It is simply that the kammic momentum has worn out. Though it might seem like a large heap of firewood will burn on and on, there will come a point when there is no more fuel and the fire will go out.

Until we’ve been through such an experience, we are not familiar with the dynamics of this process as it is happening within us. As a result we can be deceived by the apparent enormity of the ‘problem’. This is, where good friends who have walked the path a little longer or a little further, can wisely and sensibly point out, ‘Just wait a while before you decide you’re doing the wrong thing. Stay with it for a while and perhaps it will change.’ Of course, it does change in time.

Fixed Identity

Another reason that letting go doesn’t happen is that sometimes our habits of clinging to various experiences – impressions, ideas or feelings – become the structures of our own sense of who we are – often quite irrationally so. Our identity is based on habits, and if these habits are of denial or avoidance our personalities become irrational on some level. Although we’re doing something that may be self-destructive and better let go of, some old resentment or some old fear might prevent us from looking at it fairly and squarely. Even though facing it may be the right thing to do we don’t feel able to let go of our habit of clinging because it’s become part of who and what we feel ourselves to be.

The rational mind, though it may recognise and be able to describe the nature of our complex, cannot change the habit patterns by itself. To do this requires a much more focused application of effort in terms of both the practices of meditation and morality. Meditation is the means by which we undo habitual patterns but it cannot be effective without a foundation of morality.

If we go into these practices with some determination and contemplate what we’re stuck on – how it would be wise, useful and skilful to be able to let go of this clinging business – what can come up, despite our right contemplation, is a tremendous sense of fear. This often happens for people on meditation retreats. We’ve just had a group of people staying with us for the last week on formal retreat. Strict silence was maintained and everybody was very committed to the practice and saw genuine benefit from it. It wasn’t just a nice holiday. It was good hard work, and for some people that good hard work meant encountering the fear that comes up with the sense of loss of identity.

Falling Away of the False

As we intensify attention and turn the light of awareness inwards, the practice will dissolve that which is false. That’s how it works. When the sun shines and the rain falls there are seeds in the ground that will grow. Some of them are beautiful and some of them are weeds. It is in their nature to grow given the appropriate conditions. I remember in Thailand during the dry season the fields would be parched, with no visible plant or animal life. It all looked so dead – the earth cracked and hard. And then the rains would come and the land start to turn green. The next thing you knew there were so many plants and little creatures - even fish swimming in the puddles of water left by the rain. How did these fish get there – without a river in sight that could have flooded? When the sun comes after the rains have fallen, the causes are there and life expresses itself. That is its nature. That’s just how it is. Whether we like it or not that’s how it is.

So it is with the practice. If we exercise restraint and practice mindfulness and concentration, the false things that we’ve been hanging onto will start to dissolve and begin to fall away. But we might start to feel afraid as we become conscious of a sense of insecurity and a certain loss of safety. A loss of predictability comes into our life together with a sense of not really knowing who we are any more. When encountering such fear, if we’re not properly prepared or supported we can misinterpret it and think, ‘Oh, I must be doing something wrong.’ I don’t know about you but I still find it very difficult when I encounter fear not to assume that something is going wrong. Somebody is doing something wrong and usually it must be me. There’s nothing around me that is making me afraid, so it must be something I have done or am doing wrong.

That is not necessarily the case and it’s wise to prepare ourselves in advance to withhold our judgement and our evaluation of the situation. If we bear with the fear and wait, we may come to see that this fear is what in the Buddhist terminology is called ‘One of the defences of Mara.’ The closer we get to Mara the more annoyed Mara gets. Mara gets really annoyed when we start practising with sincerity. Apparently, what happens is the more dedicated and committed a meditator gets in seeing through their delusion, the hotter Mara’s seat gets. Because he is really miffed about our success in seeing through your apparent limitations, he will send down his hordes to annoy, distract and tempt us.

At the back of the Dhamma hall here at Aruna Ratanagiri, there is a mural by Pang Chinasai depicting Mara’s attach on the Buddha’s. Because the Buddha was wholeheartedly committed to his practice and dedicated to realisation, purification and generating benefit for all sentient beings, he was able to stay true to his determination. Nothing upsets Mara more. If you look on the right-hand side of the painting you see the arrows that Mara’s hordes are firing as they ride towards him on strange, hideous beasts. As the arrows get close to the Buddha they are transformed into flowers which fall to the ground. And when the armies pass the Buddha they are lost under the sea, and as they fall they hold up flowers asking for forgiveness.

When we remain resolved to see through the appearance of these forces that unsettle or frighten us, we come to see that what we thought was threatening us is in reality something that can help us. All the forces within us, whether anger, greed, lust – even hatred – should be regarded appreciatively as the raw energy which, once understood, fuels our effort towards awakening. The arrows turning into flowers can be considered a metaphor for what happens in our minds as we strengthen our resolve and determination to see beyond our habits, to let go of that which is false; to let go of our addictions, the false energy we’re feeding on and the false identity that we’re holding onto. We trust in reality and allow ourselves to receive these energies inside us mindfully and sensitively, without acting upon them, and instead allow natural compassion, clarity and wisdom to grow, without our attachment and manipulations.

The more determined we are to follow our heart’s longing to realise truth, the more likely it is that we are going to encounter fear. Fear of loss; fear of losing our friends; fear of losing our sanity – these are common experiences. The fear of losing our friends is quite natural. Sometimes you do lose your friends when you practise. You become less interesting! You don’t go out drinking anymore. You don’t spend so much money on clothes and getting your hair done. These things are superficial; there’s nothing immoral about them, but they are not exactly the most important things in life. You’re just disinclined to invest in these kinds of concerns and so some friends fall away.

