“The Great Way is not difficult, for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent, everything becomes clear and undisguised.”
Oh, how many times have I heard delivered these opening lines from a famous poem by Sengstan, the Third Zen Patriarch, at gatherings in the buddhist sub-culture.
If only we had no preferences …. Wouldn’t everything be so much easier?
“No preferences.” “Letting go.” So easy. No, it isn’t. Breathe in, breathe out. Just let it go.
For a long time, I spent a few weeks each year in meditation retreats, and the teachers would tell us over and over: “Just let go.”
I had no idea how to do this as my mind churned over and over with the same gnarling thoughts of who-did-what-to-whom and why-I-didn’t-get-out-of-that-situation-earlier and what-if this-or-that-happens-next.
“Let go.” How? I wanted to run out of the hall and scream out loud, but, of course, I did not.
Then gradually, I gained some insights about what it means to let go. These insights continue to serve me as I continue to practice with the impossible.
In the year 2000, a woman I had thought of as a very close friend betrayed me. Not with money or with gossip but by taking my heart and ripping it to shreds with no explanation. There was no closure. I had no say in the matter. Everyone around her believed – and still believes – that this woman is God’s gift to humanity.
I spent a number of meditation retreats circling over and over with the story lines of “how could she have done this” and “why can’t I stop thinking about her.” Until finally, out of nowhere, the insight arose: I’m not thinking about her. My thoughts are all self-referential. When I believe I’m thinking and thinking about this other person, I’m actually thinking about “me.” The image of the other person is an illusory veil over my own pain.
I saw clearly that while I would have preferred continuing a friendship with this person, there really was no there there. The events had passed and what had remained so painful were the thoughts and feelings that the events had happened to “me.” When I perceived that very clearly, what was left was no longer the obsessive story-thinking but just a deep felt sense of grief.
I saw that for me, letting go means seeing and accepting when there’s actually nothing to hold onto. Yes, I could let go.
Letting go meant that grief would be there very starkly. I would experience it, and then it, too, would subside.
But letting go is not a lesson one learns once and forever more. It is a teaching that repeats and deepens each time. It is a labyrinth one walks to get further toward the center of one’s innermost being, where there is nothing ordinary to hold onto.
A few years ago, I had a profound experience of letting go. At stake was not just a matter of wishing for thoughts and feelings to make their departure.
I wanted to stay in a relationship with someone. Yet, he had done something against our agreement: he had gone off the meds he needed to manage his mental illness. Months into a terrifying episode, he was literally losing his mind and he was becoming verbally abusive. There was no way for us to continue. And yet my mind clung to ideas of what could be, what might have been. Oh, I had preferences! And I knew I had to let go.
I started a mantra, “What is letting go right now?” For several weeks, when I would think about the what ifs, I would query my mind with this mantra. Hundreds, maybe thousands of times, I saw thoughts and feelings rise up, clinging to an image of this person and the illusion of what a future could be. I watched my mind tighten and clench around an idea and then release and unclench into acceptance that this relationship was over. Clenching and releasing, over and over, days and weeks, until I exhausted my preference for the impossible. The Way became easy. I let go.
This experience has become a landmark for me. It gave me visceral data about how the heart-mind can cling, regardless of one’s willing it not to, and how, in a moment of grace, one can become free of that clinging and see the transparent no-thingness of the matter.
Having had this experience does not mean that clinging will not arise again, and again, with each new conundrum of life. But I know now that I can let go, even if it’s hard.
Recently I had an experience of becoming involved with a dysfunctional friend. I liked this person very much. There was good rapport and the interaction was fun and interesting. But soon there developed an unsavory undercurrent as this person tried to impose vague and unreasonable demands on me. I noticed myself thinking: I can let go of this.
That’s very useful information, to know that one can let go, and be free, if that’s what becomes appropriate.
After a short while, the interactions with this person became disturbing, to the point that I no longer felt emotionally safe. To boot, I had daily stomach aches for weeks, and, boy, isn’t that the body saying, loud and clear: this is not good.
I waited to let go until I knew I would not regret it. I gave second and third and fourth chances and then I politely told this person to go away.
And with this letting go, I received another insight about why the process can feel so treacherous: It’s not really letting go if we take a bag of worn out clothes we no longer wear and drop it off at the thrift shop. Real letting go involves taking a risk, losing something of value. For me, the risk is that if I let go of the story, the drama, the impossible future, what will be left? For me, what’s left is grief, even if the grief is short-lived.
To struggle against letting go is, for me, a maneuver to forestall grief. To willingly let go of that which is not healthy and good – knowing that grief will come and stay a while and then pass away – that’s no easy feat. It is bravery. And when the fear of inevitable grief is met with bravery, the grief doesn’t just go away. It is transformed, like straw into gold, into freedom.