Letting Go and Letting Be: Psychological and Buddhist Efforts ©
Robert Aitken, Roshi, is a renowned Zen Master who trained with several teachers including Yamada, Roshi and Yasatani, Roshi, both in Japan. Among many other accomplishments, he founded the Honolulu Diamond Sangha, transmitted the teaching to fourteen Dharma heirs, published thirteen books on Buddhist teaching, and co-founded the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. I had the opportunity to train with him during the last six years before he retired. After he retired I continued to meet with him occasionally at Palolo, at the Honolulu Diamond Sangha, for thirteen more years until he died in 2010. He developed the ability to describe Buddhist teaching in the most original, creative, and beautiful form. It is my good fortune that Clark Ratliffe, Robert Aitken’s senior student, who functions as Tanto at the Honolulu Diamond Sangha, provides ongoing mentoring and consultation to me. I am indebted to them both for most of Buddhist teaching that I’ve learned.
In the book, Morning Star, Robert Aitken, an American Zen master and my own Zen teacher for six years, translates one of the lines in the Ten Verse Kannon Sutra as “Cast everything away in the presence of the Buddha”. And in the book Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree, the author, Buddhadassa Biku tells the story that late in the Buddha’s life the disciples asked him, “Of all the things that you have taught us, what is the most important teaching?” The Buddha responded, “Nothing whatsoever should be clung to.” When Piers Morgan interviewed the Dalai Lhama on CNN, he asked, “The Chinese invaded Tibet in 1959 and murdered thousands of people, destroyed monasteries, and burned sacred texts, how is it that you are not angry?” The Dalai Lhama exclaimed, “Oh! Letting go! Letting go!”
Of all the articles that I have tried to write for my clients, the two that have been the hardest to put together are the ones on Futility and Meaning and this one on Letting Go. It is very easy to say the words, just let go. Or to suggest letting go. When my clients ask how to let go, I find it difficult to answer simply. It is difficult to take apart the process, and to describe how to let go. And — it is even more difficult to actually do it.
Is it possible? Yes. Is it easy? No. Does it take a long time and a lot of effort, yes. Let’s see if I can describe how we can go about trying to let go. I’ll try to articulate some aspects of the process of letting go.
The first step is to become aware of holding on to something where that holding on is causing you distress. We tend to feel strongly about our opinions, judgements, analyses, discriminations, and preferences. We have expectations, and we want things to be a certain way. Sometimes we hope for something to happen that would be exciting, rewarding or joyful. Sometimes we want to avoid something that would be negative. Or we can’t accept that something very negative has happened. This holding on causes both physical and emotional pain. We can feel physical tension, stress, inability to concentrate, difficulty sleeping, severe headache, and even illness. It can have serious emotional effects of anxiety, frustration, anger, disappointment, discouragement, sadness, or depression. This is often when clients come into psychotherapy: something is not going the way we would like it to!
Most of the time in therapy, there is a lot of work that can be done to improve circumstances or to work towards the outcome that you are hoping for. We often work on personal characteristics and personal growth. We can work on family or primary relationships or professional or friendship relationships. We can work on communication skills and coping skills like methods to reduce anxiety and depression. We often work on self esteem and self worth. There are many ways to work on psychological - and even spiritual growth - that are very helpful and rewarding.
However, sometimes what the situation needs in addition to effort and work and change - -sometimes what is finally needed is - -letting go.
To use the example of the Dalai Lama, he actually has made years of efforts of every kind imaginable to get the Chinese to either leave Tibet or else to promote the best possible circumstances for the Tibetan people under Chinese rule. He has met with endless diplomats in Darmasala, India where he resides in exile. He has visited and spoken to the United Nations in New York. He has written books, interviewed endless people, and promoted the organization, Campaign for Tibet. But in the end, when asked by Pers Morgan what he does with his anger, he said, “Letting go! Letting go!” And this is inevitably what we have to do ourselves sometimes when after all of the effort that we can make, and circumstances are not the way we want them to be, we need to focus our attention and work very hard to follow the Dalai Lama’s example to just let go.
