This article/talk started out as a Dharma talk created for the Karma Yoga Retreat, Laos. The theme we weave through that week long retreat is the concept of action without attachment… so letting go becomes central to this.
You can either watch the video teaching via the link below or read the article (which is basically a transcript of the talk!)
Dharma is universal truth and living that path of truth. It is the wisdom teachings (including yoga and Buddhism) that resonate, not because we trust the words of the teacher but, because the words speak to something deep inside us that appears to awaken upon hearing them.
“The secret of human freedom is to act well without attachment to the results” – The Bhagavad Gita
What is non-attachment?
Non-attachment is a key concept in both Buddhist and Yoga philosophy. Many spiritual texts and teachers tell us to “Let Go” to become enlightened or to find healing… But what does this really mean?
Attachment has different meanings in the West and Eastern psychology. Healthy attachment is important as babies in particular need to have secure attachment to feel nurtured and to grow, to feel safe. However, we can easily acquire unhealthy attachment to many things.
- Sense pleasures
- Our identity
- Thought patterns
These unhealthy attachments are what causes suffering in our lives according to the teachings of the Buddha.
When we cling to things, when we want to control our environment, for things to be a particular way or to remain unchanging, and we suffer because inevitably everything does change.
When we are able to allow that to happen, and give it space to flow and change, we release the tension that we are holding. Just as we wouldn’t feel anger and resentment or fear towards the sun setting each day, we allow it to happen in the knowledge that it will rise again the next day.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality.” – LAO TZU
Why letting go can be really hard!
The Buddhist teaching is that pleasure & pain, gain & loss, praise and blame will all always occur but our reaction to those experiences is what can cause suffering and which we can control.
But, this is not easy or simple!
My teacher Tara Brach tells the wise story of a man that goes hiking in the mountains:
Walking along a narrow track he comes across a large and angry tiger. He turns and runs from the tiger but slips and falls over the edge of the track and down a steep cliff.
He manages to grab hold of some tree roots and is left dangling, holding on for dear life.
His only option is to shout for help so desperately in the hope there is someone close by he shouts
“HELP. IS ANYONE THERE?”
In response he hears all around him a huge booming voice reply, “YES. I’M HERE. WHAT DO YOU NEED?”
The man shouts, “GOD?? IS THAT YOU???”
The booming voice replies, “YES. IT’S ME, GOD”.
The man is overjoyed, he says, “God, I’m stuck here please help me”.
God responds, “JUST LET GO”.
The man looks around … there is a pause … and shouts again,
“IS THERE ANYONE ELSE THERE?”
Just like the man in the story when we are so caught in the grasping and the tension of holding on it can actually seem impossible to let go. In the midst of our clinging, addictions, habits, difficult situations we can’t find that space or trust required. Sometimes just to bring awareness to these experiences is the start and is enough.
How many of us have habits or controlling tendencies that we know if we could just let go we could live more fully?
Take a moment to close your eyes, ground and take 3 long deep breaths in and out of your nose.
Reflect on any habits or beliefs that you could let go of.
This might be mind-states, judgments, anxieties, limiting self-belief, fear.
What makes letting go so hard? What is your way of relating to this habit? Is there blame or judgement present?
Let it be (and add in some compassion)
Letting go is difficult as the controlling habits we form can relate to unmet needs, safety, love, self-worth.
We grasp and defend to protect ourselves.
“Just let go” can be a denial of our survival instinct. AND when we realise we are controlling or lost in addiction we often blame or resent ourselves. In Buddhism this is called the ‘2nd arrow’. Not only are we suffering but then we beat ourselves up for it too! Without blaming we can start to bring awareness to our suffering and this is to start to work with it.
Surrender can’t be forced – we have to trust in the process which can take time, patience and self-compassion. Just by bringing awareness to the tension created by clinging you allow an undoing rather than the action of pushing away. Rather than let go it might be more appropriate to say “let it be”.
Mindfulness meditation provides training for the mind in letting go when we aren’t in the grip of a situation. It helps us to practice. When in a seated/standing or moving meditation such as yoga practice we can notice that the sensations, breath, thoughts and emotions all change and shift. Particularly in seated practice when the monkey mind can be most active we learn to watch our thoughts and we realise “I don’t have to believe my thoughts”.
Non-attachment isn’t not caring
Non-attachment doesn’t mean that we don’t care about things. Desire and aversion are not inherently BAD things and are essential for human survival. Non-attachment is not becoming detached which is actually a form of closing off or aversion.
We can care for people or things, savour things and experiences, without the tension of clinging. With awareness we can notice that this feels different in the body.
Coming back to the example of the sunset. We can feel the exquisite beauty of the colours and light and shapes and really savour the moment and pleasure that this brings to the senses but not be attached to it.
Rather than control and clinging we can encourage the qualities of dedication, care, connection, commitment, wise ambition as wonderful ways of living in the world and relating to others and ourselves.
Bringing this all back to the concept of Karma Yoga, when we act from this place of freedom, acceptance and love, without unhealthy attachment, we can achieve amazing things!
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” The Serenity Prayer