For a change of gears, let’s start with a zen story…
“It seems that in old Japan, a pair of monks, one an old veteran, the other a novice, were walking along a swollen river when they happened upon a young lady sitting by the river with a basket of vegetables, crying. “Sister, what’s the problem?”, said the elder of the two monks.
“Well, this morning I came across the creek in my only good dress to go to the market and buy vegetables for the family. While I was there the rains made the creek rise up, and now I can’t get back home without ruining my only good dress”, sobbed the young lady.
“Well! Is that all?” The elder monk handed the basket of vegetables to the young novice. Picking the young lady up and sitting her on his shoulder, he proceeded to calmly wade across the river and place her down safe and sound on the other side. “There you are”, exclaimed the old monk. In silence the young novice handed the basket of vegetables back to the girl, who was most grateful, and they proceeded on their way.
The companions walked for another four hours and then made camp. Later that evening the novice could restrain himself no more. “I can’t believe you picked that girl up and carried her! We’ve taken vows never to touch a woman and there you were with one on your shoulder! What were you thinking?”
“Yes, yes, yes we have taken vows never touch a woman true enough”, replied the old man. “We’ve also taken vows to help people. In any case, I put the girl down hours ago, why you still carrying her?”
Fair comment. If something is bothering you or is otherwise unpleasant, it wouldn’t be a half bad idea to put it down. Especially if there’s no way to affect the situation one way or another. If you have a burning hot coal in your hand, you let it go yes? Well, not always. For one reason or another, people can find it very difficult to let go of old hurts, grudges, or ideas, even if that snake bites them on the hand over and over. Why do they do it? Well, you can probably imagine that in my vocation/s, I’ve read, and developed for myself, a few plausible theories about that. But they all add up to this… …few would disagree letting go of thoughts about unpleasant events, regrets or ill feeling is a good idea. So much so that another weblog telling you to ‘let it go’ won’t make the slightest difference, and I don’t plan to add to the endless pile of them. Let go of the bad stuff – it’s a no brainer. If you have trouble with that, you’re not alone, but you might want to start figuring it out.
I’d like to throw a slightly more controversial idea out there. Let go of the good things. This might even be more important. Being able to let go of our heart’s desire, the pleasurable things, the great ‘successes’. How many Sunday evenings do we ruin because the weekend is coming to an end. How many lovers turn to bitterness and anger because a relationship they cherished has come to an end?
These days, buddhist philosophy is pretty popular. Attachment and its pitfalls seem to be discussed quite a lot, but when it comes to the things we like, the idea seems so otherworldly people don’t really seem to mention it. In my line of work, what people vaguely gloss over or don’t mention at all is often precisely where they need to look, so in that spirit – let’s go there.
I wonder if the difficulty with non-attachment to the things we love arises from a misunderstanding of the idea. One that I have been kicking around for quite a few years. You see, when I thought of non-attachment to harmful things, like self-serving ego, grudges, ill feeling, that all made perfect sense. But when it came to objects of my affection; my wife and children, a holiday, my favourite shirt, then non-attachment was harder to understand. How can I have a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude to my children? My wife? An excellent Cabernet Sauvignon or Kyoto in early spring?
Why should I seek to ‘let go’ of my attachment to the things that, in my mind, make life worth living? Well, I can think of two good reasons – but there are probably more.
‘Wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t so good’
– Martin Plaza (‘If you leave me, can I come too?’)
The first took a long while to dawn on me (about 30 years). Attachment to things is not really attachment to things in themselves, but rather the idea of things; and according to Zen (and philosopher Immanuel Kant), ideas about things are really all we have. We only experience things through our senses, and we have beliefs about what we’re experiencing. Our senses, our values and our beliefs make up the world.
So if ideas about things is all we have, we may as well have ideas that reduce our suffering. Alas, too often we are overly attached to things that – according to the fantasies of attachment – must keep getting better (Careers and wages should keep going ‘up’, businesses must keep getting bigger, ranks should keep getting higher), happen more often (chocolate biscuits, drinks, sex, holidays, compliments, expressions of affection etc) or things we believe shouldn’t end (relationships, the first blush of love, youth, cherry blossoms, life etc). We squander them by wishing to hold onto them, the greater the wish the greater the loss. Admit it, if cherry blossoms were permanent, they’d also be invisible after a day.
