So many times we are advised to just let go. The whole meditation and spiritual endeavor seems to boil down to these three words–just let go. While undoubtedly well-intentioned, these three words could also be the three cruelest ones we ever encounter.
“For all we feel and all we know, it’s not easy letting go” — from “The Art of Letting Go” by Pat Benatar
Letting go is related to the greater subject of detachment. Within the “valley” approach to spirituality (and by this I mean as opposed to the “mountain” path of asceticism, renunciation, and monasticism) our life just as it is — is the path.
At the heart of the notion of detachment we may find a kind of paradox: yes, it is true that through simplifying our lives, having less clutter around, our so-called inner practice becomes easier—but we need to be clear about the danger of too much detachment. While some is good, more may not be. Disengaging ourselves from activism, livelihood advancement and family matters may actually impoverish our inner lives.
be careful detaching!
As Mahayana Buddhism constantly emphasizes, without the pressures these issues inevitably create it is hard to practice compassion. We need to be alert to the tendency to use so-called spiritual detachment as an excuse not deal with our lives. Another danger is to use detachment as a pretext for indifference or carelessness, which are based on self centeredness. The skill which we constantly hone in our spiritual life is how to dance with the stuff of our life with integrity.
the core message of the Bhagavad Gita
This is just one of the reasons I go back again and again to the Bhagavad-Gita. It is one long instruction on how to act in our everyday life with consummate grace while under maximum torment. It’s a crisis book.
We simply can’t leapfrog into detachment. To just let go is way too simplistic. That’s why the Bhagavad-Gita recommends developing our detachment muscles by working them day by day, starting with the small stuff. Detachment takes practice, and is best learned and developed in stages, as we will see below.
“Piece by piece I take apart
This complicated heart
And I hope to find
Something I can prove is real.”
(from “The Letting Go” by Melissa Etheridge)
it’s not easy letting go
Let’s concern ourselves with one aspect of this bigger question: we can agree that letting go is a good thing, but we just can’t seem to do it. Let’s focus even finer into the realm of meditation practice for now. Let’s say an “issue” surfaces and we seem to be going round and around with it. Here is a simple way to work with the stuff of our meditation practice. It is taken from the model used by many Western vipassana teachers and uses the acronym RAIN.
working with R-A-I-N
R—recognize. When we’re dealing with a deep issue like grief or working through a strong attachment, we always need to begin by acknowledging our feelings. These feelings are the stickiest aspects of attachment: the excited desire we feel when we want something, the anxiety we feel about losing it, and the sense of hopelessness that can arise when feel we are unable to achieve it.
Recognition simply means opening to and “naming” the feeling. Many times the feeling will be physical, such as a constellation of body sensations. In fact, the notion of a feeling as an emotion has no correlate in Buddhist psychology. Within this system we call a feeling is a combination of body sensations, thoughts in mind and mental pictures. We just open to the present reality, and let our self cry inside, if that’s what happens. Over time we come to notice that suffering is created by our habit of pushing away unwanted feelings.
This work dovetails with step two: A is for Acceptance. Acceptance is an awkward word. What we mean is being present with non-judgmental awareness to what is happening as it is happening. Acceptance is not resignation. It is a saying yes to everything, but not in a cheerleader-like way. It’s an open diving into what is, clear-eyed and with no agenda other than to be with what is.
I is for investigation. This is where the powers of focus and discrimination we develop with meditation come in. Start by probing the feeling space that the desire or grief or hopelessness brings up in your consciousness.
As we do this work we must shift into the witness. As the witness explore the energy in the feelings, the quicksilver-like qualities, it’s arabesques. The key point is equanimity–to let the energy dance it’s dance in awareness with non-judgemental, non-interfering present moment centered mindfulness.
As you go deeper into this energy, its knotty, sticky quality will start to dissolve-for the time being. In any process for working with feelings, it’s important to find a way to explore your feelings that allows you both to be present with them and to stand a little aside from them. We don’t try to figure them out, we simply watch them from this space, as resist the temptation to become fascinated and stay as the observer. We don’t go digging into our personal history, and resist the temptation to make psychological observations and speculations.
N is for non-attachment. This is not “doing” non-attachment! Letting go is an organic process , when we have been with our feelings in this way, after some time letting go just happens. In this stage you discover that gain and loss, pleasure and pain and other forces that push/ pull us through life don’t have to interfere with our feelings of well-being. It’s no small thing. Every time we free ourselves from one little sticky feeling, we unlock another link in what the classic texts call the chain of bondage.
One very powerful way to sanctify daily life is to offer the “purified” sticky feeling up as an offering, as a way to super charge the process of opening, releasing and working through.