Letting go

In my previous post I talked about how cycles of practice seemed to have begun again and how integration was seeming more important. This was in the context of a lot of life changes and a retreat that had a strong impact. I’m going to talk a little more about that, and especially how this has made me feel like a beginner again, learning to let go.

It is a very contemplative aphorism that the glow of success does not last long. It gets normalised, to use a more neuropsychological terminology, as the mind gets used to a new status quo, and pushes us on to the next achievement. This is a blessing and curse as we are encouraged to keep feeding ourselves with the things we need to keep maintained, but also can create a sense of inadequacy and a lack of gratitude.

For me, I started a new job that I’d been working towards for ten years, in a rather strict career framework. I’d had various detours and delays in getting there. It needed a lot of commitment and a lot of training, and life, as they say, got in the way. Nevertheless I got there and it changed my life rather a lot, conventionally. There was a sense of completion and commitment, of surmounting challenges. I was expected to show leadership, teach and take responsibility; I had a new chance to be creative, bring what I’ve learned from life to my work, to try and fold it into my contemplative practice anew. Going from studying or working seven days a week to having time and money to do other things was a chance to bring a new order to my life. Nevertheless this also meant I was suddenly a junior at a higher level of professional practice, with the exhaustion of the pressure flowing into days off, and so the sense of having ‘got there’ and being able to rest on my laurels was short lived as I was quickly humbled by inevitable imperfection.

I also went on retreat for the first time in years, restarting another cycle. I had thought it might be less difficult for me because I knew now that I try far too hard on retreat and that I need to drop everything but the present. It wasn’t, because old habits die hard. Mindfulness of breathing was stressful as my body tried to control the breath. Negative thought patterns that were previously semi-hidden became glaringly, humiliatingly obvious now that I am a little more mindful than I was last time I was on retreat; being more aware isn’t always pleasant. Finally, I noticed I was striving towards some unarticulated explosion of enlightenment as usual, and it was all I could do to renounce the desire to achieve anything and just pray for help to be where I was. With all the various narratives explaining why this was seeming arbitrary, I chose to pick the one that was most constructive: that the arrogance, judgement and habituation that the retreat had exposed in me needed to be exposed, and that this could be a positive thing. I chose to keep following the instructions, sitting with the breath even as it was tight and anxious, feeling the upset work its way out unpleasantly but with relief.

My own imperfection is being constantly brought to my attention by this experience; but so is the habit of seeing imperfection as somehow wrong. It is a strong conviction of mine that no situation cannot be improved by bringing a little more kindness to it. Inevitably a dozen teachers have a dozen suggestions about what I should do about this, and so I am trying to take responsibility and follow what rings true to me, even if it is difficult, and to politely leave what does not seem right to do, even if it is easy or drawing.

What seems to be happening is that there is again a sense of renunciation. It started off as a dramatic urge to sacrifice; that the only thing that would make me feel better, and the only thing that would accelerate the process of ‘enlightenment’, would be to make as huge a sacrifice as possible to show God just how serious I was. This didn’t, unsurprisingly, work; it brought a great sense of zeal, but it actually confused matters. This is because needs, impulses and situations change. I began reading Rob Burbea’s Seeing That Frees again, and he suggests fun, flexibility and experimentation are very important. I began to realise that the only renunciation possible is in the here and now. Synchronicities of advice began to turn up again as I prayed for them: Peace Pilgrim reminding me to ‘give all my worries to God, to worry only about the step in front of me’; Ajahn Chah advising that ‘if you let go of the past and future, you will have some peace, but if you let go of the present too, you will have complete peace’. These steps are confusing as they jump from having only a limited goal to literally giving them up, but when I stop ruminating on them, they fall into place.

This is because the narrative mind that Gary Weber claims has disappeared from his experience is like a neurotic parent telling you what you’re doing and what they think you should do next. Amazing sports players don’t ponder about how best to tackle the opposing player or score a goal while they do it; they just do it. Goals and effort and frameworks still exist, but the bodymind can take care of them itself. In fact, as my retreat showed me so viscerally, I don’t get to choose what frame of mind I am in, really, or what way of doing things I pick. I can only want to participate in the gentling of these. This seems to be enough at the moment, though I work at several gears. Sometimes I just have to tell myself ‘let go, let go’ as the narrative voice, what Ajahn Sucitto calls the Inner Tyrant, fusses and criticises and theorises. Sometimes I have to stop dead, reassert mindfulness of the now, and say to myself ‘what is needed in this slim moment? What am I being guided to do, right now?’. Sometimes I can just go with the flow. If I reflect (which is fine), then I can think about the good things I’ve done and know that bean by bean the sack fills. However, being motivated from a good place is very different to being pushed towards an hypothetical achievement, and so I have to let that impatience to Get There go.

Similarly, I have to drop the sense that I can pick a specific goal or way of being and then focus myself to only move towards that, or to be that way. My life (and probably that of others) is much more messy than that, and choosing to try to emulate the Zen Master one day only to feel moved to express gratitude and love through song the next can be tiring if I try to work out which one of these was ‘wrong’. I have to trust that Him Upstairs has a more clever plan laid out for me, that there is a thread that I cannot follow. Another way of putting it is in a quote from Rob Burbea in which he encourages the practitioner to find their own way: ‘the path is open wide’. This is to say that there is no one way of doing things. Having the humility to accept the twists and turns of life, having faith that they will weave together with the threads of other lives to make a more beautiful tapestry, is something I am going to have to work on.

In perceptual and practical terms, this means a lot of very grounded, very accepting practices. I just can’t keep turning the screw ever tighter being goal-oriented when I no longer experience the kind of certainty that comes from an arrogant sense that I have all the information I need. The ‘Letting Go Approach to Jhana‘ is something I am currently exploring, noting that this is both vipassana and samatha, conventionally relaxing as well as cultivating of equanimity. If jhana arise, that will be fine, and if it doesn’t, then that is fine too. I would give the basic instructions for it as follows:

  1. Relax around tightness in the mind and body.
  2. Be there when it happens.

To be slightly more expository, there are movements in the mind and body whenever there is craving or aversion. Restlessness can lead to racing thoughts; a hope for an interesting experience that ‘I’ must create can create tension in the solar plexus. I can just widen the attention and not focus down on them like in traditional Theravadan vipassana; after a while, not even focusing at all and noting that awareness remains, letting go of the desire to run the show.

I’ll speak some more in another post about how there can be a letting go in every day life into easier ways of doing things, into the things I want to do but that I find hard, but that’s a more on-cushion account for now.