Sacred geometry

The Art of Letting Go

Date17th December 2005
Retreat/SeriesThe Art of Letting Go - Insight Medit...


I had a minuscule realization: that actually the whole of the Dharma is about non-attachment. The whole of the Dharma, the whole of the teaching, is about letting go. So I would like to explore perhaps -- it's just a few strands of what this means, non-attachment, what it means in our lives.

With a little bit of introspection, a little bit of looking inside, you can soon get a sense that it's pretty much possible to attach to anything, absolutely anything whatsoever. So any aspect of our lives, it's possible to have an attachment to, to form some kind of problematic relationship with. Of course, a lot of this, we're not really even aware of. But as we begin to, as our mindfulness begins to grow and deepen and become more sensitive, we begin to see the levels to which attachment goes in our lives. So we can, just to give a few examples, we can attach to our bodies, to the way we look. Do I look handsome, pretty, attractive, or not? Old, young? Am I okay in the way I look? Do I look stupid? Or when the body gets ill as it must do, or in pain, or the ageing process. This very much causes a problem for us in our lives, and the problem is because of the attachment. In itself, the body is not a problem.

We can have attachments to the flow, the ebb and flow of our feeling life, the difficulties around certain emotions, or hanging on and pushing away certain manifestations of emotion, of feeling in our life. All this is extremely common. There's no judgment involved in any of this. This is part of what it is to be human. Our mind states, whether we have a bright mind, a concentrated mind, a sharp mind, or is it dull and agitated -- all this, all this can [be] and is a problem for us as human beings. And then, of course, we have attachments to people. Some of that is actually healthy, of course -- for a child to be attached to the mother, the parent, for friends to be attached, loved ones. But then we also see, and it's very common to see, the problems involved in that, difficulties in human relationships. With the roles that we carry out in life. So how we feel we're perceived in a certain role, or wanting to cling to a role, or wanting to feel somehow important or pumped up in a role.

All of this -- attachment can really land and grip anywhere. We might ask, well, what is attachment? What actually is it? And that's not such an obvious question. I remember one teacher giving an example: attachment is like holding this whatever-it-is, bell beater thingy [laughter], and gripping it tightly. In that gripping, this hand is then not free to be open. It's not free to receive, to create, to act and do. It's stuck in the gripping. So this is often what attachment is, even if it's something inside, or if it's something in the world, something physical, something emotional, mental, some idea even or view -- we can get attached to views. But there's some gripping there. And so the mind, the heart, sometimes the body, is not -- we're not free to respond in a creative way, in an open way.

Another aspect of what attachment might be is also we might say we can look at it in terms of a very deeply ingrained habit we have as human beings, very, very deeply ingrained, of pushing away what we don't like. Something unpleasant is there in the body, in the mind, in the feelings, in the environment, and the almost -- I was going to say natural, but the normal tendency, is to push it away. Although it's a pushing away -- we think of attachment as clinging on to something, but even that pushing in Dharma understanding is a kind of attachment. And when there's something we want and we grasp it towards us, that's also attachment. So all this is, in a way, the manifestations of attachment.

And how do we know when attachment is there? Well, there's actually one very simple rule of thumb: that sooner or later it causes suffering. That's what attachment does. And that's why, spiritually speaking, it's of such primary importance to look into the question. So all the great spiritual traditions address this issue of attachment.

Now, if we speak about non-attachment, it's quite important to be clear that non-attachment doesn't mean a kind of cold aloofness, a kind of (what we might say) detachment, disconnection, from ourselves, from our emotions, from our life, from others, from the world. This is really perhaps one of the pitfalls, potential pitfalls, of this kind of path, of a path of awareness, is that it can, sometimes, for some people, at periods, slip into a kind of cold, dull, aloof detachment. And that is not the place we're heading. So just to be aware of what are the potential pitfalls.

