Learning to let go

letting go 2A dear friend emailed me during my rather paltry adventure in Denver airport. She is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer at the moment, and this is what she said:

Struggles are spiritual adventures with a vision. That is how I am trying to see my whole journey through this cancer thing. It’s a spiritual adventure.

So, inspired by her, I’m continuing the subject of stopping grasping, finding real relief and refuge, and going places we have never been … all the time letting go and relaxing like we’ve never relaxed before.

1. Stop grasping at this life

The first helpful thing to remember is that this life is just one and very short, so why sweat it. It is not the be all and end all of existence, more like one stitch in the tapestry of time. Future lives are very many and long by comparison. This life is like one bead of a mala/rosary, other lives are like the other beads. Or, as I heard just yesterday in a Summer Festival teaching, they are like grains of rice in a mandala kit or bag of rice. And these are just analogies or visual aids, because past and future lives are countless. But even compared with 107 other beads, of what importance is just one? As Geshe Kelsang said last October in Portugal:

Tmala beadshe happiness and freedom of future lives are more important than those of this life because this present life is only one single life and if we die today it will end today, but our future lives are countless and endless. There is no doubt that our future lives are more important than this life.

(Geshe Kelsang went onto explain that we can understand the existence of future lives by understanding the nature and function of consciousness, and you can read about this in How to Understand the Mind.)

2. Stop grasping at samsara

We are attached to the places, enjoyments, and bodies (people) of samsara, which keeps us heavily stuck like an elephant in mud. But attachment, or uncontrolled desire, exaggerates the power of these things to make us happy. If something is a real cause of happiness, as attachment believes, then should it not always give rise to happiness? But it is not hard to see that the supposed causes of our happiness are also the causes of our problems.

For example, when you first fall for someone, they seem to be the source of great joy and happiness – from their own side, out there coming at you. But then you have your first argument and, before you know it, they are the source of your pain and problems. What happened!? How can they be a real cause of happiness if they are now causing you pain? In which case, how could they ever have been a real cause of happiness to begin with? elephant stuck in mud

So the mind of attachment is thoroughly deceptive, illogical, thinking that the source of happiness is out there; and its object is thoroughly deceptive too as it is simply not capable of delivering the goods. If we let go of grasping at the object of attachment as being a real source of pleasure, we will no longer be disappointed that they are now seemingly causing us so much pain. And we can also see that they are not the actual cause of that pain, our delusions are – our delusions give them the power to hurt us.

Thinking this through, we can let go of the pain of attachment and aversion, dismantling the habits that trap us in samsara. (We can also take it a step further — see them as helping us to do that by serving as a mirror, and thus transform them from an object of attachment/aversion into an object of gratitude and love! Eh voilà.)

3. Stop grasping at me

Then we can stop grasping at our own happiness as being more important than others’ happiness, when this is palpably untrue as there are sooooo many more of them. As Geshe Kelsang says in How to Solve Our Human Problems p.42, a few unpleasant feelings in the mind of one person are no great shakes:

perspectiveWe are just one person among countless living beings, and a few moments of unpleasant feeling arising in the mind of just one person is no great catastrophe.

So we don’t need to take our problems so seriously, we can let them go.

4. Stop grasping at real me and real everything else

We can also learn to stop grasping at ourself as real at all, and stop grasping at the past, the future, the 10 directions, what’s “really” going on, eg, where you live, your job, everything. This is profound letting go, profound relaxation. The Dharma of emptiness is the real refuge. All we see and think about is just labels, conceptual imputations, held by thought with no existence beyond that. Seeing no sense in grasping at hallucinations, we can start to let all these conceptual thoughts and their objects dissolve into the clarity of our root mind.

Here is one of my favorite quotes (Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life p. 180) just to whet the appetite for this extraordinary subject:

When examined in this way,
Who is living and who is it who will die?
What is the future and what is the past?
Who are our friends and who are our relatives?

5. Stop grasping at ordinariness

With the help of Tantra, we can stop grasping at being an ordinary person — particularly if that person is limited, and particularly if that person is melancholy or sad. We can identify with being peaceful and free, nay, with being blissful. We can stop agreeing with ourself that we are an unhappy person – I sometimes wish I had a dollar for every time someone said, “I’m not a super happy person”, or “I’m generally a sad person.” If we keep defaulting to that, it’s a really good idea to stop it. We can learn to default to happiness, to bliss, instead, seeing as that is our Buddha nature and who we actually are.

We can learn to identify with our fully realized Buddha nature too, arising as a Tantric Buddha, and then spreading that love around. Others will gradually relate to us as happy and blissful, and we can think, as the prayer says (Meaningful to Behold, p. 121):

When others encounter me, may it always prove meaningful and beneficial for them. Whether a person has anger or faith towards me, may his wishes be fulfilled.

What will happen if we let go?

What I think is that once we have let go of it all, we can almost effortlessly enter Buddha’s mandala (or Pure Land) and stay there, for we are no longer grasping at being anywhere else. And then we can drop into the central channel and stay there.clear light 1

The Guru, Yidam, Dakinis, and Protector will make sure that we attain enlightenment — we just have to let go of this life, samsara, self-cherishing, self-grasping, and ordinariness. Nothing compares with getting the winds into the central channel and realizing the union of bliss and emptiness. Seriously, nothing. This seems to me the real meaning of the verse:

Having rejected the supreme joy of the sacred Dharma
That is an endless source of delight,
Why am I distracted by the causes of pain,
Why do I enjoy frivolous amusements and the like?

What is success?

I don’t think it matters so much what job etc. we do in our daily life or whether we are “successful” at it or not – real success comes from changing beginningless stale habits and becoming kinder, wiser, and a Buddha. From that, everything else falls into place.

And in the quest to stop grasping, suffering becomes a mirror, a test, so very helpful – we can be challenged every day by people’s bad behavior, the boredom of our job, not liking where we are living, loneliness, etc., and see where the problem is really coming from, ie, delusions and ordinary conceptions. We will become a strong person as a result, who is permanently free from attachment and grasping. Then we’ll feel very grateful to everyone who got us here, however seemingly badly behaved they were!

(Of course, I have barely touched on these subjects and they are a lifetime’s practice. But I do think it can be helpful to consider them in the light of letting go. You can find a vast treasury of teachings on each one in these books.)

Tantra: Bringing the result into the path

I’m carrying on from this article on Tantra, and how we can use the power of bliss, wisdom, and the creative power of our imagination swiftly to switch our sense of being stuck and limited with the sense of being liberated and enlightened.

imaginationOf course we cannot say we are ACTUALLY a Buddha, but we can’t say we are ACTUALLY a neurotic person either. Identifying with our good qualities, identifying with future perfection, will actualize that result far more quickly than if we are thinking, “I am generally quite hopeless at this, and I’m not a very loving person, in fact I’m a bit of a grumpy git; but nonetheless here I am trying to become a Buddha.” There is always a gap then between whom we think we are and whom we are aspiring to be, isn’t there? Enlightenment is somewhere over there, my future attainment is far away from me, and I am over here – the gap will always be there for as long as we identify with being limited, ordinary, deluded. So we want to bridge that gap by thinking, “I’m already an enlightened being,” and then from that vantage point we can quickly increase our qualities.

It’s a bit like tying shoelaces

tying shoelacesHere’s a simple illustration. Do you remember once upon a time learning to tie your shoelaces?  You once had no clue, but then some kind person showed you, “This is how you do it.” I remember my mom teaching me, “This is how you do it, darling”, and I remember  the self-doubt, “Oh come on, that’s impossible! What do you expect from me!? I’m only five!” Tying these wiggly strings together in some strange formation, struggling, fumbling – on one level I remember trying, but on another level I was thinking, “Seriously? How am I supposed to do this!? I am not the kind of person who is lucky enough to tie shoelaces. Others may be able to. Maybe I’ll be able to when I’m 18 or something. Meanwhile I’ll stick with Velcro.” My mother was patient, “You can do it!”

Buddha is similarly very kind and patient, painstakingly pointing out to us that we can do it, he did it, others have done it, we have the potential, and the teachings and methods exist. The only thing stopping us is us. “This is how you do it!” And we think, “Noooo, I can’t, it is too tricky, other people can do it.” Or, “Maybe I’ll get enlightened in a future life or something, at some distant point in the future; I’ll just create some good karma in this one – after all, you can sow seeds for a happy future while going around being totally miserable, can’t you?! Can’t you?!” There is some discouragement going on.

Imagination 1But, going back to the shoelaces, I remember thinking one day while my mother was showing me (again), “Well, maybe I can actually do this.” And that was the day I could. Before we know how to tie our shoelaces, there is the thought, “I can tie my shoelaces. And I will.” There is that moment. It is the same for driving a car, using a computer, any skill – a point when we think “I can do this!” even though technically we can’t yet. And that is when we find we learn how to do it.

That is bringing the future result into the present path. “I can do this. I am already arising as a Buddha in an enlightened Pure Land, helping all living beings.” As soon as we can already imagine doing it, that is the point when it starts becoming a reality. And everything is sped up.

Sutra in Technicolor

Sutra are Buddha’s teachings given openly, his exoteric teachings; whereas practicing Tantra requires empowerment or initiation, and are Buddha’s more esoteric teachings for disciples who have some feeling for and commitment to renunciation (the wish for permanent mental freedom), bodhichitta (the compassionate wish to become a Buddha for the sake of others), and the wisdom realizing emptiness.

technicolorI sometimes think that Tantra is like Sutra in Technicolor. Tantra is what brings Sutra alive in some ways. Everything comes alive — you let go of your ordinary, limited, deluded sense of yourself by dissolving it into emptiness, and arise as the person you want to be out of your renunciation, bodhichitta, and wisdom.

Now you can believe yourself to be a Buddha who is eternally free, loving, kind, and wise. This so-called “correct imagination” based on the wisdom realizing that nothing is fixed, everything is mere imputation or conceptual label, is just as “realistic,” indeed far more so, than the limited, hallucinatory sense of self projected and fixed by the ignorance of our self-grasping. It also works a great deal better. Regarding ourselves as stuck, ordinary, and suffering keeps us exactly that way, whereas every moment of regarding ourselves as free, enlightened, and blissful draws us into liberation and enlightenment.