When you first join a monastery, like the anagarikas living here, you might still have lots of friends outside. But once you shave your head and your eyebrows and start getting around in robes, a lot of your friends, nice as they might be, tend not to get in touch anymore. You can start feeling, ‘I’m going to lose all my friends.’ This can bring up the fear of abandonment, of being left alone. If you become a novice or a monk and you devote yourself to this training, during which you are not making any money for yourself, the fear can come up of growing old without friends, financial security, without career or home. Most of us have these sorts of fears lurking just below the threshold of our awareness, but in lay life we might avoid coming to an understanding of these fears by reacting to them and investing our energy in ‘protecting’ ourselves with money, friends, status and so on. As strange as it may sound, the energy that is contained in fear is potentially of great value to our well-being.

The Fear of Losing Our Sanity.

When you get serious enough about practice and remain focused and energetic in your efforts, some of the old mainstays of your sense of identity are likely to dissolve. You can start to have unfamiliar ideas about yourself and about life, even crazy thoughts. The thought may arise, ‘Maybe I’m going mad!’ If we have never enquired into that thought before, as most of us haven’t, it can trigger off a strong fear. One reason for the fear of going mad is holding on to the self-view that we’re not mad; grasping at the idea that we’re sane. The truth is we don’t really know who or what we are, we just hold on to the ideas of who and what we are. As we practise more and begin to resume our true identity, these ideas become irrelevant and start to fall away.

Most of us avoid the fear of going crazy or being mentally ill because it’s so unsettling. When you see people who are clearly suffering from some psychological disorder, it can be so disturbing that we choose to avoid it. As a result we’re not familiar with that fear in ourselves. Then when the fear then comes up, ‘Maybe I am going to go crazy,’ it can appear genuinely threatening. We may ordinarily like to think of ourselves as a fairly decent and normal sort of person, but when you go on retreat you may start thinking instead, ‘Oh, my goodness. I’m not any of these things. In fact I am not sure I will leave this place sane.’

Wanting to know who we are is a very old habit. It has been there ever since as a child we developed a self-image and fell for the mistaken impression that this image was substantial and dependable. Well, if we don’t want to look at these assumptions about ourselves, that’s where our practice stops. We don’t get past that point. However, if we are committed to getting to the bottom of all this confusion and sorrow we don’t have to believe that we’re going crazy. We don’t have to believe that we are actually under threat. We don’t have to worry about losing all our friends. And we don’t have to dismiss the possibility of these things being true either.

The way things appear to be is just the way they appear. With mindfulness we can allow them to be, including the feeling of loneliness when it comes up. The way loneliness appears to be is that ‘I’m always going to feel like this. I’m going to feel lonely, unloved and unwanted for the rest of my life. If I stay as a monk and put up with this miserable feeling of loneliness maybe I will be reborn in my next life and become another miserable lonely monk. Then perhaps for another life and another life. Perhaps for all eternity.’

When we get lost in a state of fear, it feels like an eternity. That’s why people talk of hell being eternal. Of course, no conditioned phenomena can be eternal. If there is a hell – and probably there is – it’s not a permanent condition. But when we get stuck, get locked into fear, it feels like, ‘I’m going to be lonely forever’ or ‘I’m going to be full of resentment forever.’ We can’t let go of these things if we’re committed to our habit of holding. However, if we do, little by little, gradually prepare ourselves, and practise regularly in a sensitive, mindful way then the strength of mindfulness can sustain us in a hellish situation.

These apparent realities, such as fear and loneliness, can be received into our awareness, but we have to be willing to allow them. The Buddha’s teaching of how to come to the end of suffering requires us to have this willingness. When we allow these experiences to happen without turning away from them, it doesn’t make them feel anything other than what they are. Fear is still fear, loneliness is still loneliness, and disappointment always feels disappointing. It is the way we relate to these experiences that changes.

So, to answer the question, ‘How do I let go?’: It is certainly not a matter of ‘I should let go’, of trying to make ourselves let go. Instead we turn our attention inwards towards our feelings and thoughts, and intelligently, carefully, consider, ‘What is the experience of holding on? Do I really want to hold on?’ Part of us wants to hold on and part of us doesn’t. If we can become aware of both aspects and consider them patiently in a feeling manner, it is my experience that this brings about letting go. ‘I’ didn’t do it, but it happened. To not investigate this dynamic leaves us vulnerable to heedlessly taking sides, struggling with thoughts about ‘Do I or do I not really want to let go,’ desperately trying to make the right choice.

Also, consider, ‘What am I getting out of holding on to this? Am I getting anything at all useful out of it?’ Some of the reasons we are holding on to things are thoroughly unexpected, worn-out ideas. We hold on to things that are not relevant anymore. So instead of idealising and saying, ‘Well, I should let go,’ I would encourage us all to consider the experience of holding on and not being able to let go; to feel it directly without any resentment or idealising. Just to receive the consequences of what we are doing and allow natural wisdom to teach us. When we look at it long enough, little by little, a new momentum begins to emerge – the momentum of letting go.

As our faith in this approach to the path of practice strengthens, faith becomes a condition for further letting go. As faith and mindfulness work together we know for ourselves that we are safe to trust this path.

So thank you very much for your attention.



© 2005 Aruna Publications