Non-attachment, as opposed to detachment, has a quality of love in it. It has a quality of warmth and of connection in it. It's not based on fear, on fear of something inside ourselves, a fear of something in the world. Probably if we look, if we investigate this question, we see detachment, this disconnecting that we do as human beings at times, is often based on fear. Based on self-interest, selfishness sometimes, but often on fear. When, as practice progresses, the mindfulness gets quite subtle, it's possible to really just be crystal clear about this in ourselves. You can notice, you sit, and there's awareness, there's an openness there, an awareness of how the heart is. You can feel, actually feel it in the body, when there's a little bit of pushing away, hanging on, grabbing towards, you can actually feel the heart close. Sometimes very subtly, you can feel it close. And in the release of that, in the non-attachment, one can feel the heart open, and feel the softening going on. Just to be very clear how the heart is very much connected in all of this.

One important, very important question, I think, to ask ourselves in all of this and in this journey, is how are we holding the whole question of non-attachment? How are we holding it? How are we looking at it? How are we looking at this aspect of the path and of our journey? Are we judging ourselves for having attachments? Do we have a fixed idea of what we should be and what it should look like? So you get the 'good meditator' syndrome, or the 'good yogi' syndrome. We're supposed to fill a certain, supposed to look a certain way, very meek and gentle and all -- whatever the image is. Just to see, what are the constellations of emotion that are around how we're looking at this question of non-attachment?

We may have a fixed idea, but the journey into non-attachment, I think we'll find is a journey into the unknown. It's moving into the unknown, because if we look carefully, most of our life is about attachment. Some of it's very subtle. And so letting go of that is actually a courageous willingness to move into the unknown. We don't know what that's going to look like.

Are we using this business of non-attachment as just another way to kind of beat up on ourselves, something else to fail with? "Another attachment. There I go. What a schmuck I am." When we're looking at this question of attachment in our lives, non-attachment, I feel it's quite important not to make it this sort of dry, picky, fault-finding business that we're going about looking at ourselves.

A little while ago, a retreatant was saying to me how she went into lunch, and there was spaghetti there, and she liked spaghetti. And she said, "Oh, that's awful," you know? What's the problem? Spaghetti. It's nice, you know. [laughs] Similarly, sometimes some of the managers and myself and a few friends, when England play their football games, we like to trek up to the pub and watch the football. It can be quite an involved experience, quite noisy sometimes. And there's one manager in particular, who I won't say who it is [laughter], and he's really quite, quite vocal in his enthusiasm, his emotional involvement in the game. So there was a very -- as part of another discussion, there was a very short debate on whether this was attachment and whether it was good or bad and whatnot.

For my part, I feel that maybe more important is actually the relationship we have to seeing attachment. Can we actually be guided in our looking by noticing suffering? In other words, go to the pub, watch the football, have a good time, get a little upset if England lose, lasts about five minutes, then you forget about it. Is that really such a big deal? If we go into the dining room and it's spaghetti and we like it, what's the problem? [laughter]

If there's suffering, that's an indicator there's some holding going on, there's some attachment going on that needs looking at, it needs understanding. So rather than a dry pickiness, trying to be Mr or Mrs Right Meditator, actually let the suffering of our life, that we can feel, let that be our guide. Because that's what's meaningful to us, and that's what this path is all about, freedom from suffering.

Secondly, can there be, in this looking at our attachment, can there be a kindness in it? Absolutely, absolutely indispensable. Can we recognize the humanity of attaching? That human beings do that, that's what we do, that's what minds do. To expect it to be perfect is just not realistic.

Can we have some spaciousness around seeing attachment? So just notice, "Ah, there's attachment." It's human. Don't have to be so identified and so judging of oneself in that process. It's just, "Ah, here's attachment going on." Doesn't have to be so much self involved in it, involved in the noticing of it. Sometimes when we talk about letting go, it may be better -- I think sometimes we have this agenda, really, of when we say 'letting go,' "How can I let go of something?", what we actually mean is "How can I get rid of this thing? How can I flush it out the back door and have it away from my life?" And there's quite a lot of aversion in there.

