It occurs to me this has been a life lesson for me. The art of letting go… of non-attachment. If we sign up to learn specific things in a lifetime, I took a crash course in this subject this lifetime.
The Buddhist concept of “non-attachment” is about not being attached to outcomes and “things”. Some things are easier for me to practice non-attachment on… I am a work in progress for sure.
Non-attachment doesn’t mean you don’t care about material things or own material things – but those things are not “you”. We have a habit of being attached to outcomes of how something plays out… or to achieving something – but being attached to it doesn’t change the outcome and our attachment to it or our expectations of how it will look cause suffering. My hippie parents first started trying to convey this message to me when I was about five years old, and a million events in my life have hammered it home.
The Universe has many ways of teaching us to learn impermanence and non-attachment. For me – from my biological father disappearing from my life when I was 2, to moving 39 times in my life (at last count), to losing my mom through her murder in my 20’s, to our family home being robbed twice when I was a child of every single item in it (I mean every single thing – empty house… no stuff anymore), to my deciding to walk away of all my possessions several times, to my fiancé dying unexpectedly… the list goes on and on… I have been taught a deep (and often painful) understanding of non-attachment. I have been attached to things, places, people, situations, and outcomes – and had them absolutely ripped away. I’m sure we all have – to one degree or another. Now before you think my therapist let me go too soon, let me elaborate on what I learned…
Things come and go; people unfortunately come and go as well… situations arise – they come and go also… you continue to exist. You are not the stuff you have or the people you love or the external achievements you accomplish. You can really appreciate things and people and situations, but you can’t hang on to them. Everything is temporary. It’s all about perception. For my mom, moving was exciting. She didn’t think about the things and people she was leaving behind, she thought about the joy of creating a new version of life. She equated it to a snake shedding its skin – not that she was without issues (deep, dark ones) – but she embraced the “letting go”. Non-attachment is about acknowledging things are temporary, having perspective of the situations in life, the flexibility to roll with it, adaptability through change, and an understanding that we cannot control things.
When you stop trying to micro-manage every aspect of your life and accept things as they are – you actually find a freedom that allows you to grow in any direction. Buddha basically taught that pretty much all of our struggles, from frustrations to anxiety, from anger to sadness, from grief to worry, all stem from the same thing … The struggles come from being too tightly attached to something or what we expect it to be like.
When we’re worried – we are attached to how we want things to be, rather than relaxing into accepting whatever might happen when we put forth our best effort. When we’re frustrated with someone – it’s because we’re attached to how we want them to be, rather than accepting them as the wonderful, flawed human they are. When we procrastinate – we are attached to things being easy and comfortable (like distractions) rather than accepting that to do something important, we have to push into discomfort. And so on.
If you’re willing to accept that being too attached or clinging too tightly, is the cause of our struggles … then the answer is simple, right? Just loosen the attachments… Just let go. Easier said than done for most of us – LOL. When our minds are clinging tightly, we don’t want to let go. We really, really want things our way. As a Zen Master put it, “Everything breaks. Attachment is our unwillingness to face that reality.”
Attachment really comes from not acknowledging things are temporary. We suffer because we’re holding onto certain things or certain expectations. Why do we do this? It’s because of ego. Honestly, our ego is a self-indulgent asshole who focuses on the wrong things and calls it “life”. It takes practice to let go. It also takes the understanding and faith there is more… more coming that we will enjoy and savor. It takes acknowledgement that we are more than outside “stuff” and that absolutely everyfuckingthing is temporary. That if we release our desire for a specific thing or outcome – (not allowing it to own us) we don’t cease to exist – we exist in a better way… not clinging – not desiring – just appreciating.
If you are goal-driven, and striving endlessly to some specific outcomes – thinking this goal is the “everything”, then a setback of any kind is going to cause you stress and pain. What if you reject the idea of a goal as the “end” but merely a temporary marker to the next while enjoying what is front of you in the here and now? The goals or milestones are not the problems. It’s when we allow those things to own us or define us that it becomes unhealthy. I think it’s completely appropriate to have goals, to have milestones, that you set in life, or in your career, or in various phases of your life. There’s nothing wrong with that… It’s when we become trapped because those things own us or in some way define us that it’s a problem. Goals or desires are temporary. You work towards it and you either accomplish it and move on, or something changes – and it doesn’t work out. That’s where adaptability comes in – because the moment life presents something new, you can adapt and create a new goal or a new desire. You use it as a tool – not an anchor. Things are as they are, we suffer because we imagined different. We need to create in life – we just can’t be attached to and defined by the results. We have to keep the ego in check… remind it that it is not us… it’s just part of our mind that helps us understand duality and expand our consciousness – it’s not our soul. If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you already know… just reminding myself by including it – LOL.