While we’re preoccupied with fantasies about how things should be; whether we think they should last longer, get better, or whatever, we are limited in our ability to experience them. We waste what we say we care most about. Our preoccupation with permanence and accumulation can cause us to overlook what we could enjoy as, how and when it is. Instead we are longing for something else, and in the same breath, losing what we have and remaining hungry for it at the same time – a thirsty fish.
Paradoxically then, when we accept things/people we value as they are, without grasping for more, we are free to experience them more completely. The more we try to hang onto things beyond their time, the more they seem to slip away from us. This is most devastating in its effect in our relationships.
“She’s not the woman/man I married 20 years ago…”
If I had a dollar for every time I heard this, I’d be excessively attached to a handsome bank account. My immediate reply is almost always “I’m relieved to hear it!”.
In my work, the topic of selecting romantic partners often comes up, as does the topic of ‘arranged marriages’. When discussing the relative merits of each, people are often surprised to learn that the long term outcomes of each are really about the same. Because, let’s face it. No one knows who they’re going be living with ten years on, so it doesn’t really matter how you got together, in time they’re all arranged marriages. It’s for us to be the best friend we can be, after all by now you have the same address, friends and probably, children! Wishing for an earlier version of our loved ones keeps us from loving the person we woke up next to, and we end up wondering why they’re not accepting us as we are!
The people we love come to an end, even as they go through their lives. There is very little remaining of the ambitious but easily swayed young woman I married years ago. Experience, motherhood and certain of life’s trials and blessings have replaced her with a headstrong, graceful and deeply ethical woman who well knows her own mind and is at the height of her powers. She’s not as easy to convince as she used to be and calls me out on my nonsense more regularly; I am privileged to share middle age with her. By the way, there is a lot more of the thin man my wife married (I’ve gained a little weight).
For relationships, the other perk of letting go of the person you fell in love with is the curiosity factor. This is an underrated quality in relationships, and it vanishes as soon as we think we ‘know’ our partner. If we accept that we knew our partner, but they are gone and a new person stands in their shoes, we remain curious about them. Which means we’re more likely to be interested in hearing them, and seeing them. Who doesn’t want to be heard, and noticed?
Musician and architect of the 1980’s Live Aid concert Bob Geldof once reacted to the prospect of his being ‘sainted’ for his charity work by saying that in his experience, halos tended to go rusty very quickly. His dry humour about those exalted in the public eye soon falling from grace pointed to a truism that too may of us are determined to ignore. It seems to be in the natural order of things, of all things, to tend toward the centre. The statisticians call this ‘regression towards the mean’. In practise it works like this. Imagine the next person I meet is really tall. Well, the taller he is the greater the likelihood the next person I meet after that will be shorter than the first one.
It is not different for pleasure, good fortune, a good mood or the heights of success. The higher the top, the longer the drop as they say. Does this mean we should avoid these things? Probably not, but to quote Rudyard Kipling, it would probably be wise to regard both ‘triumph and disaster’ each as the ‘imposters they are’. But all too often people, who experience some success, accolade or ‘dream run’ in their endeavours get it into their minds that this is, or is supposed to be the natural order of things. This assumption of eternally upswinging fortunes leads people to borrow vast sums of money against their jobs in the midst of a ‘mining boom’, as if they couldn’t hear the word ‘boom’! Of course when the boom ends, as according to the law of regression to the mean they must, it’s greeted as a terrible misfortune, bringing more misery than the joy that preceded it.
Non-attachment to our good fortune allows for the possibility of a landing rather than a crash. In time of relative peace or tranquility, acknowledging this too will pass allows us to invest in relationships against the times when it won’t be so easy. Imagining the peace and prosperity will last forever, we don’t feel the need. During a time of booming business, allow ourselves some treats sure, but by accepting that booms end we might pay off a small house instead of taking a bigger loan on a large one we’ll only ever use half of anyway. Letting go of our attachment to the good things allows us a better chance of landing after the highs, instead of crashing.
Letting go of good stuff, it seems counter-intuitive but it I believes it allows me to experience the joys more fully, and prepare for their return when the good things end, as they must. But don’t take my word for it.