So sometimes, perhaps, a better way of framing the whole question is: can the relationship with something be relaxed? So we talk about letting go. Maybe a better working definition often is can the relationship be relaxed with this thing? Not getting rid of. Can I actually relax the relationship? Because the relationship is what's key to suffering. So sometimes what this needs, sometimes, is a kind of very allowing consciousness. Sometimes we're letting go of things in our life, things in ourselves, aspects of ourselves, or letting go in relationship to another person, and there's grief there, there's a sense of loss, and it's natural, and it's part of being human. Can there be an allowing of that? We're not getting rid of these feelings, getting rid of this person. It may be that the grief, the feelings, need to run their course, need to be opened to, need to be allowed.

So in the practices that we're doing over the weekend, we're emphasizing this quality of mindfulness a lot, bringing awareness, bringing presence to the present moment. And that's absolutely crucial, you know. It's absolutely fundamental to the path. In a way, we become free as human beings by understanding. And how can we understand if we're not present? As it says in the casinos in Las Vegas, you have to be present to win. [laughter] You have to be there to learn. I heard that secondhand; I don't actually ... [laughter] frequent such establishments.

So this quality of mindfulness is absolutely key. But as I said, I think, in the opening talk, mindfulness is not the whole of the path (or maybe this morning). Mindfulness is not the whole of the path. It's not just about that. We could say we're cultivating mindfulness, we're placing a lot of emphasis on cultivating mindfulness, as a very fundamental part of the path, but we're also cultivating a lot of other qualities. I said in the instructions this morning, when we're coming back to the breath, we're cultivating patience as well. Patience with the mind. Patience with the body too. There are different practices to cultivate many different qualities -- all these Buddhist lists that you may have been unfortunate to hear about, all these lists of very dry-sounding qualities that we're supposed to cultivate. [laughter] But when you get inside these things and make them personal, it really begins to have some juice to it. One begins to see there's an enormous amount of letting go potential in the cultivation of beautiful qualities.

Patience, equanimity, calmness, stillness, renunciation, mindfulness, concentration -- I mean, the lists go on and on -- energy. Morality, ethics that I talked about too. These qualities, in cultivating them, I think sometimes we actually -- we think about letting go, and we think only in negative terms: "I want to," as I said, "get rid of this thing." And we focus very much on the thing that's present that I want to let go of. That's natural: here's the thing, that's the problem, let's look at that. And my experience, for myself and talking with others and listening to others, is: so, so common to overlook and underestimate the enormous power in cultivating beautiful qualities. They form a basis in our life on which our insight can stand, and on which we can grow, and our lives can flower into fulfilment, really.

There's a line from Bob Dylan, and if I remember, he says, he's talking about something else but he says, "It balances like a mattress on a bottle of wine." So if you can see the image. In other words, not very well. Insights that may happen in practice, if they don't have this basis of ethics, of calmness, of equanimity, we may open to insights, we may feel that opening, but they tend not to really stick, because they're a mattress balancing on a bottle of wine. They're not on a firm foundation. It's so easy to overlook the importance of it.

So if we take, just for example, two qualities that we are very interested in cultivating. One might be the quality of loving-kindness, love, mettā in Pali, and the other might be the quality of calmness that we're cultivating this weekend too. If you practise, if you develop these qualities, you will notice that they bring a real strength to the mind. They bring a real strength to the heart. And I think anyone who's just been alive for a while, let alone actually practising for a while, can just say from experience that the path needs strength. There are times when it really, what it needs is strength. And I don't mean a kind of macho, rigid strength. I mean a very deep, open, and pliant strength. We do get challenged in life, and certainly the path challenges us, and really what we can draw on is our strength, the qualities that strengthen the heart or strengthen the mind. We absolutely need that.

So these qualities -- love, calmness -- they're actually also qualities that are what the Buddha would call wholesome nourishment. So this, too, is a very important factor in our lives. We're learning where it is that we find a really deep nourishment in life, and a nourishment that isn't addictive, and isn't harmful to ourselves or others, or frittering our energy. And we're just learning how to feed ourselves in the best possible ways, by cultivating love, by cultivating calmness. To nourish ourselves that way means to develop happiness, too, because these qualities to be cultivated inherently produce happiness, inherently. A mind filled with love is a happy mind. A mind bright and calm is a happy mind.

