Letting Go

by Rev. Kinrei Bassis

Buddhist training is full of simple and direct teachings on what we need to do in order to make spiritual progress. For instance, it seems fairly easy to understand the following teachings, “do good” or “be mindful” or “let things go”. All of these teachings are very simple and straightforward, and yet everyone finds following these simple teachings incredibly difficult, so difficult that most of us will be working on them for many lifetimes. Take for instance, let go. The most basic Buddhist teaching is the Four Noble Truths. The First Truth is that suffering exists and the Second Noble Truth is that all our suffering is due to attachment, due to craving, due to our inability to let things go. Buddhist teaching is very simple, whenever we suffer, all we need to do is look and see what we are grasping and then let go. Very simple, yet when we confront our suffering, it can seem impossible to let go of the burning desire to have our life go only the way that we wish.

According to the Buddha, delusion underlies all our difficulty with letting things go. All desire is based on a mistaken belief that we either need this or that in order to be happy or if this or that happens, it means we will suffer. True wisdom is that which sees through our seemingly substantial desires, wants, and fears. True wisdom will free us from suffering yet just having the desire for wisdom does not provide us with wisdom. Wisdom is provided only by the hard work of spiritual training. And the core of Buddhist training is to apply the Dharma whatever is causing us to suffer; which directs us to try to see with clearer eyes whatever it is that we are grasping and, in turn, recognize what we need to do in order to free ourselves from suffering.

Just like wishing to be wise does not make us wise; wishing to let go of some desire does not, in itself, free us from still grasping that desire. We need to investigate what is going on when we suffer so we can clearly see what it is that we need to let go of. And then we need to accept that it can take some time, even a very long time, to gain the willingness to let go of some strongly held desire.

Often we have aversion to what we are grasping and we are then upset with ourselves for not letting the desire go. This aversion again is us getting caught up with desire and then compounding our suffering. First we are suffering because we will not let something go and then we vastly add to our suffering because we are upset with ourselves for not letting something go.

Buddhist Training can be seen as just letting things go, but how and when they go are not up to us. This is like meditation, we are trying to let go of our thoughts but it is not up to us when our minds are still and peaceful or when our minds busy and agitated. Buddhism teaches that stillness and peace are always there and if we do not feed the busyness and agitation in our minds by reacting with grasping or pushing away our thoughts and feelings, the mind will eventually let go the noise it is generating and find the silence and peace that is always within us. Bringing the mind of meditation to our daily life is the continual letting go of our need to control what is happening in our life and our continual coming back to being at peace and accepting what is unfolding in our life.

When we are deeply caught up in our desires, our whole world almost becomes that desire. Buddhist practice is the continually apply of Right View to how we relate to everything in our lives. Right View directs us to trust that the no worldly desire is ever essential and they all are just grounded in our deluded ways of looking at our lives and the world.

The great Christian saint, St. John of the Cross gave a very simple expression of this deep spiritual truth on letting everything go.

To reach satisfaction in all

desire its possession in nothing.

To come to the knowledge of all

desire the knowledge of nothing.

To come to possess all

desire the possession of nothing.

To arrive at being all

desire to be nothing.

When you turn toward something

you cease to cast yourself upon the all.

For to go from the all to the all

you must leave yourself in all.

And when you come to the possession of the all

you must possess it without wanting anything.1

We need to accept that we are still holding onto many, many things in our lives. Instead of being upset, frustrated, angry or despairing that we cannot seemingly let go of our strongly held desires, we need to simply understand that dealing and transforming our desires and attachments are the very ground and substance of Buddhist training. We need to apply the Dharma to our lives and trust in the Dharma. We need to trust that we are only grasping dreams that we ourselves have created. Meditation and training will help to see all things clearly and we will eventually see that there is nothing that we can grasp and nothing that we need. Our true desire is to find this real place and see beyond pain and pleasure, see beyond self and other, see beyond birth and death.

1. St. John of the Cross: Selected Writings, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh,O.C.D. Paulist Press, 1987, p.78.