This is the third of a series reflecting on what Jon Kabat-Zinn refers to as the attitudinal foundations of mindfulness. As we cultivate our capacity for mindfulness it can be very supportive to develop these attitudes as a way of staying active in the process. The seven interconnected foundations are patience, trust, beginner's mind, non-judging, acceptance, non-striving, and letting go. Dr. Kabat-Zinn also plans to add two additional attitudes, gratitude and generosity, which we will explore later in this series. Cultivating our capacity for mindfulness is not limited to following a prescription and waiting for something to happen. The fruits are largely dependent on the attitude we bring to the practice and our experiences, moment to moment. When we begin to consciously cultivate these attitudes, together with engaging in the meditation practices, we are creating a receptive, rich, foundation for the healing power of mindfulness to emerge. In this piece we will explore the attitude of letting go.
Cultivating the attitudinal foundation of letting go is core to the development of mindfulness and in some very real way embodies its deepest mission. From our first days out of the womb we receive mixed messages about our relationship to people and objects. On one hand, we are taught to grasp fiercely to them, and at the same time we are asked to let go of them, before we are developmentally ready. On the intellectual level, we are able to understand that there cannot be grasping without pain. You only have to squeeze your hand in to a fist, to feel the contraction in your body. Despite this logical understanding, we have a very difficult time actually applying this knowledge in our lives. When this duality is understood on a deep intuitive level, we begin to unbind our hearts and live more joyful lives. Jon Kabat-Zinn shares with us in his book, “Full Catastrophe Living,” a method used in India to catch monkeys. He explains that hunters cut a hole in a coconut that is just big enough for a monkey to put his open hand in. Two smaller holes are drilled in the other end and with wire the coconut is secured to the base of a tree. Before the hunter disappears to hide, a banana is placed in the coconut. The hole is crafted in such a way that the monkey can reach in with an open hand, but once it grasps the banana, is unable to pull the closed fist out. All the monkey has to do to be free is let go of the banana, and yet most monkeys do not.
One helpful embarkation point to begin this discussion is to cognize what is referred to in Buddhist psychology as the chain of causes and conditions. Throughout the day we are continuously making contact with phenomena through our sense doors, including the door of the mind. Each time we consciously make contact with an object through one of our senses, we make an automatic assessment identifying the feeling tone of the experience as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. The feeling tone is a bare fact, and when no awareness is present, arises unconsciously. In the same moment, there is a co-arising of perceptions of the mind, including our belief systems and attachments. An overlay of emotions, that if we are not aware of in the moment, preserve the chain and create the conditions for clinging. Without mindfulness to help us track this co-arising, we desire more of the pleasant and seek to avert the unpleasant, both conditions for holding on. However, when mindfulness is engaged, we can clearly see these perceptions as they arise, and through cognition break the chain before attachment and aversion take hold.
When we begin to practice letting go we often focus externally on the object that we are seeking to release. The trap with this approach, is that the moment we let go of the object we are focused on, the mind accumulates more attachments. To truly begin, we have to go in and explore the tendency of the mind to cling and grasp. We investigate the sensations of craving manifesting in our body, beginning to note them, moment to moment. We get curious and ask WHY it is so difficult to let go, not HOW to let go. With mindfulness meditation, we give up trying to let go and practice letting be. Intimately engaging with the movement of the mind towards wanting or not wanting, with an attitude of non-judging and patience. Through this experiential investigation, we become wise to the forever changing landscape of our experience, and things naturally begin to release on their own.
Another formation we begin to notice in our meditation practice is the identification of “I” or “mine” with the feelings. Through this process of selfing, we begin to own the feelings, and therefore further cling to creating a comfortable world for ourselves. “I have a pleasant or unpleasant feeling,” of which I want more or less of. When mindfulness is activated, we are aware of these feelings as a conditioned and transient process, and allow them to pass by as such. “There is a pleasant or unpleasant feeling,” of which I have no desire to change. Without the self identification with the feelings, we can move beyond the field of pleasure and pain, and have a true appreciation for the objects and people in our lives.
To let go, we must align our hearts with the way things are, moment to moment. With practice, we create a climate of the mind where letting go is a natural outcome. There is no longer an inward battle to contend with, rather we see the continuum of craving and aversion, without identification. We begin to shift from seeing the world as a series of objects that have the potential to create pleasure or pain, to being in true relationship with that which makes up our world. We no longer accumulate possessions and view people as acquisitions, giving rise to a more connected and ethical life of compassion and sensitivity. Learning to let go, is seeing clearly your current willingness to accept suffering in your self and therefore the world, and with equal clarity seeing that letting go requires a radical change beyond the field of pleasure and pain. Marge Piercy describes this with beautiful articulation in her poem, “To Have Without Holding.”
Learning to love differently is hard, love with the hands wide open, love with the doors banging on their hinges, the cupboard unlocked, the wind roaring and whimpering in the rooms rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds that thwack like rubber bands in an open palm.
It hurts to love wide open stretching the muscles that feel as if they are made of wet plaster, then of blunt knives, then of sharp knives.
It hurts to thwart the reflexes of grab, of clutch ; to love and let go again and again. It pesters to remember the lover who is not in the bed, to hold back what is owed to the work that gutters like a candle in a cave without air, to love consciously, conscientiously, concretely, constructively.
I can’t do it, you say it’s killing me, but you thrive, you glow on the street like a neon raspberry, You float and sail, a helium balloon bright bachelor’s button blue and bobbing on the cold and hot winds of our breath, as we make and unmake in passionate diastole and systole the rhythm of our unbound bonding, to have and not to hold, to love with minimized malice, hunger and anger moment by moment balanced.