When there's a reservoir of happiness in our lives, it's much, much easier to let go. Much, much easier. Then there's a strength there. We're not beggars in life. We're not so dependent outwardly. Do we have faith in this kind of investment? You know, we live our lives, and the time goes by, and, well, to put it simply, death is approaching. Death is not far away. And what are we investing in? Of course there's a place for stocks and shares and property and houses and all that. Of course that's part of what it is. But where's the deeper investment that we really can rely on? And to really be sure of that. It's a sign of maturity in practice that one's really sure about that.

We were talking a little bit in the question and answer period, some of the question and answer periods today as well -- we have habits of agitation, of worry, of restlessness, of remorse, coldness, habits of aloofness, and actually cultivating these qualities is replacing those negative habits by good habits. In a way, we can speak of letting go, in a sense, of the negative habits, and a freedom from the negative habits. Someone recently was saying how she just recently began practising loving-kindness practice, and how almost immediately she noticed that there was quite some spaciousness that came with it. Perhaps that wasn't expected. And with that spaciousness, some equanimity. In the spaciousness and equanimity, the letting go is almost right there; it's a natural quality of spaciousness and equanimity. And it comes out of the cultivation of love.

So these qualities, too, they tend to refine our consciousness. So a mind of calm, a mind of love, is a mind that's more sensitive and able to look deeper than an agitated or a cold, angry mind. A few of my teachers have said to me, "Don't worry about getting attached to that. Don't worry." Oftentimes you hear, you know, "You shouldn't, because you'll get attached." But don't worry about that. These qualities, they don't bring that much attachment with them, and if it does, you can worry about that later. There are good things to be attached to, and there are not-so-helpful things.

So sometimes I think in practice we might have an idea, and it sounds very simple and very, "Ah! Great!", the whole idea of "Just don't be attached to anything, just completely be non-attached, and everything will just be groovy." [laughter] And that has a certain charm to it, and certainly there is a place for approaching practice like that, actually approaching practice just from the point of view, "I'm not going to attach to anything." That really does have its place as an approach. But sometimes, occasionally, you meet people and it's just an excuse for laziness. What's probably a more important question is: is it working? Is it working? I might have that view, but is it working? Am I feeling a freedom from it? And if it's not, it may be that actually we need to look at what needs cultivating.

As I mentioned before, one of the areas that, as human beings, we tend to get attached, is to the roles that we are in, or fulfil, or carry out. I think it was last week, I was teaching somewhere else, and speaking to someone who -- he had been a light engineer in the theatre, and had really enjoyed that work very much for -- I can't remember; decades, I think it was -- until about five or six years ago. He said a curious thing. Actually there was probably more to it than what I'm going to say. But he said, "And now I don't like myself because I'm not that any more, I don't do that any more. Because the circumstances have changed and I don't do that any more," he said, "I don't like myself now." And it probably is quite complicated. But in the course of the conversation, asking the question, "Well, were you always a light engineer?" And of course not. You don't come out of the womb as a theatrical light engineer. [laughter] So of course there were decades before he was a light engineer when he wasn't a light engineer, and it wasn't a problem then that he wasn't a light engineer. Somehow we build up this whole view and rigidity of seeing things around roles, and we don't see that there are these huge gaps where we're not that thing.

Similarly, during the decades that we was a light engineer, was he a light engineer when he was fast asleep? Was he a light engineer when he was going to the store, buying his groceries, etc.? So to bring some quite active reflection to pierce holes in what seems so solid and rigid. Similarly, I asked him to reflect on happiness, that were there times, during the times that he was a light engineer, when he wasn't happy? And I'm sure there were, over decades. And similarly, since he was a light engineer, were there times when he was happy? And again, I'm sure there were. So to see. Sometimes we get all entangled in something because we believe our happiness is wrapped up in that. To actually just step back and ask, well, is it true about my happiness being wrapped up in that? Is it really true? So to actively challenge these assumptions. Some of these assumptions, we don't even realize we're making.