Specific expectations cause suffering. By allowing your expectations to fall away, and focusing on the “now” of every moment, a new level of awareness and enjoyment creeps in. And you most likely will even find your capacity for appreciating the “now” increases. Your limitations, just like your expectations, don’t really exist in the real world, you have just invented them. By removing mental boundaries of limitations, expectations, and judgments – you can focus on fully engaging with each moment… adapting to each change… and appreciating life’s beauty with no distortion.
There is a parable… where the Buddha was with his monks and he asks if somebody were to build a raft and they are crossing the river with it, at the time that they finally make it to the other side, is it wise or unwise to continue with that raft with them. To me, this really illustrates non-attachment. Letting go of the raft, whatever the raft may be…is letting go of things that are temporary or no longer needed. Non-attachment is not a form of indifference or a form of self-denial. Non-attachment is a way of not allowing the “things” in your life to own you.
This can apply to relationships, friends, experiences… even our moment-to-moment experience of living – if we’re attached to it, it can be the source of a lot of suffering. By accepting the true nature of things as being impermanent, we can open our hearts and just accept the beauty of that moment.
Thich Nhat Hanh said, “You must love in such a way that the person you love feels free.” Loving in a non-attached way, is loving in a way that the person that you love feels free – free to be completely authentic as they are… while appreciating what you have, while you have it, with respect for the other… letting go of expectations. It’s freedom.
Jack Kornfield (a Buddhist teacher) says “Everything that has a beginning has an ending. Make your peace with that and all will be well.” – It’s so true… everything is temporary. We just have to be at peace with that.
Life is like a river. The water that’s flowing is continually changing. The edges and banks of the river are constantly eroding and shifting. If a big storm comes, and the water rises, the shape of the river can change too. The water finds a new path and that becomes the new path of the river. There’s no aspect of the river that’s permanent. If we, in life, are floating down the river and enjoying the scenery, it’s easy to want to take hold of something and say this is where I want to stay… this is beautiful – this is what I want… and cling tightly to it – but everything keeps going, we can’t cling there forever without a whole lot of suffering – rather than getting caught up in the wanting of that spot, we have to let go and continue the floating down river and enjoy all the other beautiful spots ahead. Or I suppose we could get out of the river and build a structure and stay there… but we would suffer anyway thinking we screwed up and there is somewhere else we should be. We just have to appreciate the moments and not cling too tightly to any of them…
Non-attachment is also really about not comparing. What if we allowed the present moment to be free just as it is? … without comparing the present moment to a previous moment, or to a future moment, we just allow the present moment to be completely free to be what it is. Right here and right now. We’re not very good at that. We get attached to it and become defined by and owned by it.
Non-attachment is freedom. It can be to ideas, relationships, the present moment… there are so many things in life that non-attachment would be a much healthier way to approach it. It’s recognizing that everything that I’m experiencing is impermanent. Every start has an ending.
There is another parable about the two monks who were crossing the river… the two monks arrive at the edge of the river and there’s a young woman in a wedding gown. The senior monk picks her up without even thinking. They cross the river. He puts her down and then at some point on their journey, the young monk is just going nuts trying to figure out what he had just seen. He finally tells the senior monk “Hey, what are you doing? We’ve taken vows to not touch a female and you just picked her up like nothing and carried her across the river.” The senior monk pauses and just tells him “I put her down on the other side of the river. Why do you continue to carry her?” Non-attachment is being able to do what you need to do in the moment, and then when it is done, it’s done – and we just let it go.
Our natural, human tendency in life is to try to hold on to things – freeze them and make them permanent things – kind of like we do with sentences (I read this somewhere). When this sentence is over, there is a period. That thought is done. It’s locked and now I move onto the next one. I think that makes a lot of sense in some ways, especially with writing, but what if life wasn’t about putting periods on things? What if it was always a comma and then you keep going? Then you add another comma, and you keep going, like one infinitely long run-on sentence? Which I know is really going to bother some of you who are into grammar, but think about that in terms of life – Don’t put a period on it. Just keep going… let the previous thought/moment/expectation go – let it dangle unresolved – add a comma and keep moving…
The Dalai Lama said, “Do not try to use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are.” I had plans, they changed. I had hopes or expectations, they changed. I’m just always trying to be a better whatever I am… I’m not trying to convince anyone who reads these words to think the way I do (you do you boo… it’s all good!). I just write to sort these things out for myself and cement the thoughts. I’m reminding myself continually to let go… not be attached to things… I’m human – and all that entails… I have to remind myself. At the risk of sounding like a fortune cookie – it’s not about the destination, it’s always about the journey.
2 thoughts on “The Zen in Letting Go”
“By accepting the true nature of things as being impermanent, we can open our hearts and just accept the beauty of that moment.” So hard to do but essential.
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I really enjoyed this post. The idea that the essence of true love is to not hold someone at all. This is hard, the entire institution of marriage is based on possession, and yet, I have come to think that what you describe here is actually the only way to experience and give true love.
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