Letting Go Begins With Embracing Reality

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Dear Still Water Friends,

In the Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Catch a Snake, the Buddha warns his followers that attempting to practice without understanding a teaching’s true spirit is like “trying to catch a poisonous snake in the wild.” I have many snake bites from trying to let go.

Transformation and Healing, Thích Nhất Hạnh’s (Thầy’s) commentary on the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, identifies upeksha, or letting go, as one of the “realms of true joy and happiness.” My attempts at letting go of pain have often led to more pain, though. I knew the teaching wasn’t to push emotions away or deny reality, yet I had no idea how to let go otherwise. Who or what is letting go? Of what? Into what? Confused and frustrated, I finally heeded the Buddha’s warning. I decided to let go of letting go until I knew better.

In November 2023 I attended a Still Water Sangha retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery. One day we were sitting in the meditation hall watching a recorded dharma talk by Thay. I noticed a crooked picture frame on the wall, and I could not look away. A long-time, dedicated frame straightener, I hatched a scheme to be the last one out so I could put it right. Coming to my senses, I laughed at myself for being tormented by a crooked frame at a monastery; that was a bit much, even for me. Then I read the calligraphy it contained: “Peace in yourself, Peace in the world.” I smiled as I imagined myself letting go of the frame and backing away from the wall. That was when letting go opened up for me. Tolerating my urge to fix the frame and letting it be meant the frame could hang peacefully, undisturbed. I wondered how much disturbance I had caused in the world by seeing people and situations as crooked. I wondered how often I’d given in to changing myself just because someone else saw me that way.

That day I was able to let go of a persistent worry that a colleague was upset with me. As I walked out of the meditation hall, I said to the colleague in my head, “I release you from having to be happy with me in order for me to feel calm and okay.” And with that the situation evaporated. I tasted the freedom Thay described, and my colleague was spared from whatever actions I might have taken to bring myself relief.

We often think the solution to our challenges is for something outside of us to change. In Pema Chodron’s translation of The Way of the Bodhisattva, Shantideva illuminates how we try, in vain, to protect ourselves:

To cover all the earth with sheets of hide—
Where could such amounts of skin be found?
But simply wrap some leather round your feet,
And it’s as if the whole earth had been covered!

Peace lies—for us and the world—in tending to our own inner disturbances. We can’t see situations for what they are and respond appropriately if we see them through our fears, insecurities, and judgments.

How do we let go of those distorted perceptions? Thay explains the art and stages of letting go in Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise:

To let go implies to let go of something. The something that we’re holding on to may simply be a creation of our mind, an illusory perception of something, and not the reality of the thing itself. Everything is an object of our mind and is colored by our perception. You get an idea, and before you realize it, you’ve become stuck in that idea. You may get scared because of that idea you’re believing in. You might even get sick because of it. Perhaps that idea brings you a lot of unhappiness and worries, and you would like to be free. But it’s not enough that you want to be free. You have to give yourself enough space and quiet to become free. … Once we recognize the roots of an emotion or idea, we can begin to let it go. The first step is to stop the thinking; we need to come back to our breathing and calm our body and mind. This will bring more space and clarity so that we can name and recognize the idea, desire, or emotion that’s troubling us, say hello to it, and give ourselves permission to release it.

I’m sure my practice of letting go in this way will evolve. For now I concentrate on catching myself when my mind runs away with me, imagining scenarios or writing scripts for conversations that will probably never happen. First I gently stop and tell my mind it can go off duty, relax my muscles, and breathe. I open my heart into mindfulness of the energies within me. Sometimes I can name them, and sometimes I can’t. Either way, I ask myself what need or fear is behind them and then I listen.

Next, when I feel ready , I let go more, into awareness of the realities of the situation. I wonder what the situation is truly about when I stop making it about me. Thay describes this change in perception in The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching:

The fourth element of true love is upeksha, which means equanimity, nonattachment, nondiscrimination, evenmindedness, or letting go. Upa means “over,” and iksh means “to look.” You climb the mountain to be able to look over the whole situation, not bound by one side or the other. … Upeksha has the mark called samatajñana, “the wisdom of equality,” the ability to see everyone as equal, not discriminating between ourselves and others. In a conflict, even though we are deeply concerned, we remain impartial, able to love and to understand both sides.

As Michael Singer puts it in Living Untethered, “Let go of your personal reaction so that you can serve the situation to the best of your ability.” This guidance doesn’t mean we should ignore ourselves; rather, we see ourselves as one part of the bigger picture. From this vantage point, we have a better chance of acting in harmony with the present moment as it actually is, instead of with our thoughts about it.

Finally, I decide what to do. Often I find I don’t need to take outward action. The situation may stir up energies within me solely because of my past, so after I tend to my own feelings and needs, there’s nothing more to do. Other times I do need to take action, and seeing the situation impersonally helps me discern which action would be most beneficial.

Recently my child got his driver’s license and had an appointment to go to. Conflicted, I considered driving him there to ease my worry while feeling guilty about interfering with his independence. I stopped, asked my mind to take a break, and opened to feeling the depth of my worry. When I finally arrived at the mountaintop lookout, what had seemed so confusing and complicated got very simple: a new driver has somewhere to go, and new drivers need practice and support to build skill and confidence. I told him I loved him as he walked to the car—reminded him about a tricky intersection—and let him go.

On Thursday evening, after our period of sitting meditation, we’ll have the opportunity to explore our experiences of letting go. Here are some questions we may like to consider:

  • What ideas and emotions are easier for you to let go of? Harder?
  • How has your experience of letting go changed over time?
  • How do you know when it’s time to let go?

You are warmly invited to join us.

In gratitude,
Kristin Hamilton