For my part, my role here is that I live here as resident teacher. Now, if I ... [laughs] if I walked around the building all day thinking, "I'm the resident teacher. I'm the resident teacher," it would be completely miserable, utterly miserable, to feel trapped in that role all the time. So basically I think about it as little as I can. [laughter] Only when it's really necessary to step into that role do I then step into that role and hopefully I carry it out. [laughs] But don't have to carry this burden of roles. You know, when it's time to pick it up, pick it up. When it's time to put it down, put it down. Like this thing [the bell beater thingy], when it's time to pick it up, hit the bell, hit the bell, otherwise put it down.

So there's a sense of being wrapped up and attached and identified with roles. Also generally the sense of owning, ownership in life. In a way we can talk about, in Dharma language, ownership being a bit of a myth, or a lot of a myth. We can question the assumptions that we really even own anything, anything at all -- clothes that we wear, our possessions, our house, our car. Just begin to question that. On perhaps an even closer level, can begin to even question whether we own the body. [snoring in background, laughter] So a natural, normal human tendency is to feel like we own the body, of course. But actually, as practice progresses, we give attention to the body, we actually begin to see -- the question might come up, do I really own this thing? Did I create this? Did I fabricate it? It came from nature, and if there's one thing we can be sure of, it's that it's going back to nature sooner or later. We can begin to sense, just sitting there, mindfulness of the body sensations, the breath coming in and out, I have very little control in this. They're kind of just happening. It's all just happening.

Similarly, how little control we have over the body, over our illness, when illness happens. We don't plan, schedule in our illnesses for 2006. It's really out of our control. We tend to, even at a deeper level, perhaps, we tend to take the life force personally. Very normal human thing. But there's a life force in the universe; we could talk in those terms. And we tend to take it personally. Here's me and my life. Maybe that's just a view of ourselves and a view of our lives. Similarly, we tend to take awareness personally: my awareness, my consciousness. Perhaps that's a view. Perhaps another way of looking might be to say, something quite remarkable has happened in the universe. The universe has become aware of itself. We are the universe. A part of the universe has become aware of the universe.

How are these kind of shifts in view going to be opened to? And can we encourage that movement and that opening? So that's quite difficult, with the body, with our consciousness, with our sense of our own life. But it is possible. It absolutely is possible through practice. Sometimes I think what's even more difficult than that, as difficult as that may sound, is letting go and non-attachment in relation to people. Things are quite easy. As one teacher said, "Here's this glass. Stick it there and say, 'Stay there,' and it pretty much stays there." But with a person, you say, "Do this" or something, and of course people don't. They tend to have minds of their own and wills of their own. And to just acknowledge this -- it's obvious, but it's actually quite a deep thing to really, really, fully take on board, that we can't control people. We cannot control people.

So if we're interested in love and living with love, we have to somehow really, really be interested in opening to that at a very deep level. We can't control how people are with us, or how people are with themselves. I'm sure many of you have relationships or loved ones and see them occasionally, or sometimes quite a lot, harming themselves, engaged in activities and behaviour and ways of thinking, of relating, that are not really helpful, and we feel our inability to control them, and it hurts. It's not easy to watch a loved one do that. So equanimity has to be a part of love. It has to be that our love has that recognition of non-control, and has a kind of steadiness to it, and a kind of spaciousness to it.

There's a beautiful passage, some of you, I'm sure, will know, from Kahlil Gibran, from The Prophet. He's talking about children, and this non-ownership of others. It says:

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, Speak to us of Children. And he said: Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you they belong not to you. You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you, for life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might, that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer's hand be for gladness, for even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.[1]

It's not easy with people that we love and that we feel connected to, to have that kind of openness. We may ask, well, what then is the relation -- we do have a responsibility. Perhaps we could say we have a responsibility to support the potential of another, to really support that potential. But we don't have control over them. Similarly, it might be that, you know ... a friend is a friend, a child is a child, they're my child, my friend, my lover, my spouse, my parent, and that's very true. Of course that's true. And we have the responsibility to those that life throws close to us. We do have that responsibility. But, in a way, they belong to life. And can we actually hold both these views at once? We don't have control over when someone may decide it's time to leave us, or they want to leave, or the relationship ends. Can there be this gratitude and openness for the time together, for what brought us together, and the sharing there, and an openness that they belong to life, and bless their onward journey? This is not easy.

