Noticing and Letting Go of Our Unhelpful Attachments

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Dear Still Water Friends,

My grandmother was the most elegant woman I knew. So, I was surprised when she disclosed to me, when I was nine years old, that her heart sank each morning as she looked in the mirror. Expecting to see a twenty one-year-old, every day she was shocked to see an old woman looking back at her. I was struck by how much pain seemed to be caused by the gap between her expectation and her experience of herself. Following this interaction, I resolved to do what I could to not be surprised or disappointed by the inevitability of aging.

Recently, I had the opportunity to reflect again on my relationship with growing old. On the recent Still Water silent retreat we were encouraged to practice with the Five Remembrances, a meditation from the Buddha on the inevitably of aging and death. Here is Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the Five Remembrances:

 I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.

There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

As I reflected on the lines above, I realized that I, like my grandmother, struggle to let go of the allure of youth. While my grandmother’s focus was on her appearance, I noticed that my attachments are more subtle, and perhaps more insidious. When I first arrived at the retreat, I noticed that a couple of participants had begun to organize the kitchen to get ready for our shared potluck dinner. A dinner, I noted, that wouldn’t begin for nearly two hours. “Why can’t they just relax?” I asked myself. ”Why must they busy themselves when there’s really no need to do anything right now?”

Surprised by the judgmental tone of my own thoughts, I stopped to ask myself why their behavior mattered to me. I soon realized that I wanted them to stop their activity, so I could take over doing exactly what they were doing! Instead of being cool, calm, and collected as I had imagined, I was really feeling a strong pull to be useful, busy, and to make sure that things were set-up like I was used to.

While being useful, busy, and in control may seem like normal things to want, this moment illuminated for me the subtle hold attachment and clinging can have over our thoughts and behaviors. We tend to become aware of our clinging when circumstances stand between us and the object of our attachments (in my case it was people standing in-between me and the dish cabinet at the retreat center).  We learn from the Buddha that it is the very grasping for things, or expectations, just beyond reach that is at the root of suffering.

The Remembrances are a powerful reminder that everything changes. That we will ultimately have to let go of everything we hold dear. I realized that my attachments to being busy and in control are ways to ward off the inevitably of change or at least avoid thinking about it.  As a first step towards letting go, it has been very helpful for me to observe the ways I cling to my ideas of myself. This noticing has allowed me to loosen my grip and even let go at times, as I was able to do that night at the retreat. I smiled to my judging and to my clinging. Then I was able to smile at my friends and keep them company as they continued their work.

So I’m wondering,

  • What are the ideas, feelings, desires, or beliefs you cling to that bring you suffering rather than joy?
  • How do you decide to work on letting some of them go?
  • What supports you in the process of letting them go?

I hope you will join us for our meditation and Dharma sharing this Thursday evening.

In the excerpt below, Thich Nhat Hanh answers a question about letting go of attachments.​

Warm wishes,


 An excerpt from From Answers from the Heart (2009) by Thich Nhat Hanh

Q: I have a lot of trouble letting go of things:  relationships, jobs, feelings, and so on.  How can I reduce these attachments?

A:   To “let go” means to let go of something.  That something may be an object of our mind, something we’ve created, like an idea, feeling, desire, or belief.  Getting stuck on that idea could bring a lot of unhappiness and anxiety.

We’d like to let it go, but how?  It’s not enough just to want to let it go, we have to recognize it first as being something real.  We have to look deeply into its nature and where it has come from, because ideas are born from feelings, emotions, and past experiences, from things we’ve seen and heard.  With the energy of mindfulness and concentration, we can look deeply and discover the roots of the idea, the feeling, the emotion, the desire.  Mindfulness and concentration bring about insight, and insight can help us release the object in our mind.

Say you have a notion of happiness, an idea about what will make you happy.  That idea has its roots in you and your environment.  The idea tells you what conditions you need in order to be happy.  You’ve entertained the idea for ten or twenty years, and now you realize that your idea of happiness is making you suffer.  There may be an element of delusion, anger, or craving in it.  On the other hand, you know that you have other kinds of experiences:  moments of joy, release, or true love.  You recognize these as moments of real happiness.  When you have had a moment of real happiness, it becomes easier to release the objects of your craving, because you are developing the insight that these objects will not make you happy.

Many people have the desire to let go, but they’re not able to do so because they don’t yet have enough insight; they haven’t seen other alternatives, other doorways to peace and happiness.  Fear is an element that prevents us from letting go.  We’re fearful that if we let go we’ll have nothing else to cling to.  Letting go is a practice; it’s an art.  One day, when you’re strong enough and determined enough, you’ll let go of the afflictions that make you suffer.

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