Let Go Completely

During the first meditation of my silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society, I realized I didn’t really want to be away.   For months–on the train, on the street in New York, on the iPhone, the iPad– caught up in “I”—I longed to be cloistered away in silence for a week, in the wilds of Massachusetts in the depths of February.    Yet in the candlelit meditation hall, I realized that I never really wanted to be elsewhere, just here, fully here, inside my own life.  My deepest longing was not to go out but to sink down under the layers of conditioning, to touch the unconditioned.   I remembered suddenly and with great force that the kingdom of heaven was within.

“Sati,” the word for mindfulness in Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts, means to remember.   Sitting before a statue of the Buddha shipped to New England from Asia, surrounded by others who had travelled great distances to practice silence and simplicity, I “re-membered” or “re-collected” disparate parts of myself.   And up rose that phrase from my Protestant American childhood.

“In the point of rest at the center of our being, we encounter a world where all things are at rest in the same way,” wrote Dag Hammarskjold in his spiritual journal Markings. “Then a tree becomes a mystery, a cloud a revelation, each man a cosmos of whose riches we can only catch glimpses. The life of simplicity is simple….” Walking in the midtown of Manhattan, near where Hammarskjold lived and worked as Secretary General of the United Nations, I pictured the great peacemaker finding that stillness in the midst of crisis.

Have you ever noticed we tend to find this point of rest in the grip of big trouble?  Losing a job and not knowing what will come next, the shocking death of a loved one, a grim diagnosis–peace can descend in the wake of such news like grace. We can glimpse that there is a force of love and compassion that shines on everything equally, the way the sun shines.  Everything was reevealed to be marvelous– every tree and person equally evidence of the mystery of life.   And everything glowed with that light, nothing was separate from it, not even I.  But that was a glimpse, and the price had been.

“Do everything with a mind that lets go,” taught Ajahn Chah, a great Buddhist teacher in the Thai Forest Tradition, a founder of Theravada Buddhism in the West.  “Don’t accept praise or gain or anything else. If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.”

To paraphrase Mao, spiritual power can come with the barrel of a gun.  But does it have to take so much?  Certainly a little urgency helps.  As Samuel Johnson famously said, knowing you are to be hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully well.  I lived in New York in the wild and wooly 70’s and 80’s, when brushes with death and squalor were all but inevitable for adventurous souls.  Ajahn Chah wandered alone through Asian forests where he could be eaten by tigers or heaven knows what.  I walked alone in Hell’s Kitchen late at night.  There is no comparison between the saintly monk and I–except our basic humanity and our common need to learn to let go completely.  According to accounts I have read, the great humble Buddhist teacher found it.  How is an open question for me, how to bring the intensity of impending death into a peaceful moment, into the being with the breath and what it is arising.  How can we die in each moment?

2 thoughts on “Let Go Completely

  1. Hi Tracy. You asked:

    How is an open question for me, how to bring the intensity of impending death into a peaceful moment, into the being with the breath and what it is arising. How can we die in each moment?

    I’ve come to believe it requires voluntarily striving to “awaken” and becoming free of the buffers that offer the security of imagination. Then the human condition would be obvious. Gurdjieff explains in Ouspensky′s In Search of the Miraculous:

    In so-called ′occult′ literature you have probably met with the expression ′Kundalini,′ ′the fire of Kundalini,′ or the ′serpent of Kundalini.′ This expression is often used to designate some kind of strange force which is present in man and which can be awakened. But none of the known theories gives the right explanation of the force of Kundalini. Sometimes it is connected with sex, with sex energy, that is with the idea of the possibility of using sex energy for other purposes. This latter is entirely wrong because Kundalini can be in anything. And above all, Kundalini is not anything desirable or useful for man′s development. It is very curious how these occultists have got hold of the word from somewhere but have completely altered its meaning and from a very dangerous and terrible thing have made something to be hoped for and to be awaited as some blessing.
    In reality Kundalini is the power of imagination, the power of fantasy, which takes the place of a real function. When a man dreams instead of acting, when his dreams take the place of reality, when a man imagines himself to be an eagle, a lion, or a magician, it is the force of Kundalini acting in him. Kundalini can act in all centers and with its help all the centers can be satisfied with the imaginary instead of the real. A sheep which considers itself a lion or a magician lives under the power of Kundalini.
    Kundalini is a force put into men in order to keep them in their present state. If men could really see their true position and could understand all the horror of it, they would be unable to remain where they are even for one second. They would begin to seek a way out and they would quickly find it, because there is a way out; but men fail to see it simply because they are hypnotized. Kundalini is the force that keeps them in a hypnotic state. ′To awaken′ for man means to be ′dehypnotized.′ In this lies the chief difficulty and in this also lies the guarantee of its possibility, for there is no organic reason for sleep and man can awaken.
    Theoretically he can, but practically it is almost impossible because as soon as a man awakens for a moment and opens his eyes, all the forces that caused him to fall asleep begin to act upon him with tenfold energy and he immediately falls asleep again, very often dreaming that he is awake or is awakening.
    There are certain states in ordinary sleep in which a man wants to awaken but cannot. He tells himself that he is awake but, in reality, he continues to sleep – and this can happen several times before he finally awakes. But in ordinary sleep, once he is awake, he is in a different state; in hypnotic sleep the case is otherwise; there are no objective characteristics, at any rate not at the beginning of awakening; a man cannot pinch himself in order to make sure that he is not asleep. And if, which God forbid, a man has heard anything about objective characteristics, Kundalini at once transforms it all into imagination and dreams.

    1. Hi Nick, Thanks for this reply. I agree that we are usually in a kind of waking sleep, hypnotized by our minds, dreaming we are awake. But I find that questioning is possible. And questioning–not the self-centered “why is this happening to me” way but inquiring in an impersonal way–is turning towards awakening.

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