So we may wonder, we may ask ourselves, and I think maybe we should ask ourselves, in relationship (and it's not an easy question): what am I trying to get out of this relationship? This is not an easy question to ask, and not an easy question to answer. So oftentimes relationships are very complex. Friendships are very complex. Relationships with loved ones are very complex. What am I seeking to get out of this? Sometimes there's some kind of self-image thing there, that we're pumping ourselves up with. Sometimes it's fear, that we're just making a wall against fear. Sometimes there's a dependence there. And again, no judgment in this, but just to ask, that we have that honesty and that willingness to look. But at the same time, we may be getting something very beautiful and beneficial and mutually helpful out of a relationship, that we're actually attached in a good and lovely way. I very much think there's a place for that in life; of course there's a place for that in life. Are we both opening in love? Are we growing together?

There's a very odd little poem by a mystic poet called Hafiz. And it says, if I paraphrase, it says, "First the fish has to think, 'There's something kind of weird about this camel ride, and I am so damned thirsty.'" So at first that just sounds very odd. [laughter] I think what he's getting at is the thirst we have in life, the suffering that we have in life, despite its being a normal part of life, in a way it's something that's reminding us of the fact that we're attached, that something's not quite right, not quite natural, and the possibility to let go. And so this possibility in life, actually the promise of the spiritual life, is that we can find a freedom with any conditions inner or outer. That's the promise. And it's a big promise to make. That's not a small promise. But that's the promise, that human beings can know a freedom with whatever is going on, internally or externally.

Not to say, of course, that that's easy. And it's not always easy at all. But whatever's going on, there is the possibility of freedom with it. So forget about blanket statements for the rest of your life -- just whatever is going on, there is the possibility of freedom with it, whatever it is, including death. So this question of suffering in life is very, in the Buddha's approach, in the Buddha's formulation, is very central. He's always talking about suffering and the end of suffering. So there is this promise. But there's a bit of a paradox here. The way that we maybe move towards that freedom actually involves -- we have to, first the fish has to say, first the fish has to think, we have to notice suffering, we have to become quite sensitive to suffering in our life. And we have to be willing and have the courage and openness to come close to it, to really touch suffering, open to it, explore it. Which is not something that sounds like it's going to be that great. [laughter] And it's not that obvious that that would be a good thing to do. If suffering's there, I'd rather go that way. But this is the way. We can only understand suffering by opening to it, by coming close to it, by touching it.

So despite this promise of the spiritual life, there's a paradox. And to recognize when there's suffering, it's human. It's part of the human condition and it's normal. It's normal to suffer. It's normal to have suffering in one's life. And, and, it's possible to find freedom with it. In opening to suffering, in coming close to suffering, we can begin to understand something, understand something very deep about suffering. We understand what's really important is how suffering arises. We see very clearly in our lives and practice, on the cushion, off the cushion, see that suffering arises through clinging, through this attachment and grasping that I was talking about. And that becomes, as we open to suffering and have a look what's going on here, how is it that the suffering is arising, actually begin to see that, to feel the mechanism. And this becomes absolutely crystal clear and unshakeably clear, that we learn through our experience that if the relationship is one of grasping, of pushing away, of pulling, of grabbing on, holding on, if it's that kind of clinging, there's going to be suffering there, and we feel it. And it's part of the practice to actually open to that feeling. And we learn, at the same time, if we relax that clinging, you can feel the ease, feel the constriction release. So the relationship is really where all the freedom lies.

Finally, I just want to -- sometimes it could be quite easy to get the impression, in this path or in other paths, that what we're doing is sort of sitting here and being open, and allowing all our old stuff, all our old accumulations, old karma, to kind of bubble up and out, and that's usually acknowledged to be a pretty unpleasant process, that we just have to kind of open to and sit through and it will come out, and we'll have let go of it, and feel better, and eventually be free of all of it. We just have to be with it, and somehow what's stored inside will release itself.