OK, but HOW do we do that? I tell my clients that therapy really begins when they ask “how”. Discussing what and why doesn’t really accomplish very much. But thinking about HOW is very, very helpful. Here are some steps:
- Articulate specifically what it is that you have to let go.
- Think briefly about the way you were hoping it would be.
- Remember the efforts that you have made that are not getting the results you desire.
- Decide if you need to make any further efforts.
- Define the various aspects of what it is that you need to accept.
- Expand on the circumstances that are going to take place with your acceptance.
- Think of the changes that you need to make to accommodate these new circumstances.
- Imagine some positive side effects of these changes.
- Continue to envision the positive aspects of the new situation.
- Plan a ritual in which you can symbolize and implement the letting go.
- Stay with the feeling of letting go and acceptance.
We can work with our frustrations and discontent within a psychological framework. But if we want to explore more deeply, if we want to make an extensive effort, if we want to change and even transform our lives, we can explore our dissatisfactions from a Buddhist perspective.
Around 500 B.C., Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha, searched for a way to relieve suffering. After trying some extreme forms of asceticism, he decided to employ what he later called “the middle way” which was primarily meditation. One morning when he had been sitting under what would become known as the Bodhi tree, or enlightenment tree, he saw the morning star and experienced “realization” which culminated his life’s search. What he later taught his disciples was what would become known as The Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are the basis of Buddhist teaching from which all other Buddhist teachings flow.
Let’s explore these truths. The First Noble Truth has been frequently translated as life contains suffering. Robert Aitken translates it as “the anguished sense of lack is everywhere.” The word for suffering in Pali is dukka. The Buddha is teaching that life, by its very nature, contains dukka, or as Clark Ratliffe, a Tanto at the Honolulu Diamond Sangha and my own mentor explains, a pervasive sense of being unfulfilled, disconnected, or incomplete.
(It might be helpful to explain here that when it comes to Buddhist teaching the translation becomes very important and also complex. Translations are being made from Pali, the language of Buddha’s time, or often from Chinese or Japanese texts. Also in discussing Buddhism, there is the literal conceptual meaning of some teachings, but there is also a more nuanced, subtle, or non-conceptual aspect. This makes writing about Buddhist philosophy and teaching more challenging!)
David Brazier, in his book The Feeling Buddha, writes about the First Noble Truth, “Buddha is not saying that all life is suffering. He is saying that life is everything life is! It includes birth and death, health and disease, youth and aging, pleasure and pain, success and failure, meeting and parting… Dukka is half of life and it has just as much dignity as the other half.” We desire the positive things in life, health, material well-being, a happy relationship, a rewarding job and so on. We have preferences and desires, and when things disappoint us, we become frustrated and unhappy. We can come to feel futility or hopelessness. It’s necessary to remember that life contains suffering or anguish, but it also contains accomplishment, success, friendship, love, creativity, beauty, joy, and happiness. Brazier is pointing out that we need to learn how to accept and appreciate all of life, not just what we label as positive—that although we may desire to avoid anguish, pain, and affliction, unfortunately that is’t possible. We can come to understand that life doesn’t consist of just pleasant things, but that life consists of all things.
The Second Noble Truth is that suffering comes from “attachment” or from our preferences for the way we want things to be. Robert Aitken explains that the source of this anguished sense of lack is our attachment to a permanent existence, an individual identity, and an independent self. These are key aspects of Buddhist teaching which are complex and require study and a Buddhist practice to come to both insight and understanding. The Second Noble Truth is that dukka, suffering,or anguish comes from clinging to what we prefer - to the way we think we want things to be. Brazier explains that along with events or circumstances in our life, our response or emotions “co-arise” with the events. He writes, “The urge to be rid of what afflicts us is the thirst or craving that the Buddha is referring to. The moment when we experience dukka, we also experience an urge to remake our life in some way which will be free from this trouble.” Along with events, our emotions of impatience, frustration, disappointment, discouragement, anger, sadness, or hopelessness rise up. If we watch ourselves, we can see that along with life’s events our emotions and responses cause us to suffer.
The Third Noble Truth is that freedom from suffering comes from “non-attachment” or from letting go of our preferences. Robert Aitken says that liberation from this anguish comes with the profound realization that we live only briefly (impermanence), that we are reliant on one another (inter-connectedness), and that we have no essential substance (emptiness). These also are complex concepts that require both study and practice to begin to understand.
Opinions, judgements, analyses, and discriminations are for the most part what we are normally doing in our thinking mind. Non-attachment means learning to let go of these preoccupations that disturb us. Liberation from anguish implies letting go of our opinions, judgements, analyses, and discriminations which we attach to or cling to - at least part of the time when we don’t need to be perseverating about them. For it is these mental discriminations that cause us to suffer.
The Third Noble Truth is that we can be free of anguish, as Robert Aitken said, through a profound realization. Through the practice of the Eightfold Path (described below), and specifically through the practice of meditation, Brazier writes, “… we may change the content and form of our response to a given stimulus…. Buddha calls this response-ability.” This does not mean that we always accept whatever is with no action. Of course that is not the case, As I described above, there is much that we can do to evaluate a situation and to take action that is helpful and appropriate. It is also important to note that “non-attachment” does not mean passivity or being detached. Quite the opposite. Letting go of our preferences means experiencing what is in a profound way. It means being involved, even being passionate, and making every effort when needed, yet experiencing and appreciating life as it is.
The Fourth Noble Truth is: Right Views, Right Understanding, Right Speech, Right Effort, Right Livelihood, Right Action, Right Mindfulness, Right Meditation. The Fourth Noble Truth lists the efforts and actions that are necessary for realization and for liberation or freedom from anguish and suffering. Buddhist literature often describes that the first seven of the Eightfold Path affect the eighth, meditation, and that meditation affects the other seven. All of these efforts and actions contribute to our ability to learn how to be able to be free of anguish - to be truly liberated from suffering - not to be free of negative or painful events, but to be able to experience all of life with insight and with acceptance. Robert Aitken explains that the eightfold path is a process, not a state. He explains in The Original Dwelling Place, “The eightfold path is a rigorous path to liberation…. The realizations along the way are profound and transformative, but the end is not yet.” He is implying that this effort is endless; that it continues throughout our lives.
When, through our efforts, we cannot change circumstances, then through the practice of meditation we can learn to experience and respond to events and emotions in a different way. A very famous quote that is cherished by Zen students was written by Dogen Zenji in the 13th Century. He wrote,
“To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out, and life with traceless enlightenment is continued forever and ever.”
Robert Aitken explains that to come to understand the Way is to come to understand the self. In meditation we are observing the self. Thoughts and emotions come and go. Physical sensations come and go. Then, Dogen says, to study the self is to forget the self. If we employ what Robert Aitken describes as forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something, then we can come to let go of our own intense sensations, preoccupations, and worries. We can begin to be immersed in just our simple experiences in the present moment in meditation. Our mind can become quiet and we can begin to be immersed in the natural environment around us.
During retreat at Palolo in Hawaii, we can hear the wind blowing through the trees in an early morning storm, the rain on the large Hawaiian leaves in the late afternoon, the gekko on the wall in the silence of the evenings. At home we can hear the little brown song sparrows outside our window. Dogen says, to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. We can learn how to forget our pain, worry, and preferences and be enlightened by the beauty that surrounds us. This training in meditation helps us to be able to have a different kind of experience while we are on the cushion. And it helps us to be able to respond differently “off the cushion.” In this sense we are not only learning to let go sometimes, but also —- to let things be.
According to what Buddha came to understand, non-attachment is what frees us from anguish. “Letting go is at the heart of the Way,” Clark Ratliffe, writes. It’s very important to note, as I said before, that non-attachment does not mean passivity or detachment. It means making an effort without a strong preference for the outcome. It means making an effort where we need to, every effort that we can, maybe over a long period of time. But sometimes after that effort, things don’t turn out the way we want them to be. Yet we can make that effort - even that long complex effort, without holding on, or clinging, or grasping for our preferences. Finally, when one experiences Dogen’s forgetting the self, the sense of alienation or disconnection drops away and, as Ratliffe describes in the Zen sense, “there is no longer someone grasping and something to grasp.”
In the book, What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula states, “…he does not cling to anything in the world; as he does not cling, he is not anxious, as he is not anxious, he is completely calmed within.” To let go or to not cling, is a very crucial, but very difficult ability to develop. In a very fascinating and interesting way, it is the practice of meditation, part of the Eightfold Path, that provides the opportunity to develop this ability over a long period of time. It is during sitting meditation when moment by moment we are accepting what is, right at that moment, that we are literally embodying non-attachment.
Ultimately with our efforts, we can learn to experience what is “in a non-dual way”, Clark Ratliffe points out, just experiencing what is - as it is. Most of our suffering - or anguish - comes from the way we think about our experiences. We label them good or bad, freeing or burdensome, comforting or painful, hot or cold — or an infinite number of other discriminations. When we discriminate we are attached to one side or the other. This conditioned, compulsive practice of discrimination causes us to suffer.
As Buddha understood, life contains dissatisfaction, anguish, and suffering. By writing about letting go, I am not ignoring the painful things that are a part of life. We can suffer illness, accident, surgeries, or the difficulties of aging, pain, and loss. The hardest suffering perhaps is the pain of losing someone that we love - our mother or father, our husband or wife, our child — or even a pet. The practice of letting go - or of non attachment - doesn’t mean that we won’t suffer the pain of injury, illness, or loss. It means that we try to do our best with the circumstances that we’re dealing with, that we try to appreciate whatever positive aspects there are in our circumstances, and that we hold all of the aspects of our experience with acceptance.
There may be some good aspects to what is happening, and there may be painful or negative aspects. To experience in a non-dual way, is to experience the various aspects of our reality at a particular time in its fullness- positive and negative. If we let go of our preferences and discriminations, we can come to an experience of freedom, a liberation, a joy in the way things really are. It means working to come to a place of acceptance - a place of acceptance — and letting be — so that we can experience the fullness, the complexity, and an appreciation of our life just as it is.
A monk asked Ta-lung, “The body of form perishes. What is the eternal body?
Ta-lung responded with a verse:
The mountain flowers bloom like brocade;
the river between the hills runs blue as indigo.
~Robert Aitken quotes The Blue Cliff Record,
The Original Dwelling Place
If we look at the goal of letting go from a psychological perspective, we can help ourselves to be able to let go or to be more accepting in our daily lives, by working on the issues that we are dealing with, and by implementing the eleven suggestions that I listed above. But if we want to address the deeper sense of anguish that we feel and experience a kind of freedom, it requires a more extensive and prolonged effort - the effort that Sidharta Gautama formulated very many years ago - The Eightfold Path.
Robert Aitken taught, “To forget the self in the act of uniting with something.” This is key. This is crucial in being able to let things be. If we implement concentration as a technique in meditation and focus very hard on something — let’s say a field of wildflowers in springtime or sparkling snow falling in twilight - the thoughts in your mind can become quiet, and pretty soon you can actually forget yourself while focusing on the beauty in nature. This forgetting the self, forgetting judgmental thoughts, strong opinions, negative emotions, pain in your body - this forgetting the self and uniting with something — enables you to let things go and to let things be.
These are beginning understandings that lead to freedom from our preferences and attachments. And these are beginning glimpses that can lead to an understanding and a profound experience of the way things are. This is the realization that Robert Aitken described.
In the book The Original Dwelling Place, Robert Aitken quotes from the Blue Cliff Record, Case 306:
A monk asked Tung-shan, “When cold and heat visit us, how can we avoid them?”
Tung-shan said, “Why not go where there is neither cold nor heat.”
The monk asked, “Where is there neither cold nor heat?”
Tung-shan said, “When there is cold, let the cold kill you. When it is hot, let the heat kill you.”
Then he writes, “When it is cold, one shivers. When it is hot, one sweats. There is just cold or just heat with no mental or emotional associations,” quoting Wallace Stevens, “‘in the sound of the wind, in the sound of a few leaves.’” In the poem, The Snowman, Wallace Stevens writes,
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice
And spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind
In the sound of a few leaves,…
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
that is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
and, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.
“What is our solace?” Robert Aitken asks. He answers for us, “How beautiful everything is.”