So the Buddha really, really questioned such a view. He actually ridiculed people who held such a view. It's a very common view nowadays because of the sort of psychotherapeutic culture that we live in, even without realizing it. If you stop someone on the street and ask them, you know, "Do you think that you have stuff from your childhood that is stored somehow and you could release?", I don't know, my sense is they'd probably agree. Whether they'd actually want to do that or not is a different question. But we live in that kind of culture with those kind of assumptions.

I think if we have that view of the path, it won't be long before we get pretty fed up, and probably either try to explore something else or just give up entirely. So I wonder how we can actually understand in a different way, understand this process of letting go in a different way, and how practice might help us to do that. If we go back to this question of mindfulness and what mindfulness is, as I said, it has a couple of different aspects. So one aspect of mindfulness is this very sort of clear noticing of what's going on, just very clearly, precisely noticing the breath, noticing sound, body sensations, whatever. Another aspect of mindfulness, or a complementary aspect of mindfulness, is this quality of acceptance -- just receiving experience, allowing, allowing. Really accepting. It has almost like a kindness inherent in mindfulness.

Sometimes we overemphasize the quality of paying attention to things, precisely knowing what's going on. What would happen if we began to emphasize the other aspect? So forgetting about the precision of noticing, and begin to emphasize this aspect of a real welcoming, almost like a radical kind of welcoming, a radical acceptance of whatever is going on. What would happen if that's what really got emphasized?

What happens -- and this is quite a deep thing to explore -- but what happens is if we really, really just sit down and just really emphasize that acceptance, just complete welcoming, complete, without any hidden agenda, just very open to what's going on, what can tend to happen is there begins to be a kind of softening or even a fading, a fading of experience, especially of unpleasant experience. So something might be going on, an unpleasant emotion or body sensation, and if we're actually, instead of trying to be so precise with the noticing, just really emphasizing this openness, this acceptance, this welcoming, "Yeah, come. Open. Wide open door. Wide open door." Everything just arising and going. Not holding. Just really put the emphasis there. There is this softening and fading. What seemed to be unpleasant can actually begin to lose its unpleasantness. What seemed to be a difficult emotion can actually fade.

A retreatant was saying the other day something, that she felt a sadness, and when she brought her attention to it, it seemed to increase the sadness. When she relaxed around the sadness and just, with a welcoming acceptance, the sadness seemed to go away. She was quite puzzled by this. Actually seeing that, two things -- one, as I said, the relationship is what's crucial in suffering. If we can have a relaxed relationship with things, that takes away the suffering. It eases the suffering. The second thing, and it's an even deeper insight, is to realize that the reaction that we have to something is part of what's making the thing itself. In other words, if I have a difficult emotion, if I have something unpleasant going on, my reaction to it, if I'm pushing, if I'm clinging, if I'm holding on, if I'm grasping, clinging, that's part of what's building it.

If I can relax that clinging, the thing can't build itself. So what that means is that nothing, no thing, inner or outer, exists in a way that's independent of how I'm looking at it, of my relationship to it. So it's completely counterintuitive. Completely. What it means is that we're intimately interconnected with everything; there's nothing that's separate from awareness, from the mind, from what we're bringing to anything. So interconnected that it actually goes beyond words, and the word 'interconnection' doesn't even do it justice. It's more of a sort of breakdown of the concepts of separate things. It's an interpenetration. We say in Dharma language, things are empty of being inherently existing, or existing independently.

To open to this, to begin to see it, is really the beginning of a very, very deep freedom in life. When we see this not only intellectually, but the seeing really goes down and we feel it in the cells and we feel it in the heart, then this is actually the deepest kind of letting go. The deepest kind of freedom comes from that. We don't think in terms of me being separate from you, me being separate from the world. With that end of separation, end of alienation, there is an end of suffering, end of problem. We can see this at deeper and deeper levels, and it is available to us. I mean, it might sound a bit abstract now, but it's very much available to us as human beings, through practice, through reflection.

Shall we just sit quietly for a few minutes together?

  1. Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923). ↩︎

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry